Recreation & Destinations

NWQ Holiday Getaway Guide

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Our region offers endless opportunities for holiday escapes. Here are a few ideas for an easy weekend getaway this winter.

Granite Peak has 72 runs of various difficulty for skiing and snowboarding. (Granite Peak photo)

Granite Peak has 72 runs of various difficulty for skiing and snowboarding. (Granite Peak photo)

Wausau, Wis.: Friendly Faces and Exhilarating Recreation

By Lindsey Gapen, assistant editor

In the heart of Wisconsin, surrounded by woods, lakes and hills, the city of Wausau awaits visitors who are eager for adventure. The area’s crown jewel is Granite Peak Ski Resort, located in Rib Mountain State Park off Interstate 39. With high-speed lifts servicing 72 runs on a 700-foot mountain, Granite Peak is the perfect place for an action-packed getaway.

Whether it’s skiing, snowboarding or relaxing on a heated patio, visitors have ample opportunity at Granite Peak to enjoy some snowy fun. The memories from a Wausau getaway are sure to be exhilarating, says Vicki Baumann, general manager at Granite Peak.

“It’s just beautiful here,” Baumann says. “We’re really lucky to have Wausau at the base of the mountain. The people are extra-friendly, and the town offers great shopping and dining. When you ride our lifts to the top of the mountain, you can get a gorgeous view of Lake Wausau that you’ll always remember. We always say Granite Peak is easy to get to, but hard to leave.”

Granite Peak offers many deals throughout the fall and winter months. Family packages, college-student discounts and child discounts are available throughout the season. Most people visit Granite Peak for many days in a row, Baumann says. Throughout the season, visitors can enjoy fireworks, a delicious dinner of brats and asparagus at an outdoor grill, horse-drawn wagon rides and other fun activities.

“Granite Peak is a great place for more than just a day trip,” Baumann says. “You can ski all day, eat a great dinner in the city, maybe catch a movie. One great place to stay is Jefferson Street Inn because it’s within walking distance of so many great places.”

Jefferson Street Inn, located at 201 Jefferson St., offers a complimentary shuttle ride from the hotel to Granite Peak. Lodgers can take advantage of cozy fireplaces, full kitchens and a dedicated guest service that’s knowledgeable about the area. The on-site restaurant, City Grill Bistro, serves a true Wisconsin fish fry every Friday that’s “a tradition you should experience,” says Deb Rice, Jefferson Street Inn’s general manager.

“There’s also great entertainment in town,” Rice says. “Many bars in the area have live music, the shopping on Third Street is top-notch, and one block away from our front door is the start of a fantastic riverwalk.”

Rice also recommends visiting the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, where sculpture-filled gardens and nature-based artwork are viewable for free admission. The Center for Visual Arts is another top pick, with its impressive showcase of local and regional artwork.

A trip to Wausau is likely to result in a desire to return.

“It’s one of the most fantastic places in the Midwest. Wausau is a quaint town with luxurious amenities,” Rice says.

Baumann agrees, adding that Granite Peak is fortunate to have a wonderful city at the base of the mountain.

“Everyone is so friendly and welcoming that it’s no wonder why people love Wausau,” Baumann says.

The grand fireplace at Starved Rock Lodge is a cozy place to gather during the winter.

The grand fireplace at Starved Rock Lodge is a cozy place to gather during the winter.

Starved Rock Lodge: Discover Santa’s Secret this Holiday Season

By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge

The news from the North Pole is that Black Friday is a thing of the past! Santa and Starved Rock Lodge, in Utica, Ill., agree that since gifts are available year-round at the Starved Rock Gift Shop, there’s no need to face the crowds at the mall this Christmas season.

“The day after Thanksgiving should be spent having fun and hiking at Starved Rock State Park,” says Angie Kelly, retail director. “We’ve even created a Top 10 Gift List to make it even easier to find the perfect presents. Plus, we now have online shopping for select items.”

Trailheads Concessions, located at the Visitor Center inside Starved Rock Lodge, is stocked with T-shirts, coffee mugs, hoodies and more. Personal shoppers are available by calling the Lodge’s Gift Shop at (815) 220-7320.

Shopping aside, Starved Rock Lodge inspires the spirit of the holiday. A beautifully decorated lodge nestled in one of Illinois’ most dramatic state parks, this getaway provides a cozy and scenic escape where you can welcome winter.

As soon as cleanup is finished from the Lodge’s Thanksgiving Buffet, the decorating team takes over and transforms the Lodge into a wonderland of garland, lights, wreaths and decorations.

Even the trolleys are spruced up for the holidays. Christmas Lights Trolley Tours run every night from Dec. 12 to 23, from 6 to 8 p.m. The trolley drivers lead guests past many local decorations, and they do so while singing a variety of Christmas carols.

