NWQ Getaway Guide, Winter Edition

Time for a road trip! Here are some great getaway spots located just far enough away.

The Sci Tech Hands-On Museum offers free admission during First Fridays, along with two other downtown museums in Aurora. (Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau photos)
The Sci Tech Hands-On Museum offers free admission during First Fridays, along with two other downtown museums in Aurora. (Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau photo)

Aurora’s Appeal During the Winter Months

By Joanne Newton

Soon, you may be searching to overcome the winter blues without flying off to Florida. One solution is a quick getaway to Aurora, Ill., where you can enjoy hip coffee shops and elegant eateries, soul-soothing art, and charming shops in a vibrant downtown.

With a population above 200,000 people, Aurora is Illinois’s second largest city. That’s big, but as James Cardis, director of the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, points out: “We’re one-tenth the size of Chicago and that makes everything much more accessible here.”

Start off with breakfast – maybe avocado toast, and surely a cup of coffee – at Endiro Coffee or Society 57, both popular downtown hot spots. Endiro is the only American location of a Ugandan café chain which has the lofty vision to “end child vulnerability globally through coffee.” It offers delicious coffee and food in a cozy setting with natural light, right on the Fox River.

The crown jewel of Aurora’s art scene is the Paramount Theatre, a beautiful Art Deco theater built in 1931 and renovated in 1997. Its Broadway series of four musicals a year, each running for about a month, draws large crowds from locals as well as visitors from throughout the suburbs.

This year’s Broadway series includes the world premiere of “The Secret of My Success” adapted from the 1987 Michael J. Fox film. It will run Feb. 12 through March 29. Cardis says there are aspirations for this show to eventually make its way to Broadway, and it’s great for the Paramount’s audiences to be the first to see it. Previously, the Paramount staged the world premiere of August Rush: The Musical as the finale of its 2018/19 season.

In addition, $1 Classic Movie Mondays (on most Mondays), concerts, dance and comedy are also on the Paramount’s bill.

“Come to First Fridays to experience the warmth of our community,” adds Shannon Gutierrez, owner of the Wyckwood House, a boutique featuring home décor, mugs, clothing and more by local Aurora artisans. First Friday events allow visitors to meander through downtown Aurora and experience art, music and shopping at more than a dozen venues.

Trolleys (free, enclosed and warm) on First Fridays are especially appreciated during the cold-weather months. They run about every 15 minutes, transporting people to the entertainment, shops and eateries. Pick up a map to see all the venues and details about the art/performances at each participating location. Three downtown museums are open and free on First Fridays, including Sci Tech Hands-On Museum, founded by Fermilab physicists 30 years ago.

“Downtown Aurora is a great place to visit during the winter months with lots of activities for families as well as couples and friends,” says Marissa Amoni, manager of Aurora Downtown. In addition to the theaters, visual arts and music, she is also proud of the museums, local shops and architecture.

Many great eateries also abound in the Aurora area. One local favorite for more than 50 years is Harner’s Bakery and Restaurant, in North Aurora. This old-fashioned eatery serves up American comfort food such as batter-dipped fried chicken and homemade chicken pot pie.

Another favorite is Two Brothers Roundhouse, housed in a former railroad roundhouse built in 1856. Come for breakfast in its café or for dinner and live music in its historic rooms.

For more information about upcoming events and performances in Aurora, visit enjoyaurora.com.

Cascade Mountain is a popular destination for winter enthusiasts, especially during the holiday season. (Cascade Mountain photo)
Cascade Mountain is a popular destination for winter enthusiasts, especially during the holiday season. (Cascade Mountain photo)

For Family Fun, Hit the Slopes in Wisconsin

By Stefanie Dell’Aringa

If anyone knows about family fun at a big Wisconsin ski resort, it’s the Walz family, owners of Cascade Mountain, W10441 Cascade Mountain Road in Portage, Wis. During the busy holiday season, Cascade is a happening place for skiers, snowboarders and “tubers” who enjoy traversing down its many runs.

