I stand in the heart of downtown Hinsdale, 20 miles west of Chicago’s Loop, in the middle of a forest, the air sharp and cold. When I close my eyes, a memory wafts in, triggered by the scent of evergreens. I’m back at Christmas circa 1965, breathing in the magical, piney fragrance clinging to my dad’s coat as he carries me on his shoulders through a sea of pungent green. The memory doesn’t entirely fade, even when I open my eyes and take in the rows of firs, spruce and pine alongside Fuller’s Home and Hardware store.
The temporary tree lot is just one way the historical towns along Metra’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe train line dress up to welcome the holidays. On weekdays, the Metra stations in La Grange, Western Springs, Hinsdale and Downers Grove nearly groan under the weight of tired commuters clambering on and off the trains running in and out of Chicago. But on the weekends, these four downtowns feel entirely different to people like me who still appreciate leisurely train rides. I can fill an entire day hopping on and off the train, walking through the downtowns, browsing the boutiques and dining in restaurants catering to foodies.
La Grange is the first stop on the journey, 8 miles from the final stop in Downers Grove. When I meander into Blue Feather Books and Botanicals Ltd., I become aware of a sound that seems from another place entirely. Resonant and pure, the high, vibrating hum sounds ancient. And, in fact, “singing bowls” date back thousands of years. Villagers in Tibet, Nepal, India and Bhutan still use them, striking the edges with a mallet to create tones as rich as an organ, as lovely as a favorite Christmas carol. The imported bowls nestle amid boxes of incense, vials of essential oils, bundles of sage and rows of altar candles in the room where owner Rhonda Day-Kooy mixes a citrusy aromatherapy potion designed to alleviate my stress. I take a quick whiff, hoping it somehow erases holiday-induced tension. The lime mingled with rue smells luscious. I can’t help but smile. It’s Prozac for the nose. It’s also making me hungry.
At the end of a 5-minute train ride, I pull into Western Springs to meet my husband for a late lunch. Settled in at the cozy Mécénat Bistro and Gathering Place, I opt for something sensible. The chili arrives steaming, thick with fat pinto beans and peppery tomatoes. My husband insists on sharing even though he ordered a Midnight Sandwich, piled with pork, chicken, pickles and cheese. I don’t tell him the chili is vegetarian, with tofu standing in for beef. One spoonful, and he’s sold. Conversation stops until we scrape the bowl clean.
We walk to Kirschbaum’s Bakery, where third- and fourth-generation Kirschbaums stand behind the counter. The array overwhelms: rows of cookies, thickly frosted cakes and trays of sweet-smelling breads. We get a small bag of butter cookies with sprinkles. I polish off the red ones. He eats the green. Heading back to the train, we’re happy, sated, slightly sleepy and bound for Hinsdale (another 3 minutes west by train), then Downers Grove (11 more minutes west by Metra).
The oldest of these four towns, Hinsdale has a historical district that looks like it could star on a Currier and Ives Christmas card. Stately mansions dot wooded lanes near South Washington Street, where home-decor shops and fine-apparel boutiques complement the fresh-cut Christmas trees at Fuller’s Home and Hardware.
For a voracious reader like me, though, the finest stop awaits in Downers Grove: Anderson’s Bookshop. Anderson’s is a feast for old-school booklovers—I have tried in vain to warm to my Kindle—and I settle in for some serious browsing. When I look up, half an hour has slid past. Reluctantly, I pull on my gloves and prepare to finish shopping at the many businesses along Main Street. I realize my hands smell like pine, and new memories suddenly mingle with old.
Click ahead for our trip guide.