Northern Illinois Counties: Exploring Music Festivals, Historical Mansions, Gardens and More

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Illinois is a favorite destination with travelers, due to the inviting attractions, gardens, lakes, forest preserves, concert venues, historic homes, famous movie sites and restaurants. Within the state, the individual counties, such as Lake County, McHenry County and Chicago's North Shore, afford travelers a wide breadth of exciting opportunities to explore, whether you're traveling as a family or a couple.

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Stars begin to twinkle in the dusky sky, as delighted concertgoers sit on blankets and sip fragrant glasses of wine, while awaiting the evening performance. The audience anticipation builds, as the stage lights come up and the sound of vibrant, jazzy music fills the air. From back stage, a charismatic crooner emerges, grabs his mic and the crowd cheers in excitement, at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Illinois.

Lake County: Near Chicago but Another World

This world is filled with gardens, music festivals, and elegant mansions.

Ravinia Festival

Located in Lake County, the picturesque and green setting of Ravinia Festival in Highland Park is the perfect environment for summertime (June thru September) musical performances. From rock, jazz, country and blues, to classical and swing, Ravinia hosts some of the biggest musical stars in the world, such as Journey, Lyle Lovett, Alabama, Tony Bennett, Yo-Yo Ma, Josh Groban, Sting etc. At dusk, Ravinia comes alive with candles flickering on tabletops and everyone enjoying the laid-back and social atmosphere, whether they're seated in the stage Pavilion (great acoustics!) or lawn area.

One of the fabulous aspects of the outdoor concert venue is the lawn seating area where concertgoers can bring their own food and drinks, coolers, lawn chairs, roll-up picnic tables and blankets. If you don't want to lug picnic gear with you, Ravinia rents lawn chairs, side tables and even small buffet tables. Of course, the park features several great food kiosks and restaurants; especially Mirabelle, with a famous Chef's Table that is a gourmet, buffet-style farm-to-fork sensation, with gorgeous arrays of fare and outdoor seating to enjoy the summer season. Moreover, the Ravinia Festival is a huge draw for music lovers from across the U.S. and a magical place to experience a summer concert.

Chicago Botanic Garden

If you enjoy gardens, you'll be enchanted with the world-famous Chicago Botanic Garden, located about 20-miles north of Chicago in Lake County. For over 40-years, this magnificent park has attracted visitors from across the globe with its nine islands, 26 gardens and over 2.6 million plants situated on 385 acres. The gardens are interspersed with flowing waterways and each area or island features a themed garden, such as the Circle Garden and the Japanese Garden.

The serene Japanese Garden is splendid with pruned trees and shrubs accented with small pagodas and a stepping stone pathway through the raked garden portion. You might even see a Blue Heron and a pair of Trumpeter Swans floating past the island. Enter the smaller Circle Garden with quaint, brick pathways for a bounty of brightly colored and fragrant flowers with a central fountain that is a perfect place to relax and perhaps garner ideas for your own home garden.

No matter where you wander in the www.chicagobotanic.orgChicago Botanical Garden, you'll find paved paths (bike paths as well) that meander through lovely areas of wooded and water landscapes with stunningly designed gardens with each plant marked for identification. In addition, the botanical garden also offers a narrated 35-minute garden tram tour, a comprehensive visitor's center, learning campus, cafe and gift shop.

Cuneo Mansion and Gardens

Famous and historic mansions are always fascinating to visit and Lake County is home to the elegant Cuneo Mansion and Gardens. Located just 40-miles north of Chicago, the Cuneo Mansion, built in 1914 by Samuel Insull, was sold to John Cuneo Sr. and his wife in 1937. This exquisite, Italianate-style, rose-colored villa is surrounded by beautiful, landscaped gardens featuring classical statues, gorgeous stone water fountains, a swimming pool and expansive lawns.

The interior is unique, as most of the furnishings are original pieces from the Cuneo family while they lived in the mansion. As you enter the mansion and gaze about the various rooms, take note of the marvelous art, stained glass windows, painted murals and lavish furnishings; they are breathtaking! In fact, if you look down on to the Great Hall, you will see the ornate, 16th century Italian trestle table and medieval German suit of armor that William Randolph Hearst gave to the Cuneos for their house warming gifts in 1937. Make sure to visit the graceful salon, with its lovely wall murals, and the luxurious gilded Dining Room that would rival even Downton Abbey's dining hall. And, the Silver Room that displays the opulent silverware, goblets, plates and serving-ware used by the family.

