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Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004 11:20 am

Illinois fall getaways

art1391
Cover photograph by Nick Steinkamp

llinois. It is a land of more than corn. From the gritty sprawl of Chicagoland to the silent forests of the Shawnee National Forest to the rolling western plains, Illinois encompasses 55,000 square miles, many of them exquisite. It's the kind of place featured on postcards -- the kind of place you might want to visit, especially when the temperature begins to cool, trees turn color, and the corn is harvested.

Here in Springfield, we sit just 50 miles southeast of the absolute center of the state. Because it is only 450 miles from Galena to Metropolis and just 230 miles across from Danville to Quincy, you are never more than four highway hours away from anywhere in the state.

It's time you got yourself a getaway.

Direction key
N, S, E, W = map directions
I = interstate highway
IL = Illinois state road
U.S. = U.S. highway
CR = County road

YOUR OWN BACKYARD

PETERSBURG-NEW SALEM
(N on IL 29, N on IL 123 = 25 miles)

They say that Springfieldians don't visit Lincoln sites very much, but you have got to do New Salem. This reconstructed 1830s village where Lincoln came into manhood is meticulously rendered with interpreters galore throughout the 22 buildings that constitute the village. The park also houses a summertime theater, camping through the fall, and a visitor center, not to mention the deep forests and the mighty Sangamon. In town, the attention shifts to that other famous former Menard County resident, Edgar Lee Masters, author of The Spoon River Anthology. His museum is in his childhood home at Eighth and Jackson (which, coincidentally enough, was also Lincoln's Springfield address). While you're doing the Masters thing, check out Oakland Cemetery, said to be Masters' inspiration and ultimately his own resting place (along with that of Lincoln's alleged unrequited lust object, Ann Rutledge). The town also houses the Menard County Historical Museum in a grand 1889 Victorian complete with turrets and tall glass. There are two bed & breakfasts, the Farm (an herbal shop with themed gardens), and the New Salem Country Opry, with fresh acts each week. On your way there, stop in Salisbury at George Colin's art studio.

DECATUR
(E on I-72, E on U.S. 36 = 31 miles)

There's more than soy in Beantown. Forbes says Decatur is America's best small metro area, and the town has the frills to prove it, including a major university and a community college to set a tone and, more important, a good-size mall. You'll also find three lakes, 18 parks, 21 name-brand hotels and two bed & breakfasts, and more than 130 restaurants including everything from your favorite corporate standbys to ethnic delicacies such as Greek (the White House Bar) and Polynesian (Aloha). Millikin University offers several world-class attractions, including the Birks Museum, the Kirkland Fine Arts Gallery, and the 1876 Millikin homestead itself. Out north, the massive Hickory Point Mall caters to most whims, and on the southeast side the expansive Lake Decatur offers various swims. In the downtown area there's the Franklin Mall (Illinois' first, opened way back in 1967) and the Decatur Civic Center. Dedicated to the founder of an international plumbing-manufacturing giant, the Hieronymous Mueller Museum traces Mr. Mueller's many inventions and contributions. Studio 510 is an artists' collective gallery. Check out the 1830s-era Prairie Village at the Macon County Museum Complex. Also see the Scovill Park Complex, Rock Springs Center for Environmental Discovery, and Children's Museum of Illinois. Catch a full fall schedule of live shows at Theater 7 and Nashville North's steady bill of headline country & western acts, and not one but two fall festivals, in addition to a Labor Day weekend blowout.

LINCOLN
(N on I-55 = 32 miles)

Famously named after Old Abe himself, Lincoln (population 15,000) takes that heritage seriously. Way back in 1853, when the man himself christened the new town, he broke a watermelon and squeezed its juice into the soil. These days Lincoln is all about the melons and, of course, its famous namesake. In more recent history Lincoln, the county seat of Logan County, was also a key stop on Route 66, and it is now an "Illinois Main Street City," meaning that much of the beauty and history of the town is consciously being preserved. Check out the mural across from the Amtrak station, or go downtown and see what government money and community support can do to make a town look beautiful. Host to Lincoln College and Lincoln Christian College and Seminary, Lincoln also houses the Heritage In-Flight Museum and the town square's gorgeous courthouse has even more murals worth staring at. Events-wise, you just missed the annual balloon festival/art show in late August, but the wildly popular rail-splitting festival is held in September. The nine hotels in town mean you'll have no trouble staying that extra night it's going to take to see all the sights in Lincoln.

