Time for a weekend escape! Here are some great getaway spots to visit.
For Family Fun, Hit the Slopes in Wisconsin
By Stefanie Dell’Aringa
If anyone knows about family fun at a big Wisconsin ski resort, it’s the Walz family, owners of Cascade Mountain, W10441 Cascade Mountain Road in Portage, Wis. During the busy holiday season, Cascade is a happening place for skiers, snowboarders and “tubers” who enjoy traversing down its many runs.
“We’re on the larger size as far as Midwest resorts go,” says Director of Marketing Evan Walz, whose grandfather purchased the business in the late 1970s and then sold it to Evan’s parents, Rob and Vicki Walz, in 2006. Evan and his brother Adam “skied before they walked” and now help to run the business.
Visit on any weekend and the slopes will be buzzing with skiers. But on a weekday, says Walz, the mountain is a completely different animal. “There’s a chance you might be the only one on the slopes.”
Three hours north of Chicago and 15 minutes from Wisconsin Dells, the resort is a big draw for families looking for a weekend of quality time together.
“A lot of people will come up here, ski for a day or two and stay at the Dells,” Walz says. “As far as sports go, you can’t exactly go out and play baseball together all day, but skiing is something you can do together all day. From getting their rental equipment to riding the chairlift to skiing down and even relaxing in the coffee shop or lodge, it’s a fun family activity that brings them together, and everyone can have a great time.”
What makes it even better is that kids 12 and under ski for free with a paying adult.
In 2016, Cascade broke ground on a large expansion that added 11 brand new runs and two new four-person chair lifts, in addition to improvements to the crew’s snowmaking and grooming capabilities.
“We’ve reinvested in ourselves, and we have plans to expand with even more runs and chair lifts in the future,” Walz says.
The mountain currently features 47 runs that cover everything from very easy to quite difficult. Four terrain parks feature jumps and rails, popular with the teens and early 20s crowd. Snow tubing hills offer an alternative for families who either don’t want to ski at all, or just want to ski part of the day.
Recently, Cascade updated its rental fleet with Rossignol gear, improving upon the skiing experience.
“You really can’t beat it,” Evan says. “They provide a really high-quality ski, and that’s a really big perk.”
Skiing experience packages now include baseline rental, which covers the standard equipment; sports package, similar to what you’d purchase in a ski store; and prime rental, the higher-performance equipment for more-experienced skiers.
“Our lesson programs are very good, and we have some of the best instructors in the area,” Walz says, adding that instructors as young as 14 teach the younger kids how to ski.
“We find it’s easier for kids to learn from a young person because they have better success relating to someone who is closer to their age,” Walz adds.
The Cascade Kids Program is designed specifically for children ages 4 to 10, so they don’t have to try learning with a group of adults. Private lessons, also available, can be tailored to any skill level.
“If you’re a brand-new skier who wants a personal one-on-one experience with an instructor or an experienced skier who wants to progress a little further, this is for you,” says Walz.
Warming up inside the lodge, skiers will find a variety of food options, including burgers, fries, pizza and, of course, hot chocolate. For adults there are two bar areas, one with a deck overlooking the main area of the resort. There’s also a coffee shop for anyone who doesn’t want to brave the elements all day.
For lift ticket and rental pricing, as well as information on lessons, safety, trip planning, live snow cam, weather reports and more, visit cascademountain.com or call (608) 742-5588.
Arts and Culture Abound in Central Illinois
By Pat Szpekowski
There is never a shortage of “amazing” things to do in Illinois. With all of the attractions, museums, and experiences that are ripe for the picking in all four corners of the state (and even the middle), a getaway trip to Peoria should be at the top of the list.
Located about 166 miles southwest of Chicago, this vibrant city is situated in the bluffs of central Illinois along the banks of the Illinois River. Peoria offers a riverfront district, lots of entertainment, educational museums rich with history, and plenty of unique shopping and dining adventures.
“We offer so many opportunities to enjoy Peoria year-round,” says Ashley Randall, public relations coordinator for the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “One of our most special events this season is our Festival of Lights holiday light show. Marking 35 years of holiday cheer, this popular festival has become a beloved family tradition.”
