Holiday road trips

Wanna get away for the winter break? Chicago Parent’s has some getaway suggestions – and tips to make the plans you already have easier.

Wanna get away for the winter break? Chicago Parent’s has some getaway suggestions – and tips to make the plans you already have easier.

Watch the eagles soar in the Quad Cities

The majestic bald eagles that summer in Canada like to winter inslightly warmer climes-the still-chilly area of the MississippiRiver that cuts through the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa.

Some 2,500 eagles spend the winter in the Quad Cities area,lured there by the all-you-can-eat buffet of stunned fish aroundthe lock and dams and the perching and nesting possibilitiesprovided by the surrounding forests.

The best eagle viewing spots in the Quad Cities of Davenport andBettendorf, Iowa, and Rock Island and Moline, Ill., are at SunsetPark in Rock Island and Credit Island in Davenport. Bringbinoculars, dress warmly and teach kids not to frighten the birdsinto flying away, unnecessarily expending energy they need toconserve in order to maintain their body heat.

The eagle population-and the number visiting the Quad Cities-hasbeen growing; the bird was removed from the endangered list in2007.

The Quad Cities will host its 25th annual Bald Eagle Days Jan.6-8 at the QCCA Expo Center, 2621 4th Ave., Rock Island. The eventincludes live eagle programs and birds of prey demonstrations. Thenhop on a shuttle bus to Sunset Marina, where the Quad City AudubonSociety will have spotting scopes set up to help you and your kidsget an upclose look at the eagles. (Hours: 4-8 p.m. Friday; 10a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5, $1kids.)

If you can’t make the big weekend event, visit any weekend Jan.14-Feb. 19. The Mississippi River Visitor Center on Arsenal Island,between Davenport and Rock Island, offers free eagle watches andClock Tower tours on those Saturdays and Sundays at 9:30 and 11a.m. and 1 p.m. Reservations are required and can be made bycalling (309) 794-5338.

When you need to warm up, head to the John Deere Pavilion inMoline or one of the Quad Cities’ impressive museums, including thePutnam Museum of History and Natural Science and the Figge ArtMuseum. All are oversized attractions for such small towns.

St. John: Nature’s playground

There are no water parks, no mini-golf courses and nokid-centric all-inclusives on the 28-square-mile island of St. Johnin the U.S Virgin Islands. Yet this picturesque tropicaldestination, accessible only by ferry, has something morecaptivating than manmade entertainment for families-it boastsattractions only nature can create.

Two-thirds of the island is protected as national parkterritory, providing a safeguard against the rampant developmentthat permeates much of the Caribbean. The Virgin Islands NationalPark also serves another important purpose: it provides familiesthe opportunity to get in touch with their outdoorsy sides throughunique excursions.

“Ken Wild, the park’s archeologist, always has a dig going atCinnamon Bay,” says Frank Barnako, author of the popular News ofSt. John blog. “Wild invites volunteers of all ages to join him andget their hands dirty.”

The island is also home to dozens of trails with options foreven pint-sized hikers, like the pleasant half-mile trek down toSalomon Bay, one of the prettiest and most secluded beaches on St.John. For those with the stamina for a more rigorous journey,Barnako recommends the two-mile trip led by a park ranger on ReefBay Trail, which passes the ruins of a historic sugar mill andculminates in a scenic boat ride back to the main town of CruzBay.

Of course, visitors simply can make it their goal to experiencea different beach every day-St. John is home to some of the mostfamous seaside spots in the world. Barnako offers this tip forbeachgoers searching for a tranquil piece of paradise: “Except forTrunk Bay, where daytrippers from neighboring St. Thomas seem tocongregate, St. John’s beaches are long, wide, clean, safe anduncrowded.”

For ranger-led activities at the Virgin Islands National Parkand other park information, call the national park visitor centerat (340) 776-6201 ext. 238.

Visit, the News of St. John blog,
for an insider view of happenings on the island.

Escape to Door County

Door County is the summer playground of choice for manyChicagoans. But there are almost as many reasons to visit inJanuary as in July-without the glut of tourists competing fordinner reservations, clogging the roads and driving up prices.