JACKSONVILLE
(W on I-72 = 37 miles)

Even with just under 20,000 people, Jacksonville manages to be the home of Illinois College, MacMurray College, the Heartland School of Business, Illinois School for the Deaf, and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired. And that's just the beginning of Jacksonville's charms. Home of the world's first portable Ferris wheel (still on display) and a former governor's mansion, Jacksonville offers many breathtaking old buildings, including the stunning Morgan County Courthouse. Take the walking tour of three homes that were on the Underground Railroad. Go by the David Strawn Gallery to gaze at ancient pottery and antique dolls. There is also the Jacksonville Heritage Cultural Center and the Prairie Land Heritage Museum, and, just south of town, Lake Jacksonville has both a marina and campgrounds. Best of all, each September Jacksonville hosts the Prairie Land Chautauqua, where, in addition to music shows and storytelling, re-enactors re-create celebrities and their speeches of the chautauquas of old. This year's theme is Lewis and Clark. Jacksonville's seriously busy social calendar (www.jacksonvilleil.org/tourism/) means you can plan something for almost any weekend this fall. The town's five hotels include a couple of name brands.

CARLINVILLE
(S on I-55, W on IL 108, N on IL 4 = 53 miles)

When planning a tour of important architectural landmarks in the Midwest, most think of Gateway Arch and the Hancock Tower, but architectural historians in the know include tiny Carlinville (pop. 5,600) among the wonders worth seeing. In 1919, Standard Oil set up shop in Carlinville and ordered 152 Sears Catalog Homes, kits for do-it-yourself housing, and thus Carlinville wound up hosting the world's greatest collection of catalog houses and becoming a magnet for classic-home lovers. The city features another famed architectural landmark: the Macoupin County Courthouse, once known as the "Million Dollar Courthouse" (back when a million dollars was worth something). Declared one of the "100 Best Small Towns in America," Carlinville offers all the comforts and attractions one would want in a small town: pastoral setting, low crime rates, meticulously maintained downtown and gorgeous older homes. This fall the Carlinville community calendar will offer 10 different weekend events celebrating everything from apples and pumpkins to cartoon Halloween. Additional area attractions include a Lincoln-Douglas debates historical marker, veterans memorial, Route 66 memorabilia, and 19 restaurants. Lake Carlinville offers camping and fishing, as does nearby Beaver Dam State Park (seven miles south of town). But because Carlinville offers just four hotels, 150 rooms total, you'll need to book early to ensure the success of your Carlinville weekend.

GILLESPIE
(S on I-55, W on IL 16, N on IL 4 = 53 miles)

Though not one of the more ethnically diverse spots on the map -- the 2000 census showed the town to be 98 percent white -- the population is also said to be 98 percent friendly. This little hamlet is so bustling that even though it is home to just 3,500 people, it has its own suburb, East Gillespie (pop. 300). Right there on historic Route 66, the downtown area is lined with trees and occupied with older houses. Steeped in the area's coal-mining traditions the town is home to the Coal Country Chamber of Commerce, but also check out the Hot Metal Heaven Museum (217-839-4888), celebrating the old days of the printing biz and housing both the world's largest pica pole and the world's largest makeup rule. The two Gillespie Lakes, old and new, are just north of town, offering a full range of water fun in well-maintained parklike environs. Now I know you're champing at the bit to spend your next long weekend in Gillespie, but be aware: There are no hotels in Gillespie, though Carlinville, only 13 miles away, has plenty.

HILLSBORO
(S on I-55, E on IL 127 / IL48, S on IL 127 = 54 miles)

Even though they eventually had to take their famous "The World Needs God" sign down from the courthouse walls, the city of Hillsboro still seems blessed. Rolling hills and brick streets, a reclaimed downtown Main Street with a stunning four-story courthouse and crime rate less than half that of the U.S. average typify the town, and its 14 restaurants include everything from a hotdog stand to the dazzling haute cuisine and stained glass glamour of the Church Street Pub (www.churchstreetpub.com). There is plenty of antiquing available and farm stands bulging with fall harvests. And even if you don't stay there (though you should), no trip to Hillsboro is complete without a tour of the famous Red Rooster Inn (217-532-6332), just off the courthouse square. The 1,200-acre richly stocked Glen Shoals Lake attracts boaters with its marina and picnic areas, and Old Lake Hillsboro sits at the edge of town with a town beach and a stunning view from the dam. Also see the Harkey House (307 S. Broad St.), a museum home with Hillsboro memorabilia, and the Bremer Sanctuary, which offers trails for birders and nature lovers. Sherwood Forest Campgrounds sits on the shores of Lake Hillsboro and hosts the Western Illinois Bluegrass Festival (Sept. 18-21)

