But when your paycheck stub says you aren't due any more vacation until next July, all your airline points have been used up and your credit cards are nearing their limits, where can you go? Lake Geneva, Galena and Union Pier all have too much "been there, done that" aura about them. Go there and you'll see all the same kinds of people you left at home.
We offer, then, a few ideas for quick, easy, off-the-beaten-track weekend getaways within a couple of hours' drive from Chicago. (Unfortunately, a car is de rigueur.) You can leave Friday after work and get to any of them in time for dinner, even if the traffic's a mess. (On Friday, of course it'll be a mess.)
All offer prime opportunities for leaf peeping as the trees blush later this autumn, should that be your bent, as well as other scenic views. Abundant nearby farms exist for fall-harvest pumpkin purchasing and cider slurping. There are plenty of antique shops and other kinds of shopping too. The accommodations are pleasant. What else could you want? (Well, all right, but it's tough to do Paris in a weekend.)
If you've got an urge to get up and go, you might still be able to get reservations for Labor Day weekend. And everyone you know won't have been there lately. Check these places out and consider yourself a trendsetter.
Indoors, the Time Museum at the Clock Tower Resort offers what may be the world's largest collection of timekeeping devices, from ancient to antique to atomic. Rockford also boasts some fine restaurants and comfortable accommodations, both of which can be combined with an appreciation for antiques at Cliffbreakers restaurant and inn and the Clock Tower Resort.
The city can also be a fine base for exploring northwestern Illinois.
How to get there: Take Interstate 90 west.
What to do: Garden tours -- Don't miss Anderson Japanese Gardens. Industrialist John Anderson of Anderson Enterprises hired Japanese landscape designer Hoichi Kurisu to design it as a private garden in 1978. It has since been set up as a nonprofit foundation, and opened to the public on a regular basis for the first time last year.
It's stunning, all the more so because the plants are all hardy Midwestern specimens. As tour guide Wayne Pieper said, "It isn't what, it's how." There's also an authentic tea house and many Japanese garden ornaments.
Unfortunately, guided tours must be prearranged for groups of 20, but there's leaflet for a self-guided tour. Regrettably, it doesn't go into which plants are used, but they're supposedly working on that for next season. The garden is open through the end of October and ought to offer splendid fall color.
Klehm Arboretum was once a commercial nursery. (Gardeners and botanists will recognize the name.) Its 150 acres now have a new visitors' center, with formal and theme gardens nearby. The rest is many varieties trees and shrubs. Some of the paths are paved; some are wood-chipped. You can pick up a map and guide yourself along. Plants are reasonably well labeled. If you're not interested in plants, it's still a nice place to stroll or have a picnic.
History -- The Time Museum's extensive collection gives you a real feel for the history of timekeeping, with clocks in all shapes and sizes. The collection was originally a private one belong to Seth Atwood, who owns the hotel in which it's housed.
Don't let the fact that it's in a hotel make you discount it -- this is a serious and impressive museum, now curated by Atwood's daughter-in-law, Patricia Atwood. The two have made a very informative video on the subject that is shown alongside the exhibits. Even the gift shop is impressive, offering a wide variety of books on clockmaking and collecting.
For more history, a turn-of-the-century village, Midway Village has both replicas and restored buildings of the period. There's a cool newspaper office with working presses (unfortunately, the Linotype can't be operated). Try to avoid the place during special events, however.
Where to eat: If you arrive early enough on Friday, head for Cliffbreakers River Restaurant & Conference Center and its bargain $12.95 seafood buffet, which includes, among items too numerous to list, piles of crab legs and shrimp. Antique lovers will find it amazing -- owner Jimmy Vitale has filled most of the wall space in this huge riverfront restaurant with architectural salvage from fine hotels and other antique items. (Imagine Gulliver's, but six times the size.) There's even a brochure with a self-guided tour of the more important pieces. What isn't covered with antiques contains giant tropical-fish tanks; an expert from the Shedd Aquarium consulted.
Mary's Market Bistro offers contemporary American fare with a Mediterranean twist. Great baked goods, grilled pizzas and other bistro items feature in a casual atmosphere.
More casual yet, Box's Bar-B-Q, which has no decor to speak of, serves up dynamite barbecued pork shoulder. Ribs, chicken and a few other items are also available, but get the pork shoulder. It comes as a sandwich, between slices of spongy white bread, or as a dinner with the white bread on the side, and your choice of cole slaw, potato salad, french fries or spaghetti.
Box's, a Rockford institution, is owned by the family of Mayor Charles Box. It's handy to Klehm Arboretum, so pick up a carryout order and eat it at the park.
Cafe Patou is the don't-miss restaurant in Rockford. French-born chef/owner Philippe Forcioli worked on the Orient Express, at the Lodge at Vail and at Bellini By Cipriani in New York before moving with his wife to her hometown of Rockford, where he opened the restaurant in 1991. His sophisticated, modern French fare is heavenly.
