March Madness in Illinois
Whilst March Madness may seem like a terrible mass sale in a local supermarket. Over in the US it is one of the biggest sporting events of the calendar year and has just come to its conclusion. A competition which pits each of the 68 college basketball teams against each other in a knockout tournament to define the best of the best is on their given day. In true American fashion we decided to have a crazy week in March (see where I am going here?) travelling around the state of Illinois to find out the very best entertainment the place has to offer.
Starved Rock State Park
While Illinois’ Western border follows the banks of the Mississippi River, a vast network of rivers and waterways bring plenty of adventure throughout the state. Starved Rock is right there in the middle of it and the perfect base to explore for a few days. As well as having its own hiking and cross country skiing (in winter of course), you will find a mass of waterways and falls amongst it’s 2000 odd acres. In the summer mountain biking and canoeing are perfect ways to explore everything the park has to offer. But winter brings a completely new dynamic to the table. As well as that cross country skiing we mentioned earlier you can also ice climb up a number of waterfalls. Yes Ice Climb!
The temperatures can drop so dramatically during winter (we hit -19C in March!), that one time fast flowing waterfalls become completed cocooned in a beautiful ice sculpture completely at the hands of nature. Tours and teaching are available and cater for all levels of knowledge and skill.
When it comes to staying, there are an abundance of small and boutique Bed and Breakfasts, but Starved Rock itself offers a unique charm in its individual cabins or main lodge which runs as a hotel. The food is solid, the bar is well stocked and each room is spacious and warm with solid oak furniture from local tradesmen. Not to mention you are right there in the heart of the action. What more could you want?
An hour or so up the road takes you on a beautiful drive following the Mississippi North and to Chestnut Mountain. One of only two snow resorts in Illinois. With 19 runs includes 2 blacks and 5 varied blues with different cuts and routes, Chesnut Mountain is perfect for a few days on the snow. Their season generally runs from December and through to mid-march and as most major resorts in Europe, they do have the ability to create their own snow if the real powder doesn’t fall heavy enough from the sky.
During the summer the same runs are used for mountain bikers and with Segway tours as well as a giant dry slide that runs through the middle of the mountain. The scenery is stunning all year round, with Eagles nesting and hunting in the Winter and on show daily, not to mention the fact you ski or board right down to pretty much the bank of the Mississippi river. Some view!
The lodge and resort at Chesnut Mountain is unique as it is actually at the top of the runs rather than the foot of the mountain. This give great views down all the runs and across the valleys. The resort is compact but with good gear and kit for snow lovers, a lively bar and dining area as well as plenty of rooms.
On the way out of Chesnut Mountain, or even on the way in, you will find a quaint American town by the name of Galena. Which is well worth a quick walk round the abundance of local independents and stores. Top food has to go to The Log Cabin Steakhouse which is Greek owned and influenced and serves meat that is out of this world! Lastly head up the hill and to the Blaum Bros. Distilling Co. After some time in the UK, the Blaum brothers decided to open their own distillery in Galena. Their Vodka and Gin has already had critical acclaim stateside and we can make testament that their chilli vodka is something a little special. Their whisky is now coming to fruition as well and makes for a rather well needed pitstop!
The next stop on our whistle wind tour of March Madness took us to Rockford, the second biggest city in the state of Illinois, though still rather small! It’s a more upcoming and growing town than the likes of Galena whilst still maintaining some of its original American Charm. During the warmer months there are championship golf courses scattered around the Northern state (no alligators thankfully!). During winter these are transformed with up to 4 feet of snow. Perfect condition for some snow showing (you know, tennis rackets on your feet), survival training or cross country skiing which can be through forests or on specially designed and made tracks.
You will also find home of Rockford Brewing Company which is a wonderful old building that is gradually being transformed into something rather special. As well as catering for events and weddings, the heart of the building is of course the brewery itself and the drink and food it serves through its bar and restaurant. The flights of beer are very special with everything on draught from within the building (14 at the current count) and the food is just as good.
During the summer months open air gigs are played pretty much weekly on the river bank with literally thousands coming along to each event and pretty much closing down the town on a Thursday evening. There are also other activities on the water such as water skiing and canoeing.
What true American trip would be complete without a mention of Route 66? Whilst not our primary motive for going, Illinois and Chicago make the start (or end) of the most famous road in the world. As such we thought we better hop on it just to get a feel for our trip. We decided to stop off in the town of Pontiac, around 90 minutes from downtown Chicago and what I would call a traditional American town. It is full of character and stuff to do. From the old and rather unique wartime museum through to the local art scene and an amazing old Pontiac museum which includes some very famous cars (Smokey and the Bandit!). There is always something to see and do.
Whilst March madness may be for basketball fanatics, we well and truly caught a March bug in central America. Chicago may be the big name, but an hour is any direction really throws up some real treats and not what you would expect so close to downtown.
For more information on all of the above and Illinois in general head over to www.enjoyillinois.com.