The Presidential Suite at Peoria's Pere Marquette Marriott. (photo provided)

NWQ Getaway Guide: Summer Edition

A great weekend’s journey is right inside our region. Here are some of our area’s excellent places to play.

Nature hikes and outdoor events are a natural part of any gathering. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)
Nature hikes and outdoor events are a natural part of any gathering. (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Starved Rock Lodge: For Gatherings, Don’t Just Meet … Retreat!

Looking for a great business retreat? Look no further than a state park.

In this May’s Association News magazine, J.D. Brown and Margaret Backenheimer write: “State parks are often more suitable for local or regional association meetings for several reasons, notably their affordability and accessibility.”

Starved Rock State Park and Lodge presents just such a place – affordable, accessible and unique. Conveniently located near I-80 and I-39, Starved Rock is less than 90 minutes from most Rockford and Chicagoland locations. Surrounded by 13 miles of scenic hiking trails, 18 canyons, several waterfalls and bluff views of the Illinois River Valley, Starved Rock is a naturally rejuvenating destination for business and association meetings.

Starved Rock Lodge provides free parking and Wi-Fi to all guests. The 69 sleeping rooms and 21 cabins are just a few steps away from the conference rooms, and there are several settings ideal for your business gathering, from 14 to 200 guests. An indoor pool complex and The Back Door Lounge provide relaxing places to meet up after business hours.

Banquet rooms are available for dining, with a variety of catering options (Ask about our gluten-free options and homemade ice cream, too!). Outdoor dining or cocktails on the veranda expand the meeting space, and present amazing views of the picturesque landscape.

During colder months, the fireplaces are glowing in the Lodge’s Great Hall and Main Dining Room, surrounded by the 1930s stone-and-log architecture constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Lodge was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, and the park was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Established as a state park in 1912, it’s one of Illinois’ oldest.

Inside “The Rock,” tension subsides when participants go beyond the boardroom for a hike through the canyons, or a hike atop Starved Rock. Given the rich history of this part of Illinois, it’s easy to find a new perspective on the achievements of our predecessors, and perhaps, a new outlook on business.

From wildflowers to wildlife, Starved Rock is a haven for restful sights and sounds, the sort that are often overlooked in the daily grind.

Teambuilding activities, such as scavenger hunts, can bring synergy to a group that hasn’t had time to bond during busy workdays.

The therapeutic power of nature has an amazing way of refreshing mind, body and soul.

To learn more about a meeting or retreat at Starved Rock Lodge, call (815) 220-7333 or visit

Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla., is a popular destination for fairytale honeymoons. (Visit Orlando Photo)
Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Fla., is a popular destination for fairytale honeymoons. (Visit Orlando Photo)

Chicago Rockford International Airport: Honeymooning Magic Starts in Orlando

There’s a reason so many couples choose Orlando as the perfect starting point for their honeymoons. For one thing, it’s easily accessible with a nonstop flight from Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD). And, whether they’re looking for total relaxation on the ocean, world-class theme parks, an ocean cruise or nature experience, Orlando is the ideal launch pad.

Naturally, Orlando’s best-known attractions are its giant amusement parks, especially Walt Disney World. Inside this 40-square-mile wonderland, brides and grooms enjoy fairytale honeymoons, with special vacation packages tailored just for them at one of the 25 themed resort hotels.

Along with two water parks, Disney offers four major theme parks: The Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and EPCOT (Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Themed restaurants on Disney properties abound, from fast casual to five-star, and there’s a long list of evening entertainment options, such as fireworks, multimedia and laser shows inside the parks, and attractions like Extreme Stunt Show, Cirque du Soleil and the House of Blues on Disney properties outside of the parks.

Beyond Disney, Universal Studios theme park is a paradise for movie and TV buffs, with attractions inspired by films and shows like “Shrek,” “Terminator,” “Harry Potter,” “Transformers” and “The Simpsons.” Enjoy more than 10 dining options, including Mel’s Drive-In, a re-creation of the famous restaurant from “American Graffiti.” And, for a Chicago experience away from home, enjoy the musical Blues Brothers Show with Jake and Elwood.

More adventure awaits at SeaWorld, where guests visit live animal attractions like Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, Manta Aquarium and Shark Encounter; pre-register to swim with dolphins and touch these amazing and sociable creatures. See Beluga and killer whales perform, and ride thriller roller coasters like Journey to Atlantis.

Outside of the theme parks, Orlando is an interesting, international city in its own right, and a great launching pad for treks to the beach. About an hour northeast, coastal cities like Daytona Beach offer mile upon mile of sun and fun, with relaxed resorts and plenty of options for beachside nuptials. The state’s coast is dotted with quiet bed-and-breakfasts, beachside cottages and quaint inns. It also offers several cultural experiences, marine tours and endless forms of nightlife entertainment.