CLINTON
(E on I-72, N on U.S. 51 = 58 miles)

At last a Clinton even the GOP can love! The county seat of Dewitt County, Clinton is more than the location of a notorious nuclear-power plant. Home to about 7,500, Clinton is also home to the massive 9,300-acre Clinton Lake and the Weldon Springs State Recreational Area, which claims to offer one of "the most comprehensive recreational agendas in the state-park system." Also, about five miles north of town is the U.S. 51 Motorcross Park. In town, visit the C.J. Moore Homestead, the city's cultural landmark and the county museum, or the Saturday farmers' markets. In October, the homestead is ranked one of the top 10 haunted houses in Illinois. Clinton's "Terror on Washington Street" is not only a ton o' fun in itself, but you've got to check out the cool tracer-cursor effects on its Web site (www.clintonhauntedhouse.com). Three hotels make Clinton a place you can stay in, but it's the old-town charm and loaded events calendar that make it worth visiting.

HAVANA
(N on IL 29, W on U.S. 136 = 58 miles)

Ah, the land of tropical breezes and fine cigars. OK, not really, though this hamlet, the county seat of Mason County, is indeed named for the capital of Cuba. Located in the middle of the state's western lowlands, where the Illinois River wallows out of its banks, this little riverfront town (population 3,500) has been toured by various famous Illinoisans -- including Marquette, Abe Lincoln, and Al Capone -- looking to get away from it all. Even before them, the local Indian tribes loved the place so much that they established the Rockwell Mounds, the second-biggest burial ground in the Midwest. The river slides slowly here, oozing through the lowlands and creating a nature-lover's paradise now studded with numerous state and local parks in which to enjoy it. In town, there's Riverfront Park, with boat launches, picnic areas, and hiking trails. Just north or just south of town, you can observe the annual fall flight paths and nesting areas of millions of migratory birds in Chautaqua National Wildlife Preserve (upstream) or at the Anderson Lake Conservation Area (downstream). All of the standard fast-food chains are represented, but you can also have breakfast at the Cup and Saucer, lunch at the Yost Post, or dinner on a 19th-century paddlewheel boat, the Belle of the Night Dinner Boat. Catch a tour-boat cruise to see all the sites or even visit the llama farm. Because Havana offers only two hotels and two bed & breakfasts, you need be sure to book in advance during hunting seasons.

LAKE SHELBYVILLE
(S on IL 29, E on IL 16 = 60 miles)

Here's a lake so big that it dominates two counties (Shelby and Moultrie), dwarfs the two state parks along its shores, and offers 34,000 acres of fun. At more than 11,000 acres of water, this is one of the biggest manmade lakes in the state, and it's one of the best developed. Wolf Creek State Park sits on the eastern shore; Eagle Creek State Park on the western shore; 10 Corps of Engineers Public Recreation areas are scattered about; a 3,100-foot long, 110-foot high dam lies at its base and the Kaskaskia and West Okaw Wildlife Preserves at its opposite extremities; and the entire 250-mile shoreline is public land. And south of town are the much smaller but equally beautiful Hidden Springs State Park and forest riven with creeks and stream. And I haven't even mentioned the town. The Shelby County Courthouse has a Victorian splendor that rivals any in the state. The 100-year-old, 5,000-seat Chautauqua Building still holds annual events. There's also a rich variety of restaurants, including some truly snazzy ones at the resorts. With 18 resorts, hotels, and bed & breakfasts, around the lake or in Shelbyville, and seven campgrounds, you should have no trouble finding a place to stay.

BLOOMINGTON-NORMAL
(N on I-55, N on U.S. 51 = 64 miles)

