It’s really not. And it’s well worth the 4-1/2 hour drive.
We left late Friday morning and began our trek. The weather was beautiful on this bright October day. The sun reflected on the changing trees, and the further south we drove, the more colorful they became. The flat plains of Central Illinois gave way to rolling hills and breathtaking landscape. We could almost feel ourselves breathe a relaxing sigh as we made our way to our home away from home for the weekend, The Davie School Inn in Anna, IL.
The Davie School Inn was built in 1910 and served as a public school until 1996. The proprietors, Gary and Andrea Dahmer, bought the schoolhouse in 2002 and completed renovations in 2006. Each classroom has been turned into a suite – 11 in all. What’s amazing is that for as many modern conveniences as there are (fireplaces, Jacuzzi tubs, kitchenettes and private baths), they still managed to keep the atmosphere of the old schoolhouse. Many rooms still have the original hardwood floors and chalkboards. School desks and even the original water fountains still remain.
Gary was a delightful host, and had excellent recommendations as well as interesting stories. Former students and teachers from the school had actually stayed in the Inn, some in their old classrooms. Every year, Gary and his wife, Andrea, host a party for alumni, the oldest a spry 103 years.
Our suite, formerly the kindergarten room, was an 850 square foot hideaway complete with king-size bed, sitting area with leather couch and flat screen TV, gas fireplace, kitchenette with coffee maker sink, refrigerator and microwave, Jacuzzi tub and shower. A door at the back headed out to a small patio amidst mature trees. The room itself was decorated with lovely antiques,but still had a modern quality that made it quaint and comfortable.
We checked in and had an informative conversation with Gary, who gave us hiking and biking recommendations as well as some restaurant don’t-misses.We headed out late in the afternoon and drove north to Giant City State Park, an impressive 4,000 acre wilderness paradise. Unfortunately, the Visitor’s Center was closed, so we made our way to the lodge to ask for directions. We’re not sure if we got on the right trail or not – we think not, but we did enjoy several miles of “Horse Trail”, minus the sidestepping of equine poop. After some precarious rocky terrain, we came upon some impressive sandstone structures that almost looked like meteors dropped from the sky. We made it back just before nightfall and were given a farewell by an ornery screech owl,who scared the daylights out of me.
Ready for some sustenance, we headed to the Blue Boar Restaurant, which had been recommended to us. After taking a wrong turn down a gravel path (according to the picture on the GPS, we dropped off the face of the earth), we finally drove down a windy road and saw a small, 8 x 10 paper sign with an arrow that said “Blue Boar”. Needless to say, we were not optimistic. How wrong we were. The Blue Boar is a open lodge full of eclectic wall hangings including animal heads on one side, New Orleans-style instruments on the other, and sports memorabilia over the full bar. A one-man band entertained us on the guitar from a balcony perch overlooking the mess hall-style room, which felt cozy with tables of families and friends who all seemed to know each other. We dined on excellent steaks and imbibed in the pumpkin ale that the waitress recommended, and I dare say it was one of the most comfortable meals we had ever had.
The next morning, Gary delivered breakfast to our room at 9:30 am sharp – a bountiful display of some sort of egg and spinach and cheese scramble, spicy hash browns, bacon, and the most amazing pastries. Oh, and fruit. According to him, all of it was fat-free. After breakfast, we ventured behind the Inn to Anna Park and found the tennis courts for a few sets. Amidst the pee-wee football teams playing on the fields next to us and the cool, crisp autumn air, it felt like a piece of Americana.
Perhaps not realizing our limitations, we loaded up our bicycles and headed over to the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail, a 28.7 mile stretch of rolling woodlands and farm fields interrupted (conveniently) by strategically-placed local wineries.
We should have read the full description of the Trail, which says, “Consuming great amounts of wine and bicycling narrow, winding, hilly roads is a treacherous enterprise. Use care when combining the vino with the velo.” Upon commencing our trek, we were greeted by “Hill #1”. I call it that because it wasn’t the only one. There were SOOOO many more. I kept thinking, “We’ve gone up so much; eventually we will have to go down.” We did, but it was always paired with another “up”. I had to walk my bike up many of the steep inclines, and was more than thankful, when, after about 6-1/2 miles, we reached the first winery, StarView.
The tasting room was crowded (a limo had pulled in right before us), but we finally had our Chardonel and Vignoles in hand and ventured out to the lake next to the vineyard and took a break to take in the breathtaking view and watch the koi swim in the pond. We could have easily stayed there all day, but we had miles to go.
About 6-1/2 more treacherous miles later, we arrived (panting)at Blue Sky Vineyards, an incredibly impressive, Tuscan-style winery. Having been to the California Wine Country, I was impressed at how “like that” it was. We sat on the patio and enjoyed a Chambourcin and a White Wine Sangria while munching on cheese and sausage, crackers and grapes. The pavilion overlooked an expansive, grassy area full of tables near a large pond, and a folk singer serenaded us nearby. Again, we could have called it quits there.
But no – we ventured on. Again, another six or so miles later, we made our final stop at Owl Creek Vineyard, a rustic, simple place that was bustling with patrons. A bluegrass band entertained outside in the bed of an old, rusted out pickup truck, singing songs like “Constant Sorrow” from Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? We both sampled the Seyval Blanc, and before we could try the “ChardonOwl” or the “Whooos Blush”, we had closed the place down.
Finally back in a vehicle that didn’t require pedaling, we headed to nearby Cobden and found The Palace Pizzeria, famous for their Double Crust Pizza. They also sold most of the wines from our tour, but by then, I settled for the Saluki Porter. After a 20 mile bike ride, the pizza was the best I had ever tasted.
The next morning, our muscles were screaming from the prior day’s exercise. Gary delivered breakfast (thank goodness; I probably could not have made it down to the kitchen). This time it was a dish he said he had finally perfected – a cross between a French toast and a bread pudding, with a nutty caramel sauce. I expected it to be heavy and rich, but instead it was light and extremely flavorful, and served with sausages and melon. After that hearty meal, we checked out of our room, but not before sitting in Gary’s office (the old principal’s office) to hear more stories of the Davie School Inn. We even viewed the old bell clock and the safe where the milk money was kept.
Hoping to stretch out our tired muscles, we headed homeward, but stopped at the Pomona Natural Bridge, one of those “are we going the right way because I’m not seeing anything and we’ve been on this gravel road for miles” treks. We did a short, hilly hike and walked across the sandstone bridge that had been created by years of water erosion. What amazed me most was not only this natural beauty, but the diversity of trees in this forest – far more than what you see in Central Illinois.
From there, we headed home, and the rolling landscape and colorful foliage gave way to flatter plains and less impressive-looking colors. But what I will remember is the beauty of that region of Illinois that I never realized was there. And there’s so much more we didn’t see - the main part of Shawnee National Forest, Garden of the Gods, Little Grand Canyon… all saved for another weekend.
Thanks to Gary at Davie School Inn for giving us an amazing resting place, to my companion who made the weekend one to remember, and to God for creating such a beautiful place so close to home.