Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide, Winter Edition

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There’s so much to do in our region! Here are some exciting recreation events happening this season.

(Peoria Convention & Visitors Bureau photo)

Playing in Peoria

No matter your game, you can play it in Peoria. “We truly have something for everyone,” says Lelonie Luft, marketing manager for the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The quality of life offered here is amazing, from our museums, art and theater to our sports teams, outdoor recreation and family-focused attractions.”

The heart of Peoria’s entertainment scene is Peoria Civic Center, a four-building complex with a 12,000-seat arena, a 2,200-seat theater, expansive exhibit space and much more. Each season, it hosts top-notch performers, concerts and family shows, this year including REO Speedwagon, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Peoria boasts the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Area Civic Chorale and the Peoria Ballet, plus Peoria Players Theatre, the longest continuously running community theater in Illinois.

For sports fans, Peoria is home to three professional teams: the Peoria Rivermen, part of the American Hockey League; The Peoria Push, a skater-owned/WFTDA-sanctioned women’s flat track roller derby team; and the Peoria Chiefs baseball team, which recently announced affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals.

Artists thrive in Peoria. The 125-year-old Peoria Art Guild has two galleries with changing exhibits. “April through November, we have our CIAO [Central Illinois Artists Organization] First Friday art series,” says Luft. “Area artists display their work at venues around town.”

Peoria Zoo, run by the Peoria Park District, is home to more than 100 animal species, from Siberian tiger to armadillo; kookaburra to red-tailed hawk; Galapagos tortoise to snapping turtle.

Opening this fall on the downtown riverfront is The Caterpillar Visitors Center. “This is a larger-than-life, fun and educational attraction,” says Luft. “Massive machinery is on display, and visitors can see what it’s like to operate them, with virtual experiences. In one, you experience driving a huge truck down into a mine.”

Two popular attractions are moving to the riverfront as well. The Riverfront Museum – formerly the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences – is Smithsonian affiliated and features the Discovery Center, art and natural history collections, and educational programming for all ages. “The Planetarium is also being relocated here, with a larger dome, and with a 100-percent, all-digital theater with a gigantic screen,” says Luft.

Located on the banks of the Illinois River, Peoria is the oldest European settlement in Illinois, visited by explorers Joliet and Marquette in 1673. Today, its Riverfront is alive with events, festivals, art galleries, shopping, dining, riverboat cruises on an authentic paddle boat, and more. Visitors can take in the historic sites of Peoria on a Segway, or tour some of its historic homes.

Five-acre Luthy Botanical Garden offers more than a dozen themed gardens and a conservatory. Within a 15-mile radius of Peoria are 20 public golf courses. The city has more than 9,000 acres of parks and open space with biking and hiking trails.
“Wildlife Prairie State Park is an awesome location for wildlife viewing,” says Luft. “It has more than 150 animals, 50 – like the bison – that are native to Illinois. It’s also great for bird watching.”

Peoria also boasts the 2.5-mile scenic Grand View Drive, a panoramic view of the Illinois River valley, dubbed in 1910 by President Teddy Roosevelt as “the world’s most beautiful drive.”

Shopping ranges from upscale malls with national chains – The Shoppes at Grand Prairie, for example – to specialty boutiques, antique shops and districts in area towns, each with its own character. “From Pekin to Princeton, Metamora to Morton, these are charming, Mayberry-type places with one-of-a-kind, unique shops,” says Luft. Four local wineries host wine tastings, tours and other events year-round.

With so many choices, visitors may find it difficult to choose. No worries. The Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a variety of recommended itineraries, or its experts will customize one based on your personal tastes. Learn more about visiting Peoria at peoria.org.

Fly RFD: From Cornfield to Mountaintop in a Morning

Whether you love to ski or simply relish the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) can whisk you to Denver in less time than it takes to drive from Rockford to Peoria, Ill. Frontier Airlines offers nonstop service from Rockford to Denver three times a week. Flight time is less than 2.5 hours and round-trip bookings average less than $200.

Once in Denver, it doesn’t take long to climb high into the mountains. Many ski destinations are just an hour or two away by car, including Vail, the largest in the U.S., at more than 5,000 acres. Other top Colorado ski areas include Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Crested Butte, Keystone, Durango, Silverton, Snowmass, Steamboat Springs, Telluride and Winter Park – the latter just 67 miles northwest of Denver. By afternoon, you could be speeding down the slopes, adrenaline rushing, the spray of powder in your face.

But what if your partner loves to ski and you don’t? Is there any reason to tag along to the Rocky Mountains? Well, for starters, it’s never too late to learn to ski, and most resorts have bunny hills and instructors. But if it’s really not your thing, there’s still plenty to see and do, starting with stunning mountain scenery.