Newlyweds can also have a blast by traveling an hour east of Orlando to Cape Canaveral, home of the Kennedy Space Center and the NASA Visitors Center, which offers public tours of the space shuttle Atlantis; you can even lunch with an astronaut. Across the bay, NASA’s massive shuttle hanger is visible from Port Canaveral, where five cruiselines embark for destinations such as the Bahamas, Bermuda and Cozumel.

Onboard the Carnival Ecstasy, soak up the sun, dine like kings and enjoy fun activities along white-sand beaches; relax in full-service dining rooms and experience the evening entertainment. Onboard the massive Explorer of the Seas, from Royal Carribbean, enjoy several bars, a casino, a large theater and all kinds of activities.

Allegiant Airlines efficiently whisks you from Rockford to Orlando’s Sanford International Airport, a smaller airport on Orlando’s northeast side, with no fuss. From there, rent a car or take advantage of shuttle service to and from various resorts.

It’s never too early to start planning that honeymoon getaway. It all starts in Orlando, just a short, hassle-free flight from home.

The Presidential Suite at Peoria's Pere Marquette Marriott. (photo provided)
The Presidential Suite at Peoria’s Pere Marquette Marriott. (photo provided)

Historic Pere Marquette Hotel: A New Touch of Class in Downtown Peoria

Stylish and historic hotel accommodations are once more a fixture in downtown Peoria. After a $93 million renovation, the city’s classic Pere Marquette Hotel is once again open for business, now as a member of the Marriott family.

“I can’t say enough about how luxurious it is,” says Lelonie Luft, marketing manager for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a nice fusion between the historic and the modern. It’s amazing how the modern overlaps with the historical character.”

Located in the heart of downtown, the Marquette is within blocks of the city’s biggest attractions: the Peoria Civic Center, Peoria Riverfront Museum, and Caterpillar Visitors Center, near Caterpillar’s world headquarters. The 12-floor hotel includes 286 guest rooms, four ballrooms and seven meeting spaces, with modern amenities and casual, contemporary furniture.

“The inside has what we call the ‘wow factor,’” says Gary E. Matthews, CEO of EM Properties, chief developer for the project. “We’ve preserved the marble staircase and the huge ballroom. We’ve built a big bar next to it, and brought in a large check-in area, because we believe there will be lots of bus arrivals.”

Inside the expansive lobby, guests discover the luxurious Great Room, with sofa seating and communal tables, and a full bar serving cocktails and appetizers. It’s an excellent location for working or socializing.

The hotel opened in 1927 and has hosted luminaries such as Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, Teddy Roosevelt and Liberace. It had undergone several renovations throughout its lifetime, but was tired and outdated when it closed in 2011 for a thorough remodel. Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, Matthews went through painstaking care to preserve many of its historic elements.

Today, guests near the lobby can enjoy a large mural depicting French explorer Pere Marquette’s landing in Peoria, painted by famous muralist George Harding. Gorgeous crystal chandeliers adorn the ballroom.

The top few floors offer wide-open, luxurious suites, including the presidential and the bridal suites. The presidential suite shines with newly buffed floors and refurbished wood paneling, complemented by modern furniture.

On the 11th floor, a special concierge serves breakfast, happy hour fare and desserts to special guests, including Marriott Rewards Members. The outside views from these rooms aren’t to be missed.
Downstairs, Matthews has preserved a famous Pere Marquette tradition at the new Table 19, an upscale restaurant that serves locally sourced cuisine for three meals daily.

“There was a great table located in the hotel, where young men would ask their girlfriends to get married,” says Matthews. “It was a nice tradition, because then couples would go there for other events, like anniversaries, weddings and communions. So we renamed the three-meal restaurant for that, and we have a sign inside that explains its history.”

Construction continues on an adjoining 10-story Marriott Courtyard Hotel and parking deck. Opening next summer, the 116-room hotel will feature retail space and an overhead climate-controlled walkway to the Civic Center.

The Pere Marquette is one of only a few hotels in downtown Peoria, and it’s expected to provide a big boost to this busy neighborhood, says Luft. For out-of-towners, it’s both convenient and attractive.
“It’s the oldest, it’s the most prestigious, and it’s very prominent, so close to the Civic Center,” she says.

Refurbishing an historic structure is new territory for Matthews, who helped to develop several big-box structures across the river in East Peoria. He’s encouraged by his hometown’s enthusiasm for this historical hotel and its stylish new look.

“I get a lot of thrill out of seeing that first expression when people walk in,” says Matthews. “The reactions from the community have been very positive. The hotel has so much history, locally, and many people really appreciate what we’ve done.”