Gas tank getaways
Thursday, February 16, 2012
Staying close to home is the hottest family travel trend in America. For those of us lucky enough to live in Chicago, that leaves plenty of great destinations with a few hours' drive.
This lakefront town just north of the Illinois border often is overlooked, but it has lots to offer at a price families can afford. If you don't want to drive, take Metra and then hop on board one of Kenosha's five restored electric streetcars. They travel a two-mile loop along the Lake Michigan shoreline, HarborPark, two historic districts, downtown business district and the Metra train station, all for $1 for adults and 50 cents for kids 5-12.
Along the way, stop at the free Dinosaur Discovery Museum. This mecca for tiny dino lovers claims to have the largest collection of meat-eating theropods, along with life-scale replicas of Tyrannosaurus rex, Gallimimus and Ceratosaurus. At the Kenosha Public Museum, also free, you'll find more than 80,000 items in its natural sciences collection and nearly 1,000 works of fine art. Don't miss the woolly mammoth excavated in Kenosha County or the hands-on Field Station where kids can explore the arts and sciences.
If you work up an appetite, head to The Spot Drive-In and order a burger and homemade root beer served in a frosty mug. The food and drink are good and made even better by the carhop service right to your car window. Before you head home, stop at the nearby Jelly Belly warehouse and hop onboard the train for a tour of the facility. The tour is free, as are the samples in the factory store.
Cleveland and Sandusky, Ohio
This city four hours east of Chicago is working hard to overcome its history as a less-than-inviting place to visit. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which opened in 1995, put the city back on the tourism map. But it's not the only reason to visit.
Next door to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of the best hands-on children's science centers in the country, the Great Lakes Science Center. When I visited with four busloads of middle schoolers on a band trip, we had to drag them out of the science center.
For younger children, Cleveland has a Children's Museum, zoo and, its newest attraction, the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, which opened in late 2011 and is home to eight-foot sharks, rays, piranha, crocodiles and octopus.
If yours is a coaster-loving family, plan to spend a day before or after your visit to Cleveland at Cedar Point in Sandusky. This coasterific amusement park has an area dedicated to little ones, but the rest of it is dedicated to daredevils. This is the amusement park where my then 11-year-old son transformed from a kid who didn't like heights into a kid who wants to build bigger, faster, scarier coasters for a living.
Springfield and New Salem, Ill.
This trip is all about history-our state's history as a part of President Abraham Lincoln's life. We're not called the Land of Lincoln for nothing, and Illinois' capital is the center of our Lincoln history. Take the self-guided walking tour of Springfield's downtown to get a feel for how Lincoln lived and worked, then head to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to let your kids play the way Lincoln and his siblings would have played in their early years.
It's a 3.5-hour drive to Springfield from Chicago, so give the kids, and yourself, a break from the car with a stop at Lincoln's New Salem, about 30 minutes north of Springfield. This outdoor museum is a reconstruction of the village where Abraham Lincoln spent his early adulthood. It's a great spot to let the kids run off a little of the energy they built up during the car ride and maybe learn something about how early Illinois settlers lived. If you're lucky, you'll visit on a day when the interpreters are on-site, dressed in period garb and explaining how the pioneers worked and lived.
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
Sometimes the best things are so close to home that we overlook them. Such can be the case with the Indiana Dunes Lakeshore. Located just 60 minutes from Chicago on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, this national park offers an expanse of sandy beach and acres of dunes to climb.
It's close enough for a day trip from Chicago, or pack the tent and sleeping bags and stay in the Dunewood Campground for $15 a night.
If you want to make the trip educational as well as physical, stop first at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Visitor Center to watch the short orientation video and pick up a trail guide. The visitor center is located at 1215 N. State Road 49, Porter, Ind.