Shopping in Lake Forest

If you wish to do a bit of shopping in a charming town, visit the City of Lake Forest. This scenic town offers an abundance of great specialty shops and a superb bakery, Gerhard's; good luck trying to make a decision on all of the luscious delicacies. There is also a wonderful Famer's Market located from across the small train station on Saturdays that runs from June through October.


For accommodations in Lake County, the newly renovated Embassy Suites Chicago North Shore Deerfield, located on Lake Cook Road (in Cook County that borders Lake County) is a perfect choice for families and couples. The hotel's gracious service, relaxed atmosphere and stylish decor will provide an enticing respite from your travels.

For additional information on attractions and accommodations for Lake County, Illinois, visit

McHenry County

One of the most popular and famous movie-site towns in Illinois is Woodstock, located about an hour from Chicago. If you're a fan of the movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andi MacDowell, you're in for a fabulous treat. This charming and historic small town has changed very little since the filming of the wildly popular 1992 movie and there are over 14 highly recognizable film sites to visit as well. In addition to the fun and popular Groundhog Day walking tour of filming sites (ask for Rick Bellairs as your tour guide), there is a entertaining schedule of Groundhog events during January and February. Visitors can watch Groundhog Day in the town theater that was filmed in the movie, attend a chili cook-off and even enjoy a themed breakfast.

Aside from the Groundhog Day popularity, the town of Woodstock is almost reminiscent of Disney's Main Street in its appearance and charismatic appeal. The town's Romanesque Opera House was built in1889 and is particularly interesting, as it once served as city hall, a library and fire department. The Opera House has been restored to about 85 percent accurate to its original design and features numerous performances throughout the year, as well as a Mozart Festival and the Nutcracker at Christmas time. Moreover, this 400-seat theater has seen its share of stars, including Paul Newman, Lois Nettleton and the first show that Orson Wells ever produced.

For additional information on Woodstock, Illinois and McHenry County go to

Corn Mazes have grown in popularity over the last 10-years and the Richardson Adventure Farm, located in Spring Grove, is setting the standard for family fun. The farm is owned by the Richardson family and has grown over the years with plantings of corn, soybeans and Christmas trees. Today, this exciting adventure farm is a blast and features, a 28-acre corn maze that boasts a new design each year (such as the Beatles). Richardson's also draws visitors with their 700-foot zipline, kid's play area, a wooded picnic park, a pumpkin patch, wagon rides, and a host of additional cool attractions and concessions. Make sure to plan plenty of time if you visit the farm, as there is so much to do and see.

Chicago's North Shore

An intriguing historical mansion to visit in Chicago's North Shore is the Charles Gates Dawes House, located in Evanston. Dawes, a banker and famous politician, was the 30th Vice President of the United States, as well as a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925 and the Ambassador to the United Kingdom. This fascinating man bought an equally remarkable home in 1909, the picturesque, lakefront French chateaux style mansion, located on Greenwood Street. Built in 1894, and designed by architect Henry Edwards-Ficken, the mansion's interior possesses all of the original furnishings and is comprised of 25 rooms, with six bedrooms, seven bathrooms and 11 fireplaces.

Paneled in a rich, dark oak, the interior of the Dawes house bears a sophisticated, masculine appearance due to the combined design components of Louis XVI-style and English Renaissance Revival styles. The library is exceptional and befitted to a Vice President with its mahogany-finish, cherry wood ceiling beams and bookcases, accented with famous portraits, statues and busts. Moreover, each room features ornate plaster work and beautiful design detail that is worth taking your time to examine, such as Tiffney lamps, opulent period furniture and impressive historical artifacts from the turn of the 20th century.

If you visit Chicago's North Shore, make sure to visit the webpage for great attractions and sites, from the massive Bah'i House of worship to the Grosse Point Lighthouse, located in Evanston. In addition, the renowned Holocaust Museum and Education Center is located on Woods Drive. The museum is somber and poignant but an important museum to visit, with a message that is not only about remembering the past, but also learning to transform the future.

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Patrice Raplee
is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site and is a regular contributor on travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: January 26th, 2014

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