NWQ Getaways: Holiday 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 CVB photos)

DeKalb County: Find the Unexpected at Every Turn

By Pat Szpekowski

A day trip or weekend outing in DeKalb County is always an exciting adventure. There are many amenities that suit individuals, couples and families looking for a thriving arts, cultural and entertainment scene that also caters to plenty of winter sports passions.

“We embrace the four seasons and encourage visitors and residents to enjoy winter here in DeKalb County,” says Katherine McLaughlin, marketing director for DeKalb County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are so many choices for both indoor festive activities or to take a snowy hike through one or more of our hundreds of acres of forest preserves and parks.”

Just an hour’s drive from Chicago and an even shorter distance from the northwest and western suburbs, DeKalb County residents embrace visitors like a big hug and help them to make new friends and begin new traditions.

Take your pick from a wide assortment of things to do and stimulate your creative side. Blumen Gardens in Sycamore is one of those special places that’s been growing its fan base and is now one of the most popular shopping venues in DeKalb County.

While Blumen Gardens is a full-scale home and garden center that showcases beautiful blooms and plants all year long, it’s also a treasure trove for home decor and gifts. The beautiful atmosphere in the Garden Room makes a special place to host a rustic garden wedding or a special family or business event. In addition, Blumen Gardens offers gardening classes and workshops, plus other fun projects like candle and soap making.

Hand-made items, natural-scented soaps and soap-making continue to be a hot trend. To satisfy this growing niche, a new candle shop and maker’s shop have recently opened in Sycamore. “The 35:35 Maker’s Collective and Vuur Lont Candle Co. are a pair of women-owned businesses that sell and highlight handmade goods by local and out-of-state makers,” McLaughlin says. “They have a candle bar with open candle pouring classes with rotating scents. It’s a first in DeKalb County.”

If you prefer to get more active this winter with some sports and recreation in the great outdoors, DeKalb County does not disappoint. Adults, kids and groups enjoy an active cold-weather sports scene at the area’s many forest preserves and parks.

There’s also Northern Illinois University, which provides entertaining and educational “Outdoor Adventures” and services to the public. You can rent winter sports equipment such as ice skates, snowshoes, snowboards and more.

“We also have three free ice rinks throughout the county,” adds McLaughlin. “There’s one at Hopkins Park in DeKalb, one outside the Northern Illinois University Recreation Center in DeKalb, and another in Sandwich.”

Sledding is also a prime activity.

“We have giant sled hills in Genoa, at Russell Woods Forest Preserve; in Sycamore, at the Sycamore Park District; in DeKalb, at Hopkins Park; and in Sandwich, at Saunak Forest Preserve.”

After burning all of your energy, there are plenty of places throughout DeKalb County to kick back. Enjoy locally produced spirits, ciders, craft beers and wines to accompany your favorite American or ethnic meal. It’s all available at a wide variety of restaurants, bars, grills and coffee shops – and you never know what might show up from DeKalb County’s Food Truck Fleet.

Plan your winter shopping, dining and outdoor activities today. Get started at dekalbcountycvb.com.

(Kathy Casstevens photos)

Starved Rock Lodge: Holiday Happiness Happens Here

By Kathy Casstevens

Starved Rock Lodge in Oglesby has a variety of wonderful ways to make the most of this special time of year, especially if you want the perfect place for your holiday party. The LaSalle and Utica Rooms are available for gatherings of up to 50 guests. Lodge staff can help you create a menu perfectly suited to your group.

If you’re a fan of Bing, Elvis, Sinatra and more, the “Classic Crooners Christmas” matinee on Dec. 11 and 12 is sure to make the season bright. Tickets are $50 each and include a hot lunch buffet at the Great Hall.

Trolley Trio Progressive Dinners are back, and they continue throughout these cold months and beyond. August Hill Winery, Camp Aramoni and Starved Rock Lodge have teamed up to create an unforgettable event filled with wine, spirits, beer and food tastings. Meet at Starved Rock Lodge at 4:45 p.m. and ride the Starved Rock Trolley to August Hill Winery for cocktails and appetizers. Next, the trolley heads to Camp Aramoni for dinner and drinks. Lastly, the trolley returns to Starved Rock Lodge for dessert and after-dinner drinks in the main dining room. Upcoming dates are Dec. 21, Jan. 18, Feb. 15, March 21 and April 25.

The Trolley Trio Progressive Dinner Overnight Package includes dinner for two, overnight stay for two and a $15 breakfast voucher for the next morning. Guests must be 21 or older to attend. Did you know that Tickets to a Trolley Trio also make a great gift? Just ask at the front desk or go online.
Breakfast with Santa returns Saturday, Dec. 16. Bring the kids and join the jolly old elf for a breakfast buffet in the Great Hall of Starved Rock Lodge. Following breakfast, you’ll be treated to Magic by Cory. Reservations are required. This event runs from 8:30-11:30 a.m.

