My family had an amazing summer vacation last week and we were only 20 minutes away from home. That’s what’s so great about McHenry County – whether you’re into boating, antiquing, shopping, dining or history (or all of the above), there is something here for everyone – residents and visitors alike!
The Chain O’Lakes, which once boasted more than 100 lodges, resorts and hotels, is now largely residential (with some commerce), but you can get a nice rental cottage on the river or one of the lakes if you book ahead. We found a wonderful river cottage just north of downtown McHenry that nicely accommodated my family (we found it via VRBO).
I developed quite an affection for McHenry after a week shopping, boating and dining in town. It was fun showing my family around and discovering little places I’d never been.
We were treated very well, as always, by the folks at Miller’s Dream Marine whether we were launching our boats, gassing up or storing the boat trailer at the marina.
We had a grand birthday dinner for my dad at After The Fox, a cozy bar and restaurant on the river near the Pearl Street bridge. The online reviews are spot on: it might look unassuming, but the fish fry is one of the best around and the service is great – you must give it a try. You can eat outside and take in the beautiful sunset as boats glide by below.
The kids (and the many car aficionados) in my family got a huge kick out of the Volo Auto Museum. It was my second time visiting this summer, but even I found new attractions I overlooked or that were new since our last visit like the massive jet from Marvel’s “The Avengers” movie (read our full story here). The ladies and I spent most of our time browsing the four antique malls on the property.
By far the sweetest moment of this particular day was walking into Riverside Chocolate Factory in McHenry – it’s what heaven must smell like. We were literal kids in a candy store – from my 3-year-old son to my 65-year-old dad. Everyone found something delicious from cool, tasty ice cream to fresh, creamy fudge to something special from candy jars lining the walls.
One morning, my sister and I sneaked out on a mission to find a blueberry pie for her husband’s birthday (it’s his favorite). We ended up at Riverside Bake Shop (they open at 4 a.m.!). The place was jam-packed with patrons and the aroma of fresh pastries and warm doughnuts. We returned to the cottage with a beautiful blueberry pie marked with a “B,” plus doughnut holes, a coffee cake, smiley face cookies for the kids and my sister’s favorite, a cream horn (with meringue filling). As a professional baker, my sister is a hard sell, but I can say she was genuinely impressed.
One night while some family members checked out the boat races at Blarney’s Island and my parents went out on a dinner date to The Snuggery (home of unbeatable broasted chicken), my sister and I took our sons to Vicki’s Place, one of my favorite spots for outdoor summer dining on the Fox. As always, the famous Malibu Chicken hit the spot. Our boys had fun eating popcorn (and sharing it with the carp by the docks below).
For one of our final nights, after the herd thinned out, my sister and I picked up pizza from The Fox Hole Tap & Pizzaria, a popular underground joint in downtown McHenry. I was thrilled to finally view the gorgeously restored mural on the back wall – the artist, Elaine Sinclair, did a fantastic job. We had fun chatting with the bartender while we waited for our order and when we arrived back at the cottage, the family was excited for the feast of pizza and fried veggies.
When we weren’t eating our weight in delicious food, we enjoyed many hours on the beautiful waters of the Fox River and Chain O’Lakes. I also enjoyed some much-needed downtime on the hammock reading up on the history of the area via the Arcadia books I got my dad for his birthday.
We are SO lucky to have these bodies of water right in our back yards. You don’t have to be a speed boater or skier to enjoy them. From fishing to kayaking to swimming, there are so many ways to take advantage of the river and lakes. Fortunately, too, McHenry and Lake counties have done a great job of keeping the waters safe and the natural areas well preserved for future generations.
My favorite history tidbit, in addition to learning about the hordes of families before us that have enjoyed the lakes since the 1890s, is the story of the American Lotus and the acres of lotus beds that once covered Grass Lake, drawing many tourists to the area in the 1900s. The Rohema resort (now Blarney’s Island) took visitors on rowboats to pick the fragrant flowers. Although they were eventually cleared out to make room for boat traffic, we saw several patches of lotus on our trip through the Chain, and I was fascinated with seeing (and smelling) one up close for myself. Maybe next time!