I’ve got a BUMPER blog takeover post today, I’m away with family in the deepest depths of Norfolk and the internet here is next to useless, but I’m so glad I’ve got this post to share with you as it is one that I have LOVED reading because a USA road trip is on my bucket list and some of the places in the Midwest USA that Alisa has written about sound amazing. I’ve read all of Bill Brysons books and have fallen in love with some of the places he’s written about and this makes me want to visit America even more! You can read more about Alisa at the end of the post but here are three fun facts:
- Alisa grew up in a family-owned Italian restaurant & celebrates this fact by eating Friday Night Pizza without fail. Sometimes she shares it too.
- Always nosy about other people’s lives, Alisa’s MA thesis was a study of an Anglo family in Ireland.
- Through the years, as her family has expanded, Alisa has learned that in addition to the best known adage about truth (death and taxes), there is one more truth…LOVE MAKES A FAMILY
Although I’ve lived in the UK for nearly 20 years, the American Midwest will always be Home to me. I grew up near Chicago in northern Illinois where we had four proper seasons (often in the extreme!). In addition to being ‘The Best City In The World’, Chicago is also quite well-known:
The Windy City, Home of Al Capone and gangsters, bootlegging, skyscrapers, world-class museums and symphony orchestra, Barack Obama. And now…home of the 2016 World Champion Baseball Team, The Chicago Cubs.
Yeah, Chicago is hands-down amazing! And if travellers venture between the coasts of the USA, Chicago has enough to keep them going for weeks. But if you were going to the middle of America and had a little time to spare, I would urge you to step outside the city limits because the middle of America has hidden gems you can’t image. Let me, a native, tell you about three wonderful little day-grips (or short-breaks) that you can take whilst still using Chicago as your base. It will be totally worth getting the flavour of The American Midwest.
Southern Michigan is the playground for Chicagoans looking to escape from the city. Chicago sits at the tip of Lake Michigan (the southernmost Great Lake). So a drive around the coast of the lake heading East will take intrepid travellers through Indiana and up into Michigan, a luscious and verdant state.
Douglas is about a 2 hour drive from Chicago and one of the most picturesque little American towns you will ever see. It is often linked with Saugatuck, a slightly more touristy though equally as charming town on the Kalamazoo River. The two sit side by side on the river, both with access to any water-sport you can think of.
Best things to do on a short stay
- Go Kayaking! I can highly recommend kayaking on the Kalamazoo and Douglas has a small family-run water sports business called Running Rivers. You can’t miss them- follow the only road that runs through the middle of Douglas until it ends at the river. There they are- with paddle boards, kayaks, canoes…you name it. They will even drive you up-river so that you can paddle back.
- Swim in Lake Michigan! Catch the pedestrian chain-ferry across the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck (only a mile-ish from Douglas- totally walkable) and you are within spitting distance of Oval Beach. Sand and dunes for miles and possibly icy-cold, possibly tepid swimming in Lake Michigan. Either way, you have to try swimming in The Lake. It would be a crime to miss!
- Check out Downtown Douglas! Life is very slow in Douglas. It has all the hallmarks of small town America. People drive slowly, you can walk or cycle on the road without fear of being run-over. The small roads all meander into lovely downtown Douglas where you should stop at Respite for coffee and a game of checkers (draughts) made from ‘found’ stones. Then browse the little independent businesses, buy some postcards and go to the Douglas post office to send them off.
The Douglas post-office is an absolute must because it has That Post Office Smell that is peculiar to small-town American post offices. Kind of a combination of stamps, concrete floors and government issued cleaning fluid. This is a good thing- I promise. Go smell the post office!
Great places to eat in Douglas
The great thing is that Douglas is perfect for families as well as for individuals or couples. And if you’re there in the summer, you can hear the music of the crickets and the sounds of the local Little League baseball games at the Douglas’ baseball diamond.
Douglas is a taste of small town America you really don’t want to miss!
Springfield is the state capital of Illinois and is considered ‘Downstate’ by the more populous north of the state (even though it’s pretty much in the middle of Illinois). It is well worth a visit to see the political history of Illinois, which in case you didn’t know, is also The Land of Lincoln. Yep- good old Abe Lincoln hailed from Illinois and Springfield does a fab job of presenting the history of the 16th President of the United States.
Springfield can be done in a day but is probably worth an overnight stay. You can take an Amtrak train from Chicago but the service is not the most reliable so it could be beneficial to hire a car and make the drive down The Mother Road; Historic Route 66. It’s about a 3 hour drive but once you’ve cleared the city and outlying suburbs, it’s a pretty, rural journey. Make sure you stop in Dwight, IL to experience the refurbished Route 66 Texaco Station and grab a bite at the Old Route 66 Family Restaurant.
