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Prior to my recent trip, I was completely oblivious to the beauty and history jammed packed into a town located at the confluence of three amazing rivers…the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers all around Alton, Illinois. As soon as I arrived, I could feel the vigor of a town filled with life and energy. Ready to explore it all, my very first stop was the new Audubon Center at the Riverlands. The Riverlands provide a refuge for all kinds of migrating and nesting birds for every season. While visiting, I was able to learn all about the conservation efforts along the Mississippi River, the different types of birds that pass through during the year, try some of the interactive displays and take in the magnificence of the expansive view of the Mississippi River. It was also nice to learn that not only does the center teach the importance of conservation, but it’s constructed to LEED Silver Standards with several energy efficient features.

ImageOn my trip, I learned a great deal about what made Alton so special and the history behind it all. I was amazed to learn of an Alton-born gentleman by the name of Robert Wadlow, who grew to be 8 feet and 11.1 inches tall and still reigns as the tallest man to ever live. A person being almost 9 feet tall is a bit hard to fathom until you actually stand next to the life sized statue of Wadlow, located in Upper Alton. I also learned quite a bit about Alton residents’ participation in the Underground Railroad. We walked through the cobblestone streets, visiting key locations known as safe places of refuge for groups of slaves waiting to move to their next destination. It was during this tour that I realized Alton was filled with several hills and scenic overlooks. Our tour guide, Eric, had a story for every turn and was well informed on Alton’s past. The tour ended in an Upper Alton Cemetery, where we learned about the life of Wadlow, the meaning behind his Monument, and what his life meant to the River town of Alton.

Of course, no trip is complete without a warm and cozy place to retreat after a long day’s work of fact finding and exploring. I had the pleasure of checking in at the Haagen Haus, located on a hill in Alton’s Historic Christian Hill District. Far from your ordinary Hotel stay, the Haagen Haus guesthouse amazed me with a well decorated, quaint space that seemed to fit perfectly into Alton’s laid back and historic vibe. The beautifully preserved home included two fireplaces, a fully stocked kitchen, private courtyard and many modern amenities. As I settled down for the evening, I couldn’t help but wonder what my second day in Alton would bring, as I was eager to learn more.

Stay tuned to see my next destination in Alton!

Meechy Monroe

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Whether you are a die-hard NASCAR enthusiast or simply looking for a fun weekend activity, Chicagoland Speedway’s NASCAR weekend, taking place Sept. 15-16 in Joliet, is jam-packed with action and entertainment for all to enjoy. Visitors can witness NASCAR racing in America’s heartland, see a performance by country star Luke Bryant, learn more about the sport and experience the prized NASCAR culture.

The September racing weekend includes the Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola NASCAR Nationwide Series on Sept. 15 and the GEICO 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on Sept. 16. NASCAR stars battling at the event include Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and more.

Regular tickets provide admission to the two main events and the Luke Bryant concert. For those looking for even more NASCAR fun, the Checkered Flag Fan Zone and Turn 4 Club tickets provide additional access to events and activities. A variety of hotels in the area are offering travel packages to make the most out of a NASCAR weekend.

The Chicagoland Speedway is located on historic Route 66, adjacent from the Route 66 Raceway. It is a $130 million, 1.5-mile, D-shaped, tri-oval speedway that rests on 930 acres of land, which is large enough to accommodate 42 United Centers (home of the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks). Currently, the Chicagoland Speedway holds the title of the largest sporting facility in Illinois. To learn more about the Chicagoland Speedway, please visit chicagolandspeedway.com.

In addition to the NASCAR weekend, Joliet features a variety of other sites and events to discover. Make sure to visit the Joliet Area Historical Museum. There you will find Route 66 memorabilia, interactive exhibits, life size models of characters like the Blues Brothers and plenty more. Joliet is also home to the Bird Haven Greenhouse. The Haven’s historic greenhouse features a tropical house, cacti room and outdoor gardens. To learn more about the area’s many sites and attractions in addition to the NASCAR weekend, visit EnjoyIllinois.com.

-The Illinois Office of Tourism

Since the 1920s, Americans have been traveling along Route 66. Some went west towards the promise of a better life and others simply enjoyed the wind whipping through their hair on the open road.Image

Today, most travelers along the historic ‘Mother Road’ are searching for a true American experience. Although the entirety of Route 66 spans across eight states, it begins in Chicago and heads southwest through the entire state.

The glorious 436 miles in Illinois represents nearly a fifth of the entire Route 66. The link to America’s past boasts the highest density of fun and interesting things to do.

With so many choices of where to stop, landmarks to see and places to eat, planning for a trip along the historic route may seem overwhelming. Luckily, at illinoisroute66.org you can find sample itineraries for car lovers, food lovers, families and more, as well as lists of core Route 66 attractions, a calendar of events and a map of the route through Illinois.

