Peoria, Ill. (George Beasley photo)

NWQ Getaway Guide, Fall Edition

There’s so much to do in our region! Here are some exciting recreation events happening this season.

Chicago Rockford International Airport: Three Easy, Sunny and Tropical Escapes

A record number of travelers are already enjoying sunny escapes from Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) to Mexico and the Caribbean. Now Apple Vacations is offering a third fun-and-sun option with service from Rockford to Montego Bay, Jamaica, beginning Jan. 28, 2013.
“Adding Jamaica to RFD’s list of top leisure destinations gives us an opportunity to bring in additional new passengers and showcase the airport’s hassle-free experience,” says RFD Director Mike Dunn.
Amenities that make flying out of RFD especially convenient include free parking, free baggage carts, free Wifi and free curbside baggage handling.

Montego Bay, Jamaica

Flight time from Rockford to Montego Bay, Jamaica, is just over four hours. Unlike flights on most commercial airlines with service to this destination, the Apple Vacations flight out of RFD is direct, with no East Coast stops.
Jamaica is the third-largest island among thousands in the Caribbean Sea. The island offers an ideal climate and many scenic areas for tourists to enjoy, mostly on its north coast. The Montego Bay region is best known for its beaches, nightlife and wonderful restaurants; Negril offers a 7-mile white powder beach with flat stretches of turquoise sea; and Ocho Rios has Spanish Colonial architecture and beautiful waterfalls adorning its landscape. The lesser-traveled Port Antonio region is known for its ecotourism, secluded lagoons and hidden waterfalls.
A wide variety of resorts and hotels are well established in Jamaica, including those by Sandals, Secrets and Grand Palladium. While many visitors are content to sequester themselves in beachside luxury, others enjoy exploring the rich melting pot culture and cuisine of Jamaica.
Memories of activities such as swimming with dolphins, touring beautiful plantations and botanic gardens, riding horses along the beach, zip-lining above the lush tree canopy or climbing 700-foot waterfalls will last a lifetime.

Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Apple Vacations’ charter flights from Rockford to Punta Cana have been a huge success the past few seasons, for good reason. Within hours of boarding a jet at RFD, travelers emerge into the tropical beauty surrounding Punta Cana International Airport, located in the easternmost province of the Dominican Republic.
Along with an ideal climate, natural beauty and 40 miles of natural white sandy beaches, this Caribbean resort offers more than 28,000 hotel rooms, from elegant surfside bungalows to sophisticated marina resorts. Among many other things, visitors enjoy deep-sea fishing and snorkeling, and golfing top-rated courses, including Punta Espada and Teeth of the Dog in Casa de Campo. Casinos, a bustling nightlife and attractions built upon local traditions are part of the Punta Cana experience.
Much of the architecture is Spanish Colonial and those who enjoy exploring culture, history and cuisine will find much to their liking. It’s an easy drive to Santo Domingo, one of the very first cities established in the New World, and many museums there detail the interesting history of the native Taino people. The friendliness of the Dominican people and unspoiled natural resources make this a very special tourist destination.

Cancun, Mexico

Mexico is not a Caribbean island, but the Yucatan Peninsula, on the nation’s eastern seaboard, is located where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. This means that the legendary beaches there are soft and white, the waters a dazzling Caribbean blue.
Cancun is a large, bustling and authentic Mexican city with vibrant nightlife and excellent restaurants, shopping and cultural attractions, alongside a stunning beach. But if big cities aren’t your thing, there are smaller and more tranquil resort communities at Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel, just a short distance from Cancun, all with top-notch resorts.
Many travelers to the Cancun area tour Mayan ruins, such as those found in the ancient cities of Tulum, Coba or Ek Balam. And in nearby Xcarat and Xel-Ha are ecological parks where guests can swim with dolphins, explore jungles and experience one of the largest natural aquariums in the world.
“No matter which trip you choose, RFD makes travel easy,” says Bharat Puri, RFD board chairman. “With the new Jamaica service, travelers now have eight top leisure destinations, both domesic and international, that they can experience hassle-free from Chicago Rockford International Airport.”

Peoria, Ill. (George Beasley photo)