Located in East Peoria, the festival kicks off in November with the Parade of Lights and continues with a drive-thru lights display that runs through the end of December. It’s an occasion for families to pack the kids in the car and head to the spectacular Folepi’s Winter Wonderland at VFW Post 2078 Park.
The festival’s mascot is the wooden soldier Folepi, whose name is an acronym for “Festival of Lights, East Peoria, Illinois.”
As you drive through the park, you’ll see a majority of the Parade of Lights floats along with many other lighted displays, including candy cane factory, lighted arches and circus animals, ski jumpers, prehistoric land, space land, Western town, and much more. There is also a narrated nativity with life-size structures that take on a three-dimensional appearance at night.
During the daytime, families flock to the other side of the river, around downtown Peoria and its happening riverfront, where entertainment abounds for every member of the family.
“Peoria’s riverfront is also an exciting mecca for two very distinctive world-renowned places filled with history, art and science,” says Randall. “They are the Caterpillar Visitors Center and the Peoria Riverfront Museum.”
The Caterpillar Visitors Center offers a fascinating look at the heavy-equipment manufacturer, from its humble beginnings as a tractor maker to its present-day leadership in building infrastructure and powering the planet. There’s also an on-site Cat Merchandise Center offering a wide selection of collector die-cast scale models in addition to branded footwear and apparel.
The Peoria Riverfront Museum, located just next door, is the only multi-disciplinary museum of its kind in the nation.
Since opening in 2012, this privately funded museum has provided more than 1 million experiences through major exhibitions, a permanent collection, interactive galleries, a dome planetarium, a giant-screen theater and educational programming galore. It has been designated as one of the 200 great places in Illinois by the American Institute of Architects.
Before heading back home, take a short drive east of Peoria for a shopping trip in the city of Washington and its Washington Specialty Shops. This distinctive and charming area is located in Washington’s historic downtown square, where century-old buildings and storefronts surround a park at the center. A seasonal water fountain graces the heart of the downtown area. Stroll the block and discover many unique boutiques, bakeries and antique dealers.
To learn more about a weekend getaway to Peoria, visit peoria.org.
You’re Invited to One Lodge Lane
By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge
A winter getaway to Starved Rock Lodge immerses you in beauty indoors and out. Located at One Lodge Lane, in Oglesby, Ill., Starved Rock Lodge is near canyons, bluffs and seasonal icefalls that create amazing backdrops for photos.
Just before Thanksgiving, the historic Lodge is decorated for the holidays. This year’s theme is “Americana.” Once there’s a chill in the air, the Great Hall’s massive two-sided fireplace crackles with glowing logs that warm the space and welcome guests from near and far. Holiday buffets on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day make family get-togethers easy and fun. Reservations with pre-payment are required.
The rustic Main Dining Room is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sunday brunch is a guest favorite. Local musicians liven up the Back Door Lounge every Friday night from 8-11:00 p.m.
Historic Trolley Tours run every Saturday and Sunday through December at noon and 1:30 p.m. Guided hikes are offered each Sunday at 11:00 a.m. (drawstring backpack with lunch included).
It’s not too early to get tickets to the Lodge’s annual New Year’s Eve party in the Great Hall on Dec. 31. The Overnight Party Package ($495) includes overnight accommodations for two guests, an open bar, party favors, photos by the fireplace for an additional cost, hors d’oeuvres, a buffet dinner, live entertainment in the Great Hall, a champagne toast at midnight, late check-out, New Year’s Day Brunch, plus a chance to win a $1,000 travel voucher. The Party Only Package is $275 for two and does not include overnight stay, brunch or the contest.
If a wedding is in your future, attend the Lodge’s annual Wedding Expo on Sunday, Jan. 5, from noon to 3 p.m. Starved Rock Lodge was the destination for more than 140 outdoor weddings last year with the beautiful backdrop of Starved Rock State Park for stunning photos.
In 2020, Sled Dog Demos hosted by Free Spirit Siberian Rescue return to the Lodge on Jan. 13 and Feb. 17. See real sled dogs run just west of the Visitor Center, and attend free seminars in the Lodge. Dogs will also be available for adoption.
