Mighty Rivers, Legends, Quaint Towns, Giants, Lincoln And Lurking Spirits... What’s Not To Love About Illinois?

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By Vickie Sam Paget

Illinois is a land of contrasts, where whimsical towns lie side by side with scenic byways and some of the most eccentric attractions that the United States has to offer.

It’s great for family breaks and girlie getaways, and it’s also a big hit with those clients who are in search of the unique, the unusual, and the sometimes downright bizarre... And yes we all do have those clients.

So, whether they’re ghost-hunters, history buffs, nightlife-loving groups of girls, legend-lovers or families in search of some wholesome fun, why not suggest that they get off the beaten track and on route to Illinois?

Champaign Country

The wonderfully-named Champaign County is centrally located at the crossroads of Interstates I-57, I-74 and I-72, which link Chicago, Indianapolis, St Louis and Peoria. It’s conveniently situated about two hours from each of these major cities.

This super-accessible area – where Lincoln spent some of his time practicing law – is a great match for clients in search of a girlie getaway and families looking for some serious fun.

Girlie Getaways

The girlie getaway crowd will adore shopping in the historic buildings of downtown Champaign. These buildings now host a plethora of independent stores and eclectic boutiques, and for the bargain-hunter, there are plenty of antique, consignment and restoration stores to lose hours in.

From mornings spent over hot, flaky croissants and freshly brewed coffee, to evenings indulging in sweet local wine and juicy steaks from community farms, Champaign County’s dining scene is certainly eclectic. And if the girls are looking for a one-off experience, the team at the convention and visitors’ bureau will happily create a customized ‘culinary crawl’ itinerary to tickle their taste buds.

And, of course, when the sun goes down, the downtown district and vibrant Campustown comes to live. The girls can sample a local brew in a beer garden, head for cocktails at an upscale lounge, or catch a band at one of Champaign’s outdoor stages.

Family Fun

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For families, quality family time has never looked this good – or this affordable. From water parks and petting zoos to museums, parks and orchards, Champaign Country makes for a unique and bank balancing family break.

Champaign’s Orpheum Children's Science Museum is a great place to start. Located in the 1914 Orpheum Theatre, which is considered to be one of the finest buildings in downstate Illinois, the museum offers kids the opportunity to learn about science at their own pace. Your client’s kids will simply adore the miniature castle, complete with drawbridge, dragon's lair and moat.

Give the little ones a taste of wholesome fun at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery. Using goat’s milk, the creamery churns out handcrafted, predominantly French-influenced cheeses. There’s also an organic orchard on site featuring a wide variety of fruits.

And they will go crazy at Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, where they can pet and feed Alaskan reindeer, play in the paintball gallery, race in pedal carts or get delightfully lost in the four-hectare ‘Cornfusion’ maze.

The Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve is sure to give them a thrill too. The preserve is home to a colony of brown bats that roost in the Covered Bridge. From spring to fall, your clients’ kids will squeal with surprise when they see the bats flying to and from the bridge from dusk to dawn.

Also in Lake of Woods Forest Preserve, The Museum of the Grand Prairie is part of the ‘Looking for Lincoln’ program, which features sites associated with the former U.S. president.

Historic Alton

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On the banks of the Mississippi River, Alton is one of America’s great river towns. The threads of the country’s history run deep on the banks of this quiet little river town.  

Some say that the anti-slavery movement began in Alton. In the early 1830s, abolitionist and publisher Elijah P Lovejoy was assassinated while defending his printing press. An angry mob shot Lovejoy in retaliation for the anti-slavery views he expressed in his newspaper, The Observer. Alton’s Lovejoy Monument is dedicated to his courageous life and it is the tallest monument in the state of Illinois.

The town’s new Lincoln and Civil War Legacy Trail takes your clients on a walk with Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as Civil War soldiers from both the North and South, to 10 significant historic sites located throughout Alton. 

On the trail your clients experience the life of a young Lincoln as a lawyer, and witness the last of the great Lincoln-Douglas Debates, which took place in Alton. With the issue of slavery on the minds of spectators, more than 6,000 people gathered to see the debate that launched Lincoln into national prominence. 

They can then delve deeper into the history of the city at the Alton Museum of History and Art. It is there that they will encounter a life-size bronze statue of the World’s Tallest Man, Robert Wadlow. Known to the locals as the ‘Gentle Giant’, Robert reached a height of almost three metres. Visitors travel from around the world to see how they measure up to his statue and learn about his everyday life at the Museum of History and Art.

The Great Rivers Scenic Byway
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For centuries, the Mississippi River has churned along, twisting and turning moments in time that have defined the culture of the river communities along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. 

The 53-kilometre byway begins in Hartford at the intersection of Illinois Route 3 and New Poag Road. It then winds west and north via Illinois Routes 3, 143 and 100.  Illinois Route 100 leads you through Alton and bends along the forested river bluffs to its ending point in Grafton at Pere Marquette State Park.

History is alive on every hill, in every valley and at every turn that the river takes. From the epic journey of explorers Lewis and Clark, to the first shots of the Civil War that rippled shockwaves across the country, visitors stand at the crossroads of history.

This is considered to be one of the most scenic drives in the Midwest, and this winding river road is the perfect backdrop for recreational activities all along the byway.  Whether your clients are biking, hiking, fishing, boating or interested in a round of golf, they’ll never run out of things to do and places to see on the byway.

The Spooky Side

A bird that devours men and ‘One of the Most Haunted Small Towns in America’: this is just a taste of some of the local legends that visitors to Alton find so intriguing. 

For those willing to immerse themselves in the local culture, it does not take long before they discover the looming legend of the Piasa Bird or hit the streets of Alton after nightfall to experience haunted Alton.

The Illini Indians of the region called the monster ‘The Piasa’ – pronounced Pie-a-Saw – which means ‘bird that devours men’. The legend of this man-eating monster has been passed down from generation to generation, and today, the painting of the Piasa Bird high upon the bluffs is all that remains, luring visitors to determine if the lore holds true.

Alton is also known as ‘One of the Most Haunted Small Towns in America’. Whether visitors are interested in haunted history or seeing a ghost first-hand, touring options include walking tours, trolley tours, haunted bus tours, dinner tours and haunted overnight stays.   

Based on the bestselling book Haunted Alton, Troy Taylor stirs the spirits with his History and Hauntings Ghost Hunter’s Tour. These tours take your clients to the scariest spots in town, while telling them the tales of the dark history of death, disease, disaster, violence and murder that have made Alton so haunted. 

Alternatively, ghost-hunters can check out one of the most haunted houses in Alton on a ‘Ghostly Campout’, which is held each month during the summer on the grounds of the McPike Mansion. 

And if that isn’t enough to get your clients quaking in your boots, Alton’s Historic Museum of Torture Devices features devices on display that were used to torture people in the Middle Ages.

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