Twinned Bloomingtonand Normal curl together like a prairie yin and yang of about 120,000 people, with more than 25,000 college students, making it a refreshingly cultured prairie bloom. Bloomington-Normal hosts four different colleges, a cultural district, a performing-arts and a fine-arts center, 13 museums or historical attractions, and four live-theater troupes -- and that's not counting the stuff at the universities. Check out the uniquely Bloomington downtown happenings on Main Street between Olive and Locust for your choice of restaurants, from sandwich shops to four-star cafes; dozens upon dozens of shops and galleries; a farmers' market/artists' alley (until Oct. 9); and the lusciously remodeled Castle Theater. And just up Main Street in Normal is another downtown with just as many lures. For the more outdoorsy types the twin cities also offer nine golf courses, six campgrounds, four public pools, minigolf, paintball, and 34 city parks (plus two county and one state park in the area). With more than 30 hotels representing most major chains and another dozen-or-so cheaper accommodations, Bloomington-Normal is fully prepared to help you make your quick trip into a long and very full weekend. Also plan to visit the Davis Mansion State Historic Site, the Upper Limits Climbing Silos, and the McLean County Arts Center. In addition to antique planes, the Joseph F. Wagner Prairie Aviation Museum houses one of the NASA-guided Challenger Learning Centers, which teach schoolchildren space and technology through the use of simulated missions. And, lest we forget, Bloomington is also the international home of Beernuts, with two company stores eager to supply you with the high quality Beernut memorabilia you've been craving (800-BEER-NUT).

SULLIVAN
(E on I-72, E on U.S. 36 through Decatur, S on IL 121 = 66 miles)

If the word "little" comes to mind when you think about Sullivan, it's not because the town is tiny. Sure, Sullivan may only hold 4,000 citizens, but the town is actually associated with the word "little" for two very big reasons: the famous Little Theater on the Square and the personage of Guy Little, former Broadway showman; part-time owner of the Little House on the Prairie, the town's premier bed & breakfast; and full-time Sullivan celebrity. Guy can spin hours of showbiz history, and the thousands of photographs adorning the B & B make the place a veritable museum of both Broadway and the long-running local theater scene, home to only Equity summer-stock theater in central Illinois, which has been offering an annual full slate of Broadway shows since 1957. The town also features 11 restaurants, two city parks, a public pool, a gym, and miniature golf. As if all that weren't enough, Sullivan is also on the route to the northern end of Lake Shelbyville.

DAY TRIPPING

ARTHUR-ARCOLA
(E on I-72, E on 97, E on CR 1700 = 70 miles)

You've got to hand it to the Amish: Who else can make Ludditism seem so happening? These days the small farms of the Amish are big business, and the people famous for opposing the use of modern machinery will tell you all about it on their Web site, www.illinoisamishcountry.com. The appeal is obvious: horse-drawn carriages parked at the minimart, stiff dark dresses with prim white bonnets for the ladies, and hipster broad hats and big beards for the gentlemen. It's a view into a world you've maybe never wanted to live in but can't help wanting to watch. And the Arthur-Arcola area is a great place in which to do it. Pleasant pastoral scenes are the lure, and great shopping for truly handmade items is the payoff. In addition to the cheese for which they've become famous, the Illinois Amish also produce fine custom furniture, quilts, and a variety of rustic knickknacks. The nationally renowned Rockome Gardens hosts a full calendar of country-themed events such as tractor pulls and fiddling contests, and restaurants such as Yoder's Kitchen offer a real taste of the old days. Though only an hour and a half away, the Arthur-Arcola area is a place where you can still party like it's 1865.

MONTICELLO
(E on I-72, S on IL 48, E on IL 32 / CR1500N, E on CR 1525, E on CR 1550, N on CR 450, W on Old Timber Rd. = 72 miles)

Sweet little Monticello does have a variety of charms, to be sure, but the most important reason to go there is the world-famous Robert Allerton Park (www.ceps.uiuc.edu). Landscaped in every possible style, from ornate sunken gardens to absolutely wild woods, this 1,500-acre property is a sculpture lover's Xanadu. More than 100 outdoor statues from celebrated sculptors such as Rodin, Auer, and Bordelle decorate the gardens and trails. Wander the intricate formal-garden area, get lost the Schroth Interpretive Trail's nearly three miles, or marvel at the 50 acres of restored prairie. The town is no slouch, either, being, like Lincoln, an Illinois Main Street City. This means you're guaranteed a downtown area that's pretty, clean, and historic. Speaking of historically beautiful, on State Street there are blocks of 1890s homes so ornate they're known as "Millionaires' Row." Visit the Monticello Railway Museum and the Piatt County Museum, stay in one of the two hotels, or eat at one of the 15 different restaurants.

