A great weekend’s journey is right inside our region. Here are some of our area’s excellent places to play.
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa: It’s a Winter Wonderland in Galena
Who needs a ski resort, when there’s a world-class winter retreat so close to home? Located in the rolling hills just east of Galena, Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa provides winter excitement all season long.
The fun starts with the many complimentary outdoor activities, most of which begin at the clubhouse on the South golf course. Inside this wintertime ski shop, guests can access free rentals for cross-country ski equipment, ice skates and sleds.
Several trails are groomed for cross-country skiing, and the course’s 18th fairway is transformed into an exciting sled run, worthy of Galena’s undulating slopes.
“I don’t know the exact length or slope of the hill, but I know that it is significant,” says Sean Karvonen, resort recreation manager. “When people ask if the hill is worth spending time on, I tell them it’s definitely a fun run.”
Down on the golf course pond, the frozen ice is thick enough for ice skating and similar activities. Although the resort’s 225-acre man-made lake is big enough for winter fun, activities such as ice fishing are generally discouraged there. “There’s a slight current, and it’s harder to judge the thickness of the ice there,” says Karvonen.
It’s easy to get warm at the indoor pool, which is held at 85 degrees. The pool deck includes a sauna and steam room; you’ll also find steam rooms at the luxurious Stonedrift Spa.
The most popular weekend for winter fun happens just before President’s Day, when the resort hosts Winter Wonderland Weekend. In addition to sledding, skating and skiing, the resort hosts an outdoor bonfire with s’mores, hayrides led by a team of Clydesdales, outdoor recreation and unique dining. At the skating pond, Karvonen encourages friendly competition with eight-on-eight broomball matches, but his latest hit is turkey bowling.
“We set up bowling pins, and we slide turkeys on the ice,” he says. “It’s a full six- to eight-pound turkey. We wrap it up with duct tape and it slides pretty nicely.”
Winter Wonderland Weekend is also a time for the resort’s restaurant team to have some fun. “Chef Hoppman will carve an eagle ice sculpture with a chainsaw,” says Karvonen. “It’s a big chainsaw, and his design is intricate, with all these tiny grooves in it. You can watch him carve it, and then it’s on display at the Sunday brunch, which we serve at our restaurant, The Woodlands.”
The winter season officially kicks off on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when Santa arrives on a horse-drawn wagon to greet children and listen to Christmas wishes. The downstairs ballroom is transformed into Santa’s workshop and has activities such as crafts, bear-building and a live reading of T’was the Night Before Christmas. Every Saturday in December, Santa visits The Woodlands restaurant.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, the resort hosts an adults-only party in the upstairs ballroom and a kid-friendly party downstairs. While the grown-ups enjoy a prime rib buffet, open bar and a champagne toast, the little ones can enjoy a kid-preferred meal of their own, karaoke and fun games.
Winter doesn’t have to be a time to be stuck inside the house. “It’s fun to see people enjoying themselves outside,” says Karvonen. “It’s winter, so people think there’s not so much to enjoy. But there’s a lot we can do out there.”
For more information on Eagle Ridge’s busy winter schedule, visit eagleridge.com.
Chicago Rockford International Airport: Conquer the Colorado Slopes this Season
There’s “snow” time like now to start dreaming of ski season. Winter is quickly approaching in Colorado, where the rugged Rocky Mountains provide fantastic ski conditions from November through April or longer. In just a few hours, you can go from the rolling Midwestern hills to the great Colorado Western Slope, on a Frontier Airlines flight to Denver from Chicago Rockford International Airport.
Once you’re in Denver, you have access to some of the nation’s most famous ski destinations, and four of them are within a few hours’ drive along I-70. About 90 miles west in Keystone, Colo., Keystone Resort is all about skiing. Boasting one of the largest mountains in Summit County, Colo., the resort includes 3,148 skiable acres, 20 ski lifts and several AAA 4 Diamond runs. The more daring skiers and snowboarders can be found at the resort’s A51 Terrain Park, Colorado’s only night park, complete with rails, jumps, jibs and pipes. Daring skiers are also known to join the CAT skiing tour, a mountaintop journey in the comfort of a snowy terrain vehicle. Once atop the mountain, some riders head downhill on their own, skiing through untracked terrain.
A little further west on I-70 is Copper Mountain, an all-encompassing village filled with wintertime activities. The resort averages about 2,400 skiable acres and nearly 280 inches of snow every year, but skiing is just one attraction here. Complete with a tubing hill, zip line and ice skating, the resort is also home to Woodward at Copper, a year-round snowboard and ski training camp. Down in the village, the fun continues at a relaxing spa, several bistros and bars, and a vibrant nightlife.
Breckenridge and Vail, Colo., are both cities and massive resorts. The summit at Breckenridge holds 155 different trails, the longest of which is 3.5 miles long. While the slopes are just as challenging at Vail, that city comes alive with activities and entertainment. Kick off the ski season from Dec. 9-15 at Vail Snow Daze, with bar parties and outdoor concerts all over town. For a warm, relaxing experience, retreat to one of several luxurious spas, where massage treatments, steamy whirlpools and sweltering saunas await.
