NWQ Getaways: Fall 2023 Edition

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

Dekalb County: DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau

By Pat Szpekowski

Pumpkins, apples, spice and everything nice – that’s what you’ll find and more while exploring the country delights throughout DeKalb County. The possibilities are endless for things to do while making new traditions, continuing cherished ones, and soaking up all of the special scents, sounds and tastes of this special time of the year.

“If you haven’t taken a drive to DeKalb County during the fall season, now is the time,” says Cortney Strohacker, executive director of DeKalb County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We invite you to come out and experience the very best in family events on the farm, live entertainment at our historic Egyptian Theatre, and special indulgences within our vibrant dining and spirits culture.”
You’ll find favorite fall flavorings swirling all around you with a day trip to the incomparable family-owned Jonamac Orchard, located in Malta.

Experience the vitality of a golden fall day maneuvering the orchard’s corn maze or getting lost in the haunted corn maze – if you dare. Kids delight in wagon rides and have fun in the animal barn petting zoo and corn crib play barn.

The main attraction at Jonamac Orchard is the adventure of apple picking or exploring the 12-acre pumpkin patch. You’ll be ready for delicious snacking, cooking and baking by the time you’re done. Pick your own apples or choose from already-picked apples. The beautiful orchard is bursting with more than 31 types of crunchy apples. Try something new with “a-peeling” names like Wine Crisp, Snow Sweet or Riverbelle, to name a few; or, choose the tried-and-true varieties like Jonagold, Honeycrisp and Granny Smith.

Visit the Cider House, home to the cider pressing operation and tasting room, and then relax a little in the Cider House Patios, where you can taste a wide range of apple wines, hard ciders and collaborative beers. Visit the store and you’ll find apple cider, apple cider doughnuts, caramel apples, fudge, pies, jams and preserves, plus other surprises. Enjoy the treats here and take some home, too.

If live entertainment is your passion, there’s no more majestic a place than the Egyptian Theatre in downtown DeKalb. With its stunning architecture, murals, and sky-blue ceiling, this iconic venue stands up to its long history, since it opened in 1929. It’s an experience you won’t forget. Many featured events are scheduled for the remainder of the year, including Marty Stuart, Country Music Hall of Famer; the multi-platinum selling street band WAR; comedians Theresa Caputo and Paula Poundstone; Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra tributes, and more.

“DeKalb is also synonymous with Northern Illinois University,” notes Strohacker. “This year’s 116th Annual Homecoming Week, Oct. 8-15, with the culmination of the football game versus Ohio University, will be special with lots of exciting events.”

The general public is invited to celebrate the Huskie Pride spirit throughout the occasion. Attend the Downtown DeKalb block party and parade on Oct. 12. Join the Huskie Hour with DeKalb County Bold Spirits on Oct. 13 for a blockbuster tasting event at Jonamac Orchard. There, you can quench your thirst with DeKalb County’s finest local breweries, wineries and distilleries.

The fall season comes alive throughout DeKalb County. Mark your calendars for apple picking, entertainment, lively adventures and much more to come. Learn more at dekalbcountycvb.com.

Starved Rock Lodge: Celebrate the Best of this Fall’s Bounty

By Kathy Casstevens, marketing director, Starved Rock Lodge

If you’re mourning the end of summer, here’s some news that will certainly brighten your day. Starved Rock Lodge is accepting reservations for its Oktoberfest celebrations.

The chefs are ready to prepare steaming dishes filled with sauerbraten, wienerschnitzel, bratwurst and sauerkraut. The ceramic steins have been polished and the Duseldorfers German Band is rehearsing the polkas that will soon echo through the Great Hall and Starved Rock Room at the Lodge, located inside Starved Rock State Park near Oglesby.

The first of three Oktoberfest events is a dinner on Sunday, Oct. 15, followed by matinees on Monday, Oct. 16 and Tuesday, Oct. 17. If you have the strength, sign up for the stein hoisting contest. Tickets include the delicious buffet, a souvenir stein, tasting tickets for beer or wine, and musical entertainment.

The more relaxed Autumn on the River Cruises run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in October. The tour begins with lunch at 11 a.m. in the historic dining room at the Lodge, followed by a narrated trolley tour explaining the history and legends of the area. The trolley then takes travelers to the Eagle I riverboat for a look at the beautiful fall foliage of Starved Rock State Park by water.

