A weekend’s journey is closer than you might think. Check out these fun destinations that are close to home but still feel so far away.
Discover Freeport: A Magical Start to the Holiday Season
By Pat Szpekowski
You’re heading to the right place for fun when visiting the city of Freeport during the upcoming holiday season. The city boasts a spectacular outdoor Christmas tree, historical landmarks and friendly merchants offering loads of holiday gift temptations.
“The holidays are a special time here in Freeport,” says Nicole Haas, brand director for Greater Freeport Partnership. “The diversity of our locally owned businesses and over two dozen boutiques offers the perfect opportunity to stop, shop and find unique gifts to fill the Christmas stockings and wrap surprises under the tree for loved ones.”
Home of the county seat and the largest city in Stephenson County, Freeport is located along U.S. Route 20, just 30 miles west of Rockford.
Seasonal fun is heightened with several popular signature events that fill the streets and seal the warm bond between the visitors, residents and businesses.
Downtown Freeport comes alive during the annual weekend Mistletoe Walk on Nov. 19-20.
Hosted by Greater Freeport Partnership, the event is a great time to visit the distinctive boutique stores of downtown. There’s abundant shopping with a plethora of jewelry, home decor, furniture, confections and hobby memorabilia options. Choose those special gifts for others, or yourself, while listening to live music that invokes the holiday spirit.
Witness the tree-lighting ceremony downtown on Nov. 20 at noon. The Hero Tree stands tall and bright in front of the bell tower at the Stephenson County Courthouse. Decorated bulb ornaments , called Hero Ornaments, created by local residents honor local heroes.
“Our residents pick up a free clear bulb at our office and they can decorate it with a photo and any type of material they choose,” says Haas. “This is the fourth year of our Hero Tree, and it’s getting bigger every year. The Hero Tree stays on display until Jan. 5 and shines every night.”
Visit the Holiday Gift Show inside the Stephenson County Visitor Center from Nov. 18 through Jan. 8. Browse a display of custom jewelry and purses, original art, hand-carved woodworks and holiday-themed decor created by local artisans.
Set your sights on authentic landmarks and architecture and ponder the historic monuments, too. See the Lincoln Douglas Debate Square and Statue – a respectful nod and commemoration to the historic debate in 1858 that influenced U.S. history.
Just a few miles north of Freeport in the quaint village of Lena, Ill., the launch of the holiday season begins with the Lena Holiday Lighted Parade on Dec. 3 at 6 p.m. Join the fun along the street and see shiny red trucks and cars. It caps off a day that’s filled with family activities, games, scavenger hunts, shopping and plenty of food.
“We invite you to experience the warmth of the family holiday season in Freeport and Stephenson County,” adds Haas. “We’re so proud of the amazing place we call home.”
It’s worth the drive to stop, discover and support this friendly community, feel the pride, and savor the local flavors and festivities.
Find out more at greaterfreeport.com.
Elkhorn, Wis.: Winter Wonders at the Christmas Card Town
By George Howe
So, you’re on a quest to visit someplace fun in Wisconsin where holiday and winter magic come alive. Have you heard of Elkhorn?
Located right in the middle of Walworth County, this distinctive community calls itself the “Christmas Card Town.” For decades, the city’s charm has been captured on these seasonal greetings.
It started with a series of oil paintings done in the 1950s by artist Cecil Johnson for the Ford Motor Co. that were later used for Christmas cards. Jan Castle Reed carried on the tradition and spent years depicting the city’s historical landmarks on her own cards. Since 2012, Tim Carson has been creating watercolor magic to ring in the season.
“Tim is very talented and always seems to bring out that unique hometown feel,” says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce.
“For this season’s card, I incorporated elk in a whimsical way, depicting them acting as elves working in the shop,” says Carson. “I included Getzen, a company that’s been making musical instruments in town for 80 years. I’m honored to be a part of this rich history of Elkhorn.”
The holiday magic thrives through many festivities, starting the first weekend in December.
“We have a spirited kickoff with the tree lighting downtown on the square on Friday night,” says Abbe. “Santa arrives by horse-drawn carriage, and one of our local fifth-grade elementary school class choirs performs a few songs.”
The square comes alive with dozens of hand-painted Christmas scenes and more than 100 decorated trees. At about the same time, the Chamber’s drive-through light festival, Let it Glow, greets visitors to the Walworth County Fairgrounds. Along the route, there are “glow” stops where local businesses and nonprofits set up stations.
“The Girl Scouts give away dozens of boxes of cookies, the Boys & Girls Club gives away books, the United Way sets up a 20-foot inflatable Frosty, and we partner with local agencies to bring 5,000 toys to the grounds,” says Abbe. “We make sure that everyone gets a toy.”
