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Wine aging in oak barrels at Blue Sky Vineyard

Wine aging in oak barrels at Blue Sky Vineyard

Did you know you can have a taste of Italy in Illinois’ Trails to Adventure region? The charming Tuscan inspired façade of Blue Sky Vineyard will transport you to the delightful heartland of central Italy.

The family behind Illinois’ little piece of Europe began their journey to Blue Sky many years ago. Taking root from one woman’s idea of growing grapes, Blue Sky developed into a vision after unfortunate circumstances. Owner Marilyn Rochman’s former place of employment sadly closed in 1999. It was then that her father-in-law, Barrett Rochman, reminded Marilyn of her Southern Illinois vineyard dream, and the two set off to make Blue Sky a reality.

After many long hours of planning and research, the vineyard grounds were finally ready for prepping in the fall of 2000, with planting taking place the following spring. The simple idea flourished into what is now a bustling vineyard and winery, producing wine that’s sold all over the country and welcoming tourists every day of the year.

Blue Sky’s Tuscan inspired façade

Blue Sky’s Tuscan inspired façade

The meticulously planted grapevines at Blue Sky Vineyard

The meticulously planted grapevines at Blue Sky Vineyard

Make your own journey to this special piece of Tuscany in Illinois, to taste the family’s delicious variety of dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet, sweet and dessert wine. Whether you’re a wine expert or a wine novice, Blue Sky’s tranquil setting, delightful live music and picturesque scenery will fill you with serenity and relaxation.

The best part – Blue Sky is also a bed & breakfast. You can wake up to breathtaking views of the 12-acre vineyard from your own private balcony, enjoy a delicious European breakfast and sample Blue Sky wine in the magnificent tasting room, designed with 200 year-old Portuguese tiles, Romanian hand carved doors and vintage windmill ceiling fans.

Located in the heart of the Shawnee Wine Trail in the Shawnee National Forest, stay at Blue Sky while hopping around to the eleven other wineries on the trail. It’s a great way to unwind and leave your cares behind.

— The Illinois Office of Tourism

Swedish pancakes started our second day in Rockford, which after another restful evening at the Hilton Garden Inn, was a delightful way to continue our family fun in Rockford. The Stockholm Inn, an immensely popular restaurant rooted in Rockford’s deep Swedish heritage, makes over 14,000 of these famous pancakes each month. Naturally, our son loved the Mickey Mouse pancakes the best!

Dinosaurs highlighted our first attraction of the day at the Burpee Museum of Natural History. Burpee is home to one of the most important dinosaur discoveries of the past century, a young T. Rex named Jane. As the centerpiece of the exhibit, Jane: Diary of a Dinosaur, she is surrounded by casts of adult dinos, as well as a wealth of educational material informing visitors of Jane’s rich history and scientific importance.

The Burpee Museum continued to fascinate us as we climbed through several floors of exhibits, including Windows to Wilderness, a very interactive kid-friendly exhibit that featured live snakes, fish tanks, buttons to push, flowers to smell, and a crafts table. Although the snake scared mom and dad, our son was fascinated!

Another highlight of the Burpee Museum was a temporary exhibit showcasing the life of Rick Nielsen in Rick’s Picks: A Lifelong Affair with Guitars and Music. Here, we were wowed by the variety of fun guitars, visually stunning displays, and the history of Rick’s musical life.

Next up was lunch at Mary’s Market, where we feasted on their famous cakes, cookies, and baked goods in addition to several European-style sandwiches, soups, and salads. The fresh-baked breads really made my lunch, called The Masterpiece, amazing. Of course, it was the cookies that wowed our son!

Our son was continually wowed all afternoon, which we spent at Discovery Center Museum, one of top 10 children’s museums in the nation! Trains, tractors, and a wealth of interactive and educational exhibits kept his attention for hours. We made a pizza, worked in a construction zone, and even milked a cow!