Eagle Watch Weekend, set for Jan. 26-27, promises exciting “Birds of Prey” shows and hands-on exhibits in the Great Hall. Educational seminars will take place at the Lodge and at the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center.
Eagle Trolley Tours offered during January and February include lunch and a guided tour aboard a Starved Rock Trolley to see migrating bald eagles. Guided Winter Hikes depart from the Lodge each Saturday and Sunday at 11 a.m.
In the quiet of winter, cozy cabins set peacefully in the woods provide a getaway that can be restful and rejuvenating. And, best of all, an indoor pool complex is just a few steps away with a pool, hot tub and two saunas.
Massage therapists are available by appointment. Some guests enjoy just reading a book or playing cards in the Great Hall.
See more about all of Starved Rock’s winter events at starvedrocklodge.com.
A Place to While Away the Coldest Days
By Pat Szpekowski
The cold weather has come a bit earlier than usual, but that’s no reason to enter your hibernation so soon.
Winter’s here to stay awhile, so why not just settle in, plan some adventures and prepare to shake things up for the next few months? DeKalb County offers plenty of ways to make the most of winter.
“Our unique communities offer their own special take on how to enjoy the arts, culture, sports, entertainment, and award-winning dining, food and spirits all year long,” says Cortney Strohacker, executive director of the DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“We’re proud of the wide variety of events and venues we have throughout DeKalb County.”
This winter season is no exception. There’s a great lineup waiting for the entire family.
Honoring Black History Month, the Bright Star Touring Theatre will present African Folktales on Jan. 13 at the Sandwich Opera House in Sandwich – much to the delight and education of children and families. Picture yourself before the desert lands of the Sahara, plains of the Serengheti and heights of Mount Kilamanjaro as a variety of characters celebrate the cultures, stories and folktale traditions of the continent of Africa. Setting the stage and tone for these energetic stories is a soundtrack of vibrant African music.
Have you always wanted to see the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters? These larger-than-life entertainers bring their all-new show, “Pushing the Limits,” to DeKalb’s NIU Convocation Center on Jan. 30.
Every show features a blend of hilarious hijinks and incredible basketball skills. See the star-studded roster, including Big Easy Lofton, Hi-Lite Burton, and women stars TNT Lister, Swish Button and Torch George. Watch the expert ball handling, high-flying dunks and a new record-breaking attempt. It’s all in fun, and it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
“All brides are invited to visit DeKalb County in January to attend the popular annual Northern Illinois Bridal Expo at the Northern Illinois University Student Center on Jan. 26,” says Strohacker. “It offers ideas galore with DJs, makeup artists, floral designers, dresses, you name it. The DeKalb area offers many unique venues such as barns and vineyards, a Chapel in the Pines, gardens and more to complete a dream wedding.”
Looking to find something new to serve guests for the Big Game? The bold, locally crafted drinks of award-winning local brewers, winemakers, and distillers can be found in DeKalb County. These makers produce bold flavors that can’t be found anywhere else.
A bold spirits tour isn’t complete without trips to Whiskey Acres, Prairie State Winery, Waterman Winery, Jonamac Orchard and Forge Brewhouse. Plus, a new brewery has come onto the scene, too. Visit Byers Brewing Co. in DeKalb for delicious small-batch beer made on site. Plan to touch down at any one or all six of these establishments and taste something new.
Chase the cold winds away with an exciting excursion to someplace new. Enjoy the many facets of DeKalb County. Visit dekalbcountycvb.org for more information.
Celebrating the Holiday Season in Elgin
By Sara Myers, multimedia editor
There’s always an abundance of fun to be had in the Elgin area, even in chilly weather.
“We cover Elgin, South Elgin, Bartlett, Carpentersville, East Dundee, West Dundee, Gilberts, Sleepy Hollow and Hampshire. So, our main goal is to try to promote the things to see and do in all of those communities,” explains Breanne Moreno, marketing manager for the Elgin Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. And there’s plenty to see in those communities.