The peninsula is 70 miles long and less than 10 miles wide, butit’s home to five state parks and more than a dozen county parkswhere locals and visitors alike can snowshoe, cross-country ski, gosnow tubing, take a sleigh ride or cut into the ice to catch afish.

The winter I visited as a guest of the Door County VisitorBureau, we arrived as the temperatures plunged into the singledigits and nearly a foot of snow fell overnight. We donned everypiece of outerwear we packed-coats, snowpants, mittens, hats andscarves-and headed to Nor Door Sports & Cyclery to rent oursnowshoes so we could be the first people to walk through PeninsulaState Park. We spent more than hour blazing a trail through theserene scene, marveling at the way the sun glistened off thesnow-covered tree limbs and the way the blanket of snow deadenednearly all sound-a rare treat for city dwellers.

All that exercise is sure to work up an appetite, which meansit’s time to head to a classic Door County fish boil. Created yearsago as a way to feed lots of people fast, a fish boil is madeoutside in pots over a wood fire. Watching the “boil over” is acritical part of the experience and a great way to stay warm on afrigid Wisconsin night. We dined at the picturesque White Gull Inn,the only Door County resort that offers a fish boil all year’round. (A word of warning: The fish come with the bones intact,the only way to keep them from turning to mush during the boil. Thewait staff at White Gull Inn helped debone the fish, but therestill are plenty of small, sharp bones left over, which makes thegoing slow and a little scary, especially if you’re feeding thefish to kids.)

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a friend with a Door Countycabin, you’ll need a place to stay. Few of the county’s charmingbed and breakfasts are kid-friendly, so save them for a romanticgetaway. When you’re visiting with kids, opt to stay at one of thelarger resort properties like the Landmark Resort. It’s anall-condo property, which means it has the amenities families needmost: separate bedrooms (with a door that locks for parentalvacation privacy), more than one television, a full kitchen and aswimming pool. It has 294 rooms and off-season weekend rates startat $101 a night (vs. $169 during the high season), breakfastincluded.

The safe side of Mexico

Mexico has gotten a bad rap in the press lately, but that’s noreason not to visit the resort areas, which remain as safe asever.

My family and I are regular visitors to Mexico. We’re huge fansof Cancun and Riviera Maya (less than three hours from Chicago byplane), which offer American travelers affordable luxury,predictable Caribbean weather and a welcoming, family-friendlyculture.

Most recently, I visited as a guest of Dreams Resorts and theMexican Tourist Board, both of which wanted to prove that travel tothe resort areas of Mexico remain safe and welcoming to Americans.We stayed at the beautiful all-inclusive Dreams Riviera Cancun. Itboasts “unlimited luxury,” an expansive beach and plenty ofactivities to keep kids and adults happy and safely on the propertythroughout the stay.

Even better, book a room with a personal plunge pool and awhirlpool tub on the balcony, then order your meals delivered byroom service and there won’t even be a need to leave the room(although I highly recommend a visit to the beach and a firedancing performance).

Quintana Roo, the state that includes Cancun and Riviera Maya,is not listed on the State Department’s travel warning list forMexico. Still, opting for an excursion booked through the resort isthe safest option.

We spent a lovely morning at Selvatica, the adventure park thatwas named Cancun’s top attraction in 2010. The six-hour ExtremeCanopy Adventure includes a 12-segment zip line course, a relaxingswim in a freshwater cenote, hotel transportation and lunch. (Cost:$99 adults, $49 kids 5-12, free kids 3-4.)

The always-inviting Xcaret (pronounced Ish-ka-ret) ecotourismpark is one of my family’s favorite Cancun activities. We don lifejackets and float through the underground river. Be forewarned,there are sections of the underground river that get pretty dark,so it may not be the best option if your kids are afraid of thedark.

If you can, plan to stay for the evening show, which includes aflashy demonstration of a Mayan ball game and an entertainingMexican history lesson that my kids remembered when they hitfifth-grade civics.

Cultural sleepovers

Kid Friendly Hotels

Water Park Hotels

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