It’s time to pack up the van and head out for a summer vacation. But forget about those long cross-country drives. Here are five of our favorite places to play, right here in our region.
1. Lake Geneva
It’s impossible to escape the water at this historic Wisconsin getaway. A quaint downtown, relaxing inns and resorts, and good eats are in ample supply, along with plenty of options for playing in and on Geneva Lake.
The easiest way to travel between Lake Geneva, Williams Bay and Fontana is by boat, and Gage Marine, in Williams Bay and Delavan, is one of the top spots for storing and launching watercraft. At Gage’s new Pier 290 restaurant, boaters can pull up, enjoy a meal, and return to the water.
No boat? No problem, with Gage’s Lake Geneva Cruise Line. Boat tours run between May and October, and include everything from dinner/cocktail and sightseeing tours to group tours and the famous Mailboat Tour, a 143-year-old tradition that includes a boat-jumping mailperson who delivers to 60 dockside mailboxes.
The city’s 26-mile-long public walking path around Geneva Lake offers unrivaled views of both the lake and the elegant estates along its banks. This former American Indian trail also passes through Big Foot Lake State Park, a popular site for camping, hiking, boating and fishing.
Further from the lakeshore, the Grand Geneva Resort is a quiet rural retreat, with two award-winning golf courses, a spa and fitness center, waterpark, recreation trails, horseback riding and several dining options. It’s also a popular destination for summer weddings. Enjoy fine dining at the Geneva ChopHouse or Ristorante Brissago, and casual fare at the Grand Café.
Grand Geneva’s twin golf courses, Brute and The Highlands, offer challenging course designs, with more than 70 bunkers and water obstacles. Originally designed by Jack Nicklaus and Pete Dye, The Highlands underwent renovation in 2006.
Golfing with the family is especially easy at Hawk’s View Golf Club, where the 18-hole, par-3 Barn Hollow course is particularly welcoming to young golfers. Its sister course, Como Crossings, is the area’s only five-star course. This par-72 course includes a 15-foot waterfall and a covered bridge, and is a popular spot for summer weddings. Golfers exploring the historic downtown can also enjoy Hawk’s View’s new boutique store, which includes a golf simulator and apparel. It’s open Wednesday through Sunday.
Tucked among the rolling slopes of northwest Illinois, Galena offers a combination of outdoor fun, good food and historical attractions, and is only a few miles from the mighty Mississippi River.
The journey begins in downtown Galena, where nearly 85 percent of the city’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic places. Significant stops include President Ulysses S. Grant’s home; his campaign headquarters, the DeSoto House Hotel; and Illinois’ oldest stone structure, the Dowling House. The downtown is filled with one-of-a-kind stores, art galleries, antique shops and dining options.
Many restaurants pride themselves on locally sourced cuisine. One Eleven Main is a local leader in fresh regional cuisine, and its menu reflects seasonal flavors. Foodies will also enjoy Italian-influenced cuisine at Fried Green Tomatoes, and locally made libations at Galena Cellars and the Galena Brewing Co.
Speaking of libations, this region is home to a flourishing community of vintners growing cold-weather varietals. Galena Cellars carries more than 40 award-winning varieties and offers both public and private tours of the vineyard. Massbach Ridge and Rocky Waters wineries also offer award-winning blends and vineyard tours, plus extraordinary views of lush hill country. For a closer look at this incredible landscape, visit Apple River Canyon State Park, Hanover Bluff Natural Area and the local waterways. Fever River Outfitters, in downtown Galena, offers bicycle, canoe and kayak rentals for the active explorer.
There’s no lack of places to stay overnight. On a small scale, the Oscar Swan inn sleeps up to 12 in a quiet, private English Manor. On a larger scale, the Goldmoor Inn offers more than 18 luxury suites with pristine views overlooking the Mississippi River backwaters.
Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa is an escape unto itself. Set on 6,800 acres, the resort includes a private 225-acre lake, outdoor activities, several dining options and 63 holes of critically acclaimed golf. This, too, is a popular spot for weddings and company retreats, with its comfortable guest rooms and cozy modern villas.