PEORIA
(N on I-55, N on IL 121, W on I-74 = 73 miles)

Talk about rolling on the river. Peoria, once just a rare narrowing of the Illinois River, has become a good-size city complete with suburbs, the anchor of Illinois River country. Quite obsessed with live entertainment to go along with all the riverfront scenery, Peoria offers noontime concerts at the courthouse, a full calendar of riverfront action, and regularly scheduled events in the amphitheatre at Glen Oak Park, a riverside facility that also houses the city zoo. That park is just one of the many that helped win the Peoria Park District the 2001 National Gold Medal Award for offering a program list that includes everything from Irish dance to infant massage (www.peoriaparks.org/index.html). And the touristing is easy in Peoria, with well over 100 restaurants for every appetite and 30 hotels or resorts, including Wildlife Prairie Park -- a state-operated native-animal preserve where you can spot bison and bear, elk and cougars, and stay the night in a cabin, a cottages, or even a caboose -- just west of town. Speaking of overnighting, try an overnight excursion on the Spirit of Peoria paddlewheeler all the way up to Starved Rock State Park in Peru-LaSalle and enjoy a Mark Twain performance along with your prime rib. And of course there's the Par-a-Dice Casino for a different kind of riverboat action.

VANDALIA
(S on IL 29, S on IL 16, S on U.S. 51 = 75 miles)

Ah, Vandalia. Abraham Lincoln once loved Vandalia so much that he moved the state capital away from it -- just kidding. But seriously, Vandalia was originally built to be the Illinois state capital way back in 1819, when the state was brand-new. The 1836 Capitol still stands, but nowadays Vandalia is more of a capital for outdoor fun, what with seven parks in town and a location just 11 miles upstream on the Kaskaskia River from the largest manmade lake in the state, Carlyle Lake. Just four miles north of town is the fully stocked Vandalia Lake, complete with campgrounds, marina, and developed sand beach. Speaking of outdoor sports, Keck's Marsh Hunting Club has developed 6,000 acres into a gun enthusiast's paradise where you can shoot everything from deer to clay pigeons. Vandalia is also home to the Archway Skydiving Center, where people have been getting thrown from planes since 1965. For those wanting to get a rush while standing on terra firma, there's a dirt track at the county fairgrounds, six miles east of town. A street-stock race is being held there Labor Day weekend.

CHAMPAIGN-URBANA
(E on I-72, N on I-57, E on I-74 = 87 miles)

Combined, the twin cities of Champaign and Urbana have a population about equal to that of Springfield, but the result is quite a bit different. Whereas our main industry is government; theirs is college. The massive University of Illinois brings in a whopping 37,000 students, and there's also Parkland Community College with its 11,000 college-minded consumers, creating a whole hipster-intellectual vibe unlike anything anywhere else in the state. For example, can you name 16 bistros here in ol' Springpatch where you can order vegan cuisine? I thought not. And there is nothing in this town to compare to the U. of I.'s Krannert Museum, with its 8,000-piece art collection; or Assembly Hall, the second largest edge-supported domed building in the world; or, for that matter, Parkland College's William M. Staerkel Planetarium. But the town is more than just its schools. There's also an Early American Museum, complete with botanical gardens and Hardy's Reindeer Ranch, complete with a corn maze. The Curtis Orchards are an entire "entertainment farm" with a pumpkin patch, store, and bakery, and the Arboretum is a 160-acre "living laboratory" where tourists and locals can learn more about nature. Speaking of nature, the city of Urbana Park District offers 22 different facilities, and Champaign maintains 58 more opportunities for public fun, including eight indoor recreational facilities and the Prairie Farm in Centennial Park, which is a barnyard petting zoo and more. Town and country, school and park -- Champaign-Urbana, it's no wonder the cities' 25 hotels and five bed & breakfasts keep packing 'em in all year round. "All hail the Orange and Blue!"

ALTON
(S on I-55, W on 140, N on 111 / Rt. 3 = 88 miles)

Sure, everybody knows Alton was the home (and is the gravesite) of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man ever (8 foot 11), but what do you know about Alton itself? Maybe you've seen the stunning Clark Bridge spanning the Mississippi River, or even more stunning riverside cliffs along the Great River Road Highway 100, a designated National Scenic Byway. Perhaps you've heard the tales of the fabulous Piasa bird, a man-eating monster immortalized in a bluff-face mural, or the volumes of ghost stories about Alton that have earned it the moniker "the most haunted small town in America," according to the popular book/Web site Haunted Alton by Troy Taylor. Well, all that stuff is true, but wait -- there's more. Though Alton has just 30,000 people, it enjoys most of the attractions of big city St. Louis, less than 20 miles away. For example, Alton boasts a symphony, live theater, some very upscale restaurants, and so many artists and galleries that the town has to hold a festival just people can tour all the studios. There are two ornamental gardens to tour and six golf courses to play. You've probably already heard about the Alton Belle floating casino, but did you know Alton is also the proud location of one of the state's best bed & breakfasts? The Beall Mansion, located on 12th Street, is one of seven B&Bs in town. The city serves up some serious riverfront action as well -- check out the Melvin Price Locks and Dam, where you can watch river traffic get a major hydraulic lift, or browse through the museum. There's always the Alton Museum of History and Art, where, among other things, you can learn even more about Mr. Wadlow.

