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A warm, welcoming holiday getaway to Galena, Illinois

Street in Galena, Illinois Visitors will find more than 125 shops and restaurants along downtown Galena’s charming Main Street, which is known as the Helluva Half Mile. | Photo Galena Country Tourism

Bundled up in hats and gloves, we ducked into a brewpub to shake off the chill and the snow flocking our coats. As my wife and I sipped our beers and watched the falling snow outside, twilight descended on downtown Galena. When we emerged back onto Main Street, the warm glow of streetlights and thousands of luminarias lit up the brisk night.

Situated in far northwest Illinois, Galena embraces winter and the holidays with flourishes worthy of a Hallmark movie. 

“Winter is definitely a great time to experience Galena, especially during the holiday season,” said Rose Noble, president and CEO of Galena Country Tourism. “Truly something magical happens when our historic Main Street is draped with fragrant garland, twinkling lights, and fresh snow. It really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

With skiing and other outdoor diversions, some of the best shopping anywhere, hands-on experiences, and a charming downtown with superb restaurants, Galena provides the perfect getaway to get into the spirit of the season or to recover from all the hubbub afterward.

Spirited festival

A parade featuring all manner of vehicles and horse-drawn wagons is among the highlights of Galena’s annual Nouveau Wine Weekend. | Photo Courtesy Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery

A parade featuring all manner of vehicles and horse-drawn wagons is among the highlights of Galena’s annual Nouveau Wine Weekend. | Photo Courtesy Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery

The wonder begins with a festival that bridges autumn and winter—the annual Nouveau Wine Weekend that heralds Galena Cellars Vineyard and Winery’s fall harvest and the release of its fruit-forward Nouveau wine, which is not meant to be aged but rather enjoyed during the holidays. Always held on the third weekend of November—this year November 19 and 20—the tradition’s origins are a nod to a similar celebration in France.

“In 1985, we thought, ‘The French can do it, so why not us?’ ” said Britt White, brand ambassador of Galena Cellars. “Since then, we have been releasing the Nouveau wine each November, the week before Thanksgiving. The Nouveau celebration is so special because not only have we continued this tradition for 37 years, but the entire town is involved and plays a part in celebrating.”

Galena’s weekend activities get under way with a toast on that Friday during a lunch at Galena Cellars’ Main Street tasting room. Many restaurants in town join in the fun by serving traditional French cuisine and wine-inspired meals.

Then a parade of revelers assembles at the storefront at 2:30 for a trek around Main Street in all manner of vehicles and horse-drawn wagons. Onlookers, with glasses of wine in hand, cheer on the roving party. The merriment continues throughout the weekend as restaurants and shops offer wine tastings, live music, and dinner specials.

Also downtown, craft beer lovers should check out the ales on tap at Galena Brewing Company, which offers fine pub fare. Don’t miss the award-winning Fevre River Ale, a straw-colored Bavarian-style wheat beer. If you prefer spirits, stop by Blaum Bros. Distilling Company for a tour of how the facility’s bourbons, vodkas, and gins are crafted in small batches.

Fireworks and light displays

Holiday festivities continue during the first weekend of December with the Fire in the Sky fireworks display. When the sun sets on Saturday, December 4, crane your head upward from just about anywhere downtown to watch the pyrotechnics.

Many Galena shop windows come alive during the Night of the Luminaria and Living Windows Celebration. | Photo Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Many Galena shop windows come alive during the Night of the Luminaria and Living Windows Celebration. | Photo Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Galena glows even more during the following weekend’s Night of the Luminaria and Living Windows celebration. During this enchanted evening–this year on December 11—more than 5,000 luminarias on streets, steps, and sidewalks light up Galena’s historic district. As you stroll Main Street, you’ll see store windows come alive with people performing holiday-inspired scenes. Mrs. Claus might be decorating cookies or musicians could be playing traditional Christmas tunes.

You can take in the spectacle as you explore more than 125 one-of-a-kind stores. Curving Main Street is known as the Helluva Half Mile, and you can find nearly anything you’d want in the charming boutiques that inhabit restored brick buildings dating to Galena’s days as a booming 1800s lead-mining town.

Experiential adventures

Some of the shops along Main Street and other area businesses participate in Galena’s Forever Original Experiences program, which highlights unique hands-on workshops, tastings, and outdoor diversions. Visitors go behind-the-scenes to create mementos and memories that linger long after they return home.

Galena Spoon Co. offers classes on how to carve wooden spoons, one of several experiential programs in town. | Photo courtesy Galena Spoon Co.

Galena Spoon Co. offers classes on how to carve wooden spoons, one of several experiential programs in town. | Photo courtesy Galena Spoon Co.

For instance, a host of bowls, cutting boards, and more line the shelves at the Galena Spoon Company, but the stars of the show are the hand-carved spoons. Self-taught carver Paul Pendola crafts the beautiful and simple woodenware, and he relishes teaching others how to do it through full-day or three-hour classes from spring through fall. No prior woodworking experience is required, and Pendola keeps class sizes small to provide personalized coaching. In any class, you might find seniors, chefs, crafters, professionals, artists, and family groups.

