Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide: Spring Edition

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The Old Northwest Territory is full of great resort and hotel getaways. Why not explore some of the best in your own backyard? Scroll Down to Learn More

Fly RFD: Exploring the Tampa/St. Petersburg Region

The Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg area boasts miles of white, sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. (Courtesy Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater)

There’s still time to escape the chilly weather and enjoy a spring break escape on the white, sandy beaches of the The Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater region of Florida. It’s an easy trip, thanks to direct flights from Chicago Rockford International Airport.

This gulf region of southwest Florida is comprised of many diverse communities connected around Tampa Bay with a network of crisscrossing highways. It offers a wide variety of activities for family vacations, intimate retreats and much more.

Fliers get a taste of this waterside escape before they’ve even touched down, as they approach the bayside St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport.

Spend a day at some of the nation’s top-rated beaches, found along the coastline at the Gulf of Mexico, and along the bay. White sands and sparkling blue waters are in ample supply here. Choose from dozens of public beaches, many inside state parks, and follow the Suncoast Beach Trolley to explore all of the beaches along the Gulf Coast.

Beachside resorts such as Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites, on Sand Key, offer a prime view of the white-sand coast. Further inland, check out the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park, just five minutes from the airport and a member of Florida’s Green Lodging program, which encourages environmentally-friendly hoteliers.

The water is also a popular place to see marine wildlife, or to take a chartered boat and spend a day fishing. Take the family and see the wildlife up close at Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo. Visit The Florida Aquarium, considered by Parents Magazine to be one of the most kid-friendly aquariums in the United States. Visit your own Jurassic Park at Dinosaur World, where life-size models roam.

Explore the area’s rich art and cultural influences at six major museums, including the Salvador Dali Museum. The metal and concrete building is just as eclectic as the Spanish artist whose works are inside.

The Tampa/St. Pete area is also a hotspot for fine shopping. Tour various malls, or go off the beaten path and visit quaint antique stores and art markets, such as the year-round, weekly Suntan Saturday Fine Art Market.

Explore the region’s Latin influence in Ybor City, a traditional Latino neighborhood where you’ll find hand-rolled cigars, authentic Latino cuisine and a vibrant nightlife. Of course, that’s not the only popular night spot in town. Downtown Tampa comes alive at night, with sophisticated nightclubs and eateries.

During spring and summer months, baseball is a big attraction, as the Tampa Bay Rays resume a new season. The Tampa/St. Pete area is also home to Honda Grand Prix racing, where IndyCars zoom around a waterside track. Spring and summer are also the seasons when street markets and art festivals thrive.

The fun’s not limited just to the Bay Area. While there’s plenty to keep you busy in town, there’s also much to explore in the larger region. Within about two hours’ drive, you can reach Orlando and Fort Myers, where you’ll find popular theme parks, quiet beaches and swampy wildlife preserves. And just three hours south of the Bay Area, you’ll find the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park.

A spring break retreat is just a quick flight and a free parking space away. Visit www.flyrfd.com to learn about this and other exciting getaways made possible by Chicago Rockford International Airport. ❚

Starved Rock State Lodge: This Fun Getaway is an Easy Trip from Home

Starved Rock’s many canyons have provided a unique natural getaway for more than a century. Ottawa Canyon is shown here. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Sometimes, when you go on a vacation, you come home feeling like you need another one. The hassles of flight delays, long lines and getting to and from the airport can be exhausting.

With gas prices climbing, the challenge of finding a vacation destination that’s close to home, but worlds away, is a tough one. Starved Rock State Park & Lodge is less than 90 minutes from most Chicagoland locations, yet many people have never seen the canyons, waterfalls or historic landmark that rests high on a bluff overlooking the Illinois River. This is perhaps the best one-tank getaway in the Midwest!

Nestled in the flatlands of LaSalle County is an escape worth visiting. Starved Rock State Park in Utica has been a relaxation destination for 100 years (much longer, unofficially). The Park is surrounded by more than 2,630 acres of forests, wildlife and wildflowers. Hiking is just steps away from the Lodge, which offers a restaurant, bar and veranda for outdoor dining. On weekends, from 8 to 11:30 p.m., there’s live music with no cover charge; Sunsets and panoramic views here just can’t be beat. The Lodge has massage therapists on staff and an indoor pool complex with two saunas, a hot tub and a gated children’s pool (great for parents and grandparents traveling with toddlers).

Each Sunday, historic trolley tours depart from the Lodge at noon and 1:30 p.m. This is a great way to learn about Starved Rock. The Visitor Center is a wonderful place for people of all ages. There are three free orientation videos to watch and it’s one of the best ways to learn about the history of the Park and the Lodge.

Since hiking is a favorite activity, Starved Rock offers a free Walker’s Club every Thursday morning, departing at 9 a.m. from the hotel lobby. Or, for a real adventure, you could try a MegaHike. This guided hike takes you to all the canyons (13.4 miles) in one day! In 2011, these are scheduled for May 21 or 22 and Sept. 24 or 25. If you want to venture out on your own, newly-designed, full-color trail maps are available for just $1 at the Starved Rock Lodge front desk.

The Lodge Web site (starvedrocklodge.com) and the Park Web site (starvedrockstatepark.org) are filled with photos and more information on a getaway that won’t soon be forgotten. Be sure to bring your camera, because photo opportunities are waiting around every corner. ❚

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