When you live in a place, it’s easy to overlook its charms. Familiarity breeds boredom, and when you think of taking a vacation or escaping for a getaway, it’s usually anywhere but home. There’s nothing exciting about exploring the place where you live.
Or is there?
When you travel, it’s fun to try new things, things you normally wouldn’t do at home.
But, why wouldn’t you? Every person has a story and every place offers something unique, even, maybe even especially, where you live.
When I moved to Chicago from Indianapolis in 2001, everything was bright, shiny, and new. I was fascinated (still am) by the city’s beauty, vibrancy, and diversity. But many of the locals I met were a bit, shall we say, jaded. This was their home and they had a level of comfort that led to complacency. Fascination gave way to routine.
That observation, and my love of the city, prompted me to begin The Local Tourist. I latched onto the tag line “Experience the fascination of a tourist; Feel the comfort of the local.” Nearly two decades later, that is still my mission no matter where I am, and I recently put it to the test in my home county.
To be fair, I haven’t lived here very long, so it still has that new county smell. At first glance, it could seem like a homogenous collection of small towns, filled with strip malls, fast food, and Wal-Marts. Scratch a little deeper, though, and just like all those other small communities, there’s passion and kindly people and a whole heap of things to do.
I’ve been exploring some on my own, including visiting every conservation area during a DIY 30 Day Nature Challenge, so when Visit McHenry County invited a group of writers for a Girlfriends Getaway I jumped at the chance to take a deeper dive and put my “Local Tourist” mantra to the test. Does it hold up?
Let’s find out.
My exploration was hosted by Visit McHenry County, but all opinions are mine and not influenced at all by cherry chocolate scones or tea named for Jean Luc Picard.
Where is McHenry County?
McHenry County is northwest of Chicago. It borders Lake County to the east, Cook County to the southeast, Kane County to the south, and Boone County to the west.
North is Wisconsin, and on that recent tour of the conservation areas I drove into our northern neighbor to get from one to another. (And picked up some Spotted Cow. Because I could.)
At 611 square miles, it’s a good-sized county. There are several cities and villages, the biggest of which is Crystal Lake, with a population of about 40,000. Woodstock, however, might be the most well known. Not only is it the county seat, but it’s also where Groundhog Day was filmed.
Exploring McHenry County like a Local Tourist
Stay in a World Famous B&B
As soon as you see Cherry Tree Inn Bed and Breakfast, you’ll recognize it. Harold Ramis thought Woodstock was more picturesque than Punxsutawney, so the Illinois community became the setting for the classic movie Groundhog Day. The Cherry Tree Inn is where Bill Murray’s character woke up day, after day, after day.
Mr. Murray didn’t actually sleep at the B&B, and neither did I. There are only four rooms and since I’m local we decided I’d join in on breakfasts and desserts, but would leave the bed for another writer.
I arrived at Cherry Tree Inn on Friday afternoon to meet my fellow getaway-ers and found Lori Miarecki in the kitchen with her son. They were sliding thumbprint cookies, fresh out of the oven and filled with white chocolate and blueberries, onto a glass serving dish. One bite and I was in love. These cookies were warm buttery beauty in my mouth.
As I waited for the other ladies I settled into a cavernous leather couch in front of the fire and reconsidered my decision to sleep in my own bed each night. Lori joked that they’ve got an air mattress, and I was tempted. Oh, I was tempted.
Once the others arrived, we relaxed with a cherry cordial before going to dinner at one of the best restaurants in the county. We got to know each other a bit, and we got to know Lori.
Lori is a character, and a woman who knows what she wants. Her husband grew up in Woodstock and in 2017 they returned from Florida, where they still have a home, to attend his reunion. As soon as they saw the 19th-century mansion with its turret and its wraparound porch, Lori said: “That’s my home.”
Fate agreed, because the owners wanted to sell it.
The Miareckis bought it, renovated, painted, and reopened. The couple still has a home in Florida and her husband, George, commutes on weekends. Their kids and dogs live in Woodstock with her on the third floor, but the only way you’d know they’re up there is if Lori tells you.
And she will. That lady can talk, which is a big boon in her business. She’s memorable, she’s likable, and she’s already made waves in the community. That’s in large part because she supports local businesses. Her coffee is from a local roaster. She buys her jams, eggs, and hot sauces from the vendors at the farmers market, which is a five-minute walk from her front door. Her soaps are made by another delightful character, who is also local and has a shop off Woodstock’s square.
