Separating Geneva, Aurora, St. Charles, Ill.

What’s the difference between Geneva, Aurora and St. Charles, Ill.? One way to yank the chain of these good Flatlanders is to suggest that Wisconsin people see them as pretty much all the same place – western suburbs to maneuver through, or bypass, when en route to Chicago.

Advocates for each city fight hard to maintain their identity, and they have learned to work together, to strengthen their marketing power and tourism presence.

Less than one hour from Chicago by train, they want travelers to consider their hotels as a place to stay and their cities as worthy destinations – with or without a visit to the big city. That’s a part of what I learned during this month’s Travel Media Showcase, at Pheasant Run Resort, St. Charles.

Top-quality restaurants and lodging are in this vicinity. So is a wealth of antique shops and the huge, monthly and year-round flea market at the Kane County Fairgrounds (call 630-377-2252 for dates, hours, directions).

Wisconsin’s lower Fox River passes through the area, on its way to the Illinois River, and a bicycling trail hugs the waterfront during much of the 32 miles that links Crystal Lake, Ill. (near the state border) with Aurora to the south.

It is a fine example of how concrete does not dominate all landscapes here. While driving secondary roads into the area, instead of speeding in on Interstate 90, I was surprised to see that I was within 10 miles west of St. Charles before the traffic became citylike and a bit congested.

Along the Fox River are forest preserves, including the Fabyan in Geneva and the Tekakwitha in St. Charles. The waterway seems more conspicuous, less moody here. By car, it is easy to both hug and hide from this southern segment of the river, as it twists from sight at one turn, then splashes through the middle of a downtown a few miles later.

The Fox is a glistening showpiece at some points. For more about hiking and biking here, call (800) 777-4373 for a free bike trail map or the Tales & Trails of the Fox River Valley booklet of driving tours.

No one – from Wisconsin, anyway – would mistake these Fox Cities for small towns, but there are easy ways to distinguish them. Here is a bit of what stuck with me; go to, or for more details.

A couple of festivals help establish personality. St. Charles is proud of its Scarecrow Festival, which is Oct. 10-12 this year. What makes it different? Families can make scarecrows to take home, plus vote on the 130 that others have made. A big assortment of food and music are a part of the picture, too.

Fans include the American Bus Association, which called this event one of the top 100 in North America in 2000. For more, go to or call (800) 777-4373.

Geneva hosts Swedish Days in mid June, a six-day event that is described as the largest of its kind in the country, bringing 250,000 visitors. Extensive crafts, food, rosemaling shows and entertainment are organized.

The downtown is split into five Swedish provinces for visitors to explore. For more, call (630) 232-6060.

Choice lodging includes the elegant Herrington Inn and Spa, a longtime four-diamond AAA property in Geneva that will expand its spa services in November. Options will include a “sensory awareness room,” says spa director Holli Beckwith; it is designed to relieve stress through the use of color and light therapy. For more, go to

At Pheasant Run, a goal is to be a destination within a destination; for more, go to The roomy, 473-room golf resort will have a 300-seat theater when a $20 million renovation is finished this fall.

Chicago’s Noble Fool Theater Company is making a second home here, first with its long-standing “Flanagan’s Wake” improv comedy, a fun experience that involves the audience. It is called one of the longest-running shows in Chicago history.

A full season of other Noble Fool comedy theater begins this month; go to for more. This is one of several diversions (shops, bars, entertainment) that are a part of the resort’s clever “Bourbon Street” wing.

My stay included visits to two restaurants that were both unusual and high in quality. One night, I was assigned to eat at the Mill Race Inn, which overlooks the Fox River in downtown Geneva. It’s been around since 1933 and actually contains five types of dining areas, from casual and outdoors (The Gazebo, especially good for bikers who pass through) to quiet and refined but rustic (The Country Inn, a former blacksmith shop, facing the river). Call (708) 232-2030 for more.

During time off, I drove to Walter Payton’s Roundhouse, built in the 1850s as a place to store and repair trains. (Yes, it’s next to a train line that goes to Chicago.)

This reportedly is the oldest full roundhouse in the country, and the biggest microbrewery in Illinois; thirst quenchers include root beer and black cherry soda, also made here.

Besides a huge brewpub restaurant, another bar specializes in cognac and fondue. Bands play in another part of the building, and in the courtyard when the weather cooperates. Packer fans should have such a monstrous place to gather on Sundays; here, the brunch includes a Bloody Mary bar; you get the vodka and then add one of three kinds of mixers (spiciness varies), plus condiments (there are 25 choices, including pickled asparagus).

A small museum is full of the late Hall of Fame running back’s memorabilia: Super Bowl rings, jerseys, game balls, film and pictures from legendary Chicago Bear games.

There also is plenty of room to grow; other spaces in the complex are unoccupied. For more, go to or call (630) 264-BREW.

I also heard a lot about a four-diamond restaurant in Geneva that is called 302 West, a sophisticated setting in a building that used to be a bank; cuisine is “contemporary American” and it has drawn raves from the New York Times and Bon Appetite magazine critics.

For more, go to or call (630) 232-9302. It is on the city’s main drag, which is filled with trendy, upscale boutiques and antique shops.

On what used to be the outskirts of St. Charles is Al Capone’s Hideaway and Steakhouse, which overlooks a nature area and has been around since the 1920s. For more, call (888) 722-7322 or go to