Are you looking for spring break options that don't start with $1,000 in airfare? Try these regional hotspots intsead, each within a three-hour drive of Chicago. Click each destination for our reviews and recommendations for where to stay, where to eat, and what's worth checking out.
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You've seen signs for it by the Kennedy/Edens split, but you might not have actually taken the road out to Rockford. If you do, you'll be pleasantly surprised: this town, about two hours outside the city, offers all the fun of a day downtown but at a fraction of the price. Dinos, sock monkeys, sports arenas, water parks and, of course, Swedish pancakes.
Chicago has Sue; Rockford's Burpee Museum of Natural History is home to Jane, the most complete juvenile T. Rex ever found, and has more "please touch" signs than you can shake a curious, wandering finger at. Chicago has the Blackhawks (good luck getting tickets); Rockford has the Icehogs, whose tickets start at $7. Also recommended: Discovery Center Musuem, Midway Village, and a meal at the Stockholm Inn.
One of the state's natural treasures, Starved Rock State Park offers 18 canyons and 13 miles of marked trails for hiking around the sandstone structures. By spring break, the ice has melted and the park's signature waterfalls are back in force. Outdoor enthusiasts will find fishing and camping, while indoor enthusiasts can book a room at the Starved Rock Lodge. If you'd like more than just the nature experience, stay across the street at Grizzly Jack's Grand Bear Resort so the kids can play in the water park after they get done hiking at the state park.
Windowshop in charming downtown Galena, take a tour of President Ulysses S. Grant's home, check out a blacksmith demonstration, and take a ride up the curving country roads to Chestnut mountain, where breathtaking views of the mighty Mississippi await. Eagle Ridge is best in slightly warmer weather - they have great biking trails and four world-class golf courses, including one junior level - but there's plenty to do even when the weather doesn't quite cooperate. If it's in your budget, splurge on the hot air balloon ride for an out-of-the-ordinary vacation treat the kids won't soon forget.
Kalamazoo is worth it just for the sheer joy that comes with screaming its name out the window of a car heading east. But don't worry: the fun lasts more than the first 15 minutes of the car ride. The Air Zoo in Kalamazoo is one of the most surprisingly wonderful museums we've ever visited. It combines the thrilling history of our air and space travel with fun, air-related amusement rides and simulators (our favorite was the 3-D Space Shuttle Ride).
Make this a weekend trip and spend one day and night in either Indiana Dunes State Park or South Bend. South Bend has a kids museum, the Potawotami Zoo (note: opens April 1) and all the Notre Dame mania you can handle. Or if you're more of a naturalist family, try a hike up (and then a roll down) the 126-foot Mount Baldy at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Milwaukee is one of those cities that is perfect for people who don't really like vacationing in cities: small, friendly and affordable, with plenty of cool stuff for kids. It's just 90 miles from downtown Chicago, and really a stone's throw from the northern suburbs, so you won't spend half your first day getting there. On your to-do list: Mummies of the World exhibit (running through May at the Milwaukee Public Museum), Smokey the Bear at the Betty Brinn Children's Museum, and a pair of tiger cubs at the Milwaukee County Zoo. Consider staying at the Milwaukee Hilton City Centre. It's a grand old hotel with the ultimate in kid vacation features - an indoor water park in the basement - and rates start at just $143 per night. If your Spring Break is on the later side this year, the Brewers have a week-long home stretch (April 4-10) that ends with a three-game stand against the Cubs.