Fun Packed Winter Weekend in the Northern Fox River Valley
On an early winter’s evening, my daughter and I left the crush and bustle of Chicago behind and headed northwest to the shores of the Fox River. A vibrant weekend of food, craft brews, music, and holiday cheer awaited us, just an hour’s drive away. As we pulled off the highway and started to slow down along rolling village streets, I was delighted to spot 19th century architecture, victorian homes and noble warehouses that expressed the history of the area’s wealth.
Once an important stop along the westward train lines, Elgin and Dundee were founded on the agricultural wealth of the prairie, The river and rail line created a hub for transportation and goods. Now considered a far suburb of Chicago, I was actually thrilled to find that so much of the area’s charming historical character shines through.
Holidays in West Dundee
We arrived at dinner time, so we went straight to the downtown district of West Dundee, which was celebrating Dickens in Dundee. Christmas lights were sparkling and carolers singing as we walked past vintage storefronts with living holiday displays: Mary and Joseph cradling a baby Jesus; Santa and Mrs. Claus reading to a clutch of rapt children; even a hilarious vignette of that old classic, Gramma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. It seemed like the whole town had come out to see and participate, as families walked from window to window, visiting businesses, laughing and smiling.
West Dundee Restaurants
We were happy to snag a table at Bleuroot, a new farm-to-table restaurant in a handsome and well-restored brick warehouse, right at the edge of the Fox River. A new addition to Dundee, the restaurant features organic and local produce and meats, celebrating the farm traditions of the area – a perfect start for someone who loves food as much as I do!
A band was setting up for live music in the front bar area. The rear dining room was vibrant but quiet enough for conversation. Tables were filled with couples, families, and friends. The large windows overlook the Fox River, offering plenty of distractions for a toddler, and a relaxing scene for a tired mom!
The menu was fantastic. A fresh fennel green bean and kale salad with preserved lemons and olive tapenade was a perfect mix of crunchy and robust, the lemon cutting through rich bites of olive, while the fennel and green beans provided delicious crunch. The holiday special menu had just started, so of course I had to order the Filet with bordelaise sauce. I’d swear it was sous vide, perfectly tender and delicious. My three-year-old daughter Avi enjoyed the panini-style grilled cheese. We finished with a little dessert: a berry crumble for me, and a mint chocolate chip ice cream for her. “Oooh mommy, it’s so delicious!”
We walked back through the village, stopping at some of the boutiques and shops and enjoying more holiday festivities. The Underground Retrocade drew us in, classic arcade games blinking and beeping. It’s an ideal place for older kids with adult supervision, but Avi was still a little too young. We’ll just have to come back for some Tron and PacMan tournaments!
Comfort Suites on Bushwood Drive
Back in the car, we drove to our hotel: the Comfort Suites on Bushwood Drive, conveniently located just off I90. Welcomed by a sparkling Christmas tree and a fireplace in the lobby, we checked in quickly and headed up to our spacious room. Plush beds, a sitting area with a well-sized TV and in-room coffee maker and fridge were perfect for our needs. After a bedtime story, mama and Avi were both sound asleep.
Dawn broke with a fog over the rolling prairie, and I watched geese fly past while sipping my morning coffee. We enjoyed breakfast in the lobby: fresh warm waffles drizzled with butter and syrup, cereal, scrambled eggs, and yogurt fueled us up as we plotted our day.
My husband was going to join us via train from Chicago. We hopped in the car to drive into downtown Elgin to meet him at the station. The high plains become bluffs and rolling hills near the water’s edge. I was stunned by the gorgeous Victorian homes we passed on the hills. Beautifully maintained and painted an array of delightful colors, the mansions on the west side of the river are breathtaking. I learned that there’s an annual Historical House Tours walk – definitely on my list for a future Girls Getaway!
We parked in one of the abundant free (!!) parking lots downtown and walked to Cafe Domani for the local gossip. The bell on the door chimed as we walk in to the classic scene: locals chatting over coffee and espresso while Leo’s lilting Venezuelan accent cut through, greeting everyone, laughing. Families, friends, the morning paper, the daily news – the cafe felt like a vibrant core to the local community. We were welcomed immediately. The espresso was perfectly poured, the cuban sandwich a delicious combination of salty sweet creamy crunchy, and the array of magnets offered a perfect visual distraction for Avi. Leo told us about the local artists galleries, and the tree lighting ceremony happening that evening – a full day of fun awaited us!
Hemmens Cultural Center
My husband now with us, and zippy on caffeine, the three of us walked towards the Hemmens Cultural Center. The arts are an important focus for Elgin, with a sizable annual budget dedicated to public sculpture and artists initiatives. Outside the Hemmens, we enjoyed the murals and a downward dog sculpture that captivated Avi (“mommy, we do downward dog at yoga! watch!”). The path then leads across the water to Walton Island Park, where locals were fishing in the morning light. Avi found a muddy patch of shore to toss pebbles into the water – endless diversion for hours when you are three.
