Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Getaway Guide, Spring Edition

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Recreation opportunities abound in our region! Here are a few of the best our area has to offer.

Lovers Key State Park, located near Fort Myers, Fla., includes quiet, secluded beaches. The beaches and keys around this area are a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons. (Lee County [Fla.] Visitor and Convention Bureau photo)

Lovers Key State Park, located near Fort Myers, Fla., includes quiet, secluded beaches. The beaches and keys around this area are a popular destination for weddings and honeymoons. (Lee County [Fla.] Visitor and Convention Bureau photo)

Chicago Rockford International Airport: Finding Beachtime Fun is a Breeze

While we endure gloomy, rainy days during our Midwestern spring, folks in sunny Florida enjoy warm weather and miles of pristine beaches. Spring and summer getaways to sandy Fort Myers, Fla., offer a glimpse of paradise to the active vacationer. And best of all, they’re easily accessible from Chicagoland, with Allegiant airlines’ direct flights from Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD).

Flights arrive at the relaxed Charlotte County Airport, in Punta Gorda, Fla., about 30 minutes north of Fort Myers. Once inside the city, visitors will find numerous accommodations, from luxe resorts and vacation condominiums to wooded campgrounds and quiet bed-and-breakfasts. Many resorts include quiet cabins and bayside condos that offer sweeping views of Florida’s orange sunsets.

Those miles and miles of beaches are a popular attraction all year. By far, the area’s most popular destination is Fort Myers Beach, a nearly five-mile stretch of white sand on a barrier island. The water is just yards from some of the area’s most popular resorts. One of the most secluded beaches is just south on Estero Island, home of Lovers Key State Park. Not only does it boast quiet beaches and natural walking paths, but it’s a sanctuary for Gulf wildlife, including manatees, dolphins and a variety of birds.

These beaches are also a popular destination for the young-in-love. Destination weddings are welcomed at many venues, including the classic Gasparilla Inn & Club, on Gasparilla Island. This historic 1913 resort has several settings for beachside nuptials. Other popular spots include Casa Ybel Resort, on Sanibel Island, which was ranked tops by TheKnot.com. Even honeymooning couples can find plenty to do at these island getaways.

One of the area’s most popular destinations for shopping is Miromar Outlets, an outdoor mall that includes nearly 120 designer names such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Calvin Klein, J. Crew, Banana Republic and Juicy Couture. Antiques hunters will enjoy the regular yard sales that pop up along McGregor Boulevard.

Another popular shopping area, the colorful downtown of Fort Myers is an intimate walk back in history. Palm tree-lined brick streets and classic mid-20th-century architecture match the unique character of these antiques stores, theaters and locally owned shops. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates historical site is nearby.

Take a short drive outside Fort Myers, and there’s even more to explore. About an hour south is Naples, another popular spot for beaches, shopping and destination weddings. It’s also in reach of the Florida Everglades, accessible through a series of preserves. Spots like the Fakahatchee Stand Preserve State Park and the 729,000-acre Big Cypress National Preserve offer an up-close look at Florida’s natural swamps and exotic wildlife.

About two hours to the north of Fort Myers is the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, where you can also access direct flights to RFD airport. In Tampa, you’ll find a rich Latino cultural scene, unique museums and big-name sports teams.

This year’s baseball spring training is over, but fans know it’s never too early to look toward next year. Both the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins call Fort Myers their springtime home. After April, the Twins’ training stadium hosts the team’s minor-league affiliate, the Miracle Baseball Club.

Chicagoans enjoy Fort Myers so much that nearly five percent of all of this city’s spring visitors will come from our region, according to the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Nearly 122,000 Chicagoland visitors came in 2011.

Warm beaches and ocean breezes are just a flight away. To learn more about this destination, visit flyrfd.com and FortMyersSanibel.com.

Walk through the woods at Starved Rock State Park to discover an amazing variety of nearly 225 wildflower species, in lush forests and dramatic canyons. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Walk through the woods at Starved Rock State Park to discover an amazing variety of nearly 225 wildflower species, in lush forests and dramatic canyons. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

 

Starved Rock Lodge: Spring’s the Thing

BY PAM ROWE, STARVED ROCK LODGE

The arrival of spring gives everyone a renewed sense of what nature has to offer. No place displays the wonders of spring as well as Starved Rock State Park in Utica, Ill.

Rushing waterfalls, blossoming wildflowers, migrating birds and young creatures peaking out of their nests for the first time are just a few of the season’s miracles guests may experience at Illinois’ oldest state park. There’s no predicting the surprises that await visitors to Starved Rock State Park & Lodge.

The Lodge has already begun preparations for its 75th birthday next year, but 2013 still has many adventures in store. New events are paired with trusted favorites to enhance guests’ experiences and launch them into great spring adventures chock-full of history and nature.

For those intrepid early visitors, weekend guided hikes to LaSalle Canyon begin in March, departing from the Lodge at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Those less inclined to outdoor activities can book a ride on the Lodge’s Historic Trolley Tour, leaving the Lodge every Sunday at noon and 1:30 p.m., beginning in March.

One of the new activities offered this season is “The Amazing Race Starved Rock Style,” offered May through September on select Sundays. Teams of two or more spend the day solving clues, completing tasks and racing against both the clock and their competitors to uncover the Legend of Starved Rock. This is a family event, but children under 8 or those with limited mobility may find the challenges too taxing.

Spring rains fill the streams that flow toward the Illinois River, but to reach its destination, much of that water travels down the waterfalls gracing 14 of the park’s 18 canyons. On Mondays and Saturdays in April and May, the Lodge’s Waterfall & Canyon Tours offer visitors a guided hike into three of these canyons, along with a special lunch and a trolley tour.

Outdoor adventurers seeking more of a challenge can participate in Starved Rock Lodge’s MegaHike. On this all-day, 14-mile adventure, participants hike to each of the park’s 18 canyons. The event includes trolley transportation, guides, a box lunch and a special T-shirt. Reservations are required for the MegaHike, slated for April 27 & 28. (Another MegaHike will be offered in September.)

April 27-28 is also Wildflower Weekend at Starved Rock. Wildflowers abound here in the spring, beginning a color show that lasts from April into October. Virginia Bluebells, just one of 225 wildflower species in the park, blanket several canyon trails with their mesmerizing color. Visitors can see these beauties on guided hikes that leave the Park Visitor Center at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.

This is just a sampling of the many rich experiences Starved Rock Lodge has to offer, from fine dining, live music and theater to storytelling and special seminars.

Spring at Starved Rock State Park is spectacular, but it will be gone before we know it! Check online at starvedrocklodge.com for visitor information and a complete calendar of events.

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