Join in the festive mood and do a little shopping while you’re in town. Apple Barn Orchard and Winery holds a Christmas Market throughout November and much of December, offering a variety of yuletide ornaments, handmade items, baked goods and wines – all of which are made, bottled, corked, capped and labeled on site.
Local coffee shops and Elk Restaurant, an institution since 1971, offer good food and a friendly atmosphere to shake off the winter chill. The Holton High School orchestra holds a Christmas concert late in December, and the Lakeland Players Group hosts a holiday-themed play performed at the Sprague Theatre.
There’s plenty more to discover as the season progresses. Hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular all winter at White River Trail and the Kettle Moraine preserves. The nearby Alpine Valley Resort offers five-star accommodations and a variety of downhill ski runs.
To start planning your Elkhorn winter getaway, go to visitelkhorn.com.
Ottawa: The Friendly City
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Situated at the confluence of the Illinois and Fox rivers, in the heart of Starved Rock Country, is a small city with big attractions. Ottawa is an epicenter of activity, but its welcoming residents are what make it a place to remember.
“When I was growing up, it was called ‘the friendly city,’” says Donna Reynolds, an Ottawa native and the tourism operations manager at the Ottawa Visitors Center. “People embrace tourism, and they love when outsiders come in and talk to local residents.”
During the holidays, there’s no shortage of exciting events in Ottawa. In addition to the annual Christmas Parade, Deck the Parks kicks off on Nov. 25. The event, where families and organizations decorate Ottawa’s parks with lights and decorations, has become a new beloved holiday tradition.
“As soon as the parade is over, Santa flips a switch and all the parks come alive,” says Reynolds.
Following the parade and park lighting is Ottawa’s seventh annual Chris Kringle Market, which runs every weekend Nov. 25 through Dec. 18.
For lovers of natural settings, Dayton Bluffs Preserves, a 258-acre nature preserve, features 100 acres of open prairie, 150 woodland acres, water cascades, ravines and more. There are also sacred American Indian burial mounds and the Daniels family pioneer cemetery. Reynolds says the preserve is a “fantastic hidden gem” that has only been open to the public for five years.
Ottawa is located 15 minutes from Starved Rock State Park, a wilderness area ripe with steep sandstone canyons and waterfalls. The park is home to a multitude of wildlife, including deer and bald eagles, offering plenty of hiking trails and scenic views of the Illinois River.
In downtown Ottawa, local businesses and unique boutiques line the streets. For holiday shopping, Reynolds’ favorite is Déjà Vu, a gift shop she calls “a winter wonderland.”
Also downtown, Heartland by Hand sells unique oddities from handmade jewelry and bourbon pecan caramels to beautiful picture frames. If you’re looking to sink your teeth into some delicious delicacies, look no further than The Cheese Shoppe and Deli. This Ottawa staple celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020 and is one of the city’s oldest and dearest restaurants.
On the south side of Washington Square Park, Iniga Pizzeria Napoletana serves traditional Neapolitan pizzas. The kitchen boasts a 6,600-pound wood-burning oven from Italy used to create mouthwatering pizzas like the Hot White, featuring house-made Alfredo sauce, oregano, soppressata, spicy brussels sprouts, pistachio and honey.
After tasting some of Ottawa’s best restaurants and shopping at some local boutiques, be sure to talk to some locals before you head home. Reynolds says the city’s hospitality and open arms are sure to make anyone feel like an Ottawan.“
Ottawa people make visitors feel like they’re at home,” Reynolds says. For more information, go to pickusottawail.com.
Starved Rock Lodge: Don’t Wait to Book the Date
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge
Starved Rock Lodge, in Oglesby, Ill., truly makes this the most wonderful time of the year, in many ways.
For social gatherings of up to 50 people, the Lodge’s LaSalle and Utica Rooms are ideal starting points. Starved Rock creates menus perfectly suited to your event.
Get in the holiday spirit with some live music at the Lodge, particularly on Dec. 5 during the “Under the Mistletoe” matinee. If you’re a fan of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and more, the “Classic Crooners Christmas” matinee makes the season bright. Both events include a hot lunch buffet.
Camp Aramoni and Starved Rock Lodge team up to create the Trolley Trio Progressive Dinner, an event filled with wine, spirits, beer and food. Meet on Dec. 17 at Starved Rock Lodge, where the Starved Rock Trolley takes you to August Hill Winery for cocktails and appetizers. Next, the trolley heads to Camp Aramoni for a holiday-themed dinner, then back to the Lodge for dessert and drinks.
