The Southern Illinois Golf Trail brings golfers to the state's southern tip
Golfers from metropolitan areas like Indianapolis and St. Louis are beginning to recognize the excellent value and year-round golf, along with the wide variety of other activities on the Southern Illinois Golf Trail.
CARBONDALE, Ill. - "We've always had a good draw (to the area) from St. Louis," said Mike Day, director of golf at Hickory Ridge Golf Course in Carbondale, "but more are coming now for golf."
The increase in golf tourism can be attributed to the recent formation of the Southern Illinois Golf Trail, brainchild of the Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau. Despite being only two years old, the golf trail has placed golf squarely at the center of far southern Illinois' surprisingly diverse tourist attractions, which include wineries, NCAA and professional sports, outdoor activities, riverboat gaming and wonderful down-home cooking.
Golf on and off the Southern Illinois Golf Trail
The Southern Illinois Golf Trail comprises five courses: Hickory Ridge Golf Center, