The Spirit of Peoria

Ok, so I know this isn't the Fox River Valley, but... the Fox River does empty into the Illinois River at Ottawa not far from Peoria.

I was browsing the Internet recently, looking to find a unique gift for my father-in-law for his birthday. By unique gift, what I mean is a unique place to go. I wish I could remember the series of clicks I made, but I ended up at a website describing what sounded like one of the best ideas that I have come up with in a while. At the same time the upcoming trip would also lead me on an excursion that was not only fun and relaxing and not far away, it was also remarkably inexpensive!

Marshall Memorial Plaza, Peoria

One of my favorite things is to spend time on and around the water -- oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds, streams. It has been in my blood since I was a kid. A couple of years ago, my wife and I drove to La Crosse to have dinner on a paddle boat as part of our anniversary celebration. it was a wonderful trip and we had such great fun that I have been thinking about paddle boats ever since. And one of the things now on my "top ten list" is a trip down the mighty Mississippi River on a paddle boat. Our last excursion (to La Crosse) seemed like a perfect prelude to another, similar outing. So when I stumbled -- literally -- upon a website that highlighted another riverboat cruise, needless to say I was all over it.

We left the Fox Valley area, taking Randall Road south to I-88 west and driving about 45 minutes to Interstate 39/Route 51. We then headed south, exiting to I-80 West, driving about 25 minutes to I-280 South -- a very strange road, since it literally ends about 15 minutes south of there near Hennepin, Illinois. From that point, the trip is very scenic and the drive is an easy one, taking only about another 45 minutes more to get to Peoria -- the total driving time being less than three hours. I suppose that there are other, more direct ways to reach Peoria, but this one is much more relaxing and enjoyable. And too, there are several small towns along the way that potentially provide some great sight-seeing side trips if one has some additional time.

Spirit of Peoria Paddleboat

We arrived in Peoria just after noon (on a Saturday) and easily found the waterfront where the Spirit of Peoria was docked. By the way, Peoria is a great destination with plenty of positive attributes: it is a college town with plenty of dining opportunities and exciting things to do, it seems to be in the process of serious renovation, it is very clean, and everyone we met was extremely friendly and helpful. And the prices were way reasonable!

Since I was unable to purchase tickets online in advance, I had decided that we should arrive early to insure that we would be able to get a seat on the boat. Were I to do this again -- and I definitely will take the ride again -- I would have planned to arrive earlier so that we could have enjoyed a light snack at one of the many riverside venues prior to boarding. The Spirit of Peoria did have wine, beer, soda and chips available in a small boutique on the upper level, but nothing of real substance... However, those beverages were a welcome relief on a very hot summer day!

I would estimate that there were probably two hundred or more people who rode the boat that afternoon. We departed promptly at 1:00 pm, as advertised on the website, and returned at precisely 2:30pm, also as advertised. Our journey took us upriver for several miles and then back again, all the while providing us with someone on the public address system narrating and describing the journey, adding anecdotes relative to the Peoria area.

The sultry summer day and high humidity was reminiscent of earlier, simpler times with no air-conditioning and far less congestion; the pleasant breeze provided by the moving boat a reminder that simpler times could be just as pleasant and far more fun. The "cruise" certainly made it fun to pretend that we had warped back in time; the Spirit of Peoria, built in 1988, propelled only by its stern driven paddle wheel, definitely gave us a harkening back to Huck Finn as we made our way through the swift waters of the Illinois River.

Frank Lloyd Wright light fixture

All too soon we had arrived back at the dock. (I have decided that, with all of the possibilities advertised on the website -- especially the ones offering overnight cruises to both Starved Rock and St. Louis -- I will definitely be heading back to Peoria for another riverboat ride!) We departed and drove south along the waterfront, admiring the marvelous renovation efforts that have already taken place and the numerous others planned.

We stopped at an interesting place called Kelleher's Irish Pub, not far from Marshall Memorial Plaza where the boat had docked. Inside, we enjoyed excellent Irish fare in a very inviting atmosphere. We also had the distinct pleasure of meeting the owner -- Pat Sullivan -- who was kind enough to give us a quick tour of the restaurant... and of some of his treasures in an upstairs storeroom. These included a large leaded-glass treasure that was an original Frank Lloyd Wright piece. I also marveled at the fight-bell -- the one that called Joe Louis from his corner in his final amateur bout -- that hung over the bar. Kelleher's definitely offers a triple bonus of excellent food, great atmosphere and a very friendly and accommodating owner who enjoys showing visitors the results of his hard work.

We said good-bye to Peoria in the late afternoon, easily making it back to the Fox Valley area before dark. It was without a doubt a very enjoyable afternoon, and one that I am pleased to share. The drive was easy, the boat ride a pleasurable one -- albeit too short for me -- and the cost is well within anyone's budget: $13 for adults ($11 for seniors) and $7 for children aged 4-12. There are also "family packs" available for $40 (2 adults and up to 4 children). Most importantly, it was a lot of fun. If you are looking for something fun to do in any season -- especially if you have a limited budget -- make sure you consider the Spirit of Peoria for a sightseeing trip, a themed cruise, an overnight excursion or a private charter.

By the way, my father-in-law enjoyed his birthday present... at least as much as I did!

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Spirit of Peoria