Dusk settles over the Peoria skyline, scattering flecks of light on the Illinois River. Traffic on Interstate--74 barrels for the twin suspension bridges, but I have no interest in keeping up. I’ve spent the past six hours in the car with my 6-year-old. We’re roughly halfway through our 600-mile journey from our home in Iowa to my mom’s near Cincinnati, and I need a break.
An oasis of calm in a sea of concrete, the Mark Twain Hotel beckons just off Exit 93. A plate of chocolate chip cookies, a bowl of green apples and cushy brown leather couches greet us in the lobby. We head to our king room, a small but stylish haven with white linens and green-apple-inspired walls (from $139, includes full breakfast).
Surprised at how many families we see in the Two25 dining room and giddy that we don’t need to drive to dinner, I slide into a high-backed booth and scan the menu: crab-stuffed jumbo prawns, a pear salad studded with walnuts, wasabi-crusted sea bass, steaks, burgers and oven-fired pizzas. We order a barbecue chicken pizza, the chef’s original sauce slathered over handmade dough.
A full stomach gives me the energy to point the car toward East Peoria and the Festival of Lights, a massive drive-through display that puts all others I’ve seen to shame. Our camera flashes to capture the likes of Star Wars spaceships, dinosaurs, trains and carriages along the path.
Morning brings a leisurely northbound river drive to Prospect Road in Peoria Heights, a postcard-cute stretch of businesses that includes Leaves ‘N Beans, a coffee roaster and shop in a cozy bungalow; Salt, an upscale eatery serving lunch and dinner plated on Himalayan rock salt; and June, with its James Beard-semifinalist chef known for melding food and chemistry.
Back downtown, the new Peoria Riverfront Museum mashes hands-on science with history lessons and art for a kid-friendly stop. We can’t go there today, or to the Peoria Rivermen hockey game tonight. But that just means we’ll have plenty to see on our way home.
For more information: Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (800) 747-0302; peoria.org