Some of the spots that are not to be missed include:

Polk-a-Dot Drive In

A popular restaurant stop along Route 66, open since 1956, with plenty of quirky charm and fun. (Braidwood)

Launching Pad Drive-In and Gemini Giant statue

Founded in 1960, this friendly establishment has a full service menu and is home to a giant “muffler man” statue. (Wilmington)

Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant

Built in 1923, Lou Mitchell’s has served Route 66 travelers since its beginning. Located at the beginning of Route 66, Lou Mitchell’s has been host to many over the years. Everyone has been seen at Lou Mitchell’s, from U.S. Presidents, Mayors, athletes, authors, judges, clergy, and stars of the stage and screen. (Chicago)

Cozy Dog Drive-In

A shrine to Route 66, the “corn dog on a stick” was invented here. (Springfield)

Shea’s Gas Station Museum

An internationally renowned, must-see Route 66 landmark filled with gas station and oil company collectibles. (Springfield)

Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum

The story of the people and places, and significant artifacts from Illinois Route 66. (Pontiac)

Pig Hip Restaurant

An icon of Route 66, owned by Ernie Edwards, creator of the Pig Hip sandwich. (Broadwell)

Bunyon’s Statue Giant

A Route 66 landmark, this muffler man statue stands in downtown Atlanta, IL to welcome visitors. (Atlanta)

Brooks Catsup Bottle Water Tower

The world’s largest catsup bottle and a landmark roadside attraction. Restored to its original appearance and named to the National Register of Historic Places. (Collinsville)

Henry’s Ra66it Ranch

This amusing and quirky attraction celebrates Route 66 and the people along the highway and offers all things about rabbits: Volkswagons or the furry kind. (Staunton)

Of course this a very small sampling of all there is to do along Route 66, so be sure peruse illinoisroute66.org for a full directory of trip ideas and quirky sights, and make use of the “My 66 Itinerary” function on the site to save your trip destinations in one place. Once you’ve finished your search, simply print out the saved itinerary and you’ll be on your way!

-The Illinois Office of Tourism

Pink Cookies at Davis Pastry

The Southern Illinois Town of Anna offers some unique shops, and a family run bakery that has been around since 1953!  Enjoy browsing on Main Street in such shops as This –n- That Flea Market, Down Home Do-dads, and Jim & Dots Western Wear, and be sure and try a sweet treat at Davis Pastry.  The pink cookie is famous, at least in Southern Illinois, and, if you give one a try, you will know why!     I have to admit that the pink iced sugar cookies are my favorite. But there are other items just as delicious. The brownies! The cream horns! The sweet rolls! And the doughnuts!    Try some and tell us your favorite!

Davis Pastry Shop, 206 S. Main St., Anna, IL; (618) 833-2161; hours: Monday-Saturday, 5:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.

Enjoy Southern Illinois!

Carol

Escape to Chicago for Labor Day and experience a weekend getaway complete with adventure, culture, history and fun! The bustling city is the perfect destination for the three day weekend. Highlights include the world renowned Chicago Jazz Festival, Magnificent Mile Shopping Festival, and Annual African Festival of the Arts. The following list provides ideas to make the most of a Labor Day trip to Chicago.

Special events:

Chicago Jazz Festival  (Thursday, Aug. 30 to Sunday, Sept. 2)

Started in 1974, the Chicago Jazz Festival takes place every Labor Day weekend on the magnificent lakefront. Visitors travel from all over the world to listen to the smooth sounds of Chicago’s jazz talent alongside national and international stars.

This year, the Chicago Jazz Festival will run Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 at the Chicago Cultural Center (Aug. 30 from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.), Millennium Park (Aug. 30 and 31 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.) and Grant Park (Sept. 1 and Sept. 2 from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.).  Admission is free to the public and provides a perfect opportunity to visit the city for a weekend.

African Festival of the Arts (Friday, Aug. 31 to Monday, Sept. 3)

Known as the largest neighborhood festival in Chicago, the annual African Festival of the Arts is celebrating its 23rd year. Festival goers can experience interactive demonstrations and vibrant entertainment, indulge in exotic African cuisine, and view African photography, art and jewelry.

The event will take place in Washington Park, 5100 S. Cottage Grove Ave., throughout Labor Day weekend.

Magnificent Mile Shopping Festival (Friday, Aug. 24 to Thursday, Sept. 6)

One of the world’s greatest shopping meccas, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile Shopping Festival is the perfect event for shopaholics. Celebrities, chefs and renowned fashion designers will demonstrate the latest trends in fashion, culinary, lifestyle, technology and culture.  The more you spend, the more points you accumulate for raffle tickets and fantastic prizes.

The Magnificent Mile Shopping Festival will take place on North Michigan Avenue, Chicago’s most famous shopping corridor.

Must-see attractions:

Skydeck Chicago The Ledge– View the city from 1,353 feet in the air. The Ledge at Skydeck Chicago provides the best views of the city from glass boxes on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower.

Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise – Learn how Chicago grew from a small back-country outpost into one of the country’s largest cities aboard Chicago’s First Lady.

Cloud Gate in Millennium Park– The 110-ton elliptical sculpture is a must-see in Chicago. Made of polished stainless steel plates, Cloud Gate reflects Chicago’s famous skyline and the sky above. Visitors can see their image reflected on its mirror-like surface.

Lincoln Park ZooLocated in Chicago’s beautiful Lincoln Park neighborhood, the free zoo is a favorite Chicago attraction. Listen to the roar of lions, watch gorillas climb lush trees and explore tropical rainforests, dry-thorn forests and spacious savannas.

There is plenty more to see and do in Chicago over Labor Day weekend. To check out additional sites and attractions, please visit enjoyillinois.com.

-The Illinois Office of Tourism