About 100 miles farther southwest, situated amidst White River National Forest, is Aspen, Colo., and its Snowmass slopes offer a quintessential Rocky Mountain experience. It’s no surprise that these slopes have hosted the Winter X Games – Aspen’s peaks rise as high as 12,500 feet, and include nearly 300 slopes of varying difficulty, with some of the largest ski acreage of any location in the country.
Off the slopes, bustling Aspen offers endless opportunities to be pampered and have fun. There are more than 100 places to dine out, serving everything from baked goods and barbecue to Mexican, sushi and fine dining. Lodging ranges from quaint hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to top-notch luxury resorts. For example, on Aspen’s Main Street is the historic Hotel Jerome, built in 1889 and adorned with classic Western touches and plush modern amenities. Or, on the city’s western outskirts is the Ritz-Carlton, a ski-in/ski-out village surrounded by slopes and steeped in luxury.
Other prime ski destinations are accessible through Frontier Airlines. From its Denver hub, Frontier reaches top-notch slopes in Salt Lake City; Jackson Hole, Wyo.; and Bozeman, Mont.
To learn more about Frontier Airlines’ flights from Rockford to Colorado, visit flyrfd.com.
Grand Geneva Resort & Spa: An Active Outdoors Winter Awaits
Cold, snowy weather is right around the corner, and at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, in Lake Geneva, outdoor fun is happening all winter long. It’s not just downhill skiing you’ll find inside this 1,300-acre campus – it’s also a great place for cross-country skiing, ice skating and sledding. Best of all, everything is open to the public, not just resort guests.
The Mountain Top includes 18 runs, with more than 200 feet of vertical skiing that weave through the trees and hills. Weather permitting, the slopes are open from early December through early March.
“As long as it’s cold outside, we have the ability to make it snow,” says Hans Hauschild, director of winter activities and The Mountain Top, where a machine can transform 1,000 gallons of water into fluffy snow every minute. “Even if there’s no snow in your backyard, if it’s cold out, we can put snow on the slopes.”
Located a few miles northeast of downtown Lake Geneva, the resort is often 5 to 10 degrees cooler than Chicagoland and northern Illinois, Hauschild says. To learn about ski conditions, especially in the early part of the season, it’s best to call ahead or to check the ski slope webcam available on the resort’s website. The camera refreshes every 10 seconds, providing an eagle-eye view of current conditions.
These slopes are abundantly family-friendly, with kid-friendly ski areas and constant lessons for skiers of all skill levels. Most of the resort’s 70 ski instructors are certified to teach children through the Professional Ski Instructors of America – American Association of Snowboard Instructors.
Families can also sign up for snow fun classes, such as the Snow Cub program for four- to six-year olds, which covers skiing basics in a more secluded area.
“Lessons take place in a designated area, so they’re off the main trails,” says Hauschild. “It’s an easier area for them to get acclimated with skiing.”
The Mountain Mite program, designed for older kids, covers all skill levels in skiing and snowboarding. Private and semi-private lessons are available for both children and adults upon request. Visit on a weekday, and you might see some of the local kids who visit as part of an after-school program.
Around the resort, there are other ways to take in the winter scenery. From the gear shop, cross-country skiers can follow nearly five miles of trail through forests and portions of the resort’s two championship golf courses.
“It intertwines in the woods, then goes onto the golf course for a bit, and then back into the woods,” says Hauschild, who’s spent more than 20 winters here. “It’s very peaceful out there.”
At the resort’s WELL Spa, hikers can also rent snowshoes and begin a nearly 0.75-mile trail around the resort. Near the golf pro shop, there’s also an ice skating rink and a sledding hill.
Atop the mountain, skiers can rest inside the warm chalet, a snowflake-shaped building that offers storage lockers, in addition to refreshments at the Leinenkugel Mountain Top Lodge. The mountain also includes a gear rental store and a retail shop for last-minute gear purchases.
“Always bring an extra pair of socks with you, in case your feet get wet,” says Hauschild. “Also, wear waterproof or water-resistant clothing, especially kids, as they may spend lots of time on the ground.”
At the resort, guests can extend their stay with a “Stay and Ski Free” package, which includes free area lift tickets with an overnight stay. As the resort celebrates its 45th anniversary, other special discounts will continue this winter.
There’s plenty of active, snow-filled fun happening at Grand Geneva Resort & Spa this winter. For more information, visit grandgeneva.com.
Playing in Peoria: A Vibrant Arts Scene Awaits
The arts are alive and well in Peoria, where vaudevillians once asked, “Will it play in Peoria?” Whether it’s visual or performing arts you’re after, this weekend destination has a broad sampling of great places to experience them.
The newest arts destination sits along the bustling riverfront, inside the new Peoria Riverfront Museum. Adjacent to its kid-friendly exhibition halls is the Midwestern Folk Art Gallery and International Feature Gallery. Together, the spaces showcase touring shows and some of the Smithsonian-affiliated museum’s 17,000-item collection. Recently the site of an Ansel Adams photography show, the international gallery will display vivid glass sculptures by southwest artist Dale Chihuly starting Nov. 23.