“We’re on the larger size as far as Midwest resorts go,” says Director of Marketing Evan Walz, whose grandfather purchased the business in the late 1970s and then sold it to Evan’s parents, Rob and Vicki Walz, in 2006. Evan and his brother Adam “skied before they walked” and now help to run the business.

Visit on any weekend and the slopes will be buzzing with skiers. But on a weekday, says Walz, the mountain is a completely different animal. “There’s a chance you might be the only one on the slopes.”

Three hours north of Chicago and 15 minutes from Wisconsin Dells, the resort is a big draw for families looking for a weekend of quality time together.

“A lot of people will come up here, ski for a day or two and stay at the Dells,” Walz says. “As far as sports go, you can’t exactly go out and play baseball together all day, but skiing is something you can do together all day. From getting their rental equipment to riding the chairlift to skiing down and even relaxing in the coffee shop or lodge, it’s a fun family activity that brings them together, and everyone can have a great time.”

What makes it even better is that kids 12 and under ski for free with a paying adult.

In 2016, Cascade broke ground on a large expansion that added 11 brand new runs and two new four-person chair lifts, in addition to improvements to the crew’s snowmaking and grooming capabilities.

“We’ve reinvested in ourselves, and we have plans to expand with even more runs and chair lifts in the future,” Walz says.

The mountain currently features 47 runs that cover everything from very easy to quite difficult. Four terrain parks feature jumps and rails, popular with the teens and early 20s crowd. Snow tubing hills offer an alternative for families who either don’t want to ski at all, or just want to ski part of the day.

Recently, Cascade updated its rental fleet with Rossignol gear, improving upon the skiing experience.

“You really can’t beat it,” Evan says. “They provide a really high-quality ski, and that’s a really big perk.”

Skiing experience packages now include baseline rental, which covers the standard equipment; sports package, similar to what you’d purchase in a ski store; and prime rental, the higher-performance equipment for more-experienced skiers.

“Our lesson programs are very good, and we have some of the best instructors in the area,” Walz says, adding that instructors as young as 14 teach the younger kids how to ski.

“We find it’s easier for kids to learn from a young person because they have better success relating to someone who is closer to their age,” Walz adds.

The Cascade Kids Program is designed specifically for children ages 4 to 10, so they don’t have to try learning with a group of adults. Private lessons, also available, can be tailored to any skill level.

“If you’re a brand-new skier who wants a personal one-on-one experience with an instructor or an experienced skier who wants to progress a little further, this is for you,” says Walz.

Warming up inside the lodge, skiers will find a variety of food options, including burgers, fries, pizza and, of course, hot chocolate. For adults there are two bar areas, one with a deck overlooking the main area of the resort. There’s also a coffee shop for anyone who doesn’t want to brave the elements all day.

For lift ticket and rental pricing, as well as information on lessons, safety, trip planning, live snow cam, weather reports and more, visit cascademountain.com or call (608) 742-5588.

The world-famous Harlem Globetrotters bring their all-new show “Pushing the Limits” to DeKalb’s NIU Convocation Center on Jan. 30. Expect to see a blend of comedy and basketball skills. (DeKalb County CVB photo)
The world-famous Harlem Globetrotters bring their all-new show “Pushing the Limits” to DeKalb’s NIU Convocation Center on Jan. 30. Expect to see a blend of comedy and basketball skills. (DeKalb County CVB photo)

A Place to While Away the Coldest Days

By Pat Szpekowski

The cold weather has arrived in full force, but that’s no reason to enter into hibernation. Winter’s here to stay awhile, so why not just settle in, plan some adventures and prepare to shake things up for the next few months?

DeKalb County offers plenty of ways to embrace winter.

“Our unique communities offer their own special take on how to enjoy the arts, culture, sports, entertainment and award-winning dining, food and spirits all year long,” says Cortney Strohacker, executive director of the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“We’re proud of the wide variety of events and venues we have throughout DeKalb County.”