EFFINGHAM
(S on IL 29, E on IL 16, E on IL 128, E on IL 33 = 88 miles)

Besides being fun to say, Effingham has been an American vacation destination for almost as long as there have been American highways and in fact was a stop on the original American highway, the Historic National Road (begun in 1811). Now on I-70 and I-57, Effingham calls itself the Crossroads of America. Deep into transportation issues, the town has both a steam-engine museum and a Corvette museum. Also suitable for gawking is the 200-foot-tall "Cross at the Crossroads," and City Hall is graced with the 1997 International Statue Award-winning "Flame of Hope" --and those are just two of numerous statues on public display in this town of 12,000. Nearby Lake Sara offers a complete range of water fun, and the Monastery Museum in equally nearby Teutopolis hosts regular events all year long. Check out the novelty-shop-intensive downtown area or stroll through the Alwerdt's Gardens, the Ballard Nature Center, or the Anthony Acres Resort. With 12 hotels and an amazing 50 restaurants, ineffable Effingham proves its claim of being a premier roadside attraction.

GRAFTON
(S on I-55, W on IL 140, N on IL 100 a.k.a. 'The Great River Road' = 101 miles)

Piasa country, that bend of the river between Alton and Grafton, offers some pretty impressive stuff. Nestled on the banks of the Illinois, right where it joins the mighty Mississippi, Grafton is a long one-sided town with the river as most everyone's backyard. There may be only about 620 souls living in Grafton, but it's the vacation destination of thousands. And Grafton knows it's cute, too. The concentration of immaculately preserved old buildings, antique shops, and novelty stores sometimes makes you wonder whether you're in a real town or a theme park. Just upstream, Pere Marquette State Park combines wild-woods wonder with multiple marine activities. Resort hotel, cabins, and campgrounds are all available, and you can play chess on a board with pieces the size of people. When you're finished there, bike the eight miles down to town and enjoy the wine and the view from the Piasa Winery or continue on the 20-mile bike trail all the way to the Piasa Bird mural itself. You can also catch either of two ferries for a river ride to Missouri. Check out the Old Boatworks Building for the giant Grafton Riverside Flea Market. Dine at the lavishly restored Ruebel Hotel, or check out the Fin Inn's 8,000 gallons of aquarium. Downstream, watch for eagles cliffside or get in a final splash at the giant Raging Rivers water park over Labor Day weekend. No matter what you're looking for, if you get to Grafton, you'll find a vacation.

ST. CLAIR COUNTY
(East St. Louis-Washington Park-Fairview Heights-Belleville-O'Fallon-Shiloh)
(To Belleville: S on I-55, S on I-255, E on I-64, N on IL 159 = 102 miles)

This southwestern Illinois metroplex is bustling with rich history and big-city hustle. Essentially a green extension of the St. Louis suburbs along I-64, cities such as Belleville gleam with big-city sophistication and smaller towns such as Cahokia are drenched in local color. One of the first areas settled by white men in Illinois, St. Clair County now holds a quarter-million people, and that many people mean many possibilities. There are two casinos in the neighborhood: the Casino Queen on the east bank and the President Casino riverboat on the west. Other distinctive sites include East St. Louis' Gateway Geyser, the world's highest spraying fountain (627 feet!) and right across from the Arch itself; and the gothic splendor of Illinois' biggest church, St. Peter's Cathedral in Belleville. The 200-acre grounds of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows are among the largest in the country and dedicated to honoring all faiths. And then there's prosperous Fairview Heights, which has become a restaurant-and-shopping mecca for tourists on both sides of the river. With dozens of hotels to choose from and all of St. Louis as a backup, a day trip to St. Clair County can easily become a weekend stay.