Early winter is also a prime season to catch the Christmas Trolley Lights Tours, which run Sunday through Thursday, Dec. 10-14 and Dec. 17-21, from 6-8 p.m. Let the Lodge staff do the driving so you can enjoy some of the area’s most stunning holiday displays. While aboard the trolley, a guide shares holiday trivia, jokes and riddles as classic Christmas music plays overhead. Trolleys are heated, but you may want to bring along an extra blanket.

January brings plenty more excitement, starting with the Lodge’s annual Wedding Expo. Held in the Great Hall on Sunday, Jan. 7 from noon to 3 p.m., this is a chance for brides to meet Lodge staff, connect with preferred vendors, explore the Lodge’s wedding venues, sample delicious cuisine and enjoy a sample of Starved Rock Bubbly. This is a free event, so no RSVP is needed.

Reservations are required for most special events at Starved Rock Lodge. The Activities Department can help you book an event, guided hike or historic trolley tour. Just ask when you’re booking your overnight stay. Call (815) 220-7386 or book online at starvedrocklodge.com.

Elkhorn: Top Terrain for Winter Excitement

By Pat Szpekowski

If you’re looking for a winter wonderland that’s not too far from home, then a drive to Elkhorn, Wis., should rise to the top of your “go-do” list this season.

“Right in Elkhorn’s backyard is the popular Alpine Valley Resort and Ski Hill,” says Kate Abbe, marketing & partner engagement for Elkhorn Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Center.
Alpine Valley is beloved by many outdoor adventurers for its wide range of skiing and snowboarding terrain.

“We’re coming to the most perfect time of the year to get out your winter sports gear,” notes Abbe. “As soon as the temps are cool enough, the Alpine Valley Resort will start making snow so guests won’t have to rely on Mother Nature to start hitting the slopes.”

There’s plenty of open space to enjoy the activities as Alpine features more than 100 skiable acres with 20 runs that attract beginners but still leave challenges for experts. The longest run is 3,000 feet with a vertical drop of 388 feet. Alpine’s Ski Hill also provides a variety of other amenities including three terrain parks with a variety of rails, boxes and snow features.

Skiing aside, Wisconsin in winter is, of course, synonymous with ice fishing, snowshoeing and winter hikes, too.

“We have three beautiful lakes in the area that are perfect and very popular for ice fishing,” adds Abbe. Those who love the sport are attracted to Lauderdale Lakes, Delavan Lake and Geneva Lake for their large Northern Pike population.

If fishing isn’t quite your speed, the vast amount of nature preserves around Elkhorn beckon those who thirst for winter hiking and cross-country skiing.

The Kettle Morraine State Forest is a magnificent creation of nature and scenic wonders. A highly glaciated area, it contains very hilly terrain in every form. The topography and views at Kettle Morraine are at times vertical, horizontal, conical and flat. Glacial landforms with monikers like kettles (depressions), kames (mounds) and eskers (ridges) abound in this massive state forest. A trip here could be an educational adventure, too.

Take a hike along the 12 miles of the White River State Trail and find an easy trail that’s level. You’ll find old railroad trestles and bridges along the way. The scenic landscape, even in the winter, is sure to take your breath away.

When you’re headed back to town, there are plenty of things to do in Elkhorn. Enjoy delicious, fresh-cooked meals that satisfy breakfast, lunch and dinner appetites. Visit boutique shops and find unexpected gifts for all occasions. Discover Duesterbeck’s Brewing Co. at a fifth-generation family farm that produces hand-crafted beer. It has featured beers, creative food options and gift shopping, too.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There are many ways to help you appreciate the quietness of nature and the can-do attitude of winter fun in Elkhorn.

See more of what’s happening this winter at elkhornchamber.com.

(Ottawa Visitors Center photos)

Ottawa: Mouthwatering Expeditions for Tasty Treats

By Pat Szpekowski

If you enjoy day trips and weekend getaways that satisfy your intellectual curiosities while also tickling your fancies, then Ottawa has it all and more. This destination offers up many amenities that visitors enjoy any time of the year.

“Celebrate the winter while in Ottawa and enjoy our historic downtown, unique shops and trendy restaurants, while at the same time taking in the natural beauty that’s all around us,” says Donna Reynolds, tourism operations manager for the Ottawa Visitors Center.

Downtown Ottawa is the optimal starting point because it’s brimming with trendy stores, interesting tours and fun activities.