“Students quickly discover that this is about more than making a spoon,” he said. “It’s about taking time to discover the artist in you, reconnect with nature, meet new people with similar interests, share stories and memories—often about the wooden spoon, the kitchen, and food.”

 

Goats accompany guests on a variety of different hikes with Hoof It Goat Treks, including some featuring bonfires or wine tastings. | Photo courtesy Hoof It Goat Treks®

Goats accompany guests on a variety of different hikes with Hoof It Goat Treks, including some featuring bonfires or wine tastings. | Photo courtesy Hoof It Goat Treks®

Head outside to hike with goats through another Forever Original Experience. Hoof It Goat Treks originated when Christina Eisbach bought baby goats for her youngest daughter, and the lifelong Galena resident and animal lover discovered that goats followed their family everywhere.

“We started taking the goats, the dog, and the kids on our evening walk through the property,” said Eisbach, who lives about 15 minutes east of downtown. “The goats were always very entertaining. I thought to myself, ‘If I’m this entertained on a nightly basis, I can only imagine how others may feel.’ The idea was born.”

In addition to simple hikes through the woods accompanied by goat companions and their fun antics, Hoof It offers treks that include bonfires, wine tastings, and live music. As you walk along a quiet forest path with goats prancing underfoot, you come away with a greater appreciation for nature.

“Spending time in the forest is very relaxing and calming,” said Eisbach, who operates the company with her two daughters. “Our visitors are always looking for a unique experience. This is something they have never heard of and they have a hard time resisting the charm and wonder.”

Other Forever Original Experiences include candle-making, flower farm tours, and coffee cupping—the art of evaluating coffee flavors and aromas.

Where to dine and stay

In addition to coffee, savor plenty of other flavor in Galena. Cozy bistros and sandwich shops are steps away from fine-dining establishments. Simply walk up and down Main Street to discover a bounty of choices to match the ambience (and budget) you prefer.

Fuel up for the day at Victory Café, a no-nonsense diner that boasts home-style fare, including bigger-than-your-plate pancakes. After you’ve walked off your breakfast, stop at Dirty Gurt’s Burger Joynt, where burgers are the stars of the extensive menu.

If you’d like a little fire with your dinner, order the flaming saganaki appetizer from the Log Cabin Steakhouse, one of Galena’s oldest restaurants. The Greek steakhouse serves hand-cut, wet-aged Angus prime beef, along with seafood and other options. Order your steak Greek style to boost the flavor quotient with garlic, butter, rosemary, and other herbs.

The menu of accommodations in and around town is just as broad, highlighted by more than two dozen cottages, cabins, bed-and-breakfast inns, and boutique vacation rentals.

In the heart of Main Street, find 55 Victorian-style guest rooms and three restaurants at the historic DeSoto House Hotel. Originally opened in 1855, the hotel once was the center of Galena’s social and political activities. President Abraham Lincoln spoke from its balcony, and Ulysses S. Grant used two rooms as his presidential campaign headquarters. Rates start at $170.

For a little more unusual option, book the Arrowhead Treehouse at Dittmar Farms and Orchard. Located near the farm’s lower apple orchard about 20 miles west of Galena, the treehouse’s amenities include heat, air conditioning, and a full bathroom. Rates start at $199 weekdays with a two-night minimum.

Chestnut Mountain Resort’s slopes include 19 runs for all level of skiers and snowboarders. | Photo Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Chestnut Mountain Resort’s slopes include 19 runs for all level of skiers and snowboarders. | Photo Courtesy Illinois Office of Tourism

Two area resorts also welcome guests, including Chestnut Mountain Resort about 8 miles southeast of Galena. In winter, the 99-room chalet turns into a ski resort with a terrain park and 19 ski and snowboard trails. Rates start at $99.

Encircled by 6,800 acres of countryside and nestled up to Lake Galena, Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa has 80 rooms in the main lodge and 150 privately owned villas and homes ideal for girlfriend getaways, family vacations, and golf weekends that take advantage of the resort’s three championship courses. Located 6 miles east of Galena, the resort includes hiking and biking trails, a boat dock, a horseback riding center, a spa, and three restaurants. Rates start at $139.

Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa’s annual Winter Carnival over President’s Day weekend includes balloon glows, an ice rink, and sledding. | Photo courtesy Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa’s annual Winter Carnival over President’s Day weekend includes balloon glows, an ice rink, and sledding. | Photo courtesy Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa

During the winter, the resort’s Highlands Complex and General Golf Course transforms into the Nordic Center, where guests can check out ice skates. The resort fetes the season with its Winter Carnival every President’s Day weekend—February 18 through 22 in 2022—that’s open to all, not just resort guests. Highlights include balloon glows at night, an ice bar, sledding, an ice rink, and a snowshoe race.

When we checked out of our bed-and-breakfast after our weekend getaway, rather than being dismayed by the prospect of a five-hour trip home on snowy roads, we were warmed by our memories of Galena’s light in the midst of a cold and dark winter. Enlivened for the holidays, we vowed to return to discover Galena’s summertime charms, as well.

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of AAA Explorer’s Midwest edition.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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