NWQ Getaways: Holiday 2022 Edition

A weekend’s journey is closer than you might think. Check out these fun destinations that are close to home but feel far enough away.

(Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce photos)

Elkhorn, Wis.: Winter Wonders at the Christmas Card Town

By George Howe

So, you’re on a quest to visit someplace fun in Wisconsin where holiday and winter magic come alive. Have you heard of Elkhorn?

Located right in the middle of Walworth County, this distinctive community calls itself the “Christmas Card Town.” For decades, the city’s charm has been captured on these seasonal greetings.

It started with a series of oil paintings done in the 1950s by artist Cecil Johnson for the Ford Motor Co. that were later used for Christmas cards. Jan Castle Reed carried on the tradition and spent years depicting the city’s historical landmarks on her own cards. Since 2012, Tim Carson has been creating watercolor magic to ring in the season.

“Tim is very talented and always seems to bring out that unique hometown feel,” says Kate Abbe, marketing director for the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce.

“For this season’s card, I incorporated elk in a whimsical way, depicting them acting as elves working in the shop,” says Carson. “I included Getzen, a company that’s been making musical instruments in town for 80 years. I’m honored to be a part of this rich history of Elkhorn.”

The holiday magic thrives through many festivities, starting the first weekend in December.
“We have a spirited kickoff with the tree lighting downtown on the square on Friday night,” says Abbe. “Santa arrives by horse-drawn carriage, and one of our local fifth-grade elementary school class choirs performs a few songs.”

The square comes alive with dozens of hand-painted Christmas scenes and more than 100 decorated trees. At about the same time, the Chamber’s drive-through light festival, Let it Glow, greets visitors to the Walworth County Fairgrounds. Along the route, there are “glow” stops where local businesses and nonprofits set up stations.

“The Girl Scouts give away dozens of boxes of cookies, the Boys & Girls Club gives away books, the United Way sets up a 20-foot inflatable Frosty, and we partner with local agencies to bring 5,000 toys to the grounds,” says Abbe. “We make sure that everyone gets a toy.”

Join in the festive mood and do a little shopping while you’re in town. Apple Barn Orchard and Winery holds a Christmas Market throughout November and much of December, offering a variety of yuletide ornaments, handmade items, baked goods and wines – all of which are made, bottled, corked, capped and labeled on site.

Local coffee shops and Elk Restaurant, an institution since 1971, offer good food and a friendly atmosphere to shake off the winter chill. The Holton High School orchestra holds a Christmas concert late in December, and the Lakeland Players Group hosts a holiday-themed play performed at the Sprague Theatre.

There’s plenty more to discover as the season progresses. Hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular all winter at White River Trail and the Kettle Moraine preserves. The nearby Alpine Valley Resort offers five-star accommodations and a variety of downhill ski runs.
To start planning your Elkhorn winter getaway, go to visitelkhorn.com.

(DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau photos)

DeKalb County: Satisfy Your Wish for a Winter Adventure

By Pat Szpekowski

Just because winter’s coming doesn’t mean you have to slow down on the fun. Communities throughout DeKalb County are filled with outdoor and indoor escapes to satisfy anyone’s wish for a thrilling adventure.

“If the kids are already in a holiday mood, the perfect place for them to be before the season comes to a close is the Whispering Pines Reindeer Ranch and Tree Farm in Shabbona,” says Katherine McLauglin, marketing director for the DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

This magical retreat was founded in 2018 by the Espe family, and they’ve really put out the welcome mat for holiday-season travelers. While only Santa’s reindeer really fly, these reindeer arrived here all the way from Alaska. They love to meet the kids who see them up close.

“Whether you’re an outdoor adventurer or not, this is the time to really get out and enjoy the great outdoors,” notes McLaughlin. “We’re so fortunate that DeKalb County is filled with gigantic sled hills and beautiful ice rinks at our local park districts and on the Northern Illinois University campus.”

Sled hills abound, and some of the most wicked runs are in Genoa, Sycamore and the Saunnak Forest Preserve, located between Somonauk and Sandwich. The biggest of them all is located at Hopkins Park in the city of DeKalb. Kids love sliding down the 55-foot hill and maneuvering around speed bumps along the way. It’s regarded as the highest man-made, non-building, non-landfill slope in the area and was the result of a successful collaboration in 2016 between the DeKalb Park District and the Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District. It was an instant hit.

While you’re at it, mark your calendars to attend a few special events in the new year.

Take in an indoor concert on Feb. 3 as The Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb welcomes singer and songwriter Mavis Staples, one of America’s defining voices of freedom and peace, as hailed by National Public Radio. Regarded as Chicago’s own, Staples is a celebrated rhythm and blues artist, gospel singer, actress and civil rights activist.

The Polar-Palooza Winter Festival takes place on Feb. 4 at Hopkins Park in DeKalb. Depending on the weather, the event is likely to have sledding, ice skating, sports and sled dog demonstrations, bonfires, hayrides, hot chocolate and s’mores, plus loads more family fun. Don’t forget to bring your own sleds and ice skates as rentals are not available.

If indoor dining is more likely to warm up your winter, DeKalb County restaurants, wineries, distilleries and breweries roll out the red carpet all season.