The Trolley Trio Progressive Dinner Overnight Package includes dinner for two, an overnight stay for two and a $15 breakfast voucher. Reservations are required, and guests must be 21 or older to attend.
Children will jump for joy at Breakfast with Santa on Dec. 18. Join Santa and Mrs. Claus for a breakfast buffet followed by Magic by Cory. Children receive a chocolate treat. Reservations are required.
Christmas Trolley Lights Tours run Sunday through Thursday, Dec. 11-15 and Dec. 18-22 from 6-8 p.m. Let the Starved Rock Lodge staff do the driving while you enjoy holiday trivia, jokes and riddles, and classic Christmas music. Trolleys are heated, but you may want to bring along an extra blanket. There are no restroom stops on this tour. For reservations call (815) 220-7386.
Join the party on New Year’s Eve. This package includes a one-night stay for two guests at Starved Rock Lodge. Cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m. with an open bar and hors d’oeuvres, followed by a New Year’s Eve Dinner Buffet, a champagne toast at midnight, 1 a.m. pastries and brunch on New Year’s Day. Party favors are included, as is a chance to win a $1,000 travel voucher. Guests must be 21 years of age or older to attend the party.
Starved Rock Lodge has its annual Wedding Expo in the Great Hall on Jan. 8 from noon to 3 p.m. Meet with the resort’s preferred vendors, explore the wedding venue, sample delicious cuisine and enjoy champagne. This is a free event, with no RSVP needed.
The Starved Rock Lodge activities department is happy to help you book an event, guided hike or historic trolley tour any time of the year.
For information on upcoming events, overnight packages or other fun activities call (815) 220-7386 or book online at starvedrocklodge.com.
Rock Falls: Where City Life and Nature Meet
By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor
Situated on the Rock River between Rockford and the Quad Cities is the community of Rock Falls, a quaint, family-friendly city that always has something to offer.
Founded in 1867, the once heavily industrial city now provides residents and visitors alike a blend of city life and natural spaces, with the historic Hennepin Feeder Canal located 3 minutes from downtown.
“It’s where city life and nature meet,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events in Rock Falls. “We do have a lot of nature, so we expand on doing a lot of stuff around town like going out to the Hennepin Canal and the hiking trails.”
The Hennepin Feeder Canal begins at the Rock River and runs down near Sheffield, splitting off in two directions. Outdoor enthusiasts can follow the canal while hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing. Jones says kayakers use the canal until it freezes over, and some people can be found snowshoeing along the trail in the winter.
Nestled along the city’s riverfront is the RB&W (Run Bike and Walk Park) District Park. The park offers plenty of walking and biking opportunities and even has rental bikes. Additionally, the park contains 10 sculptures, with eight that change every September. An epicenter of live events, the park hosts gatherings including the annual Taste of Fiesta, a one-day event in September celebrating Mexican heritage, and Hometown Holidays, a November event featuring a Christmas Tree lighting, horse-drawn wagon rides and Santa Claus.
The city prides itself on having a handful of family-owned businesses that have stood the test of time. One city staple is the Candlelight Inn Restaurant, 2200 First Ave. Opened in 2004 but tracing its roots to the mid-1960s, this restaurant is famed for a local dish called Chicken George – fresh, hand-battered, deep-fried chicken tenders served with a house specialty vinegar and mayonnaise based-sauce. Candlelight Inn has three sister restaurants, including one across the river in Sterling that looks like a barn.
Twelve blocks from Candlelight Inn lies another family-owned restaurant that keeps visitors coming back for more: Angelo’s Pizzeria, 608 12th Ave. The family-owned pizzeria still offers guests the same diner-like feel it had when it first opened decades ago. In addition to specialties like the taco pizza or the mac ‘n cheese pizza, the restaurant serves up a sauce that’s so beloved in town that it’s jarred and sold outright.
Another family-owned staple is Arthur’s Garden Deli. The long-standing deli opened in 1977 and was voted the favorite place for lunch for 16 consecutive years. The deli serves everything from made-to-order sandwiches and loaded baked potatoes to fresh garden salads, frozen yogurt and more.
Rock Falls’ downtown is filled with many other quaint eateries and pubs including Whiskey Barrel Bar & Grill, which serves everything from Chicago-style hot dogs to corned beef tacos, and Corner Tap, a local bar with friendly bartenders, big televisions and an event space for musicians. Along these blocks visitors can also find quaint local boutiques and specialty stores that still reflect the city’s small-town vibes.
“People here say there’s nothing to do, but really there is,” says Jones. “This summer we had an air show at the airport, music concerts, boat races, ski shows. We’ve always got something going on.”
For more information, go to visitrockfalls.com.