Champaign, Ill. (WCIA)

Plenty of Fun on a Rockford Family Vacation: From wake boarding to a history that includes Cheap Trick, Sock Monkeys and baseball

By Marcia Frost

Occasionally, a destination goes way beyond expectation. Rockford, Illinois, is such a place. It was a busy three days, yet it would be easy to go back for much more we didn’t get to fully explore.

The first surprise was the West Rock Wake Park. This is a spot you’d have a hard time finding anywhere else in the area.

Wakeboarding at West Rock is a combination of ziplining and water skiing on a boogie board. It’s actually easier than it sounds, put together with a Sesitec cable system. Brittany and Amanda were up and riding within a half hour of their lessons – and they had a blast.

Lessons are available for all ages (10 and under must take the very beginner class). Once you’ve mastered the skills, you can buy a pass and come wakeboard at your leisure. Every pass and lesson includes your board with boots or a kneeboard, a vest and a helmet.

With the warm weather there’s still time to check this out. Visit their website for details.

The Discovery Center Museum is another places for all ages with a ton of hands on activities and interesting exhibits, such as one on Rockford native, Astronaut Janice Voss. They also have a two-story maze, rope climbing for older kids, and an area for toddlers.

Right next door to the Discovery Center is the Burpee Museum of Natural History. The family will have a good time checking out the Dinosaur exhibits, including an exclusive T. rex skeleton found by the museum’s researchers.

The Rockford Art Museum, which we didn’t have a chance to visit, is also in the same museum complex.

The largest and most important of the museums is Midway Village, created in the 1970s as both a village representing a 19th century Northern Illinois town and a museum dedicated to the history of Rockford.

This is one of the stops on the Cheap Trick Fan Trail (the band members grew up in Rockford) and it contains tributes to the group, as well as Rockford originals such as the Sock Monkey and the Rockford Peaches baseball team (seen in the movie A League of their Own).

The Midway Village Museum also has a fascinating look at the immigration that took place in this area, with most of the population coming through Ellis Island from Norway, Sweden, and Italy.

The Anderson Japanese Gardens are a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon. The trails are well-manicured, the lake is filled with bright fish, and the waterfalls are tranquil. Most of the gardens are accessible to strollers and wheelchairs.

If you have time, book an authentic tea ceremony. You can also visit the Anderson Gardens for one of their many events. We were there for a Japanese Festival.

Rockford has many beaches and park areas to explore. We stopped by Rock Cut State Park, which has two lakes on over 3,000 acres. It was a short kayaking trip for photographer Brittany Lambright, who did save a little girls’ rubber boat along the way!

The food scene in Rockford is as varied and exciting as the activities. We were able to visit quite a few restaurants and every one was excellent.

The Octane InterLounge is downtown. It offers must-try specialty cocktails. The Espresso Martini and Ginger Pineapple were fantastic.

For an appetizer, you can’t go wrong with the Pork Dumplings. My friends raved about the Seafood Pasta and Flank Steak, while I went for the Cheap Trick tribute, a “Budokon Burger,” which comes with grilled pineapple, white cheddar, roasted onion, and a teriyaki aioli.

For dessert, both the Chocolate Nachos and Nutella Peanut Butter Bao were scrumptious.

Another memorable dinner was at Lino’s, an Italian restaurant that was as charming as it was authentic. From the liters of Chablis to the amazing house salad with Italian sausage, it’s obvious the Lino family, who has been here for 40 years, put in all their own touches to this restaurant.

We loved everything we had: lasagna, spaghetti & meatballs, and chicken parmigiana. The Shrimp Dejonghe appetizer is also well worth starting with.

The lunch offerings in Rockford were also special. Mary’s Market Café & Bakery has made from scratch food with fresh and local ingredients. The sandwiches were all good (as were the house made breads they were on) and the fish tacos are amazing. I also enjoyed their fruit refreshers.

Prairie Street Brewing Company not only has good food, there’s also great microbrews. The favorites were the Peacock, the Passion Fruit, and the Peach Wheat. I was more than happy with their root beer for a non-alcoholic treat.

As for the food, Prairie Street has a fascinating menu that you don’t always get at a brewery. The Poutine was a winner, and the burgers creative. The pulled pork is braised in house beer and has an apple BBQ sauce. The S’mores Tart was delicious and rich enough for three to share.

We even managed to go to two unforgettable breakfast spots, The Norwegian, known for their Æbleskiver (Danish pancake balls) and Norwegian Waffles. They make their own mocha sauce for lattes, as well as creams, and jams here too.

The Stockholm, possibly the most well-known spot in Rockford, is another can’t miss breakfast place. The place is big, as is the menu, and it is filled with Swedish favorites. We tried the Swedish pancakes with lingonberries, the potato bake, and the Swedish Coffee Cake, which is sinful.

If you are looking for more casual eating, the Downtown City Market still has another weekend outdoors. The North End City Market will continue Saturdays through October.

While in Rockford, a good choice for family accommodations is the Radisson Hotel and Conference Center. The rooms are oversized and its in a central location.

Before we left town, we took a look at some of the nine murals that have been created downtown in the Rockford CRE8IV project. They are quite beautiful.

One of the places I did not make it to that’s on the top of my list for the next visit is the International Women’s Baseball Center, another one-of-a-kind spot in this special town.

Be sure to Like Midwest Travel with Marcia Frost on Facebook for more information on her trips, and read her stories on her Wine And Spirits Travel blog. You can also follow Marcia @Spiritstraveler on Twitter and Instagram.