On the other side of the Riverfront Museum, many visitors enjoy the Giant Screen Theatre, a five-story screen inside one of the nation’s first all-digital movie theatres. The screen often plays current blockbusters and educational shows.
Just a few blocks away is Peoria’s busiest entertainment venue, the Peoria Civic Center. The site of large conventions and big-name concerts encompasses three venues: a 2,000-seat theatre, a convention center and an arena. This season, it plays host to big-name shows including Million Dollar Quartet, Flashdance, and the musical comedy version of The Addams Family.
Music lovers can also enjoy the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, the 14th-oldest in the U.S., which plays at the Peoria Civic Center and Peoria’s Grace Presbyterian Church. This year’s seven-concert series includes a program of classic movie soundtracks, Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and a romance-filled Valentine’s Day performance.
Peoria is filled with every kind of music on the weekends, but at the Contemporary Art Center, home of Rhythm Kitchen Music Café, the music plays every night from Tuesday through Saturday. Each Friday, the gallery hosts live jazz and blues during its Live at the Five Spot. On other occasions, it hosts salsa and swing dancing, and open-mic poetry. Did we mention it’s also a fully functioning art gallery?
The first Friday of every month, Peoria’s artists come out to play, during the First Fridays Studio Tour, hosted by the Central Illinois Artists Organization. Nearly 70 artists, in media ranging from ceramics and glass to paintings, drawings and photographs, display their works at 10 different galleries, many of which are also their functioning studios.
For a real immersion, Studios on Sheridan offers an artistic laboratory for 20 artists, who work and display inside this transformed 1930s-era bakery and warehouse. Right next door, the edgy Backspace gallery displays what it terms “risk-taking contemporary art” and hosts related lectures and events.
The Peoria Players Theatre is the state’s longest consecutively running community theatre, and the nation’s fourth-longest. Producing musicals, comedies and dramas, the group’s season this year includes Oliver, The Miracle Worker and Shrek: The Musical.
This is just a sample of the what’s happening in Peoria. For a complete calendar of the city’s arts events, visit peoria.org.
Starved Rock Lodge: Prime Yourself for Fall Fun
It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday. You’re looking for something different to do for fun. Can’t be much more than an hour’s drive… The answer is: a trip to Starved Rock State Park. And, if you leave by 9, you’ll arrive in Utica, Ill., before 10:30 a.m.
By far, the most popular season at Starved Rock is fall. There’s something extraordinary about nature in autumn, when the trees are aglow and the air is crisp. Spectators come from near and far to hike to Eagle Cliff and soak up the expansive views.
Begin your exploration with an easy hike to St. Louis Canyon. Be sure to park in the shortcut parking lot, located off Route 178, about 0.1 mile south of the park entrance. From the parking lot, it takes less than 15 minutes to hike into the canyon – just one of 18 inside the park. Some of these canyons have seasonal waterfalls that depend on rainfall, so it’s most exciting just after a heavy rain.
Even if the waterfall isn’t active, the canyon walls and sandstone boulders create a sight that’s totally unexpected in Illinois.
Head to Starved Rock Lodge, located inside the park, for lunch in the historic Main Dining Room, or enjoy outdoor dining on the Veranda, where the scenic view is the best around. Entertainment on the Veranda runs from 8-11 p.m. on weekends.
The Lodge’s “Art in the Park,” always on display, is the largest collection of chainsaw art in the Midwest. The recently added steel totem pole, in front of the hotel entrance, was commissioned to include Native American symbols of significance.
Or, you can lie upon the “Star Gazer” cement sculpture for the full effect. Located just outside the pool complex, it’s best visited at night by true stargazers. Did you know that Starved Rock has been named a Star Park because of its lovely black, starry night sky? The Chicago Astronomical Society teams up with the park each year for Astrofest, a chance to see meteor showers and unique happenings in the night sky.
Starved Rock is easily accessible for visitors, and one of the easiest ways to see the park is on a Historic Trolley Tour, which departs every Saturday and Sunday at noon and 1:30 p.m. This is a great way to relax after lunch and learn about the rich history of the Starved Rock area. For those who prefer traveling by foot, guided hikes are now offered year-round on Saturdays and Sundays.
Test your survival skills during workshops on Nov. 9 and 23, or join the Starved Rock Photography Club Nov. 23, for a hike to the park’s uniquely scenic locations.
The food here is not to be missed. The Lodge now makes its own ice cream and gelato, with unique flavors. This fall, flavors might include pumpkin and spice or, for the grown-ups, Leinenkugel beer.
All season, diners can also enjoy the Wisconsin brewery’s custom Starved Rock Ale, and sample other great brews on the annual Leinenkugel pub crawl, on Nov. 9. The brewery’s annual dinner, scheduled for Nov. 8, is already sold out.
Celebrate Thanksgiving Dinner at the Lodge with a reservations-only holiday buffet, from 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
For details on these events and more fall fun at Starved Rock Lodge, go to starvedrocklodge.com.