Friday, August 20, 2010

Our Quick Peoria Vacation

August might not be the best time to visit Peoria for a long weekend, but Bonnie and I enjoyed our hot but entertaining stay. It might have seemed hotter, but clouds and breezes helped, as well as being out early each morning. Summer heat does not hold us back.

Why Peoria? Bonnie and I have been members of the Brookfield Zoo for 27 years and used to read about the zoo's grounds outside Peoria for breeding endangered species. We always wanted to go see it. Well, in the meantime, it was transformed into a Wildlife Prairie State Park, a sort of zoo for animals native to Illinois. We still kept it on our list of places to visit before we die. We went Friday morning last week, accomplishing our first objective for a Peoria vacation. While at the state park, we saw wolves, bison, elk, red tailed hawks, and a bobcat. Best of all, we spent twenty minutes watching sandhill cranes. There were also keeper talks. One keeper had a peregrine falcon that we saw up close, and another had a bald eagle, but he stayed a little farther back. The wild animal park has huge enclosures for its animals, which are at times difficult to spot. We missed the black bears and the river otters. Still, we had a great time. It is amazing to think that the place had once been a strip mine for coal. It is a true conservation success.

Our second objective was to see a Peoria Chiefs baseball game. We arrived at the stadium about an hour before game time, thinking we might see batting practice, but no one was on the well-manicured field. I got a tasty BBQ sandwich, and we looked around park. I liked seeing all the old photos of Peoria's former minor league and college baseball stars. Then a storm with its dramatic clouds rolled in. The temperature fell from 88 to 65 degrees, and buckets of rain fell. About half an hour past scheduled game time, the team called the game off. We went to Panera for hot chocolate.

The third objective was to see the
Peoria Zoo in Glen Oak Park. We enjoy visiting small zoos to see what birds and animals they might have. Bonnie had done her homework and knew, but I was quite surprised how nice the place was. Just this summer the Peoria Zoo open its new Africa! exhibit with large enclosures for the animals and great viewing decks for the visitors. The Red River hog had four little piglets (hoglets?) scurrying around her, the tortoise was slowly walking around his enclosure, the Thompson's gazelles were locking horns (though they had no females over which to fight), and the rhinoceroses were taking mud baths. The colobus monkeys were off exhibit, so we missed them just as we had twice on trips to Africa. In the small animal house was a small colony of bright yellow weaver birds, as well as really big snakes. It was just getting hot when we broke for lunch. It had been a really great morning.

The afternoon did not go as well. We went to take a tour of a historic house near Bradley University, but the curators/docents never showed. Bonnie had called ahead to verify the hours. It was quite a disappointment. Then we went back to Glen Oak Park to tour the Luthy Botanical Garden, close to the zoo. The gardens are beautiful and I would like to spend more time there on a cooler day. I particularly liked the shady Woodland Garden, which had some tall old trees.

Needing something cool, Bonnie spotted Emack and Bolio's Ice Cream Shop in Peoria Heights. We had never heard of the establishment, but it had rich creamy ice cream and microbrewed sodas, as well as classic 1960s rock posters and great music. The franchise seems to be mostly in Massachusetts and New York. The only Illinois shops are in Peoria Heights and Normal. I wish one would come to our area.

We then took a short hike at Forest Park Nature Center. It was fairly pleasant under the thick green trees along the Valley Trail. In the nicely air conditioned visitors center, I liked the photos from 1930s and 1940s showing the Girl Scout camp that had been on the location.

For dinner, we returned to the Bradley University area and got a table at One World Eats & Drinks. The decor is definitely hip college-town, but the clientele included as many families as students. I enjoyed a Southwest salad and tiramisu, both of which I recommend.

Driving around Peoria is very easy for someone used to Chicago traffic. Some one way streets and dead ends near the downtown ramps to the Interstate confused us a little, but we got where we wanted fairly quickly. I'd still like to see a ballgame in Peoria. If we visit again, we'll try to make it late spring or fall.

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