Have you always wanted to see the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters? These larger-than-life entertainers bring their all-new show, “Pushing the Limits,” to DeKalb’s NIU Convocation Center on Jan. 30. Every show features a blend of hilarious hijinks and incredible basketball skills. See the star-studded roster, including Big Easy Lofton, Hi-Lite Burton, and women stars TNT Lister, Swish Button and Torch George. Watch the expert ball handling, high-flying dunks and a new record-breaking attempt.

“All brides are invited to visit DeKalb County in January to attend the popular annual Northern Illinois Bridal Expo at the Northern Illinois University Student Center on Jan. 26,” says Strohacker. “It offers ideas galore with DJs, makeup artists, floral designers, dresses, you name it. The DeKalb area offers many unique venues such as barns and vineyards, a Chapel in the Pines, gardens and more to complete a dream wedding.”

Looking to find a new brew to serve guests for the Big Game? The bold, locally crafted beverages of award-winning local brewers, winemakers and distillers can be found in DeKalb County.

A bold spirits tour isn’t complete without trips to Whiskey Acres, Prairie State Winery, Waterman Winery, Jonamac Orchard and Forge Brewhouse. Plus, a new brewery has come onto the scene, too. Visit Byers Brewing Co. in DeKalb for delicious small-batch beer made on site. Plan to touch down at any one or all six of these establishments and taste something new.

Visit dekalbcountycvb.org for more information about wintertime excursions.

Hiking and cross-country skiing are popular outdoor activities in Elgin during the wintertime. (Elgin Area Convention & Visitors Bureau photos)
Hiking and cross-country skiing are popular outdoor activities in Elgin during the wintertime. (Elgin Area Convention & Visitors Bureau photo)

Arts and Recreation Abound in the Elgin Area

By Beth Hamilton

In Elgin, Ill., winter is a season to celebrate. Conveniently located 50 miles east of Rockford, “The City in the Suburbs” offers family-friendly concerts, dining, shopping and recreation, making it an ideal place to visit year-round.

“Winter is a magical time to explore a different side to the Elgin area,” says Breanne Moreno, marketing manager at Elgin Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Discover a whole winter wonderland of activities for the young and young at heart.”

Celebrate the season by exploring Hawthorne Hill Nature Center, where you can take in the snow-frosted trees while hiking trails throughout the 67-acre park. Be sure to stop at Gail Borden Library, on the Fox River Bike Trail, for spectacular bald eagle sightings.

Watch from the warmth of the library, where you can rent binoculars for your watching delight.

Are the outdoors not your thing? No worries – the Elgin area has many indoor activities for both kids and adults. Accomplish your exercise goals while having a blast at Elgin Family Aquatic Centers’ Adventure Island. You can enjoy three pools and rock climbing designed for all climbing abilities. In addition, Bartlett Park District’s Splash Central Indoor Pool offers open swimming on weekends.

Take advantage of Elgin’s free downtown parking while exploring Winter Market at Dream Hall, 51 S. Grove Ave., where you’ll find baked goods, homemade jams, body care items and other artisan goods. Visit the market daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. between January and April. Then, wander a few miles north to State Street Market, with more than 30 unique shops under one roof that offer an ever-changing selection of antiques, furniture, jewelry and curiosities. It’s open Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.

Elgin is rich with diversity and culture, exemplified by outstanding music and arts venues.

The Elgin Symphony Orchestra (ESO) features professional concerts at Hemmens Cultural Center. Mark your calendar for the ESO’s performance of “Abbey Road: The Beatles” on Jan. 24.

Looking for some laughter to get you through those winter blues? Enjoy First Friday’s Improv at Hemmens Cultural Center, appropriate for the entire family.

The Elgin Community College Arts Center presents monthly concerts, with upcoming performances by The Sweet Remains, an acoustic trio, on Jan. 18 at 7 p.m., and Suzanne O Davis, who presents “Tapestry: The Carole King Songbook,” on Feb. 14 at 7:30 p.m.