Here are some of Moreno’s recommendations for family-friendly activities this holiday season.
Feed the Bison
The Elgin Public Museum hosts a special event that gives visitors an up-close view of the bison, deer and elk at Lords Park Zoo. The event takes place on Saturday, Dec. 28 from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Space is limited to 12 people, so the museum encourages eager participants to register early. For more information and to register, head to eliginpublicmuseum.org.
Elgin Winter Wonderland
The Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin hosts the Elgin Winter Wonderland 2019 event on Saturday, Dec. 7. The free event includes Elgin’s official tree lighting and features live holiday music, activities for kids, sleigh rides, food trucks, pictures with Santa Claus and more.
If you’re looking for a holiday performance, look no further than the Chicago Ballet Conservatory production of “The Nutcracker,” presented by Elgin Symphony Orchestra. The production takes place Dec. 7 and 8 at Hemmens Cultural Center. There’s also the option of attending the “Sugar Plum Tea” party Saturday, Dec. 7 to meet the production’s cast and take pictures with characters. To find tickets, head to elginsymphony.org.
Polar Express Train
If you’re a fan of Chris Van Allsburg’s book “The Polar Express,” check out the Fox River Trolley Museum’s Polar Express Train. It’ll take you to the “North Pole” where Santa lives. Upon arrival, Santa will board the train, greet every child and give them a small gift. More information can be found at foxtrolley.org/polarexpress.
Spirit of Christmas Parade
Along West Dundee’s Main Street, a classic Christmas parade takes place Dec. 7. Multiple organizations and nonprofits participate, with the entire event culminating in an appearance by Santa. For a full list of special holiday events in West Dundee, head to dickensindundee.org.
For more information about holiday events, visit exploreelginarea.com and follow @exploreelgin.
Family-Friendly Fall and Winter Activities
By Charlyne Blatcher Martin
Fall and winter sometimes present significant weather challenges that affect our social calendars.
However, the Aurora area, which branches out into parts of Kane, Kendall, Will and DuPage counties, accepts this challenge and welcomes everyone by offering a full calendar of activities both indoors and outdoors.
“There’s something for all age groups in the Aurora area this holiday season, but we’re really focused on family travel this time of year,” says James Cardis, director of marketing at the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Aurora has many events for families, which include:
• First Fridays Downtown Aurora: Dec. 6 celebrated the winter season with a Cocoa Crawl where participating venues filled up custom mugs so visitors could enjoy art exhibits, pop-up holiday shops and live entertainment. The next First Friday event is scheduled for Feb. 7.
• Winter Lights Aurora: The annual tradition of ringing in the holiday season brings pop-up holiday shops, a parade, costumed characters, Santa and Mrs. Claus, a tree lighting and fireworks.
For those who enjoy being outdoors during the fall and winter, the Aurora area does not disappoint. Red Oak Nature Center, 2343 S. River St., North Aurora, is situated on the east bank of the Fox River and offers 40 acres of forest to explore. There are hiking and biking trails, environmental exhibits and more.
“Abbey Farms and Blackberry Farm in Aurora both host fall and winter events where families can create lasting memories together,” Cardis adds. “Christmas at Abbey Farms is a destination for its market, kids’ activities, and U-Cut or U-Pick Christmas Tree farm, while Blackberry Farm hosts popular activities such as the Holiday Express train rides.”
To escape the chilly weather, take in a top-rated Broadway musical at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” has received critical acclaim and its run has been extended through Jan. 19.
“Our top fall and winter attraction is the Paramount Theatre,” Cardis says. “Their award-winning Broadway Series is one of the best nationwide, with the second-highest subscriber base of any theater in America.”
If you’re coming to see a show at Paramount Theatre, consider extending your stay with holiday shopping in the Aurora area. For adults traveling with friends or on a couples’ getaway, there are numerous places to enjoy dining, drinking and shopping. Also, the Metra rail service to downtown Chicago expands options. Aurora’s stop offers free parking.
“We cover a lot of ground in our service area, so we have more than a few ‘hidden gem’ shopping destinations,” Cardis says.
Learn more about fun things to do in Aurora at enjoyaurora.com.