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Thursday, May 23, 2013 04:37 pm

A river runs through it

Peoria has something for everyone


The Spirit of Peoria offers single-day trips and two- to five-day overnight cruises to St. Louis and to Hannibal, Mo.

Paris, New Orleans, London – many fine cities around the world are built on rivers. And that’s also true in Illinois, where Peoria offers a great opportunity for a weekend getaway or day trip.

The largest city on the Illinois River, Peoria, about the same size population-wise as Springfield, was the first European settlement in the Land of Lincoln, and its rich historical and cultural history mix well with modern times. A good place to start is the Caterpillar Visitors Center that showcases the world’s best-known heavy equipment manufacturer that had more than $66 billion in sales last year. The company that’s been rooted in Peoria since 1910 put a major mark on the downtown waterfront last year with the opening of the 50,000-square-foot center, a massive pantheon to moving dirt that is equal parts museum and funhouse. There are prototypes of Caterpillar’s first machines from the early part of the 20th century and a humongous two-story-high truck used in mining operations. A simulator allows visitors to move earth in cyberspace, and a computerized interactive exhibit lets would-be engineers design heavy equipment, just like the pros. It is, in short, a fantastic place to take the kids.

Right next door is the Peoria Riverfront Museum, which features a planetarium, an aquarium and exhibits that tell the history and prospects of a river city. There is also a giant movie screen that measures a full five stories tall and seven stories wide, with three-dimensional capabilities to boot. Films screened range from Jurassic Park to Wrath of Khan to a documentary about tornadoes that brings storms right into viewers’ faces.

The odes to Caterpillar and the city’s past and future were not built in a vacuum. Rather, the city’s riverfront is a pedestrian-friendly space that also includes many restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating that allows diners to gaze on the waterway and barges loaded with everything from scrap metal to grain. This is a city that does downtown right, and if a river doesn’t float your boat, wander up from the shore toward the county courthouse, where bands and choirs entertain the masses each weekday at lunchtime while vendors sell sandwiches, hot dogs and other fare from carts.

The Peoria Zoo, which doubled in size four years ago, is also worth seeing, especially the exhibit dedicated to Africa that features a giraffe and rhino and gazelle. There is also, of course, a lion, plus plenty of monkeys. If you’d rather see wildlife in the wild, then check out Wildlife Prairie State Park, a 2,000-acre tract that is home to 50 species native to the Midwest, including bison, wolves and otters.

Getting back to the river, a cruise on the Spirit of Peoria, a steamboat-style craft built in 1988 but looking like something straight from the pages of Huckleberry Finn, is a great way to spend a day or a few days, depending on the itinerary. This being Peoria, the vessel is, naturally, powered by engines made by Caterpillar. Visit spiritofpeoria.com for more information.

The Peoria Riverfront Museum has a movie screen five stories tall.

There is no riverboat gambling aboard the Spirit of Peoria, but there is plenty of wagering at Par-A-Dice Hotel and Casino. If you end up broke or nearly so, drown your sorrows at the nearby Burger Barge right on the river, where the beer is cold and the hamburgers are as good as any you’ll find in the state.

The Peoria Civic Center is a great place for concerts, with such superstars as Elton John having played the venue in recent years. For an upscale dinner before the show, try Jim’s Steakhouse on nearby Jefferson Avenue, where stars ranging from Bob Hope to the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders have dined. The atmosphere is fantastic, with rich wood paneling and a harp – yes, concert-sized harp – player entertaining if you stop by on the right night. Otherwise, expect classic recordings by such artists as Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Classic jazz isn’t for everyone, which is why we have baseball, and Peoria has that in spades. The city was somewhat late to the game, having waited until 1946 to field the Redwings, a franchise in All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that largely owed its existence to World War II and the migration of male players from major-league diamonds to the front lines. The Redwings folded in 1951 after just six years, but their spirit remains in the Peoria Chiefs, a class A minor league club that last year switched affiliations from the Chicago Cubs to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Spectators watch a Peoria Chiefs game from the picnic area which includes a palm tree at O’Brien Field.

You never know what you’ll see at a minor-league ballpark, and O’Brien Field in downtown Peoria is the perfect example. Such superstars as Mark Grace, Greg Maddux and Coco Crisp have played in Peoria, as have lesser-knowns such as Julio Castillo, a less-than-gifted Chiefs pitcher who hit a batter in the head during a 2008 game, then ran into one of his teammates while chasing down the ball, then hit an opposing player in the arm with an errant throw, all during the first inning. An argument involving both managers and the umpire ensued, with Castillo capping the rhubarb by firing the ball toward the opposing dugout. He missed, and an unlucky fan in the stands who ended up the recipient was rushed to a hospital with a concussion. The resulting bench-clearing melee delayed the game for more than an hour, Castillo was arrested for assault – and this was a home game. He pleaded guilty and got a 30-day sentence. It is widely considered a baseball-brawl classic.

No guarantees that a YouTube classic will break out while you’re in town, but you never know. Which is why it pays to play in Peoria.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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