Across the river, in Dubuque, the fun continues along the Mississippi River. The most popular destinations are along the Port of Dubuque, a waterside landing that includes a casino, waterpark and the Smithsonian-affiliated National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, a family-friendly attraction with a massive aquarium of native wildlife.
Dubuque’s premier overnight stay is inside the Hotel Julien, an historical boutique hotel that’s been renovated into a modern, luxurious destination. With several restaurants and elegant banquet facilities, it’s ideal for weekend visitors and wedding or business parties.
3. Rock River Corridor/IL Route 2
From its start in southeast Wisconsin to its merging with the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities, the Rock River is an important anchor for our region. US Hwy 51 in Wisconsin and IL Route 2 follow the river through a series of communities.
In Wisconsin, both Janesville and Beloit offer vibrant riverfronts, with plenty of cultural activities. For classy dining in Janesville, The Armory offers a casual ambience and live entertainment on weekends. Outdoors, Janesville connects with the 1,000-mile-long Ice Age hiking trail and has several spots ideal for canoeing, kayaking and fishing. It’s also home to the Rotary Botanical Gardens, 20 acres of award-winning, dramatic, themed gardens.
In Beloit, Riverside Park offers artwork, summer music events, walking trails and a canoe/kayak launch. The downtown is home to a popular Saturday morning farmers’ market May through October, plus boutique stores and hotels. Merril & Houston’s Steak Joint, inside the Beloit Inn, is among the most popular upscale downtown eateries.
The next stop along the river is Rockford, where the downtown riverfront is coming alive with new attractions. Friday nights, visitors can enjoy fresh produce and local food at the City Market, as well as outdoor movies in Davis Park. The Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Discovery Center Museum allow kids to interact with famous dinosaurs and hands-on science displays. The museums recently opened a Smithsonian-quality hall that attracts national exhibits. Also on the river are Sinnissippi Park, with its award-winning rose garden, and the new Nicholas Conservatory & Gardens.
About a half-hour downriver, Byron, Ill., is a quiet escape into the country. At the Byron Forest Preserve District, golfers enjoy the four-star-rated PrairieView Golf Club, while nature lovers explore 450 acres of restored prairie habitat. An observatory is open on Tuesday and Saturday nights for stargazing.
Oregon, Ill., offers more outdoor possibilities, with three state parks. Start at Lowden State Park, home of Lorado Taft’s 50-foot concrete statue of an American Indian. South of town, climb the steep stairs at Castle Rock State Park, which has some 6 miles of hiking trails and 1.5 miles of bank fishing. Across the river, Lowden-Miller State Forest offers 22 miles of hiking plus camping sites inside a carefully cultivated forest.
The boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, Dixon has preserved several mementos of the former president as well as other local historical figures. Downtown is home to unique eateries such as Italian bistro Basil Tree Café and the Hungarian-inspired Orom Restaurant, which features locally sourced ingredients. Down the street, The Next Picture Show displays a broad array of artwork.
The last major stop before the Quad Cities is in Sterling and Rock Falls, sister communities separated by the river. In Rock Falls, the manmade Hennepin Canal meets the river, ending a 155-mile recreation trail and popular boating channel that travels from the Illinois River in Sheffield, Ill.
4. Illinois River Corridor
Like the Rock River, the Illinois River crosscuts a wide swatch of our region, and offers some serious outdoor fun.
At Starved Rock State Park, the unique geological landscape doesn’t disappoint. The 2,630-acre park includes some 18 scenic canyons, many of which have waterfalls. In summer, this yearlong destination is abuzz with concerts, weddings and hikers. The summer MegaHikes pass through all 18 canyons, on a trek that takes nearly eight hours; this is for hardcore hikers. For an even more adventurous tour, try the new Amazing Race event, where teams compete against each other as they follow clues laid around the park.
Starved Rock’s historic lodge is rustic and comfortable. Each of the 70 rooms includes modern amenities and access to the pool; some rooms have their own fireplaces.
