Warming Up to Winter

Haven’t we spent enough time in our homes over the past few months? It’s about time we got out and enjoyed this winter season. So, here are some of the best ways to embrace the cold, from playing in the snow and watching birds to warming our souls with good food and making memories that last a lifetime.

There’s just something special about winter. From warm drinks and spicy dishes to an exciting downhill adventure, our region is chock-full of exciting activities and excursions, even in these crazy times. The real question is where do we start?

The holiday season is in the rearview mirror and all we’re left with is the cold, gray winter months. But what if we filled this time with fun and adventure instead of dread and loathing?

Staying inside and curling up with a warm blanket and a book sounds very tempting, but so does making the most of this wonderful season.

It’s time to get out of the doldrums and into something that feels adventurous, whether it’s playing outside or making the most of the time we do spend indoors.

Here are some fun and unique ideas that truly seize on the best this winter has to offer.

Get Outside and Enjoy the Elements

The Forest Preserves of Winnebago County are definitely open this winter, and with 10,500 acres to explore, they offer numerous ways to do so. Pecatonica Wetlands, Pecatonica River, Four Lakes, Sugar River and Seward Bluffs preserves are now open for snowmobiling. Be careful, because snowmobiles are only allowed on designated trails when there’s at least 4 inches of snowfall.

Take in a quieter visit and try birdwatching, especially along rivers where sections of the water are frozen. More than 300 types of birds have been recorded in the preserves – including eagles, which tend to appear in our region this time of year.

Klehm Arboretum & Botanic Garden, in Rockford, is another fun place to birdwatch. Among the arboretum’s collection of 500 woody plants are many fruit trees that feed our feathered friends.

The Nygren Wetland Preserve, in Rockton, Ill., offers up winter adventures with hiking, snowshoeing and skiing trails that wind around the marshy landscape.

Nygren’s Dianne Nora Nature Trail, in particular, is ideal for cross-county skiing. The 2.5-mile trail passes through open savannas before connecting with an old railroad trail on its way back toward the parking lot. Wildlife abounds in these diverse habitats.

“Migration of sandhill cranes and American white pelicans can start as early as February, depending on the weather in our region,” says Kim Johnsen, director of marketing and membership at Natural Land Institute, which oversees the Nygren Wetland Preserve.

Beloit International Film Festival

Film lovers will feel right at home at this year’s annual event – quite literally.

The 10-day movie extravaganza, typically held at venues throughout downtown Beloit, goes all-virtual this year. But that’s OK, because there will still be 10 days’ worth of amazing-quality films shown by innovative and dedicated directors from around the world.

“BIFF has the strength to continue in this difficult time because of its past success and its strong worldwide reputation,” says Greg Gerard, BIFF’s executive director.

From Feb. 19 through Feb. 28, BIFF will show 100 independent films, all presented in a video on-demand format so customers can watch whatever they like, instead of watching on a particular schedule, Gerard says. And, because they’re presented online, the films are available to a much larger audience than usual.

As a special perk, BIFF hosts question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers throughout the festival, in addition to various panels and workshops.

Many of BIFF’s annual favorites will still be available, including the annual Wisconsin/Illinois Showdown that features work from local and regional filmmakers. Favorites like the silent film showcase, the First National Bank classic film and the sing-along film showcase also return this year, but as part of a drive-in theater. The annual reveal party also will be a drive-in event.

The drive-ins, hosted at the Ironworks Campus in downtown Beloit, are free and open to the public.

Tickets for all screenings are around $10 including fees. Film listings and ticket information are available at beloitfilmfest.org beginning Feb. 9.

Enjoy these films from home with the help of a refreshing alcoholic beverage from Rush Creek Distilling, in Harvard, Ill. (Rush Creek Distilling photo)

Cozy Alcoholic Beverages

How’s this for a stay-warm combo: a vodka with a spicy kick? Rush Creek Distilling, in Harvard, Ill., recently unveiled a jalapeno-flavored vodka with fresh jalapeno slices infused in this locally made spirit. For a sweeter taste, the distillery has also released a vanilla-infused vodka.

“The jalapenos are cut and allowed to soak in vodka until the desired taste and heat is achieved,” says Mark Stricker, co-owner. “Same with the vanilla vodka; the beans are sliced and soaked to capture the vanilla flavor. Both flavored vodkas are fun to play with in cocktails.”

Rush Creek has also been playing with its whiskey lineup. A new 3-year-old straight bourbon, made with corn and 16 percent rye, gives off sweet and spicy notes. A rye whiskey uses 58 percent rye and includes corn and barley, creating a balanced and smooth taste.

“All of these whiskeys have been aged in new 30-gallon barrels, which are smaller than our typical 53-gallon barrels,” Stricker says. “The smaller barrels offer a higher surface area of barrel to spirits ratio and speed maturation.”

The whiskey is a limited release, Stricker says, so it’s only available in Rush Creek’s Harvard tasting room and store. The vodkas, on the other hand, are available at liquor stores, bars and restaurants across the region – as well as the Harvard tasting room.

Beer lovers can visit Generations Brewing Co., in Freeport, and enjoy the Wintergreen IPA, a seasonal brew that’s available through February. The brewmasters boil spruce tips with pine-forward hops for a taste that feels like Christmas. The Oaked Aged Irish Strong Ale is available through April. It’s been aged in whiskey-soaked oak spirals, which helps create sweet vanilla flavors.

