Enjoy the freedom of the open road with a Midwest adventure, writes Jeannine Williamson.
Bigger isn’t always better, except when it comes to Chicago. The Windy City is the largest in Illinois, gateway to a Midwestern state that’s part of the Great Lakes region and has the world’s biggest area of freshwater lakes and rivers, including the mighty Mississippi.
It’s also the starting point for the famed Route 66, and while the US might be off-limits right now, interest in this eternally popular route never seems to fade. A fly-drive will enable your clients to explore the region’s quirky attractions, small towns, presidential history and great places to eat and drink – with a few retro soda fountains along the way to prove this is true Americana territory.
1. Journey to Joliet
Route 66 runs through the town of Joliet, 40 miles southwest of Chicago. The welcome centre at Joliet Area Historical Museum is the perfect place to get an introduction to the highway before hitting the road. The museum is packed with eclectic exhibits charting the history of the area, including the chance to sit between statues of The Blues Brothers characters. In the cult film, ‘Joliet’ Jake Blues is imprisoned at Joliet’s incredible castle-like prison, and die-hard fans can even take a tour of the down-at-heel jail, bookable at the museum. The jail was also the setting for TV series Prison Break. There are some great souvenirs too. The museum is open daily, priced $8 for adults and $5 for children.
“The museum is packed with eclectic exhibits charting the history of the area, including the chance to sit between statues of The Blues Brothers characters.”
2. Marvel at murals
Stop off in Pontiac where 23 huge outdoor murals depict the town’s history. The majority were created by the Walldogs, a group of painters who visited the town in 2009. Most of them can be seen from your car, although you’ll get a better close-up view by following the red footprint walking trail. On Saturdays in summer, the Pontiac Jolly Trolley provides hop-on hop-off tours of the murals on Main Street. The largest depicts the classic Route 66 sign and is great for a photo. On a smaller scale, look out for 15 cute miniature ’57 Chevys and pick-up trucks dotted around the downtown area, which have been decorated by local artists.
“On Saturdays in summer, the Pontiac Jolly Trolley provides hop-on hop-off tours of the murals on Main Street.”
3. Follow the historic brick road
For a real step back in time, get your Route 66 kicks on a drive over an original stretch of the iconic highway. A 1.4-mile section of the historic hand-laid brick road, completed in 1931 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored and placed over a concrete roadbed near Auburn, a town about three hours’ drive from Chicago. Winding through corn fields and with plenty of places to stop, it’s a great spot for a photo opportunity and to reflect on what it must have been like to bump along the road in the cars of the time.
“A 1.4-mile section of the historic hand-laid brick road, completed in 1931 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored.”
4. Big sights
You’ll need to crane your neck to take in some of the most unusual and interesting sights in Illinois. The recently reopened Launching Pad Restaurant on Route 66 at Wilmington is famous for its Gemini Giant, a 28ft spaceman standing outside. At Collinsville, the 170ft Brooks Catsup Bottle is the world’s largest water tower, built to supply the namesake ketchup manufacturer. This architectural novelty was built in 1949 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. And in Alton, you can stand beside a life sized statue of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest-ever man, who was born in the town in 1918 and grew to be 8ft 11in tall.
“In Alton, you can stand beside a life sized statue of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest-ever man, who was born in the town in 1918.”
5. Meet the president
Abraham Lincoln, the instantly recognisable 16th president of the US, lived in Springfield for several decades before moving to Washington in 1861, three months before the outbreak of the American Civil War. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is an impressive attraction where you can see a mock-up of the modest log cabin in which he was born and learn about his rise to fame. Models of Lincoln and his family bring the period to life, along with high-tech displays, including clever ‘live’ news coverage of his election, the chilling toll of casualties in the war and his assassination in 1865. Admission is $15 for adults and $6 for children and can be booked in advance online.
“The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is an impressive attraction where you can see a mock-up of the modest log cabin in which he was born.”
6. Fancy a paddle?
Enjoy a retro night out on the Mississippi aboard the Celebration Belle, a 750-passenger paddle wheeler that sails out of Moline. The Captain’s Dinner and Dance cruise operates every Tuesday to Saturday from April to September. After a buffet meal with prime rib, you can dance to country music and rock‘n’roll with members of the Celebration River Cruises band, which also takes requests. Alternatively, get a drink from the bar and take a starlit stroll on deck as the Celebration Belle returns to the docking spot. There are also narrated daytime sailings and lunch cruises. The dinner cruise costs $53 for adults and $43 for children and can be pre-booked.
“After a buffet meal with prime rib, you can dance to country music and rock‘n’roll with members of the Celebration River Cruises band, which also takes requests.”
North America Travel Service’s 13-night Historic Route 66 escorted tour visits Springfield, Pontiac and the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. Prices from £3,471, including flights. Guided motorcycle options are also available.
First Class Holidays has a Historic Route 66 self-drive starting in Chicago, from £1,334 for 16 days including accommodation and fully-inclusive intermediate car hire. Flights are extra.