Gail Borden Public Library
As we climbed back onto the eastern shore of the Fox River, we arrived at the Gail Borden Public Library, which will re-set your expectations of what a library should be. The library is like the community center of Elgin: from the bookstore-like feel of the main entryway, with a concierge to answer questions and guide the way, to the literal indoor playground of the Children’s Library, I was stunned and inspired. After peering through kid-level windows into an amazing (but empty) story time room, Avi delighted in the fish tank and the toys throughout the Children’s wing. When I finally had a chance to explore a bit more on my own, I found my own heaven: the sun drenched Reading Room on the 2nd floor, overlooking the Fox River, complete with plush chairs and a fireplace. You guys, if I ever go missing – look for me at the Elgin library first….. This is worth the trip itself. You can even rent binoculars for wildlife watching – bald eagles winter along the Fox River. Seriously!
Downtown Arts District
As the sun started to set, we headed back into the Downtown Arts District for Elgin’s Winter Wonderland festival. Passing the police department on Douglas Street, we saw a SWAT vehicle rolling past, packed with revelers. Santa hats and sparkling necklaces adorned laughing folks. The Side Street Arts building on Zeigler Court was hosting Santa himself, complete with reindeer. A suspicious and stranger-danger Avi wanted none of it, so we continued to the Elgin Art Space Lofts.
An indoors farmers market showcased crafts and artisan treats for all: candies and soaps, knitted goods and local honey amongst them. Walking down Grove Avenue, my weakness was exposed at Elgin Books and Coffee: another fantastic cafe that also happens to house oceans of vintage books. I bought gifts for most of my list before my husband could pry me away for another treat of local brews and a light snack at Dogs Paw Brewery.
Marveling at the beautiful Art Deco architecture downtown, we walked back to the center of the Winter Wonderland festival: Dupage Court, where little campfires were set up for s’mores and carolers’ songs surrounded us with joy. Festive lights blinking, friends and neighbors laughing with each other, meeting smile after smile. We truly felt like we were part of the community.
Northern Fox River Valley
Sunday morning, we lazed about the hotel a bit. We enjoyed strong coffee and warm waffles before heading out into the natural beauty of the Northern Fox River Valley. A walk through the Schweitzer Woods Forest Preserve at the edge of frost and sun, the winter silent prairie grasses crunching underfoot. We spotted deer and a hawk (as well as some well behaved neighborhood pups – there’s a popular dog park by the parking lot), blew milkweed seeds into the wind and roamed the hills.
Stomachs growling, we headed back to town for a fantastic pizza lunch at Nick’s Pizza and Pub. This former milk barn converted into a pizza pub is covered in taxidermies of local flora and fauna. They serve amazing pizza satisfying all the tummies, and great local brews for the moms and dads.
Santa’s Village aZOOsment park
Tummies full, we headed for the last stop on our adventure: Santa’s Village aZOOsment park – a kind of “christmas miracle” in itself. The park originally opened in the 1950s, a classic destination for Chicago-area families for decades. It closed down in 2006, as larger corporate amusement centers boomed. With a lot of love and dedication, the park has recently reopened, and is a super destination for families with kids aged about 2-10 years old, not to mention the parents who may have a nostalgia trip walking through the gates. Santa’s Village purchased and refurbished some of the rides from Kiddieland, another classic Chicago area park that closed in 2009. 2017 marked the first time Santa’s Village was open in the winter season, and we had a delightful time being some of the first to enjoy it.
Parking is easy and abundant, and we entered with no wait at the main gate. Santa and Mrs. Claus welcomed us in front of Santa’s House, though Avi did not want to talk to Santa just yet. We blew kisses and walked towards Parakeet Paradise, where parakeets chatter and swooped all around us. We then boarded the Alaskan Railway, which took us past caribou and foxes, a sleeping bobcat, and through a magical tunnel of sparkling Christmas lights. The peacocks were showcasing at Old MacDonald’s Barn. When we walked through to the petting zoo, we were delighted by a mama pig nursing her teenie brand new piglets, while sheep and goats bumbled about, requesting snacks from visitors.
Find Your Bravery in Fox River
After all the animal visits, Avi felt brave enough to try some rides. The Rocket ride lets adults ride shotgun with the little ones, while the suspiciously named Kiddie Whip drew a delighted smile from Avi as she zipped around and around. The vintage rides are charming, colorful and captivating. We rarely had to wait more than one pass before it was our turn.
After a couple hours of excitement, I could tell Avi was on her way to sleepytime – so we made one last stop at Santa’s Workshop for some snacks and souvenirs before heading back to the car. Avi sacked out almost as soon as we hit the road – giving her a perfect 90-minute nap before we returned home. As we drove back towards Chicago, my husband and I agreed – we’ll definitely continue to #ExploreElgin. From historical architecture and breathtaking nature, antiques and boutiques, great food and plenty of kids activities, there’s really something for everyone.