“There’s always something new happening with food and spirits in our neck of the woods,” says McLaughlin, adding that Sycamore is welcoming a new eatery named Pizza. Beer. Whiskey. (PBW). “It will be located in a really cool building offering delicious wood-fired pizza, plus local craft beer and whiskey selections,” says McLaughlin.

The ever-popular Prairie State Winery, well-known for a slate of award-winning wines, has added a mixologist to its tasting room, where you can find not only great wines but also creative cocktails made with Prairie State’s own distilled brandy and gin. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find a new match on the menu to pair with your drink.

To begin planning a winter excursion to DeKalb County, visit dekalbcountycvb.com.

Starved Rock Lodge: Winter Fun for Everyone

By Kathy Casstevens, marketing manager, Starved Rock Lodge

What are you doing New Year’s Eve? Join the party at Starved Rock Lodge, in Oglesby, and stay the night. This package includes a one-night stay for two guests at historic Starved Rock Lodge’s accommodations.

The festivities take place in the Great Hall and Starved Rock Room. The two-sided fireplace is aglow, the ambiance is warm and the live entertainment is hot. Cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m. with an open bar and hors d’oeuvres, followed by a scrumptious New Year’s Eve dinner buffet, a champagne toast at midnight, pastries at 1 a.m. and brunch on New Year’s Day. Party favors will be waiting in your room.

The winter fun continues in a different way with Starved Rock Lodge’s annual “Romance in the Park” Wedding Expo in the Great Hall. On Sunday, Jan. 8 from noon to 3 p.m., meet with Starved Rock’s preferred vendors, explore the wedding venue, sample delicious cuisine and enjoy some champagne.

Starved Rock Lodge has teamed up with August Hill and Camp Aramoni to create the Trolley Trio Progressive Dinner, an unforgettable event filled with wine, spirits, beer and food, held on select Thursdays in the first three months of 2023. On this unique tour, the Starved Rock Trolley takes guests to August Hill Winery for cocktails and appetizers, followed by delicious dinner and drinks at Camp Aramoni. Then it’s back to Starved Rock Lodge for a mini trio of desserts and after-dinner drinks in the dining room. The overnight package includes dinner for two, an overnight stay and a breakfast voucher.

Prepare to be mesmerized by the beautiful bald eagles on the Bald Eagle Trolley Tours, running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in January and February. Ride the trolley to the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center for eagle viewing and an educational program. Dress warmly and bring your binoculars, spotting scopes and cameras.

Guided Winter Hikes are on the calendar every Saturday and Sunday this winter. Scenic canyons display frozen waterfalls, and you might see bald eagles in flight. This hike is about 3 miles round-trip, and it includes a snack, bottled water, a backpack, and a hot chocolate or coffee upon your return.

Winter Wildlife Trolley Tours run also on Saturdays and Sundays this winter. The trolley goes through Buffalo Rock State Park to visit the resident bison, and then it heads to the observation deck of the Illinois Waterway Visitors Center and other spots where you can scan the sky for bald eagles. The tour is narrated with history and legends from the area. A sack lunch is included.

Are you ready for an unforgettable start to the new year? Learn more about winter events, local sightings and special getaway packages – and book a stay – by going online to starvedrocklodge.com.

Rock Falls: Where Eagles Fly

By Steven Bonifazi, assistant editor

Rock Falls’ proximity to natural settings like the Hennepin Canal and the Rock River has earned it the moniker “where city life and nature meet.” It’s during the winter – when the eagles return to hunt fish along the riverbanks – that this title is put on full display.

“We have two dams here on the Rock River and those are great places for them to catch fish,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events in Rock Falls. “We’ve already seen quite a few.”

The return of the eagles has become so popular that the city offers Flock to the Rock this winter. Set this coming year for Feb. 11, this annual one-day event provides a closer look at the eagles and a presentation from Northern Illinois Raptor Rehab and Education that features four to six live birds.

The Hennepin Canal isn’t just for eagles to stay active. Outdoor enthusiasts gather there for the scenic trails and ice fishing. Since there is no current in the canal, it typically freezes every winter, Jones says. Located nearby is the Rock Falls Birding Trail. Developed earlier this year, the trail begins at the upper dam and runs through town. Signage along the trail lists places to stop and observe all of the birds in the area.

Aside from outdoor activities, those looking to stay warm and full can visit one of Rock Falls’ local dining establishments. For a home-cooked meal and a homey atmosphere, Jane’s Place is a bar and grill offering weekday specials such as comfort dishes like meatloaf, gravy burgers and pretzel puffs.
Two-and-a-half blocks east, The Industrial is a newcomer with a fine dining experience. Noteworthy dishes include the 14-ounce prime New York strip and chicken penne pasta with asparagus, cashew butter and parmesan.

After enjoying a mouthwatering meal, brush up on Rock Falls’ history by visiting a museum. The Firehouse Ministries Fire Museum features memorabilia that dates to the original Rock Falls Fire Department. Old engines, hoses, uniforms and photographs abound.

Across the river in sister city Sterling is the Dillon Home Museum, an Italianate-style home built in 1858. This former home of P.W. Dillon, president of Northwestern Steel and Wire, features his original belongings and furnishings.

Meanwhile, back in Rock Falls, the always popular RB&W District Park houses a permanent sculpture collection. In the winter, this artwork takes on a picturesque effect, Jones says.

“They’re actually really cool to see in the winter time,” she says. “We have one that lights up in the night and glows.”

For more information, go to visitrockfalls.com.