After so much excitement, our son was ready for a long nap, fortunately sleeping the entire 4.5 hour drive home. Our entire family thoroughly enjoyed our weekend Illinois getaway…anyone looking for family fun should have one place in mind: Rockford!

— Adam Sommer, Illinois Mile Marker

Thank you to our partners for making this trip possible, including the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Hilton Garden Inn. Want to follow in Mile Marker Adam Sommer’s footsteps? Travel the below map!

View Illinois Mile Markers: Rockford Itinerary in a larger map

Meet the Mile Marker:


Adam Sommer

Family Travel with Dad
Adam is a St. Louis based travel writer focused on family-friendly travel with a special emphasis on the American Midwest. Adam’s personal travel blog, Visit Flyover Country, chronicles his family’s travels throughout America’s heartland.

Adam enjoys discovering new places with a family atmosphere; relishes local, unique, & kid-friendly dining establishments; and simply loves to talk travel. Kid-friendly attractions usually drive Adam’s itineraries, including zoos, children’s museums, and anything related to trains, super heroes or dinosaurs. Illinois is one of Adam’s favorite states to visit, so he looks forward to seeing more of the Land of Lincoln!

Alton’s location along the Mississippi River makes it an ideal location to observe the majestic bald eagle. The great river provides an abundant food source that attracts these rare birds. Nick was fully prepared, with a massive 500mm lens, to document them soaring and diving as they hunted for prey. But, our short visit was so full of activities that we never did catch them fishing. We were, however, lucky enough to have an up-close-and-personal visit with Patriot at the Alton Visitor Center!

Patriot at the Alton Visitor's Center

Patriot at the Alton Visitor’s Center

Patriot lives at the World Bird Sanctuary. She’s an 18-year-old bald eagle with a 7-foot wingspan. She has been in captivity since she was a chick due to an unfortunate fall from her nest. The tumble led to a bout of pneumonia, which left her lungs too weak for her to succeed in the wild. Despite her misfortune, Patriot has an important job. She travels around the Alton area so that others can appreciate the majesty of a Bald Eagle and learn about the efforts to rebuild the wild bald eagle population in the United States.

Interesting Facts:

  • The bald eagle is the national bird of the United States.
  • It was nearly extinct in the 1970s due to illegal hunting and the effects of DDT poisoning. (Thanks to recovery efforts and stronger federal protection, however, this large raptor is no longer endangered and continues to make a strong comeback.)
  • Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 mph.
  • Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.

Needless to say, we plan on heading back next winter to capture what Nick didn’t have the chance to do on this visit – bald eagles soaring above the river and catching their meal from the mighty Mississippi!

*#ILMileMarkers Tip*: If you’re interested in seeing a bald eagle up close and personal, contact the Alton CVB. They can direct you to the nearest event, taking place through February.

Ziplining in the middle of January? In Illinois?! Yes, you can! We were so excited to check out the Grafton Zipline course! Located just 20 minutes outside of Alton, we drove up and up (and up) until we reached the lodge. We were prepared for frigid temps of a typical Midwest winter, but we struck gold with an unseasonably warm 60-degree day! The sun was shining as we zipped through the treetops and literally ‘soared with the eagles’. Pictured below is one of a handful of wild bald eagles we saw circling overhead.

Ziplining in Grafton

Ziplining in Grafton

Our guides, Jason and Katie, expertly guided us along 9 zips, totaling 1 3/4 miles, the longest of which is 2,000 feet! During our visit the trees were bare, making it possible to see all the way to the river from zip number four; the 2000′ long “Soaring Eagle”. We imagine each season has something spectacular to offer; budding leaves of spring, vibrant green tree tops in summer, and fiery red and orange in the fall. All in all, Grafton Zipline is a special Midwestern adventure that should not be missed!

*#ILMileMarkers Tip*: After Ziplining, head down to the Aeries Winery for a drink, or two, and check out the stunning views of the Mississippi River Valley from their beer garden deck.