Route 66 Americana abounds on the journey to Springfield so do a quick journey planner before you head off.
Now that you’ve arrived…
- Your first stop should be the Illinois State Capitol building. An impressive structure to say the least, the dome is stunning both inside and out. It is the tallest state capitol building in the country coming in at a whopping 74 feet higher than even the US Capitol in Washington D.C.
- Next up, the Lincoln Home. This tour takes you through Lincoln’s Springfield home and the guides are superbly knowledgeable about Lincoln’s early years as a lawyer and then a Senator from Illinois. They really bring the whole experience to life and the highlight for me was his clear fondness for his wife and small sons. It adds a very human element to the man who abolished slavery and died so tragically.
After your tour, have a wander through the sites of this historic neighbourhood which consists of 4 blocks restored to their 1860 appearance.
Also worth a visit:
- The Lincoln Museum- Honest Abe’s official presidential museum
- The Old State Capitol Building (just round the corner from the new one!)
- The Abe Lincoln street performers. Keep your eyes out. It isn’t unusual to see ‘Abe’ wandering round near the Old State Capitol J
Don’t forget to keep your energy levels up!
- I can heartily recommend Head West Sub Shop. Go to ‘The Original’ on Jefferson street, just down the road from the Capitol. It’s a bit divey but has great subs. And you stand a very good chance of running into some of Illinois’ legislators if the General Assembly is in session!
- If you’re into micro-brews, then be sure to hit Engrained Brewery, a local independent micro-brew with great food. It’s on the outskirts of town and has killer beer!
- Finally, no trip to Springfield is complete without breakfast at Charlie Parker’s. Located in an old Quonset Hut (kind of like a metal Nissen Hut), this is a traditional American diner. If you’re travelling with kids, they’ll definitely want to order the ‘Plate Sized Pancake’. Grown-ups may want to sample Springfield’s delicacy: The Horseshoe- which is basically a big pile of meat/bread/fries covered in cheese. Health Warning- people have had heart attacks after eating these…J
Finally, if you’re just looking for an active day out of the city, here’s what you do:
- Hire a bike and ride to Union Station in Chicago. Jump on a Metra Milwaukee District North train heading north to Libertyville (about a one hour journey).
- When you get to Libertyville station, hop off and cycle down Appley Ave/W. Oak Spring Road (Google Map It!) for about 1 mile and you will be at the Des Plaines River Trail.
The Des Plaines River Trail is a fabulous trail running alongside the Des Plaines River all the way from Chicago up to the Wisconsin border and linking the wealth of protected native habitat composing the Lake County Forest Preserve. Anecdotally the trails are best maintained in Lake County (the county north of Chicago’s Cook County).
“Part of the trail’s charm is the way that it winds through woods, prairies, wetlands, and meadows. One minute you’re riding in the shadows of large trees in the natural flood plains of the river. The next, you’re feeling the sun beat down upon you as your eyes adjust to the bright light and varying shades of green as you cross Illinois’ version of a savannah. All the while the trail continues curving from left to right, keeping you fully engaged in the ride experience.
The DPRT suspends disbelief.
While you feel as if you’re deep in the woods or alone on the great plains, civilization – suburbia – is never more than one-half mile on either side of you. Whereas most trails like the Fox River Trail or Illinois Prairie Path offer short stretches of natural wonderment tucked between residential and commercial districts, the DPRT manages to string them all together continuously, keeping our day-to-day reality out of sight and out of mind.” (Blogpost- Brent Cohrs, Chicago Now)
I could extol the DPRT’s virtues ad infinitum but instead, I encourage you to try it for yourself! Your best resource guide and map is at TrailLink!
Are you convinced?
I hope I’ve convinced you to give The Midwest a try! It really is America’s heartland!
Lots of love,
Alisa is a born American-Midwesterner who had a culture-reassignment operation nearly 20 years ago and is now British (by residency) though she does retain certain traits peculiar to the Midwesterner- like a love of sweet potatoes with marshmallows; rock-outs to John Mellencamp; and a retained ability to drive in snow. But that’s all rounded out by her addiction to proper tea (she travels with her own tea-bags now); her strict belief in Delia Smith as the answer to all of life’s cooking questions; and her ability to use the weather as a conversational opener.
Having survived her own upbringing with a raucous and fun-loving family, she went on to become a genealogist on the other side of the Atlantic so she could meet other people’s raucous and fun-loving families (even if some of them had been dead for a couple hundred years). Alisa still resides Island-side with her family and spends her time dreaming up new ways to exploit the endless familial archive of cheesy photographs and repertoire of, frankly, unbelievable ancestral lore. Seriously- ask her about her Grandpa Sam driving for Al Capone.