While I didn’t stay the night, I did indulge in her breakfasts and desserts. Saturday morning we had a light (Lori-style) meal of oatmeal with homemade blueberry compote and slivered nuts. This was accompanied by freshly baked chocolate cherry scones that were another dose of comfort and were particularly good with the cherry (of course) coffee, which can be picked up at Read Between the Lynes bookstore on the square.
Saturday evening we walked into a home that smelled of blueberry and cream cheese bread pudding.
That air mattress was even more tempting.
I resisted, and returned Sunday morning, this time to the scent of biscuits and gravy. I dove into flaky biscuits topped with creamy sausage and cottage bacon gravy that were served with crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside roasted potatoes. Plus, eggs scrambled with red and yellow sweet peppers, red and green onions, and cheese. Cherry Bomb hot sauce that she’d picked up from the mushroom guy, and peach jam, both from the farmers market.
Amazingly, she did all this while simultaneously preparing vegan versions for Cadry of Cadry’s Kitchen and Laura of Bite-Sized Beets.
Lori takes pride in her cooking, as she should. The breakfast (and dessert) part of this B&B is worthy of the beauty of the house itself, which has its own colored past.
Ask Lori. She’ll tell you about it over a cherry cordial and a warm, buttery, beautiful cookie.
Where to Eat & Drink in McHenry County
We did more than just eat at Cherry Tree Inn. We ate at lots of other places, too, and McHenry County has some mighty fine places.
One of those is 1776 Restaurant. I had the opportunity to dine there during McHenry County Restaurant Week, and while I wanted to revisit the decadent poblano pepper stuffed with lobster and goat cheese, or the tender and flavorful butt steak, I decided to try something else.
We began with calamari with green tomatillo sauce and pico de gallo, and there was a good balance of rings and tentacles. The sauces, different from the standard cocktail or sweet chili, paired well with the lightly breaded squid.
Next came the house salad, and I chose the sour cherry vinaigrette, a slightly tart dressing that brightened the greens. My entree of scallops was served on a bed of root vegetables with prosciutto and red wine garlic butter and topped with pea tendrils. The dish was almost too pretty to eat.
My belief that 1776 Restaurant is one of the best places to eat in McHenry County was solidly reaffirmed.
Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen
A new favorite place is Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen. I’d also visited this Crystal Lake restaurant previously, but that time my order had been limited to a beer and an appetizer, so I didn’t get the whole experience.
Duke’s outside appearance is deceiving. Besides the lone visit, I’d passed it several times on my way to Crystal Lake Brewing. It struck me as a burger and beer joint.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with burger and beer joints. I am a big fan of many burger and beer joints. But Duke’s is so much more.
Chef/GM/Owner Zak Dolezal originally wanted to open a fine dining restaurant. Unfortunately, the year was 2008 and the recession was not kind to entrepreneurs with those types of aspirations.
Instead, he opened a more approachable and affordable place with fine dining sensibilities. The ingredients are locally sourced and the menu has options for everyone.
One of the vegan options, tempura-battered green beans served with a thick teriyaki-ginger dipping sauce, was so good I could have eaten the entire plate by myself. I overheard my vegan friends saying the Fried Tofu and Kim Chi sandwich was incredible.
I ordered the “Classic” Burger. It was a test. I like my burgers medium-rare, and when a restaurant does that well, I’m confident in their other options.
I have found my new favorite burger.
Grass-fed beef, special sauce, smoked cheddar, crisp lettuce and tomato and onion and pickles on a toasted brioche bun.
I ate the whole thing.
I never eat the whole thing.
This? I couldn’t not eat the whole thing.
I paired it with Half Acre’s Original Reaper, an American stout out of Chicago. Choosing a beer was challenging because they have such a good selection. They even offer Delirium Tremens on tap.
So, yes, Duke’s is a burger and a beer joint, but it’s also so much more. And oh, what burgers, and what beers.
Julie Ann’s Custard
It was time for dessert, and that meant a visit to Julie Ann’s Custard. This is another place I’d driven past over, and over, and over. It’s on the street where I do most of my grocery shopping, and yet I’d missed it, and its adorable vintage truck.
