Places filled with history or scenery, such as Washington, DC and San Francisco, offer obvious experiences to vacationers, but sometimes you find a special place where you least expect it.
I have to admit that my expectations weren’t that high when I planned a girl’s trip to Alton, Illinois. I was heading there with Brittany to check out the yearly eagle festival. We were as excited at the prospect of seeing lots of bald eagles, but what we got was so much more.
We arrived on Friday night after an easy two and a half hour drive. We were both hungry so we quickly dropped our things at the Atrium Hotel and headed downtown to Tony’s for dinner.
Our intro into the area actually began on that ride. Ken, the shuttle driver at the hotel, gave us a rundown of all the things we should be ready to see, from the town’s civil war history, to the story of the paisa bird and the Indian chief, to how Alton, once considered for the capital of Illinois, was also known for its haunted houses and streets.
I think I was still thinking eagles, but Brittany, whose family has a big Halloween party each year, was very interested in picking up some ideas at the haunted spots and Museum of Torture Devices so we added those spots to the itinerary.
Tony’s Restaurant turned out to be quite big, with a prohibition style bar restaurant on one side and three other restaurant areas – each of which had its own décor – spread throughout.
We split a delicious warm Asiago cheese dip with pitas. For main courses, Brittany loved her shrimp scampi and I really enjoyed the lasagna. Dessert was snickers cheesecake for me and chocolate cake for her and both were rich and satisfying.
We headed back to the hotel and were both quickly asleep after a long day.
On Saturday morning we were up by 7:30 and had breakfast at the hotel. It was quite a large buffet with many choices of meats, biscuits, cereal, Danish, eggs, and yogurt.
Jong Cambron from the Alton Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau picked us up to show us around. The itinerary was pretty full and we were anxious to get started.
The first thing I noticed about this area was all the hills and inclines. It was nothing like home, just a few hours away. Jong took us down the steep 7th street and through the former industrial area. Some of it, such as oil refineries, remain, but it’s now a smaller part of what has become the “Meeting of the Great Rivers.”
We drove straight to the Lewis & Clark State Historic Site. It’s actual the first site on the trail these two famous men took together. I was really impressed with the museum and enjoyed hearing the details of their story as the two men had prepared for the long journey ahead.
Brad Winn, site manager, took us through every step, including replicas of the boat they built and sailed on, and the cabin they lived in with the other men involved in the expeditions. We also got a glimpse into the rest of the trail they went on throughout the western United States.
We could have easily spent the day there, but we had much more to do. Our next stop was the one we came for, the Eagle Festival in Downtown Alton.
The event is the kickoff of to at least a month of eagle watching. Eagle meet and greets from the St. Louis Bird Sanctuary, eagle tours at the state park, and eagle shuttle buses are just a few of the things available to help you enjoy the bird watching, which includes many trumpeter swans who also come here.
We met the resident eagle, Liberty, at the Visitor’s Center before our eagle spotting exhibition. We did see a few along the river before heading to lunch.
It’s no secret that I have a sweet tooth so my mouth was watering the minute I read “Lunch at My Just Desserts” on the itinerary.
My Just Desserts is actually in a building which is part of the Lincoln Civil War Legacy Tour. Lincoln was a lawyer to the original owners. This building was packed the night Lincoln and Douglas had their final debate down the road, and it was here that Abraham Lincoln decided to make his run for president.
Ann Bandasch, who has owned the restaurant for the past 30 years, showed us the period memorabilia on the walls. She also told us that she hosts Lincoln dinners with costumed performers.
My Just Desserts is only open for lunch. They make 150 different kinds of pies on the premises. I couldn’t resist the Radical Cherry, made with cherries, dried cherries, and cherry pie filling, while Brittany ordered the Chocolate Yum Yum after our great chicken salad sandwiches. It was probably the best cherry pie I’ve ever had and Brittany raved about hers.
After lunch we drove along Great River Road This 33 mile stretch of the road from Minnesota to New Orleans is aptly named because it is where three great rivers meet – Missouri, Illinois, and Mississippi.
We made a short stop in the adorable town of Elsah. While quite in the winter, it’s on the list of National Historic Places. It’s known as a romantic village with bed & breakfasts and tours of the decorated houses during the holiday season.
Our next stop along Great River Road was in Grafton. This quaint town of only 750 people has 22 guest houses, a marina, and villas and a hotel on top of a steep road with fantastic views. From this spot you can see where the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers meet.
I did some tasting at the Grafton Winery before we hit the road again. My favorite picks here were the Riverbend White and the Captain’s Blush, but it’s worth a stop to taste for yourself.
It wasn’t far to Pere Marquette State Park, the largest state park in Illinois and home to a tremendous lodge, visitor’s center, many hiking trails, and a scenic driving tour.
On the way back to the hotel I Alton, Jong showed us the statue of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man who ever lived, the oldest prison in Illinois, Hop Hollow Road, which was considered haunted become the confederates dropped bodies in ditches along here, and McPike Mansion, one of the city’s most haunted houses.
We had dinner at Franco’s back at the hotel before turning in early. It began to snow after breakfast the next day so we decided to head home and skip the Museum of Torture Devices. After all, there’s plenty of time until Halloween.