Tucked alongside the slopes are some of the most posh and charming resorts, spas, shops and artist’s enclaves one could wish for. For example, the Austria Haus Hotel, along the quaint, cobblestoned streets of Vail Village, with its lovely covered bridge, sparkles with Old World charm and offers a warm whirlpool overlooking Gore Creek. Enjoy contemporary French cuisine at nearby La Tour, or ride the Eagle Bahn Gondola to Bistro Fourteen for a mountaintop fine dining experience.

Or perhaps you’d enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh ride, like the one offered by Beaver Meadows Resort Ranch near Roosevelt National Forest. Enjoy cowboy stew, cornbread and hot cider served in a rustic cabin in the woods. Maybe you’ve never before mushed a team of energetic Siberian and Alaskan huskies over snow-packed trails – an experience you’ll find at Durango Dog Ranch or Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park.

Plenty of other snow sports await you in Colorado, whether or not you ski. Sure, snowmobile rides, snowboarding, ice skating and ice fishing come to mind. But there’s also snow tubing – as in racing and rolling around snow-packed slopes in a giant rubber inner tube. Copper Mountain and Vail’s Adventure Ridge are well-known for their tubing hills.

How about snow biking? Snow cycles look like a bicycle but have skis instead of tires. Many resorts employ instructors who’ll teach you how to operate them. The truly adventurous may enjoy climbing up frozen waterfalls – a sport that’s also a lot of fun to watch. Many consider Ouray, Colo., to be the ice-climbing capital of the world, and thousands participate in the Ouray Ice Festival there each January.

As you wind back toward Denver, you might want to take time to tour the United States Mint, where more than 50 million coins are produced each year (reservations are recommended), or to visit one of the city’s excellent museums, wildlife or Wild West attractions, breweries, gardens or shopping areas.

To learn more about Colorado and the Denver area, including special events that may coincide with your trip, visit colorado.com or denver.org. And remember: Whether or not you like to hit the slopes, a Rocky Mountain high can still be yours.

Starved Rock winter fun includes dogsledding demonstrations. (Kathy Casstevens photo)

Starved Rock Lodge: Embrace the Beauty of Winter

By Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek, Director of Marketing, Starved Rock Lodge

As New Year’s resolutions fall into the dusty pile of “To Dos,” there’s one that’s worth keeping. A trip to Starved Rock offers a unique experience for people of all ages.

Children and adults alike enjoy getting a glimpse of a frozen waterfall or bald eagles in flight. Snow-covered bluffs with expansive Illinois River views are best when seen from the top of Starved Rock, Lovers Leap or Eagle Cliff, three of the park’s most famous rock formations.

New in 2013, guided hikes will be offered every Saturday and Sunday, even in the winter. Led by expert guides from Starved Rock Lodge, the hikes are the safest and most expedient way to see the park from an insider’s point of view. Plus, most visitors tend to visit the canyons closest to the Lodge. This trip takes hikers on a 4.5-mile adventure to see LaSalle and Tonti canyons, plus extraordinary views from some of the most beautiful lookout points in the 2,600-acre park.

Also this year, the Lodge is sponsoring a photo contest, themed “In Touch with Your Natural Side,” which invites photographers to submit their best Starved Rock photos into one of five categories. Prizes will be awarded at a photo show scheduled for Feb. 24.

Ice climbing is allowed, when park officials declare the frozen waterfalls ready for the sport (climbers must be certified).
Climbers and hikers alike enjoy seeing frozen waterfalls, which form in frigid temps. Your camera will capture an amazing photo that displays nature at its best, but you’ll need a video camera to capture the sound of water trickling within this frozen work of natural art. If there’s measurable snowfall, cross-country skiing is offered at nearby Matthiessen State Park. Skis, boots and beginner lessons are available.

Winter’s big highlight is the Eagle Watch Weekend, set for Jan. 26-27, with its “Birds of Prey” show and hands-on exhibits. Throughout January and February, guests can join the Eagle Trolley Tours, which include lunch and a guided tour aboard a Starved Rock trolley, to see America’s symbol of strength. This is Starved Rock’s most popular winter tour.

In the quiet of winter, visitors can enjoy a giant fireplace in the Lodge’s Great Hall, and smaller fireplaces in several of the Lodge’s 13 cabins in the woods. Sometimes, the Great Hall’s fireplace is roaring, and other times, the red-hot embers just glow and cast a calming kind of warmth that fills the massive space.

A wide variety of special events are planned for the winter months, from interactive dinner theatre (Feb. 2) and musical tributes to drum circles (Jan. 20) and sled dog demonstrations (Jan. 13 and Feb. 3). Details and our full event calendar are available at www.starvedrocklodge.com.

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