QUINCY
(W on I-72, N on I-172 = 116 miles)

Speaking of river cities, few can compete with Quincy when it comes to charm and attractiveness. A town of about 40,000 on the back of the mighty Mississip', Quincy boasts an astonishing number of impressively well-maintained 19th-century buildings, many of them on ready display on the Quincy main street, Maine Street. Stop in at the Gardner Museum of Architecture and Design on Maine to get all the details on the local buildings and go by the Quincy Art Center or the Quincy Society of Fine Arts (America's first community arts council) in the city's civic center to learn more about Quincy's nationally respected local-arts programs, including the Arts/Riverfest. Watch the eagles dining riverside at Lock and Dam 21 just south of town. Catch a show by the Quincy Community Theater, or take the one-lane bridge out to Quinsippi Island for a park experience right in the middle of the river. There's also the Mississippi Valley Antique Auto Museum in All American Park featuring ... well, you know. And if all that weren't enough, Quincy is only a half-hour upstream from another of America's premier tourist attractions, Mark Twain's hometown, Hannibal, Mo.

DANVILLE
(E on I-72, N on I-57, E on I-74 = 118 miles)

It's hard to decide what to focus on when dealing with Danville: the town itself, which is pretty impressive, or its even more astonishing park system. There is only one Illinois "National Scenic River," and Danville's got it: the Middle Fork of the Vermillion River. Then there are three phenomenal wilderness recreational areas, all on the same gorgeous stretch of water just west of town. Kickapoo State Park was once a "scarred wasteland ravaged by turn-of-the-century strip mining," but nowadays it's a sylvan pleasure center with hiking, camping, fishing, boating, and even scuba diving, plus some of the best bike trails in the Midwest. Downstream, the 3,000-acre Middle Fork State Fish and Wildlife Area is the National Scenic River area; just a few miles upstream, the river flows through the 2,500-acre Kennekuk County Park, which offers even more forms of pastoral and aquatic bliss. These are just part of Danville's total of 15,000 acres of public parks, including a remarkable wetland boardwalk. And then there's more to the town than it's reputation as the home of Quaker Oats. Though the population is only 33,000, the area boasts 100 restaurants and 12 hotels, along with three museums, including one commemorating Old Abe himself and one honoring legendary Speaker of the House "Uncle Joe" Cannon. When you get there, check out Danville's vibrant 177-year-old downtown area, another impressive Illinois Main Street project.

LONG WEEKENDS

PERU-LA SALLE
(N on I-55, N on I-39 / U.S. 51 = 128 miles)

Along the Illinois River -- in the area called the Illinois Valley, in fact -- the twinned towns of Peru-La Salle (or La Salle-Peru, as some say) manage to marry town and country beauty in a way that is unique in Illinois. Cliffs and waterfalls, as well as plentiful water-sport facilities, in the parkland south of the Illinois attract tourists and weekenders from across the state and even the Midwest. Climb the famous Starved Rock (named for a siege in a battle between the Illinois and Fox Indians) for a view of the river and the lavish Starved Rock State Park Lodge or hike the 18 canyons -- in particular French Canyon -- for dramatic scenery. Just down the road, Matthiessen State Park offers even more stunning canyon scenes, including the breathtaking Cascade Falls, which grace so many pictorials about Illinois wilderness beauty. Upstream on the north shore of the river, Buffalo Rock State Park offers access to the legendary I&M Canal State Trail, gorgeous bluff and river views, "Effigy Tumuli" monumental earthwork statues (some more than 2,000 feet long), and, appropriately enough, buffalo. In town, take the walking tour of the historic downtown district to learn more about an area whose history goes back to the town's namesake in the 1600s.

BISHOP HILL
(N on I-55, N on IL 121, W on I-74, N on IL 78, W on U.S. 34, W on IL 17, N on CR 1700E = 129 miles)

It's so small that you may not be able to find it on some maps, but the tourist bureaus sure know where Bishop Hill is. That's what happens when your entire town becomes a tourist attraction. Back in 1846, when it was founded by Swedish immigrants, Bishop Hill was billed as "Utopia on the Prairie." The 120 people who still live there and the thousands who visit each year feel it still lives up to that claim. Ten buildings from the original colony have been turned into a state historic site, and the old hospital is now a bed & breakfast. Steeped in enough Swedish culture to pickle your herring, the village's novelty and specialty shops that crowd around the tiny town square emphasize antique and Scandinavian stylings of everything from quilts and herbals to handmade furniture. Less than a half-hour from Kewanee or Sandburg's hometown, Galesburg, and only about an hour from the Quad Cities, should you feel the need to get your big-city buzz, Bishop Hill offers a chance to get away from all that and spend some time in a place some still call a utopia.