Playing in Peoria

No matter your game, you can play it in Peoria. “We truly have something for everyone,” says Lelonie Luft, marketing manager for the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The quality of life offered here is amazing, from our museums, art and theater, to our sports teams, outdoor recreation and family-focused attractions.”
The heart of Peoria’s entertainment scene is Peoria Civic Center, a four-building complex with a 12,000-seat arena, a 2,200-seat theater, expansive exhibit space and much more. Each season, it hosts top-notch performers, concerts and family shows, this year including REO Speedwagon, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Peoria boasts the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, Peoria Area Civic Chorale and the Peoria Ballet, plus Peoria Players Theatre, the longest continuously running community theater in Illinois.
For sports fans, Peoria is home to three professional teams: the Peoria Rivermen, part of the American Hockey League; The Peoria Push, a skater-owned/WFTDA-sanctioned women’s flat track roller derby team; and the Peoria Chiefs baseball team, which recently announced affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Artists thrive in Peoria. The 125-year-old Peoria Art Guild has two galleries with changing exhibits. “April through November, we have our CIAO [Central Illinois Artists Organization] First Friday art series,” says Luft. “Area artists display their work at venues around town.”
Peoria Zoo, run by the Peoria Park District, is home to more than 100 animal species, from Siberian tiger to armadillo; kookaburra to red-tailed hawk; Galapagos tortoise to snapping turtle.
Opening this fall on the downtown riverfront is The Caterpillar Visitors Center. “This is a larger-than-life, fun and educational attraction,” says Luft. “Massive machinery is on display, and visitors can see what it’s like to operate them, with virtual experiences. In one, you experience driving a huge truck down into a mine.”
Two popular attractions are moving to the riverfront as well. The Riverfront Museum – formerly the Lakeview Museum of Arts & Sciences – is Smithsonian affiliated and features the Discovery Center, art and natural history collections, and educational programming for all ages. “The Planetarium is also being relocated here, with a larger dome, and with a 100-percent, all-digital theater with a gigantic screen,” says Luft.
Located on the banks of the Illinois River, Peoria is the oldest European settlement in Illinois, visited by explorers Joliet and Marquette in 1673. Today, its Riverfront is alive with events, festivals, art galleries, shopping, dining, riverboat cruises on an authentic paddle boat, and more. Visitors can take in the historic sites of Peoria on a Segway, or tour some of its historic homes.
Five-acre Luthy Botanical Garden offers more than a dozen themed gardens and a conservatory. Within a 15-mile radius of Peoria are 20 public golf courses. The city has more than 9,000 acres of parks and open space with biking and hiking trails.
“Wildlife Prairie State Park is an awesome location for wildlife viewing,” says Luft. “It has more than 150 animals, 50, like the bison, that are native to Illinois. It’s also great for bird watching.”
Peoria also boasts the 2.5-mile scenic Grand View Drive, a panoramic view of the Illinois River valley, dubbed in 1910 by President Teddy Roosevelt as “the world’s most beautiful drive.”
Shopping ranges from upscale malls with national chains – The Shoppes at Grand Prairie, for example – to specialty boutiques, antique shops and districts in area towns, each with its own character. “From Pekin to Princeton, Metamora to Morton, these are charming, Mayberry-type places with one-of-a-kind, unique shops,” says Luft. Four local wineries host wine tastings, tours and other events year round.
With so many choices, visitors may find it difficult to choose. No worries. The Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a variety of recommended itineraries, or its experts will customize one based on your personal tastes. Learn more about visiting Peoria at peoria.org.

Starved Rock State Park (Kathy Casstevens-Jasiek photo)

Fall Color Lights Up Starved Rock State Park

An unforgettable display of autumn beauty is just one reason to explore Starved Rock State Park this fall. The park is home to 18 scenic canyons, sweeping views of the Illinois River and historic Starved Rock Lodge.
This is one of the top 10 places in the Midwest to soak up a magnificent natural display of color and texture. The park was recently named No. 1 Fan Favorite Attraction by Facebook Fans of the Illinois Office of Tourism.
The panoramic view from the veranda at Starved Rock Lodge is always phenomenal, but in autumn nature paints the peaceful Illinois River Valley in hues of orange, gold and brown. After a scenic hike, you may want to have lunch and enjoy a refreshing Starved Rock Signature Ale or a glass of wine made exclusively for Lodge guests. For dessert, try some of the new Artisan Ice Cream made fresh at the Lodge, in fall flavors such as pumpkin and apple spice.
The Lodge will celebrate autumn at the annual Leinenkugel Dinner on Nov. 9. Everything on the menu will be made with Wisconsin-brewed Leinenkugel beer, including dessert! A pub crawl follows on Nov. 10.
Free family fun is offered every Saturday night in October, at 7 p.m., next to a crackling fire at Fox Ridge, located across from the Lodge. Fireside snacks like S’more kits are available.
Each Saturday and Sunday through November, enjoy a guided hike from the lodge to LaSalle and Tonto canyons. Participants stop at the Lodge to pick up lunch and a souvenir Starved Rock backpack. Hikers stop for lunch at LaSalle Canyon. After lunch, the hike continues to Eagle Cliff and Lover’s Leap. This challenging hike of about 4.5 miles round trip concludes at 2 p.m. Hiking doesn’t stop in winter, either. Winter hikes offer the possibility of seeing frozen waterfalls and eagles! Learn more guided hikes at the Events page, www.starvedrocklodge.com.
The historic Lodge recently received a facelift when all of the hotel room furniture was replaced with hand-crafted, made-in-America bedroom suites. The mortis-and-tenon construction style fits perfectly into the 1930s stone and log decor. An indoor pool complex and on-site massage therapists add to the relaxing aura of this unique place. If your fall visit will include an overnight stay, be sure to reserve a room at the Lodge well in advance.
Learn more at the lodge’s newly launched website: www.starvedrocklodge.com.