West Dundee’s RocHaus, a 100-year-old music venue, provides a true club atmosphere offering concerts from jazz to rock tribute bands.

After enjoying the arts, visit local eateries for delicious food and tempting beverages. A few favorite dishes include the spinach ravioli over braised beef short rib at Bleuroot in West Dundee, the Piquant Sausage Crostata at Mockingbird Bar + Garden in East Dundee, and the Schwartzwalder Schweiner Schnitzel at Al’s Cafe and Creamery in downtown Elgin.

“These dishes will keep you warm and satisfied when it’s cold and snowy outside,” Moreno says.

Learn more about things to see and do in Elgin at exploreelginarea.com.

Browse downtown Ottawa’s unique shops to find gift items, educational toys and other items not available in chain stores. (Ottawa Visitors Center photo)
Browse downtown Ottawa’s unique shops to find gift items, educational toys and other items not available in chain stores. (Ottawa Visitors Center photo)

Finding Adventure Both Indoors and Out

By Joanne Newton

One way to warm up this winter is to visit the cozy shops and restaurants in downtown Ottawa, Ill., where you can also find great eagle-watching vistas on the Illinois River and embrace the season’s natural beauty in four state parks nearby.

Yes, it’s cold and snowy outside. Things are slower, but the adventurers who visit Ottawa can find soul-warming pleasures in January, February and March.

“Ottawa is just a lovely town year-round,” says resident Bonny Combs. She likes downtown’s unique shops, which offer items you can’t find in chain stores. Her recommendations include Dejavu, a charming gift shop, and Rock Paper Scissors, which sells educational toys.

Mary Olson, co-owner of Rock Paper Scissors and Prairie Fox Books, says Ottawa’s restaurants are always cozy inside, and their menus are outstanding. One of her favorite selections is the new Iniga Pizzeria Napoletana with its made-in-Italy brick oven.

“We keep the thermostat up for sure,” adds Paul Benenga of Tangled Roots Brewery/Lone Buffalo Brewpub, where visitors can find brewery tours, live music on weekends, and winter-themed beers with flavors like coconut, coffee and chocolate. It’s one of the few breweries in the country that grows 100% of its own hops and barley. Stock up on cans of Tangled Roots to take home.

Heritage Harbor, a resort community built around a marina on the Illinois River, rents waterfront cottages throughout the year.

“There’s always something to do here, even when it’s cold outside,” says Jackie Davidson, Heritage Harbor’s sales and managing assistant. “Take a trip here to enjoy all the beauty Starved Rock Country has to offer.”

Heritage Harbor’s events are open to everyone. Every Saturday of the year, unless there’s a huge snowstorm, visitors can participate in a free-timed 5K run or walk along the harbor, and every Sunday there’s a free beginners yoga class.

The Harbor’s Red Dog Grill feels cozy with a wood-burning fireplace and large windows overlooking the water. Its menu features American and seafood cuisine, plus wine and mixed drinks. Enjoy live music on select dates.

Outdoor enthusiasts will find Ottawa a perfect base for trips to the four state parks surrounding it: Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock, Illini and Matthiessen. All are within a 20-minute drive from Ottawa. At Starved Rock, the biggest and best known, warm up in front of a
large wood-burning fireplace in its stone lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Grab a meal, or just a cup of coffee or hot cocoa in its welcoming dining room.

When temperatures drop low enough, the waterfalls at Starved Rock and Matthiessen freeze, creating spectacular sculptures. When there’s enough snow, all four state parks offer trails for cross-country skiing.

Eagle-watching on the Illinois River is a big draw during the wintertime. Starved Rock offers special trolley rides and guided walking tours, but you can see eagles from anywhere along the river. Enjoy less-crowded places, like Allen Park in downtown Ottawa, home of a giant toboggan run.

For more ideas of things to do and see in Ottawa, visit pickusottawail.com.