Famous Coffee Roasting Co. in Ottawa has all of the answers to all of the questions you’ve ever wondered about bringing a fresh cup of coffee to your table. Learn how beans come in from overseas shippers and how the Famous Coffee Roasting team selects beans, roasts beans and finishes them off to produce a delicious cup of coffee.

Are you in the mood to sip the best martini in town? You can count on Woody’s Steakhouse to meet your needs. Enjoy your meal in the casual dining atmosphere or in the cocktail lounge. Your favorite wine, beer and spirits complement the wide selection of menu choices that Woody’s offers. One of the oldest restaurants in LaSalle County, Woody’s has been recognized for years by its marinated rib eye steak and blackened duck breast.

While Woody’s offers a tried-and-true lineup of chops, pasta, chicken, ribs and seafood, it’s also grown with creative additions like the warm brie appetizer served with almonds, pears and pita chips. Pair it with boneless grilled pork chops that are smothered with a honey peach bourbon sauce.

Looking for some choices to satisfy your appetites the next day? Ottawa restaurants represent many specialties. BASH Burger and Sushi House is a popular stop whose menu runs the gamut of classic and specialty rolls, creative burgers, teriyaki dinners, hand-helds, and surprises like the truffle Parmesan fries.

The Cheese Shop ‘n’ Deli is as delicious and comfy as it looks. This casual favorite has a menu that’s loaded with sandwiches, pasta, chicken, jumbo marinated chicken wings and more. Carver sandwich specials feature the likes of roast beef, ham, meatloaf, turkey and corned beef. They truly are as tasty, fresh and appealing as they sound.

Don’t forget to stop in the many boutiques and shops in Downtown Ottawa, in between satisfying your stomach. You’ll find places with intriguing names like Floret Provisions, Heartland by Hand, A Mess of Things, and Deja Vu to pique your interest. Look for vintage treasures, florals, fine gifts, and homemade one-of-a-kind items.

Ottawa bills itself as being “in the middle of everywhere,” but it also manages to be overflowing with everything you love.

Plan a visit now at pickusottawail.com.

Rock Falls: An Abundance of Choices for Early Winter

By Pat Szpekowski

If you’re traveling through northwest Illinois to see family or just looking for something new to break up the doldrums of winter, set aside time to visit Rock Falls, the place “where city life and nature meet.”

This city on the Rock River has many options for an experience with family and friends including beautiful riverfront views, a bustling downtown with family businesses and boutiques, and a wide choice of delicious restaurants, bars and grills to satisfy any diverse appetite.

The natural surroundings for outdoor recreation are prolific here and surely claim to be the star of the show.

“Nature enthusiasts flock to the Sinnissippi Dam Walkway all year long,” says Melinda Jones, director of tourism and events for the City of Rock Falls-Tourism Department. “It is open to pedestrians and serves as a trail link between the Hennepin Feeder Canal in Rock Falls and Sterling.”

The scenic walkway by the Rock River also serves as the perfect place to view a variety of birds who soar overhead to visitors’ delight.

During this time of the year, though, the real spectacle on the river is spotting the eagles.
“It is always exciting to see the eagles,” says Jones. “They love Rock Falls and especially the two dams along the Rock River, which offer the eagles a lot of open water for them to feed.”

After an exhilarating day, there’s always time for exploring new shops and restaurants. Jones notes the cute new Mud & Moo Boutique is “a really awesome store that offers everything from clothing of all sizes – even infants – to purses, candles, accessories and unique gifts.”

Chakra Tree Crystals is a one-stop shop that embodies serenity and showcases a plethora of crystals, carvings, bowls, jewelry and more to soothe the spirit. Saged Souls brings its own special style of alternative and holistic health services, including massage and salt room sessions.

Of course, hunger can strike any time, so thankfully there are many choices for grabbing a bite to eat.

“We have so many wonderful family-owned ethnic and American restaurants here in Rock Falls,” says Jones.

Mak’s American & Indian Bar & Grill combines American and Indian-style cuisine with a menu that matches burgers, sandwiches and salads with the likes of Tandoori chicken, kabobs and samosas – a fried pastry with a savory filling. Touch of Thai 2 provides an elegant dining experience with authentic family recipes.

Then, there’s the legendary Angelo’s Pizzeria, a family-owned business for the past 50 years. It happily spoils customers who crave great pizzas, pastas and Italian specialty dishes.

“Of course, we have many other family-owned American restaurants like Candlelight Inn, Arthur’s Garden Deli, Flip Side Coffee & Espresso Bar, Froggy’s Bar & Grill, and Jane’s Place, to name a few,” adds Jones. “They’re all popular and their food is delicious.”

What’s not to love about Rock Falls? The choices are endless. Start researching your new happy place at visitrockfalls.com.