Time for a road trip! Here are some great getaway spots located just far enough away.
A True Taste of Europe, but Close to Home
By Randy Ruef
A European vacation is an unforgettable adventure, but not everyone has the time or means to take one.
But a two-hour drive to southern Wisconsin can give you the experience of going overseas. The village of New Glarus, nestled in the high hills of Green County, is a self-proclaimed “America’s Little Switzerland.” It was settled by Swiss immigrants in the mid-1800s and its residents now fully embrace the village’s heritage with businesses and homes that maintain not only the chalet-style architecture, but also the culture.
It includes authentic Swiss foods, like fondues, cheeses, chocolates and baked goods. And there are numerous special event weekends of some sort during the warm-weather months, including Polkafest, the Heidi Festival, Volksfest (which celebrates Swiss Independence Day) and the Wilhelm Tell Festival.
And marking the village’s 175th anniversary this year means even more events later this year.
“It will be a very family-friendly time,” says Bekah Stauffacher, executive director of the New Glarus Chamber of Commerce. “It will emphasize the town’s history and heritage.”
But it’s not just specialty weekends that define this community of 2,000.
First and foremost is the New Glarus Brewing Co., home of the famous Spotted Cow beer. Atop a hill, visitors can tour the brewery and check out samples while looking out over the village and its European terrain.
“The brewery is the No. 1 attraction for many,” Stauffacher says. “It’s a real destination. It’s on a lot of bucket lists.”
On the other side of town is Bailey’s Run Vineyard & Winery, with hand-crafted wines and live music.
“There’s a gorgeous barn that is a great place to kick back for wine and snacks,” Stauffacher says, “and their dog, Bailey, roams around to visit and greet people.”
Another attraction is the Cows on Parade. Fourteen life-sized, painted cow statues stand throughout the town.
“Visitors love these cows, and they love looking for them and trying to find all 14,” Stauffacher says.
Of course, there are plenty of shops, although Stauffacher likes to describe them more as boutiques. Get flowers and home decor at Brenda’s Blumenladen, Polish pottery at the Bramble Patch, antiques at Lollygag, home accents at Sisters and clothing at Railroad Street Boutique. Brandi’s Bridal Galleria Etc. brings in people from miles away.
Those who love history often check out the Chalet of the Golden Fleece and the Swiss Historical Village and Museum, which shows off the way of life for the original Swiss settlers.
The visit isn’t complete without a trip to one of the village’s many authentic restaurants, including the Chalet Landhaus, the New Glarus Hotel and the Glarner Stube, all of which serve Swiss cuisine like fondue, sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel and kalberwurst.
Travelers can work off those big meals with a bike ride on two crushed gravel trails: The 40-mile Badger State Trail and the 23-mile Sugar River Trail. They can also play 18 holes at the Edelweiss Chalet Country Club.
Or, you can take a drive or hike through New Glarus Woods, a 435-acre state park that offers camping, hiking, picnicking and snowshoeing.
Stauffacher says there are 93 sleeping rooms available between the motel and hotel, and roughly 40-50 more within 5 miles of town at various bed-and-breakfasts.
“It’s just such a charming little town,” she adds. “There’s a lot to explore. It’s like a little European escape.”
To learn more about New Glarus, go to swisstown.com.
Your Ticket to Fun Starts at the River
By Randy Ruef
T here’s plenty to see and do in Peoria, a city of 115,000 located in north-central Illinois along the banks of the Illinois River.
“A trip south down I-39 is well worth the time to enjoy the benefits of Peoria,” says Ashley Randall, public relations coordinator at Enjoy Peoria. “We have all the amenities of a major city, minus the traffic and high prices. The Peoria area is budget-friendly and accommodating for families.”
One of the first highlights is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, the only multi-disciplinary museum in the country. It includes a planetarium and a giant-screen movie theater, along with nationally recognized exhibits. Explore the history of Peoria, size up your skills against the state’s top athletes at the Illinois High School Association Peak Performance exhibit, and reflect on history at the Peoria Holocaust Memorial.
Hometown of manufacturing giant Caterpillar Inc., Peoria’s must-see attraction for sightseers is the Doug Oberhelman Caterpillar Visitors Center, located next door to the Riverfront Museum. Enjoy a virtual ride in the bed of a massive two-and-a-half story Cat 797F Mining Truck, design your own Cat machine, and test your skills as an operator on the simulators.
The city’s park district features 12 area golf courses, along with numerous disc golf courses that played host to the 2019 Disc Golf World Championships.
Forest Park Nature Center boasts 7 miles of hiking over 500 acres of a completely wooded area. And Donovan Park, a former golf course, houses the Northmoor Observatory with free public viewings from dusk to 11 p.m. on cloudless Saturday between May and October.
There’s even more parkland to explore this year with the introduction of Sankoty Lakes, an outdoor resort featuring a mile-long man-made trout stream, 20 glamour camping sites, an RV park, and space for hunting, bird watching, kayaking, canoeing, swimming and scuba diving. It’s located just upriver from Peoria at Spring Bay.
Music lovers will want to check out the Summer Camp Music Festival in nearby Chillicothe late this spring. This year’s event is scheduled for Aug. 21-23.
These are just some of the attractions that have helped to grow Peoria’s tourism numbers for eight consecutive years, bringing in $656 million last year alone.
It’s not just the big parks and events that draw the tourists. Peoria offers several smaller-scale opportunities for all ages to enjoy. They include:
• First Ascent Climbing & Fitness, which features indoor rock climbing.
• Gone Axe Throwing, whose name pretty much says it all. (“Think darts, but lumberjack style,” Randall says.)
• Blue Falcon Battleground, an indoor NERF battle arena with competitions similar to paintball, but played instead using foam balls.
• Kartville, a family fun center featuring go-karts, ATVs, bumper boats, mini-golf and batting cages.
• Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino, with more than 1,000 slot machines and 24 table games.
• Kickapoo Creek Winery, which offers fine local wines, as well as places to walk or hike along the lakes and vineyards.
• Peoria hosts several escape rooms, including Escape 60, Gone In 60 and Escapetown Peoria.
“We’re proud of our area, and we like to showcase why,” Randall says. “We believe when you create a place people want to visit, you create a place where people want to live, work and start a business.”
To learn more about a visit to the Peoria area, visit peoria.org.