GENEVA
(N on I-55, N on U.S. 30, N on IL 59, W on IL 38 = 190 miles)

For those of you not afraid to enter Chicagoland without a bodyguard, Geneva, the county seat of Kane County, has been a prime getaway tourist destination since way back in the 1870s, when working rich from the Windy City came to cool their heels. Nowadays Geneva is still one of the priciest places in Illinois (with average housing costs exceeding $210,000), but boy what beauty that money can buy. Situated along the Fox River, Geneva capitalizes on its arboreal beauty and historic charm. Although few of the original giant 19th-century mansions remain, those that do are scrupulously maintained, most notably the historic Herrington Inn & Spa, which was once a dairy but is now a world-class resort (four diamonds, according to AAA) with an exciting variety of fall-themed vacation and wedding packages (www.herringtoninn.com). And a good number of smaller older buildings are still on display, many built from native stone and now housing hundreds of specialty shops, both in the refurbished downtown and along Third Street. Outdoors Geneva offers both river and woodland parks (including the fabulous Fabyan Forest Preserve) and some of the best bike trails in the state. Charm, class, and beauty make Geneva a destination worth visiting, even if it is somewhat close to a certain C-word.

GALENA
(N on I-55, N on I-55 / IL 121, W on I-74, W on I-80, W on U.S. 20 = 254 miles)

It's just a tiny town (pop. 3,500), the county seat of the farthest-northwest county in the state, but Galena manages to attract more tourists than some towns 20 times its size. Is it the award-winning Galena Winery or the Hawk Valley School of the Arts or world class exhibits at the Galena Art Center that draws them in? Perhaps folks are flocking to see the numerous historical sites, such as the Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site, the 1857 Belvedere, the 1859 Post Office and Customs House, the Dowling House, the Old Market House, or the 1822 Vinegar Hill Lead Mine and Museum. There are so many beautiful historic homes in Galena that the town's tourist brochure includes an architectural glossary and the National Trust for Historic Preservation calls Galena "mid-America's jewel." Maybe it's Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort, with its 17 wintertime trails and summertime alpine slides, bike trails, and riverboat cruises; or the highest point in Illinois, nearby Scales Mound, where the entire village is on the National Register of Historic Places. How about the unheard-of 40 bed & breakfasts and historic inns, the five health spas, four resorts, four campgrounds and numerous vacation rentals. The incredible array of shopping and fine dining undoubtedly plays a part, but mostly it's the chance to be in one of the most beautiful small towns in America.

SHAWNEE
(To Carbondale: U. S. 51 = 189 miles; to Metropolis: S on I-55, S on IL 4, E on I-64, S on I-57, S on I-24, W on U.S. 45 = 233 miles)

Let's face it: The entire southern tip of our state is essentially one huge park. There are 81 natural areas, 36 state parks or recreational facilities, 27 campsites, 338 miles of trails, and 11 lakes, not to mention the 270,000 acres of national forests scattered throughout the 11 county area that make up Shawnee. Looking for city-style thrills? It's hard to beat Carbondale, which bills itself as the "best small town in Illinois" and is known nationally as the home of one of America's top party colleges, Southern Illinois University. Visit "Little Egypt," where the legendary river port Cairo sits at the southern tip of the state, and witness the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Step back in time with a stroll down Main Street in Elizabethtown, or visit Superman himself in Metropolis. What the Shawnee really excels in is bringing you nature at its wildest. The Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area is such a rock-formation wonder that it's become one of the most popular wilderness tourist destinations in the entire Midwest, and Giant City State Park south of Carbondale, offering equally astonishing views, is not far behind. Either would be a first-class vacation destination on its own, but that's just the start of it. Cave-in-Rock State Park boasts not only one of those extravagant state-park lodges (like Giant City) but also a ferry river crossing to Kentucky. In addition to being some of the greatest natural wilderness in the Midwest, Shawnee is also Illinois wine country, featuring three of the state's best-known wineries: Alto Winery (618-893-4898), Ponoma Winery (618-893-2623), and Owl Creek (618-893-2557) in Cobden -- all of which are happy to offer tours and tastings. The best way to see the Shawnee is to plan to tour from spot to spot, camping here, catching a bed & breakfast there. So be prepared, for attempting to catch even a fraction of the best the Shawnee has to offer will take you several long and enjoyable weekends.

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