John and Mary Zielnicki opened Julie Ann’s Frozen Custard in 1985 when the couple was in their 60s. They grew up during the depression and were, and still are, incapable of “retiring.” Even though it’s now owned by their daughter Linda Anderson and grandson Pete Wisniewski, John is known to still come into work.
After trying their turtle custard sundae topped with chocolate whipped cream, I think he just wants an excuse to taste test. Their menu changes daily, and locals will plan their months around the dessert shop’s flavor calendar.
Like Cherry Tree, 1776, and Duke’s, Julie Ann’s collaborates with local providers. You’ll find Desserts by Corrina, Ethereal Chocolates, and apples from Cody’s Farm. They also have “flavor battles.” Customers suggest flavors to see who can come up with the best one, and then a trophy is displayed at the shop. It’s fun, interactive, and gets total buy-in from the community.
Which includes me. Lucky, local me.
My husband is a tea snob. He will only drink loose leaf tea, and it must be brewed at the proper temperature for the proper amount of time.
He is also a geek. Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, X-Men, Iron Man – if there are capes, underdogs, and justice involved, he’s all for it.
It’s like Casting Whimsy was made just for him.
Paula Aitken and her husband, Randy, opened their Woodstock tea shop in April 2019. The store had been brewing in their minds since they’d taken a food tour in Chicago nine years prior. Non-tea drinkers, a stop at a Gold Cost shop changed everything.
Paula began blending her own teas, playing around until she found mixes she liked. She got certified. The couple took their love of pop culture and fairy tales and came up with the name “Casting Whimsy.” They sold her blends online and at farmers markets, using only fair trade and organic ingredients, hoping to one day open a brick and mortar.
Their shop is right off of Woodstock Square. It’s a narrow shotgun of a space, with the front decorated Alice in Wonderland-style (Paula’s influence) and Randy gave the back a knights-of-the-realm feel.
The couple’s personalities come through in the teas as well as the decor. An earl grey with lavender is named Make It So. An energizing blend of stinging nettle leaf, oatstraw, and peppermint is your very own Liquid Schwartz. Patty, Sir, is made with organic fair trade certified green tea, organic peppermint, organic spearmint and named for Peppermint Patty.
They host “Tea & D” parties. Whether you grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons or role-playing games are foreign to you, you’re welcome to one of these after-hours events.
While the name of the shop seems odd, one visit and you’ll understand. Casting Whimsy is a whimsical cafe that will cast a spell on you.
Two words: sausage sampler. Two more words: cheese curds. And beer. And whiskey. And super friendly staff and happy hour and cherry chipotle barbecue sauce. Just go to Richmond Brathaus already.
Crystal Lake Rib House
Want to see something COMPLETELY ridiculous? Get the Mega Mary at Crystal Lake Rib House. It will feed a family of four for a week.
Things to do in McHenry County
One of the things that surprised me after moving to McHenry County was how many things there are to do. Besides the plethora of parks and conservation areas, it seems there’s a celebration each summer weekend and frequent outdoor concerts.
Fall and Winter offer apple orchards, pumpkin fests, Christmas tree farms, maple syrup tapping, and the oldest continuously open ski club. Woodstock goes full-on Groundhog Day every early February. A scroll through the county’s app (iPhone | Android) lists upcoming events, including plays, musicals, and performances by national artists.
The communities also support a surprising number of small, independent businesses. Take a stroll through downtown Crystal Lake and around Woodstock Square and you’ll find several unique shops.
During our immersion weekend, we got to hang from the rafters, get crafty, market with farmers, and meet a charming Jackass.
As soon as I saw “aerial yoga” on the itinerary I was simultaneously excited, intrigued, and terrified.
I’m not the most limber person. I can’t even touch my toes, for goodness’ sake. I’ve attended three yoga classes in my entire life, and now we were going to add gravity to the mix?
This should be interesting.
I was not alone in my apprehension, but fortunately, we were in good hands. Jessi Rae is an experienced yogi who has taught people around the world and hosts regular classes at Crystal Lake’s Pilates by Kirsten.
We entered the basement and saw beautiful silks suspended from the ceiling. They looked frail, but during her introduction Jessi informed us that the silks could carry 3,000 pounds, and the rafters they’re attached to could handle 50,000. I felt a wave of relief.
