Destination Galena, Ill.: great for shopping

The thrill of the hunt has begun, but it’s not only about the whitetail stalkers who are heading north. Their annual departure is good reason for another type of autumn pilgrimage, particularly if you have a penchant for shopping.

Head southwest, my friends, to the serene countryside that is dotted with quaint towns and creative people. This is what my dearest childhood friend and I did this fall, during a weekend full of sunshine and no rigid plans to complicate it.

Our destination was Galena, Ill., in the northwest corner of the state. It is best known as the home of Ulysses S. Grant, Civil War hero and 18th president of the U.S. His home can be toured, and much of the downtown has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1969.

That’s all fine and good, but Marjean and I were not seeking history lessons, although we spent one night at the gracious-looking DeSoto House, built in 1855 and the oldest hotel in Illinois. Abe Lincoln spoke here. Tiny Tom Thumb slept here. A part of “Field of Dreams” was filmed here, in 1988.

Self-guided tours and continual video showings are quick and effective ways to better understand the hotel’s significance, plus the city’s historic struggles.

We stayed in the Oliver Grant Room, named after the president’s younger brother, and it was roomy. It also faced an indoor courtyard, where a wedding reception made it hard to hear the TV as the DJ blasted “Play That Funky Music” and Patsy Cline hits. That ended abruptly at 11 p.m.

It might have been better to arrive on Dec. 17, when there will be a candlelight dinner in the same courtyard, with more sultry entertainment. See www.desotohouse.com or call 800-343-6562; room rates change monthly. The range is $90-140 in December.

Entrees in the Generals’ Restaurant at the hotel are $15-29 and big enough for two, with dumpling-like spaetzle served as a side dish. Cream of bleu cheese soup is a longtime specialty; it is pleasant even if you’re not a fan of the primary ingredient.

Shopping is what brought us to Galena, but I expected little more than tons of antique stores. It had been 20 years since my last visit,; retail representation has gotten far more diverse and upscale since then.

It is not unusual for a touristy town to have a lot of shops, but they tend to look the same after a while. That’s not the deal in Galena. We didn’t see brands or stock repeated much. This is a downtown of one boutique after another, and I’m trying hard to recall whether we passed even one T-shirt shop.

Main Street, inside the levee gates, has wine tasting on one end and tours of the city’s oldest house (Dowling) at the other. In between are dozens of ways to spend money, fudge to fragrances, home to ear décor, fine art to inexpensive baubles.

Had there been more time, I’d have wanted to try a class at The Great Galena Cookery. Limited to eight people, classes cost $50 and result in a full meal – appetizers to dessert. See www.galenapeddlery.com or call 815-777-1556.

As it was, we simply wandered happily from one shop to the next, poking around more than buying mass quantities of merchandise. We had hoped to take a trolley tour of the city but ran out of time.

Night two was spent at The Irish Cottage, near the outskirts of town, a 77-room inn that is full of Guinness and Celtic ballads. Parts of the hotel were built in Ireland, then shipped to Galena.

Frank O’Dowd’s Irish Pub sometimes has Irish dancers or singers. Staff includes six to eight hospitality interns from Ireland. See www.theirishcottage.com or call 877-444-5850.

Not in the mood for Irish pub grub? Consider Oscar Pike’s, downtown, for Asian to Italian cuisine, sangria to mojitos (a minty rum drink). This is a fusion of cuisines, and celebrity autographs (which fill the restaurant walls).

For more about Galena, go to www.galena.org or call 877-464-2536.

The trip to Galena can be as leisurely as you choose to make it. We zipped into Mineral Point for a couple of hours, popping in and out of the town’s nice assortment of galleries and artist work spaces.

The meal of choice? It is the Cornish pasty, meat and veggie filled turnovers that are served downtown. Thirsty? The Brewery Creek Inn’s brewpub has beer brewed on the premises. See www.mineralpoint.com or call 888-764-6894.

Just north of town, on Highway 151, is a Crazy Frank’s discount warehouse, which you have to see to believe. It is an odd and fascinating assortment of close-out and liquidated merchandise. A my-junk-your-treasure thing. See www.crazyfranks.com or call 608-987-3346.

Another slight but good detour en route to Galena is Shullsburg, home of great cheese and a surprisingly interesting assortment of shops.

One of our favorites was Hanler’s Unique Shops on Water Street, 14 shopping themes – garden to pets – in the two-story brick building. There also is a coffee shop and Italian restaurant.

This is a National Register downtown, too, with 144 historic buildings in the historic district. Check out the Shullsburg Creamery’s dairy products, and learn about lead/zinc harvesting at the Badger Mine Museum (open seasonally).

Next time, we’ll look for Gravity Hill, and take the advice to stop at the top, shift our car into neutral and feel it roll uphill. “Please be aware of traffic from either direction as you do this,” literature advises. Will do.

For more, see www.shullsburg.com or call 608-965-4424.