Panoramic view of the Mississippi River from Aeries outdoor deck

Panoramic view of the Mississippi River from Aeries outdoor deck

We had a blast discovering Alton and the surrounding community! We look forward to returning soon!


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– Nick Ulivieri and Amy Larrick, Illinois Mile Markers

Thanks to our partners for making this trip possible, including the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Holiday Inn Alton. Want to follow in our Mile Markers’ footsteps? Travel the below map!

View Illinois Mile Markers: Alton Itinerary in a larger map

Meet the Mile Markers:


Nick Ulivieri

Nick is a Chicago based photographer specializing in commercial photography with a focus on food, and commercial/residential architecture. Nick began his professional career in the advertising industry where he developed a passion for the impact branding and design have on a business.

Nick’s creativity, and affinity for working a camera naturally led to photography as a career at Nick Ulivieri Photography. With a prominent following on Instagram, Nick looks forward to spreading his love for photography throughout the Land of Lincoln!

Amy Larrick

An Illinois native, Amy was born in Bloomington, grew up Rockford and moved to Chicago 10 years ago for college. She studied Interior Design at Harrington College of Design and during school began working in the restaurant industry.

She’s worked for Phil Stefani in the restaurant business for nearly nine years. A foodie at heart, Amy loves dining out at restaurants, as well as cooking at home. She’s always been adventurous with food and enjoys trying new ingredients and flavors. The same can be said for her love of travel. A love for discovery of new places and soaking up the culture that goes with it lends itself to the adventures ahead in Illinois!

Let me start out by saying that if you’re not interested in history, I’m the wrong Mile Marker to read.  No, I take that back.  You should read me.  I’d love to change your mind.

I began my Mile Marker adventure at Cahokia Mounds.  It’s one of my favorite Illinois historic sites – and one of the most important.  You don’t have to take my word for it.  In 1982, Cahokia Mounds was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (The Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Vatican City and Notre Dame Cathedral are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Like I said, Cahokia Mounds is important.)

Monks Mound is the largest totally earthen prehistoric mound in the Western Hemisphere

Monks Mound is the largest totally earthen prehistoric mound in the Western Hemisphere

From 800 to 1400 CE, Cahokia Mounds was the dominant city of the Mississippian culture, the most sophisticated prehistoric culture in the Americas north of Mexico.  With no metal, no draft animals, and no written language, the Mississippians built monumental structures (Monks’ Mound is as tall as a ten-story office building), made beautiful pottery, and built giant sun calendars that accurately tracked the solstice and the equinox.  At its height, around 1250 CE, Cahokia had an estimated population of 20,000 people—larger than London at the same time.  The next North American city with a population that large was Philadelphia, five hundred years later.

The Woodhenge sun calendar accurately tracks the equinoxes and solstices

The Woodhenge sun calendar accurately tracks the equinoxes and solstices

If you visit Cahokia Mounds on a gray afternoon with the threat of snow in the air, like we did, you might want to head straight to the exhibits in the Interpretive Center.  This is not a dry, specialists-only museum.  Divided into thematic sections—Time, Culture, City, Structures, Life, and Products—the kid-friendly exhibits do a terrific job telling visitors what archeologists know about the Mississippian culture and how they know it.  A clever series of panels featuring two characters, the Storyteller and the Archeologist, offers commentary on the exhibits from two different viewpoints.  A new video tells the story of one of the most interesting features of Cahokia: the circular wooden sun calendar known as Woodhenge.  The final portion of the exhibit – Knowing – talks about Cahokia Mounds as an archeological dig.

In better weather, there is plenty to see outside, including a reconstructed Woodhenge.  There are several different ways to tour the site.  Volunteer docents offer guided tours on the weekends in the spring and fall and every day during the summer.  If you prefer a self-guided tour, you can choose between a printed guide, and audio tours in two different formats.  If you can’t schedule a visit to Cahokia Mounds when the interpretive center is open, the trails are open basically from sun up to sun down.  Printed trail guides and information signs along the paths do a good job of introducing a visitor to the Mississippian culture and the mounds themselves.

