photo: clayton hauck

The lake shore at New Buffalo. You could be here in an hour!

Elgin, Illinois

Drive time from Chicago: 45 minutes

There’s Las Vegas—and then there’s Elgin. You will never confuse the two. In fact, if you ever just sat down, closed your eyes, and said to yourself, I wonder what a big-ass riverboat casino in the Chicago suburbs would look like, you’d probably come up with the Grand Victoria Casino Elgin (250 S. Grove Ave., 847-468-7000).

Take 90 West out past O’Hare, get off on Route 31, head south, and there it is: On the bank of the Fox River, like a convention center full of slot machines. Get a ticket for the buffet before you hit the floor. If it’s Wednesday, you’re in for some buy-one-get-one lobsters. If it’s Friday, gorge yourself on all-you-can-eat crab legs. With your belly full of shellfish and a hundred bucks to burn, head inside for all the penny slots and Old Style you can handle.

You’ll like the Grand Victoria. No frills. Free admission. Suits a low-stakes lifestyle. And it stays open until 6:30 a.m. —Harry Sawyers



New Buffalo, Michigan

Drive time from Chicago: 1 hour

For a fast escape, I’d head to the small Michigan town of New Buffalo, because it really does transport you. New Buffalo has some key ingredients: ample shoreline acreage, a cool hotel, and some fun beach-town restaurants.

Charming B&Bs dot the Michigan coast, but New Buffalo has place to stay that’s swanky and fresh. A large, modern property within walking distance to the beach and shops , the Grand Marina Resort (600 W. Water St., 269-469-9900) has wood finishings, lots of natural light, and rooms with great water views.

Downtown New Buffalo is great for strolling. Stop in at Third Coast Surf Shop (110 N. Whittaker St., 269-932-4575) for beach necessities like skim boards, sand toys, and umbrellas. When it’s time to eat, grab burgers at Redamak’s (616 E. Buffalo St., 269-469-4522), a table on the patio at the soon-to-be-reopening Stray Dog Bar & Grill (245 N. Whittaker St.; 269-469-2727), or a slab of ribs at Casey’s (136 N. Whittaker St., 269-469-5800). And, no trip to New Buffalo would be complete without a stop for ice cream at Oink’s (227 W. Buffalo St., 269-469-3535). —Nina Kokotas Hahn




Drive time from Chicago: 1.5 hours

I’m a big fan of Milwaukee—but not for the usual reasons, which usually have something to do with the Brewers or brewpubs.

I like to hitch the bikes to the back of the car and head straight to the park around the Milwaukee Art Museum (700 N. Art Museum Dr., 414-224-3200), designed by Santiago Calatrava to look like a giant sailboat perched by the lake. It’s one of my favorite buildings in the Midwest, both architecturally and for the awesome contemporary collection inside. If you arrive before the museum opens at 10 a.m., park in the underground garage and take your bikes for a spin on the Oak Leaf bike trail. There’s an Alterra (1701 N. Lincoln Memorial Dr., 414-223-4551) at the northern end of the trail—the coffee is brilliant and strong.

Spend half a day at the museum, then cap off your adventure with a stop in the Third Ward. There are some decent restaurants, bars, and shops—Chicago covered the city’s thriving food scene last summer—but definitely don’t miss the Milwaukee Public Market (400 N. Water St., 414-336-1111). I like to stuff my bag with artisanal cheese from the area cheesemongers and a few six packs of Spotted Cow, a farmhouse ale from Wisconsin’s New Glarus, before reluctantly making the drive home. —Cassie Walker Burke



Eagle, Wisconsin

Drive time from Chicago: 2 hours

So many people have recommended Old World Wisconsin (W372 S9727 State Highway 67, 262-594-6301) to me that I pretty much have to go. The website describes the 576 acres as “a vivid re-creation of the working farmsteads and settlements established by European immigrants in America’s heartland,” and, while just 75 miles from Chicago, it’s one of those trips to the past. Oxen and horses work the fields, blacksmiths make horseshoes, gardeners in bonnets use period-appropriate tools to recreate 19th century heirloom gardens. My wife, Sarah, loved the place as a kid—you can walk on stilts, churn your own butter, make your own ice cream.

A friend who recently went with her two young children told me the experience is better than ever: “It’s non-commercialized. They’re not selling you a bunch of crap every 10 feet. The re-enactors are genuinely engaged but not cloying. And what is there not to love about watching your kid card wool while you sit in a quiet yard watching a wren build a nest?” She says her family spent two days and never got bored, but she recommends bringing a picnic as the food options are limited. (There are plenty of water fountains, and both “rustic” and “modern” facilities.) “It doesn’t matter when you arrive, because they have different activities throughout the day,” my friend said. “And the property is walkable. But a tram runs continually.”

I’m holding out till July 13th, so I can root on the hometown Eagle Diamonds against the Milwaukee Cream Citys in a game of vintage baseball. —Jeff Ruby



Fairbury, Illinois

Drive time from Chicago: 2 hours

The pasture-raised meats from Slagel Family Farm (23601 E. 600 North Rd.; 815-848-9385) can be seen on high-end menus all over town—Paul Kahan’s Blackbird, Carrie Nahabedian’s new Brindille, the Sheerin brothers’ modern Trenchermen, and Sixteen at the Trump, to name just a few biggies. But this fifth-generation cultivator of sheep, pigs, cows, goats and some smaller animals can also be experienced in its natural setting. Spring through fall, the sustainable farm hosts monthly chef-cooked, full-day communal dinners that include bus rides to and from the city—for what seems to me the bargain price of $125 a person.

You board at noon and arrive in central Illinois a couple hours later, greeted, appetizers in hand, by LouisJohn Slagel, the 27-year-old head farmer. Next comes the whole-animal butchering demo (cuts, at wholesale per-pound prices, are made available to take home—doesn’t get much fresher!), a tour of the farm (baby pigs are on call for petting), and a four-course BYO family-style dinner in the air-conditioned barn. Last we heard seats were still available for the dinner on Saturday, May 18, hosted by chefs Nicole Pederson of Found Kitchen and Social House in Evanston and John Asbaty of Panozzo's Italian Market. “We’re expecting nice weather,” says Slagel, who thinks that the pair will be featuring lamb, guinea hen, and beef tongue on the menu. He noted that the next dinner—with chef Brian Huston of the Publican on June 8th—is almost sold out so, if you’re tempted, don’t hesitate. —Jennifer Tanaka



More Summer Escapes!