The lodge also has outdoor dining areas and a grand dining room that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options are also on the menu, which utilizes herbs and vegetables raised in the park. Be sure to ask about the homemade artisan ice cream, with fresh fruits and flavors such as Leinenkugel-inspired Berry Weiss.
About an hour and a half downriver from Starved Rock, Peoria, Ill., is another great place to enjoy the river.
The city’s riverfront is filled with attractions and events, from farmers’ markets and outdoor concerts to sports races and a motorcycle festival. Every Friday, part of Water Street is closed for a massive block party. Downtown bars feature live jazz, and the Peoria Chiefs baseball team plays all season.
The riverfront is also home to two exciting new museums: the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Caterpillar Visitors Center. The Smithsonian-affiliated Riverfront Museum combines interactive exhibits, local history displays, an art museum, a planetarium and a giant screen theater all under one roof. The art gallery features an exhibit of Ansel Adams’ dramatic photographs through Sept. 22.
Next door, the Caterpillar Visitors Center puts you inside the driver’s seat of this international company’s giant earthmovers. Located across the street from Caterpillar’s global headquarters, this exhibit space includes a life-size replica of a two-story dump truck and hands-on demonstrations of the company’s engineering and manufacturing processes.
Wildlife Prairie Park offers a glimpse of Illinois’ wild prairies, with a collection of more than 150 animals – 50 native to this state. Watch the buffalo graze on a wild pasture, and see black bears, elk, cougars and wolves up-close. This 2,000-acre park is also a favorite spot for hiking and mountain biking.
Also surrounding Peoria are wineries that use locally grown grapes, including Kickapoo Creek Winery and 96-acre Mackinaw Valley Vineyard.
It’s practically the Beer Capital of the U.S., and Milwaukee fully embraces its brewing heritage. Nowhere is that more obvious than the city’s downtown and Third Ward neighborhoods.
The city’s Historic Third Ward is a vibrant, revitalized urban district filled with historical buildings and unique local experiences. Formerly a warehouse district, the neighborhood is now home to boutique stores, award-winning restaurants, small businesses and vibrant art galleries.
Nearby hotels demonstrate beautifully preserved historic architecture with a stunning modern twist. Take, for example, the Brewhouse Inn & Suites, a former Pabst brewery transformed into a luxury urban chic hotel. The vintage brick walls and massive brew tanks are woven into the new spaces.
Similarly, the Iron Horse Hotel, inside a renovated former warehouse, combines the city’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle experience with upscale business accommodations. Nearby Smyth restaurant combines Wisconsin’s best local-sourced ingredients with an award-winning wine list of more than 100 bottles.
In the nearby Fifth Ward and along the Riverwalk, find more excellent food and libations. Start by exploring the new Clock Shadow Creamery, located literally in the shadow of an historic clock tower. The fresh, local-sourced cheeses include cheese curds, Ricotta, mozzarella and quark. Inside this same building is Purple Door Ice Cream, an inventive ice cream company that uses local ingredients to create unique flavors, such as pink grapefruit sorbet, cinnamon, basil and whiskey bacon.
One of the best brewery tours is at Lakefront Brewery, which has been named one of the top tours in the U.S. Its quirky, comedic tours relive “Laverne & Shirley” moments while explaining beer manufacturing. For more beer fun, try the Milwaukee Pedal Tavern, a 16-person bicycle that gives a new meaning to “pub crawl.”
Milwaukee is the home of Summerfest, one of the nation’s largest music festivals. While the main concert series runs in late June, the festival grounds host a rotation of ethnic celebrations. It’s home to Polish Fest, Festa Italiana, African World Festival, Irish Fest, Indian Summer Festival, the Rock ‘n Sole run, and the Harley-Davidson 110th Anniversary party, to name a few.
Hidden around town are natural preserves ideal for biking, canoes and kayaking, and just outside of town are world-class golf courses, including the Kohler, Wis., Whistling Straights and Erin, Wis., Erin Hills course, a top-rated public course that’s the site of the 2017 U.S. Open.