Not into spirits? How about a glass of wine? Head over to Galena Cellars Vineyard & Winery, in Galena, Ill. Several wines are served at this peaceful winery, located among the hills of northwest Illinois. Try the dry white Chardonnay, which has notes of citrus, pear and passion fruit.

Bailey’s Run Winery, in New Glarus, Wis., serves up an excellent mix of white, red and rose/fruit wines, and as a bonus, it serves wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzas and other small bites to enjoy with a drink.

Play golf this season in heated bays at PrairieFire Golf & Grill, in Byron, Ill. (PrairieFire photo)

Winter Golf at PrairieFire Golf & Grill

Fresh snowfall usually forces golf enthusiasts to store their clubs and patiently count the days until spring.

That all changed when PrairieFire Golf & Grill, situated behind the clubhouse at PrairieView Golf Club, opened in Byron, Ill., last June.

Eight temperature-controlled bays keep golfers on the driving range year-round. The range is littered with Glow Gear LED targets that light up long after the sun goes down.

Golfers can also enjoy Toptracer Range technology, which combines golf with augmented reality. It traces a ball’s apex, launch and speed in real-time, and it’s capable of tracking distance, even if there’s snow on the ground.

The technology also allows golfers to virtually play some of the best courses in the world, including St. Andrews Links, in Scotland.

PrairieFire’s full bar and restaurant serve up a loaded food menu and beer from local breweries.

Fun Times in the Rockford Park District

The season just isn’t complete without a trip down a snow-covered hill. The Snow Park at Alpine Hills takes it to a new extreme on 5 acres of sloping, tree-covered parkland.

Grab an oversized innertube and go tubing down the lane or rent a snowboard and enjoy the terrain park. The outdoor recreation area gives snowboarders a place to perform tricks in the same way that skateboarders enjoy a skate park. For something fun and a little less intimidating, rent some skates and enjoy the new outdoor ice-skating rink.

Enjoy a different kind of terrain at Sinnissippi Golf Course, where cross-country skiing is allowed so long as there’s at least 4 inches of snow on the ground. Or, bring a sled and feel a rush down the sloping fairways of Hole No. 2.

For other prime sledding hills, get a rush at Twin Sister Hills or Levings Lake Park, behind the picnic shelter.

Escape to Starved Rock

Take a short ride down to this hidden gem, near Utica, Ill., and experience the best of winter’s beauty. It’s on display inside the state park’s 18 canyons and their frozen waterfalls. Take a Winter Wildlife Tour and ride a trolley to Buffalo Rock State Park, where you just might spy the resident bison.

Guided winter hikes combine great photo opportunities with amazing stories of the park’s past and present.

Warm up at the Lodge’s crackling fireplace in the Great Hall, and spend a night or two in the cozy hotel upstairs.

A Sled Dog demo happens Feb. 28 with a brief seminar held 30 minutes prior to the run. The event happens at 9 a.m., with demos taking place at 9:30 a.m., noon and 3 p.m.

“Celebrate a special occasion or just escape from your home office for a breath of fresh air,” says Kathy Casstevens, marketing director. “Yes, there’s Wi-Fi and free parking, but the peace of mind you’ll feel when you reconnect with nature is amazing.”

Warm Up with Hot Food and Drinks

In addition to a menu that’s loaded with warm drinks, Wired Café, in Rockford, has plenty of food selections that will warm the soul. Stuffed green pepper soup, turkey pumpkin chili, heirloom tomato soup, and the tuna, cheddar and jalapeno melt are just a few of the favorites that show up this time of year.

New specials are on tap each day, so keep an eye on Wired’s social media channels.

Be sure to visit Higher Grounds, in Freeport, which also has several food and drink options, like the Muddy Snowball Mocha, made with Ghirardelli chocolate sauce and coconut. It’s mixed with steamed milk, whipped cream and a topping of toasted coconut.

The drinks pair well with the Soup of the Day, which just might be chicken noodle soup or beef and vegetable stew.

The Shortline, in Belvidere, goes spicy with options like the Volcano Roll, made with spicy salmon, sriracha sauce and spicy mayo. Check out the Scorpion Roll, which is made with shrimp tempura, soft-shell crab, seared spicy tuna, spicy mayo and sriracha sauce.

A Staycation in Beloit

Located on the bluffs of the Rock River, Big Hill Park in Beloit offers several cross-country ski trails and a scenic overlook with incredible vistas. This park boasts 5 miles of trails that’ll challenge skiers of all skill sets.

After an outdoors adventure, warm up with a drink and a change of scenery, this one high above downtown Beloit at The Rooftop at Hotel Goodwin. This hip and stylish retreat’s rooftop bar is a prime spot for relaxing with friends and loved ones while enjoying the best views of downtown. Enjoy beer, wine or unique cocktails like the Paloma, which is made with grapefruit, tequila and lime.

Pair it up with light bites including cheesy potato fritters, deviled eggs and tempura mushrooms.

For an elegant dinner, head downstairs to Velvet Buffalo, a modern Italian restaurant. Enjoy classic dishes like spaghetti and meatballs, or try something more unique, like grilled swordfish and shrimp, which combines roasted tomatoes, saffron-white wine fume, lemon and fresh herbs.

Wrap things up with an overnight stay at one of 34 elegant rooms upstairs. Big picture windows, a turntable with record collection and an honor bar make for a winter getaway unlike any other.