No matter when you visit, something is apt to be going on. The site offers plenty of special events during the year:  flint knapping workshops, Native American art shows, and solstice sunrise observations at the Woodhenge.  When an active archeological dig is going on, visitors are welcome to the site.

Make a date with America’s ancient past and visit Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

*#ILMileMarkers Tip* Cahokia Mounds is located in Collinsville, Illinois, not Cahokia.

For more information about Cahokia Mounds, visit their informative website:

— Pamela Toler, Illinois Mile Marker

Thanks to our partners for making this trip possible, including The Tourism Bureau ILLINOISouth, the Collinsville Drury Inn and the Days Inn Vandalia. Want to follow in Mile Marker Pamela Toler’s footsteps? Travel the below map!

View Illinois Mile Markers: Collinsville Itinerary in a larger map

Meet the Mile Marker:


Pamela Toler

Pamela D. Toler is not your average freelance writer. She holds a PhD in history, is notoriously curious and has a long-standing love affair with road trips. As an author, Pamela has penned multiple books as well and has been featured on the History Channel.

She loves the thrill of exploring places of historical significance that link today with times of past. She blogs about history, writing, writing about history — and the occasional road trip through history — at History in the Margins.

The 2013 Illinois Travel Guide featuring Firefly Grill

Meet Kristie and Niall Campbell.  They are the flair and the creative genius behind the Firefly Grill in Effingham.  They are also the cover stars of the 2013 Illinois Travel Guide.

We are so proud to feature Kristie and Niall on our cover.  For me, this picture of the Campbell couple opening the door to their restaurant – welcoming us inside – represents exactly what I have experienced in my travels throughout the state.  This picture shows what Illinois has to offer.  And that is our people.  Our hospitality.  And our charm.

The guide reads more like a magazine this year and features many of the stars of Illinois tourism.  From top chefs to top gift shops, we show you the best of every corner of the Land of Lincoln.

And I can speak with some experience on the best of the Firefly in Effingham.  I was lucky enough to dine with Kristie recently, while Niall turned out dish after dish of moan-worthy deliciousness from the kitchen.

The butternut -squash ravioli with scallops tasted all that much better because the ingredients at Firefly are the definition of local.  Whether from the gardens on Firefly’s own three-acre plot of land, or from local farms, fishermen and foragers, 13 farms within a 60-mile radius of the restaurant, nearly everything on a Firefly plate is from this state.

The inviting Firefly Grill atmosphere

Over a chai-infused apple martini with fresh apples from Shelbyville, Kristie explained that she and Niall never expected to find themselves back in her hometown of Effingham, but now they can’t imagine leaving.

She told of her years “slinging stocks” on a Boston trading floor, enjoying the big city life until the events of 9/11 changed everything.  She lost friends.  She knew there was more to life.

So off she went to Vieques, a small island of Puerto Rico.  She knew of a bartender there who she had crossed paths with many years before.

“I truly believe in love at first sight,” Kristie said with a smile and a nod toward the kitchen door where Niall worked on a unique spin on a traditional grilled (munster!) cheese and tomato soup.  “Before I thought it was my career.  But it is my marriage that really defines me.”

A beautiful and equally delicious Firefly Grill masterpiece

A beautiful and equally delicious Firefly Grill masterpiece

Those who visit Niall and Kristie can see this in the pictures that line the Firefly walls of the family the couple is building and of their wedding day.  Walking into the restaurant is like walking into their home.  The place itself is named after Kristie’s childhood memories of chasing fireflies in Effingham with her grandmother.

And when the lobster sweet-corn stew with fresh biscuit arrived…well, I started believing in love at first sight, too.

— Jen Hoelzle

Deputy Director

Illinois Office of Tourism