While you’re visiting Peoria, take a short drive to the nearby city of Washington to explore its charming Washington Specialty Shops. (Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau photos)
While you’re visiting Peoria, take a short drive to the nearby city of Washington to explore its charming Washington Specialty Shops. (Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau photo)

Prolific Arts and Culture in Central Illinois

By Pat Szpekowski

There’s never a shortage of “amazing” things to do in Illinois. With all of the attractions, museums and experiences in all four corners of the state (and even the middle), a getaway trip to Peoria should be at the top of the list.

Located about 130 miles south of Rockford, this vibrant city is situated in the bluffs of central Illinois along the banks of the Illinois River. Peoria offers a riverfront district, lots of entertainment, educational museums rich with history and plenty of unique shopping and dining adventures.

“We offer so many opportunities to enjoy Peoria year-round,” says Ashley Randall, public relations coordinator for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

During the daytime, families flock to downtown Peoria and its happening riverfront.

“Peoria’s riverfront is an exciting mecca for two very distinctive world-renowned places filled with history, art and science,” says Randall. “They are the Caterpillar Visitors Center and the Peoria Riverfront Museum.”

The Caterpillar Visitors Center offers a fascinating look at the heavy-equipment manufacturer, from its humble beginnings as a tractor maker to its present-day leadership in building infrastructure and powering the planet. There’s also an on-site Cat Merchandise Center offering a wide selection of collector die-cast scale models in addition to branded footwear and apparel.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum, located just next door, is the only multi-disciplinary museum of its kind in the nation.

Since opening in 2012, this privately funded museum has provided more than 1 million experiences through major exhibitions, a permanent collection, interactive galleries, a dome planetarium, a giant-screen theater and educational programming galore. It has been designated as one of the 200 great places in Illinois by the American Institute of Architects.

Before heading back home, take a short drive east of Peoria for a shopping trip in the city of Washington and its Washington Specialty Shops. This distinctive and charming area is located in Washington’s historic downtown square, where century-old buildings and storefronts surround a park at the center. A seasonal water fountain graces the heart of the downtown area. Stroll the block and discover many unique boutiques, bakeries and antique dealers.

To learn more about a weekend getaway to Peoria, visit peoria.org.

Even during the winter season, Severson Dells Nature Center offers a plethora of programs and events. (Severson Dells Nature Center photo)
Even during the winter season, Severson Dells Nature Center offers a plethora of programs and events. (Severson Dells Nature Center photo)

Opt Outdoors with Severson Dells

By Sara Myers

This winter season, Severson Dells Nature Center has multiple events for people of all ages who are looking to get more in touch with nature.

“We have all kinds of programs including school field trips, family programs, guided camps and more,” says Ann Wasser, executive director of Severson Dells. 

Closing out the month of January, “Paint Night” takes place Jan. 31 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. All materials are provided.

“We will have light snacks and drinks and you can learn how to paint a different nature theme,” explains Wasser. “The last one we did was all owls. It’s a fun way to engage with nature, especially in the winter.” 

February is also an exciting time at Severson Dells, Wasser says. Feb. 9 is the “Costa Rica Travelogue” from 1 to 2 p.m., where Naturalist Andrea Wallace Noble takes people step by step through her journey to Costa Rica and revisits all the sights she experienced.

Feb. 22 is the “Honeysuckle Hiking Sticks Workshop” from 9:30 am to 11 am. Learn how to paint, sand and string honeysuckle walking sticks.

The month ends with the “Family Toy Workshop” on Feb. 29 from 10 to 11 a.m. At this family-friendly event, children learn how to make toys from honeysuckle on Severson’s property. This program is suitable for kids ages 5 and up.

“Dress for the outdoors, and be ready to drink some hot cocoa,” Wasser says.

The month of March is also stacked with events. On March 7 alone, there’s two events happening at the nature center.

“Our biggest event happening in March is the Audubon Photography Awards Exhibit,” says Wasser. “Every year, the National Audubon Society has a photography competition. They create a traveling exhibit out of it, and our local Audubon Society was able to arrange to have it for about two and a half weeks.”

The exhibit starts at 6 p.m.