Breakfast with Santa is a favorite event for children. Set this year for Saturday, Dec. 19, this special gathering brings Santa to the Great Hall and its grand fireplace, where the little ones can tell their Christmas wishes to Saint Nick and take a photo with him.

One of the biggest nights of the year, for the grown-ups, is the Lodge’s annual New Year’s Eve Party. As the Lodge rings in the new year, the entire Great Hall will be decorated in a Roaring 1920s theme. Guests can enjoy appetizers, an open bar, two bands for dancing, an elaborate dinner buffet with desserts, champagne at midnight and more. The Lodge is offering special packages that ensure you’re just steps away from your hotel room when 2016 makes its debut.

Historic Trolley Tours and guided hikes through the woods are offered each weekend through December. Music in the Back Door Lounge is on tap every Friday from 8 to 11 p.m. Wine tasting is a favorite event every Saturday, in the Hotel Lobby, from 4 to 5 p.m. Massage therapists are available by appointment – it’s the perfect way to relax before or after a swim in the Lodge’s indoor pool.

Families choose to meet at Starved Rock over the holidays because of its close-to-home-but-worlds-away location near the crossroads of the Midwest, right by the juncture between Interstate 80 and Interstate 39.

For complete details of holiday-season activities and events, visit StarvedRockLodge.com.

Nearly 60,000 people welcomed the holiday season at last year’s Stroll on State, in downtown Rockford. (RACVB photos)

Nearly 60,000 people welcomed the holiday season at last year’s Stroll on State, in downtown Rockford. (RACVB photos)

Go Rockford: Stroll on State Brightens Downtown Cityscape

By Lindsey Gapen, assistant editor

Rockford’s favorite hometown holiday experience, Stroll on State, returns for its third year of yuletide excitement on Saturday, Nov. 28, from 3-9 p.m. Festivalgoers can wander around State Street, from Third Street to Main Street, while experiencing the merry sights, sounds and smells of the holiday season. This year, Illinois Bank & Trust is the presenting sponsor of this free public event.

“Stroll on State is about coming together as a community to celebrate the season and to celebrate Rockford,” says Josh Albrecht, director of marketing and public affairs for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau (RACVB). “Stroll has quickly become a community tradition that our citizens love and look forward to.”

Daytime activities include outdoor and indoor ice skating with costumed characters at the Riverview Ice House, 324 N. Madison St.; horse and wagon rides beginning at Water Street and East State; and an outdoor SantaLand near Millennium Fountain, on Water Street. Two outdoor markets are set to take place: one at the corner of North Main and Mulberry streets, and another at the City Market Pavilion, 212 N. Water St.

The main event, the lighting of the city Christmas trees, happens at the corner of West State and Wyman streets at 7 p.m. The lighting is followed by a fireworks display over the Rock River.

Throughout the night, visitors can see the Rockford River Lights along the riverbanks between the Jefferson Street and State Street bridges. The magnificent display of dancing lights, set to music, is expected to wow the crowds.

Rockford Dance Company performs throughout the evening at the Nordlof Center, 118 N. Main St., and Moonlight Jazz Orchestra spices up the night at Veterans Memorial Hall, 211 N. Main St., starting at 7 p.m. An indoor SantaLand takes place at Stewart Square, 308 W. State St., where kids can meet Santa and his friends. A second horse-and-wagon ride departs from Main Street, near the Nordlof Center.

“Having two distinct, yet similar family fun zones was an important element to the planning process this year,” says Albrecht. “We wanted to give more families the opportunity to see Santa and to take a horse-and-wagon ride, so offering those activities on both sides of the river was important.”

Visitors can also see a Lisa Frost Studio artwork display in the grand lobby of Rockford’s City Hall, 125 E. State St.; a Fire & Ice display, where large blocks of ice are combined with bonfires at the corner of East State and Second Street; a showcase of “Randy Finch and the Ice Brigade” ice sculptures; a performance by The Firelight Dimmers at Stewart Square; and multiple s’mores stations set up throughout the festival.

Prepare for your visit by downloading an interactive “Plan Your Stroll” app at strollonstate.com, usable on smartphones, tablets and desktop computers.

“The app allows you to pre-plan and pick specific attractions and events you want to attend,” says Andrea Mandala, RACVB marketing and communications manager. “You’ll have a personalized map to use the night of the event.”

Festivalgoers can additionally sign up to receive text messages throughout the night regarding any emergency announcements or updates, as well as any event and activity reminders.

“Stroll on State is a magical experience,” Mandala says. “We are very fortunate to have this event for the Rockford community to enjoy.”

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