Where to stay: Jimmy Vitale ran out of wall space for his antiques and banquet rooms for his restaurant, which is enormously popular for weddings, and so he added on. Cliffbreakers Comfort Suites has been open only a few months, and he's already filled up half a dozen special guest rooms with costly old furnishings. The regular rooms aren't bad either, many offering two storeys, gas fireplaces, and river views. Things look pretty plain now in the hallways but by this time next year you can bet they'll be fancier. Vitale still has few things to learn about the hotel business, but he's so successful a restaurateur, it's hard to imagine he won't work the bugs out quickly.
Best Western Clock Tower Resort is Rockford's old standby. Besides housing the Time Museum, it also has a collection of clocks of its own, decorating the halls. Its restaurant is Rockford's only one to earn AAA's four-diamond rating.
En route: If you leave work promptly, you can stop on the way at the Huntley Factory Shops, just off I-90 at Route 47. The mall, open till 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday (6 p.m. Sundays) offers dozens of outlet stores, selling brand-name merchandise from Versace, Bass, Izod, London Fog, Levi's, Reebock, Royal Doulton and Pfaltzgraff, among others. Don't shop too long -- you want to get to Rockford for dinner.
On the return trip, consider a detour up Route 20 to the Illinois Railroad Museum in Union. The museum features some 350 railcars and locomotives, as well as working electric, steam and diesel trains you can ride on. (The grounds are open till 4 p.m. weekdays, 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call for the train schedule.)
The area's known for a few other things, too -- like the former homes of John Deere and Ronald Reagan.
How to get there: Take Interstate 88 west.
What to do: Chocolate -- The Blawkhawk Chocolate Trail includes shops, restaurants, bed & breakfasts, bakeries and more. A do-it-yourself tour guide is available from the Blackhawk Waterways Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Outdoors -- White Pines Forest State Park in Mount Morris is one of the oldest of Illinois' state parks, dating from 1927. It offers 385 acres of hiking trails, a fishing creek, and virgin stands of pine trees. The area holds several other state parks, and recreation areas too.
Rock River canoe trips start in Oregon, through October, with pickups at various places down river; you can make arrangements at The Eagle's Nest, a Native American gift shop.
Kids' Stuff -- From late September to Oct. 31, you can follow a "Trail of Terror," when Behmer's Pumpkin Fantasyland, Selmi's Market and other places on the trail offer more haunting things than than just squashes and farm produce.
Where to eat: The Log Cabin Restaurant at the White Pines Inn offers a Sunday "Cornhusker's Buffet," and hearty American food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tampico's Dutch Diner, on the Chocolate Trail, serves homemade chocolate cream and peanut-butter-chocolate pies. The Old World cooking at Leombruni's Italian Village in Byron is one of the best reasons to visit this part of the world. (Byron's Turkey Testicle Festival, on Oct. 10, doesn't come close.)
Where to stay: Pinehill Bed & Breakfast in Oregon offers special teas with chocolates and features a library of books about chocolate to browse through. The world-traveler owners of the Hillendale Bed & Breakfast in Morrison have decorated each bedroom with different theme based on their travels. The Paddlewheel Inn on the Rock River in Oregon provides scenic river views.
White Pines Inn, in the the state park, offers inexpensive, rustic (but climate-controlled) cabins through late December -- unfortunately they book up early, but you never know when there'll be a cancellation. Or call ahead to reserve for next year.
En route: On your way west, have dinner in Geneva at 302 West, acclaimed for its New American cuisine.
Physics fans may want to drop in at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, which offers tours. For some reason, the lab also has a herd of buffalo.
Or stop and pick some fall raspberries at Granny's in Rochelle. While you're in town, you can admire the antique fixtures and get an old-fashioned ice-cream soda at American Dreams Confectionary and Soda Bar.
Fishermen get really excited about the area because of the Root River Steelhead Facility, a large hatchery. Each spring and fall, migrating salmon and trout run the river to spawn.
It's a good place to visit if you've got early Christmas shopping on your mind -- take your pick of outlet malls: Gurnee Mills on the way north and Factory Outlet Center and Lakeside Marketplace in Kenosha offer all the outlets you could want. Not to mention the Holiday Manor year-round Christmas shop in Caledonia.
How to get there: Take Interstate 94 north.
What to do: Waterfront -- Charter a fishing boat in Racine and angle for salmon or trout. Visitors are also welcome at the steelhead hatchery, where you can watch the fish swimming up a ladder and see crews collect their eggs. Or just stroll along the lakefront and enjoy the downtown.
Racing -- If you go in for a different sort of sporting life, Dairyland Greyhound Park is in Kenosha, and Wilmot Speedway not far away.
Kids' Stuff -- Kids will love a trip to Apple Holler, which offers a variety of farm activities as well as a cider mill, country store and restaurant. The Spinning Top Museum in Burlington boasts 2,000 tops, yo-yos and gyroscopes.