Also happening on March 7, at 9 a.m., is Severson’s moccasin workshop.

“It’s an opportunity for people to make their own moccasins,” Wasser says. “Part of the reason for hosting this is because the whole idea of ‘earthing’, or grounding, is gaining a lot more traction. We have a better connection with the earth with all of our rubber-soled shoes, and we’re losing that connection. There’s a whole science behind it, which is pretty fascinating. The idea was for people to be able to come and make their own moccasins and make that connection again.”

Severson also has a “Nature Sprouts” program, a mommy-and-me style class, which focuses on “marvelous mud” in the month of March.

One of Wasser’s favorite events is right around the corner, with the Full Moon Night Hike taking place on March 9. This hike always has a good turnout, she says. Severson also has Spring Break Day Camp from March 16 to 20.

“It’s great for anyone looking for something to do with their kids,” Wasser says.

For more information on upcoming events at Severson Dells, visit seversondells.com.

Those interested in hiking can explore on their own or take a guided hike offered Saturdays and Sundays year-round at Starved Rock Lodge. (Starved Rock/Kathy Casstevens photos)
Those interested in hiking can explore on their own or take a guided hike offered Saturdays and Sundays year-round at Starved Rock Lodge. (Starved Rock/Kathy Casstevens photo)

Winter: The Perfect Time for Mid-Week Travel

By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director

Once the holidays are over, you typically feel like you need a vacation. Not a hectic, fast-paced theme park kind, but a relaxing and rejuvenating one. Doctors say a walk in the woods can do wonders for your well-being. The canyons, bluff views and frozen waterfalls at Starved Rock State Park don’t just offer wonderful photo opportunities; visiting them can bring you peace of mind, body and soul.

Starved Rock Lodge offers a restful getaway that’s a short drive from home with cozy lodging, a restaurant, bar, café, indoor pool complex and gift shop all under one roof. The combination of nature and comfort can be refreshing, especially when it includes a therapeutic massage (available by appointment) or some quality time in the hot tub and sauna.

Located in Oglesby, Ill., the Lodge’s comfortable hotel rooms and cozy cabins in the woods are just steps away from more than 13 miles of hiking trails with towering bluff views overlooking the scenic Illinois River Valley of Starved Rock State Park. Visitors are free to hike on their own or book a guided hike with Starved Rock Lodge (offered every Saturday and Sunday, year-round).

You can beat the winter blues in the Back Door Lounge or Main Dining Room with “Burger & Beer” Mondays. Each week, enjoy a creatively-themed craft burger with your choice of beer or a soft drink for $15. “Toast to Tuesday” is another way to enjoy date night or a weekday getaway. Choose an appetizer, entrée and dessert from a special menu for just $22 per person.

The warmth of the historic Great Hall, talented musicians and dynamic vocalists makes “Dueling Pianos” a great way to spend an afternoon on February 3-4. The matinees include a hot lunch buffet and the interactive performance. A variety of “Tribute to the Stars” shows are scheduled throughout the year (see the complete schedule at starvedrocklodge.com).

Free Spirit Siberian Husky Rescue is back with Sled Dog Demos on Feb. 16. Huskies will run in the parking lot west of the visitor center at 9:30 a.m., noon and 3 p.m. Educational seminars will take place in the LaSalle Room of the Lodge at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Eagle Watching Trolley Tours run every Monday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (except Jan. 25 and 26) when Bald Eagle Watch Weekend 2020 celebrates the American bald eagle in Illinois. The two-day event happens Jan. 25-26 and offers many programs, activities and exhibits occurring simultaneously at three locations: Starved Rock Lodge, the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and the Starved Rock State Park Visitor Center. They’re all within a short driving distance or you can take the trolley, which conveniently connects all the venues. Hop-on and hop-off with a $2 all-day armband available for purchase on the trolley. Free tickets for the amazing “Birds of Prey” show will be available starting at 8 a.m. on both days.

Special offers and overnight getaway packages are detailed on the Lodge’s new website at starvedrocklodge.com