Where the heck is Rockford, IL?

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Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff
Photo by Bob & Sandy Nesoff

Diners relaxing on the Rock River at the Dinner on the Dock alongside the Prairie Brew House. Music and a buffet dinner soothe the soul.

There are more places in the continental United States that you have never heard of.  But for that matter, people from those places probably never heard of your hometown either.

Some years back we stumbled onto Wisconsin Dells, north of Madison and popular with Midwesterners for weekend getaways and extended vacations. Anyone in Chicago could tell you about “The Dells and what a great family destination it is,” but East Coasters didn’t have a clue.

Many years ago in Spain on the island of Majorca a local took us to a beach frequented only by islanders and unknown to outsiders.  The caveat was that we could never write about it or disclose its location.

Chicagoans seem to have the same attitude about great vacation spots in their geographical area. Rockford, about an hour from O’Hare Airport is one of those closely held secrets.  No one asked us not to write about it, so we can and will.

The Van Galder bus company runs a direct route from the airport to Rockford for $20 a head.  The bus is comfortable and the passing scenery nice to look at.  It dropped us off at the company’s terminal, a block from the Hilton Garden Inn where we were staying.  The hotel had a couple of benefits, starting with the exceptionally friendly and accommodating staff and comfortable quarters.  Its location is away from the hustle and bustle of a downtown area but still convenient enough for everything.

The Rock River, from which the city takes its name, splits the town but is a major source of recreation.  Boats of all sizes and shapes are moored there and kayaking is a favorite local sport. The river waters are calm and the current gentle enough so that boaters of all abilities can enjoy themselves.

A unique activity here is the “Dinner on the Dock,” by the Prairie Street Brewhouse on Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. where the entire family can sit back, enjoy a terrific buffet meal, listen to some great music and watch the boats float by.  After a trip in by car or plane this is the perfect way to decompress.  And the music just adds to the flavor. www.psbrewhouse.com.

Rockford is a family oriented place so it should come as no surprise that local families are very much vested in area attractions.  The Anderson family created the Anderson Japanes Gardens, still a family operation to this day.

The meticulously crafted plants and trees bring tranquility to a world that is anything but tranquil.  Stroll through the paths and enjoy the exotic plantings.  All plants are identified so that the visitor can immediately know and understand what he is seeing.

The Rockford area is a golfer’s haven with more than a dozen courses ranging from the Aldeen (no relation to Jason) Golf Club and Practice Center to high end and challenging courses throughout the area.  Aldeen was named by Golf Digest as the best municipal course in Illinois.

OK, mom and dad can knock the little white pill around and then quaff a few in the clubhouse, but what about the kids.  The Coco Key Water Resort (www.cocokeyrockford.com) attached to the Best Western Bell Tower Hotel is 60,000 square feet of indoor water fun  The kids can enjoy themselves coming down some of the steepest waterslides to be found anywhere; and it is open year-round.

Drier fun at CoCo includes the Key Quest Arcade with scores of games.  Mom and dad might also want to check out the day spa to soothe some of those tried muscles; or they might just want to stop in to the Rooster Bar while the kids are racing down the slides.

Just across the river from the Prairie Street Brew House is one of the more interesting natural history museums in the country, the BurpeeMuseum (No relation to the seed company as most everyone always asks).  One of the most fascinating exhibits here is the actual skeleton of “Jane,” a 65 million-year-old juvenile T-Rex.  About the only thing on the reconstructed skeleton that isn’t real is the cast of the head and if you look just beyond the monster, you’ll see the actual head on display. www.burpee.org.

Jane is considered to be the world’s most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found.

Next door and through a connecting walkway is the Rockford Discovery Center Museum that is a delight for kids of most ages.  One of the popular exhibits is the giant pinscreen where visitors create impressions their hands, faces and various other body parts.  There is a planetarium to explore the stars, you can sit in a real farm tractor in the agricultural exhibit and even go outside to the Rock River Discovery Park and dig for “fossils.”  www.discoverycentermuseum.org.

This only scratches the surface of things to do for all ages in Rockford.  For a brochure on just about everything Rockford, check out www.gorockford.com.