Shopping: The Factory Outlet Center in Kenosha offers more than 100 manufacturer's outlets, while nearby Lakeside Marketplace offers 70-plus stores featuring outlet designer togs.
Porters of Racine is known for its fine furniture -- and they'll deliver to Chicago. Gardeners who mail-order know Milaeger's Nursery well; it's worth a visit in person.
Of course, you can't go to Wisconsin without buying cheese -- available almost everywhere. And don't neglect to visit a bakery and pick up some kringle, a Danish pastry unique to Racine.
Where to stay: The Radisson Inn Harbourwalk is right on the water in Racine. The Lochnaiar Inn, a bed & breakfast atop a bluff overlooking the lake, also offers great views.
Where to eat: The Brat Stop in Kenosha is a classic joint. Huge and noisy, it serves up -- what else? -- great bratwurst and beer. Another Kenosha standby, Ray Radigan's, is popular for steaks and seafood. The best is Mangia Trattoria, a fine Italian restaurant owned by Chicago's Tony Mantuano, proprietor of Mantuano Mediterranean Table. Pasta Grille, in a 19th-century setting in Racine, also offers Italian fare, including wood-fired brick-oven pizzas and roast meats.
En route: Ride some roller coasters at Six Flags Great America, before it closes for the season. Or stop and shop at the huge Gurnee Mills Mall. Both are just off I-94 in Gurnee.
Anderson Japanese Gardens, Rockford, (815) 877-2525
Apple Holler, Sturtevant, (414) 886-8500, http://www.appleholler.com
Behmer's Pumpkin Fantasyland, Stillman Valley, (815) 654-8283
Dairyland Greyhound Park, Kenosha, (800) 233-3357, http://wwwdairylandgreyhoundpark.com
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, (630) 840-3351
Fishing Charters of Racine, (800) 475-6113
Granny's Berries, Rochelle, (815) 562-4462
Illinois Railroad Museum, Union, (800) BIG-RAIL,http://www.irm.org
John Deere Historic Site, Grand Detour, (815) 652-4551
Midway Village & Museum Center, Rockford, (815) 397-9112
Ronald Reagan Birthplace, Tampico, (815) 438-2096
Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home, Dixon, (815) 288-5176
Selmi's Market, Rock Falls, (815) 626-3830
Sinnissippi Gardens, Rockford, (815) 987-8858
Six Flags Great America, Gurnee, (847) 249-1776
Spinning Top Museum, Burlington, (414) 763-3946
The Time Museum, Rockford, (815) 229-4199
Wilmot Speedway, Wilmot, (847) 832-RACE,http://www.racingonline.com
White Pines Forest State Park, Mount Morris, (815) 946-3717
302 West, Geneva, (630) 232-9302
American Dreams Confectionary and Soda Bar, Rochelle, (815) 562-6150
Box's Bar-B-Q, Rockford, (815) 962-9629
Brat Stop, Kenosha, (414) 857-2011
Cafe Patou, Rockford, (815) 227-4100
Cliffbreaker's River Restaurant, Rockford, (815) 282-2022
Dutch Diner, Tampico, (815) 438-2094
Leombruni's Italian Village, Byron, (815) 234-2696
Mangia Trattoria, Kenosha, (414) 652-4285
Mary's Market Bistro, Rockford, (815) 397-6461
Pasta Grille, Racine, (414) 637-4340
Ray Radigan's, Kenosha, (414) 694-0455
Best Western Clock Tower Resort, Rockford, (800) 358-7666
Cliffbreakers Comfort Suites, Rockford, (815) 282-4965
Hillendale Bed & Breakfast, Morrison, (815) 772-3454
The Paddlewheel Inn, Oregon, (800) 468-4222
Pinehill Bed & Breakfast, Oregon, (815) 732-2061
Lochnaiar Inn, Racine, (414) 633-3300
The Radisson Inn Harbourwalk, Racine, (414) 632-7777,http://www.radisson.com
White Pines Inn, White Pines Forest State Park, (815) 946-3817
Eagle's Nest, Oregon, (815) 732-2523
Factory Outlet Center, Kenosha, (414) 857-7961
Gurnee Mills Mall, Gurnee, (847) 263-7500
Holiday Manor, Caledonia, (414) 835-9010
Huntley Factory Shops, Huntley, (847) 669-9100
Lakeside Marketplace, Kenosha, (414) 857-2101
Milaeger's Nusery, Racine, (800) 669-1229
Porters of Racine, Racine, (800) 558-3245,http://www.PortersofRacine.com
Blackhawk Waterways Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 678-2108,http://www.promotion.com/bwcvb
Illinois Bureau of Tourism, (800) 2CONNECT,http://www.enjoyillinois.com
Kenosha Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 654-7309,http://www.kenoshacvp.com
Racine Convention and Visitors Bureau,http://www.racine.org
Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 521-0849Comments, compliments or complaints about this story?