She took us from one stretch to the next and I grew increasingly comfortable, swinging my legs back and forth, hanging and flowing. This was fun! This was a blast! I felt like a kid, trusting the fabric and trusting Jessi and before I knew it I was hanging upside down with my feet above my head and laughing like a thrill seeker on a roller coaster.
When the class was over I exclaimed: “I wanna do that again!”
The only downside was that I got a little over-enthusiastic and inverted a second time. I did it too quickly, and it took a bit after the class for my vertigo to ease. Jessi warned us to go slow, but nope.
Next time, I’ll listen to her.
And there will be a next time. Oh yes. There will.
Hands to Home Crafted
In the past few years I’ve taken a few DIY craft classes. I’ve painted on canvas, blown a glass pumpkin, and made a tie-dye t-shirt. Now, I’ve also created a fun Fall sign, courtesy of Hands to Home Crafted.
We visited this McHenry workshop for an evening of craftiness. Four place settings per table each had a large wooden circle covered by a stencil, surrounding a collection of supplies. Owner Nicole instructed us to first sand the wood and stain it. As it dried we destroyed a gorgeous cheese and charcuterie box courtesy of Fork It Foods.
This was the second time I’d seen one of their creative and colorful collections, and they’re filled with so many goodies it’s hard to step away.
But, it was time to paint. We selected our palette and dabbed and painted until our artworks were complete. Even though we all used the same stencil design, our signs were unique.
If you’re looking for a fun experience and your own custom souvenir from your exploration of McHenry County, check out the parties at Hands to Home Crafted.
Jackass Charm Corner Store
My mom would enter this shop and want to wash Valerie Deegan-Johnson’s mouth out with soap. Which is convenient, since that’s what she makes and sells in Jackass Charm Corner Store.
Valerie is a fun, ribald, tell-it-like-it is powerhouse. Her alter-ego, which is really more of an extended-ego, is Ruthie Sudsalot. This polka-dot clad throwback brings to life the front parlor charm and the backroom bawdiness of a 40s housewife.
She’s a hoot.
We met “Ruthie” when she graciously invited us into her home to show us how soap is made. As we drank wine, she demonstrated the process, which is precise, expensive, time-consuming, and dangerous.
Lye is required to make soap, and lye is caustic. It’s so caustic that thousands of thriller writers have created characters that use it to dispose of bodies. It dissolves bones. It dissolves granite countertops. And Valerie has vats of it so that she can make something you will then use to clean your skin.
She explained that when lye is mixed with oil, it goes through a process called saponification. When done properly it turns the oil into soap. Without lye, there is no soap; there is only detergent.
Valerie has a background in clinical massage and aromatherapy, so she uses her holistic bent to create soaps that are completely natural. She only uses ingredients like bark and roots to color the soaps, and essential oils are used for scent.
While her soaps are clean, her labels are dirty. Innuendo abounds, and you probably won’t find her products on the shelves at Walmart or Walgreens. You will, however, find them at her store. (And if you stay at Cherry Tree Inn.)
Jackass Charm Corner Store is a tiny, tiny space an alley crawl away from Casting Whimsy. Inside, you’ll find Ruthie Sudsalot playing raunchy music from the ‘40s, surrounded by products that will make you guffaw and blush at the same time. There’s also a “clean” line so you can pick up items you won’t have to hide when your mother-in-law comes to visit.
Woodstock Farmers Market
Remember how I said Harold Ramis picked Woodstock because it was picturesque? Well, imagine that gazebo-crowned public square surrounded by produce still coated with dirt, eggs, a birdhouse artisan, jams and jellies, a butcher, bright flowers, micro-greens pretty enough to pet, and mushrooms backed by an Indie soundtrack and you’ve got the Woodstock Farmers Market.
I always feel like I’ve discovered buried treasure when my travels coincide with a farmers market, and while I may be local to the county, I had not been to this market before. Now I know. Now I’ll be back.
McHenry County will surprise you. It’s a swath of natural beauty, creative souls, loquacious and passionate entrepreneurs, mighty fine restaurants and sweet, sweet desserts. I am happy to call it home, and I invite you to visit and maybe stay.
Experience fascination. Feel comfort. Be a Local Tourist in McHenry County!