History buffs love the Historic Trolley Tours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in October. On this tour, you’ll learn about the National Historic Landmark known as Starved Rock State Park and Lodge. Travel to the Lock and Dam, the Illinois Waterway Visitor Center and through historic downtown Utica, and pay a visit to the Starved Rock Visitor center.

Fall Colors Trolley Tours run on Saturdays and Tuesdays in October and include a trolley ride with lunch in the restaurant followed by a guided hike to scenic Council Overhang and Ottawa Canyon.
Take a Hike and a Lunch Guided Hikes run every Saturday and Sunday through November. On these outings, explore Starved Rock and discover canyons, bluffs and seasonal waterfalls during a guided hike. Listen as the guide tells stories of how Starved Rock got its name along with other legends of the area. At the halfway point, break for a lunch that includes your choice of turkey, ham or veggie wrap, snacks and bottled water.

Visit a Canyon and a Boat Ride is October’s premier tour, departing every Sunday at 11 a.m. Board a trolley with a guide and head to the entrance of one of Starved Rock’s most scenic canyons. Following the hike, relax with a boat ride on the picturesque river.

Waterfowl Cruises depart every Sunday in October at 1 p.m. Board a trolley outside the Great Hall of the Lodge and head to Lone Point Shelter to enjoy an hour-long boat ride on the Eagle I, where you can see the waterfowl of the Illinois River.

Are you ready for autumn yet? Book your adventure at starvedrocklodge.com.

Elkhorn, Wis.: A Place to Celebrate a Rural Autumn

By Pat Szpekowski

The kids might be back in school, but there’s no stopping the variety of can’t-miss weekend adventures. Pack up the car and drive a few miles north to Elkhorn, Wis., and get ready for unique fall fun.

“We’re proud to say that it’s definitely four seasons of fun here in Elkhorn,” says Kate Abbe, director of partner engagement and marketing, Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce. “Fall is very busy with a lot of engaging events to enjoy and see.”

The Walworth County Fair, one of the oldest and largest fairs in the state, is filled with tasty food, animal exhibits, lively entertainment and grandstand thrills. Having just celebrated its 174th year, the fair occupies a revered spot on the calendars and in the hearts of local residents. This old-fashioned community celebration always promises something new.

Treasure hunters will have one last chance to find something new at the popular Elkhorn Antique Flea Market, which has been an area institution since 1982. The flea market season comes to a close on Sept. 24. More than 500 vendors are sprawled across the Walworth County Fairgrounds, inside and outside, as they offer a wide range of merchandise. Are you looking for pottery, dolls, glassware, rough or refurbished furniture, and everything else between? You’ll find it during a fun day that’s perfect for all ages.

Don’t miss the Apple Barn Winery and Orchard – a family-owned farm since 1848. The family-friendly farm opens to all from late September to the end of October. Visit the country store and splurge on those homegrown apples, homemade cider, delicious cider doughnuts and caramel apples you’ve been craving since last fall. There’s a lot more, including local honey and Wisconsin cheeses, plus seasonal decor, candles, candies and gifts. Let the kids pick their own pumpkins, too. Adults can take time to enjoy the award-winning fresh-fruit wines that are grown and produced on site. Try the Estate Apple Barn Blush, Honeycrisp Apple, Hardy Pear and other colorful fruit variations.

Find the best bands, brats, brews and businesses at the Elkhorn Oktoberfest on Oct. 21. The entire downtown is filled with craft and commercial vendors, lively music, local and German cuisine to fit the theme, and both beer and wine tasting all around town.

Finally, cryptid hunters will want to search for an upcoming event that highlights the mysterious Beast of Bray Road, a wolf-like creature that has been part of Walworth County folklore since the mid-1930s. Some claim this werewolf-like creature to be merely an urban legend, but others claim it’s very real. As speculation about the legendary beast continues, a spook festival is held in its honor, just in time for Halloween.

“BEASTFest will take place the last week of October, with a variety of restaurant and retail specials and a grand finale feast on Halloween night,” notes Abbe.

Don’t miss a beat, or beast! Take your own surprise getaway adventure to Elkhorn. Visit elkhornchamber.com to start planning.

Ottawa: Experience the Middle of Everywhere

By Pat Szpekowski

The city of Ottawa has long been a favorite getaway location where couples and families seek outdoor adventures, visits to historic attractions and fun times to explore unique boutiques and a diverse culinary scene. The city’s tagline says it all. Ottawa is a vibrant destination that’s smack dab “In the Middle of Everywhere.”

