Usually, I meet Sharon on a weeknight, spending my few hours of purchased freedom catching up over cosmopolitans in a suburban Chicago eatery and watching the clock, fearful of keeping the babysitter out past curfew. But today, there’s no rush. We’re sipping sweet-tart strawberry lemonade made at shabby-chic Letty Mae’s Tea Room (tea optional) in Morris, Illinois, 70 miles southwest of Chicago and one of the cities that prospered during the Illinois and Michigan Canal’s late-1800s heyday.
It’s the kickoff of our tour of five small towns dotting the path of the former canal, a major transportation route connecting a tributary of the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. The canal opened central Illinois and Chicago to Southern goods like oranges and sugar and brought life to the communities dotting this picturesque region. Today, though the canal itself is closed, the cities along its route remain lively, with boutique-filled downtowns and pretty canalside parks. A biking path along the canal’s banks allows hikers and cyclists to follow its 90-some-mile route, but Sharon and I were intrigued by the idea of a quintessential girlfriend road trip, stopping by artsy attractions and browsing through the modern boutiques.
At Letty Mae’s, after our soup bowls and salad plates are cleared, we trace a 60-mile driving route from Morris to Princeton on a map and discuss our stops. There are wine tastings in Utica, horseback riding in LaSalle, a theater festival in Princeton and shopping, lots of shopping, in between. Carrying a box of peach scones from the bakery counter (after all, what’s a road trip without snacks?), we set off.
Five fabulous towns turn a 60-mile drive along the Illinois and Michigan Canal into a weekend getaway. Here are our favorite stops, as traveled from east (Morris) to west (Princeton).
The second Saturday of each month. Morris welcomes Three French Hens Market, an outdoor flea market with a focus on the French country aesthetic. Vendors selling shabby-chic antiques, hand-milled soaps, artisanal cheeses, fresh-baked breads and cut flowers set up booths in Canal Port Park (along the path of the former canal, of course).
Gigi’s stocks a carefully curated collection of modern clothing. Sweet Tooth peddles more than 60 Jelly Belly bean flavors, fresh caramel corn, fudge, ice cream and a make-your-own version of the classic, kid-favorite candy Pixy Stix. Antiques, scented candles and handmade note cards join Ruby Begonia’s updated take on Victorian-style fashions. Quilters can browse thousands of bolts of colorful quilting cotton, plus patterns, books and notions at The Fabric Center. Cold strawberry soup, fresh salads and decadent pastries make Letty Mae’s Tea Room a good lunch option; the blue walls and floral tablecloths feels more girlie-fresh than grandmother. For an on-the-road pick-me-up, hit Brewed Awakenings’ drive-through for java creations that last the 22-mile drive to stylish rural garden center Redbud Creek Farm. Browse annuals and perennials, ceramic pots, and sculptures set in seasonal garden vignettes.
A mural across the street from downtown’s Washington Square Park depicts the park’s claim to fame as the site of the first 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debate. Stop to enjoy the park’s reflecting pool before a stroll through the nearby neighborhood reveals Civil War-Era homes and churches.
A vintage jukebox plays oldies in a former cheese factory, where The Cheese Shop ’n’ Deli serves some 33 kinds of sandwiches (try the pot roast sub) as well as soups and salads. Murals around town depict important chapters in Ottawa’s history, including the Native American tribes that hunted here and the industry of the canal era. Locals love to gather on Tracy’s Row House’s outdoor patio for dinner and cocktails—it serves more than 100 martinis.
Cabins sport modern kitchens, cozy fireplaces and covered front porches at Kishauwau Country Cabins, in the forest outside Utica. Anyone can visit the community cabin, which conjures memories of sleep-away camp with a canteen (payments made on the honor system) and a library of books and board games. But sipping wine before a private fire pit under the stars feels decidedly adult.
Visitors can wander through a barn, a blacksmith shop and a schoolhouse before touring the LaSalle County Historical Society Museum, which traces the area’s settlement and canal development. Sample several vintages at the Illinois River Winery, which specializes in fruit wines (cranberry-white is our pick). Or sip flavor-infused wines on the vineyard patio of August Hill Winery (and sample the bubbly from sister company Illinois Sparkling Company).
Flutterby Gourmet Popcorn comes in more than three dozen flavors, including blue raspberry, caramel-pecan and cheesy bacon. Roadhouse restaurant Cajun Connection dishes authentic Louisiana bayou eats and craft beers. Whether you order fried gator tail or the more tame étouffée, jambalaya or gumbo, always opt for the decadent homemade pecan pie.
The seat of LaSalle County is home to a trove of Illinois and Michigan Canal history. Guides in 1800s costume narrate boat rides up and down the canal. (A pair of mules pulls the boats, just as their ancestors may have done.) Pick up tickets and check out the canal-theme mural at the Lock 16 Visitor Center.
Guides at Cedar Creek Ranch lead one-hour horseback rides past a Civil War-Era cemetery and 1800s coal mine. The spacious ranch’s The Gun Smoke Grill serves hearty sandwiches, and bands perform on the rustic corral stage on weekends. The self-guided I&M Canal Silhouettes Tour showcases canal-era movers and shakers. (Wild Bill Hickok was a mule handler.) More than a dozen silhouettes can be found near Lock 14, on the 62-mile canalside biking path I&M Canal State Trail.
The National Historic Landmark 1874 Hegeler Carus Mansion showcases lavish rooms with (mostly) original furnishings, intricate parquet floors, hand-painted ceilings and a gymnasium with original equipment.
Professional thespians and theater fans flock to Princeton beginning in June for the annual Festival 56, the multiseason theater celebration that stages classical productions (think Shakespeare) and modern plays and musicals.
Boutiques under striped awnings fill the 1800s storefronts along Main Street. Annies Little Pots carries the owner’s pottery, plus paintings, photography and jewelry created by nearly two dozen central Illinois artisans; Annie works in an on-site pottery studio. Seamstresses stitch adorable tutus, hair bows and kids’ clothes in the sewing room of Amma’s Studio. Sipping a glass of wine while browsing at Beetz Me easily turns into a buying spree of artsy clothing, gourmet foods and French perfume.
On South Main, Bead Buzz Jewelry Designs sells affordable silver, Swarovski crystal and semiprecious stone bling. Good Scents perfumery mixes perfumes, colognes, aromatherapy oils and lotions with scents like carnation, sandalwood or cinnamon.