“We welcome visitors to enjoy the variety of diverse activities and benefits that Ottawa offers,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operations manager for the Ottawa Visitors Center. “We’re sure visitors will find everything they’re looking for here to make their trip the very best.”

Located just 80 miles from downtown Chicago, Rockford and the suburbs, Ottawa is widely renowned for its scenic views. Four magnificent state parks – Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock, Matthiessen and Illinois State Park – offer bluffs, open spaces, rivers and trails, plus areas for camping under the stars. Starved Rock is considered the No. 1 attraction in Illinois – and it rarely disappoints.

As beautiful as the view is on land, it’s even more breathtaking from the water.

“Take an excursion on the Sainte Genevieve Riverboat as it glides down the Illinois River,” Reynolds says. “This new stern wheel riverboat attraction with upper and lower decks seats 149 passengers for comfortable daytime or sunset sightseeing cruises. You’ll gain a whole new perspective as you take in the picturesque views of the river and the sky amid natural surroundings.”

This delightful riverboat tour departs from downtown Ottawa and cruises by Buffalo Rock or near the Marseilles Lock and Dam. With its friendly crew, full bar and occasional live music, the Sainte Genevieve Riverboat is a great place for kicking back on public cruises or private events. Sunset cruises provide guests with heavy appetizers and bites specially curated from local markets and restaurants.

Speaking of food, it’s always a hot topic in Ottawa, given the city’s many choices for creative cuisine. New on the scene is Iniga Pizzeria Napoletana, famed for its pizza, art and music. Iniga means “fiery” in Italian. This is home for authentic Neapolitan pizza baked in a 6,600-pound wood-burning oven from Italy. The menu also features the freshest antipasti and insalatas, more than 15 pizza variations and scrumptious desserts. Now that’s amore.

Art and music are also a big part of the Ottawa scene. The Iniga dining room features works of art, including two pieces by French artist Philippe Jestin and abstract works by local artist Jeremy Johnson.

“If you’re heading out to Ottawa in early fall, don’t miss the SmoketoberFest & BBQ Competition on Oct. 7,” says Reynolds. “It’s located in beautiful downtown Ottawa at the Jordan Block, Art & Sculpture Gardens. Locals vie to be crowned with the best barbecue, while attendees enjoy the results of a delicious pig roast with pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw and cornbread.”

Ottawa is truly “In the Middle of Everywhere” and is a one-stop destination for relaxation, creative cuisine and comfort.

Pick Ottawa as your next getaway stop. Take a look at pickusottawail.com.

Rock Falls: A Paradise for Outdoor Adventure

By Pat Szpekowski

Once summer winds to a close, there’s still plenty of time to explore the great outdoors. Take a hike, ride a bike, rent a kayak and delve into nature’s treasures found along the riverbanks, parks and canals of the picturesque city of Rock Falls. Whether you are driving from northwest Illinois or from the Chicago suburbs, an amazing day or weekend is less than 2 hours away.

“We strive to inspire our visitors to take advantage of the beauty of our area and all the unique events and venues we offer,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls Tourism Department. “Outdoor recreation is still in its prime here during the late summer and early fall season.”

Earlier this month, visitors paid tribute to the sacrifices made by our veterans when the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall arrived at RB&W District Park.

This green space along the riverbanks is the site of many recreational pursuits and public events, including the Art in the Park Sculpture Walk. New additions to this trail of public art arrived in early September and will be on display until late next summer. Don’t miss your chance to see it first.

The Rock Falls area is rich in natural wonders. This time of year, visitors appreciate the opportunity to explore the Rock River, Hennepin Canal and Centennial Park, which all factor into the waterside wonders of Rock Falls.

For some cycling, paddle boating and kayak adventures that leverage technology to get back to nature, stop by Rock Falls Kayak Rentals at the Hennepin Canal Route 40 boat launch. Visitors who use the Rent.Fun app can rent kayaks right from their phone before paddling around the canal. There’s also an app to take advantage of the Rock Falls Bike Share Program. Download the Movatic app, find bikes sitting around the scenic RB&W District and start pedaling around town.

Rentals through Centennial Park also are available on weekends through the Coloma Township Park District, which is the second-largest park system in Whiteside County. Centennial Park spans more than 50 acres and is the place to be for angling, paddle boating and exploring along the Hennepin Feeder Canal State Park.

No matter what you decide to do when you arrive, the natural wonders and outdoor fun of Rock Falls are waiting to be enjoyed.

To start your Rock Falls adventure, head to visitrockfalls.com.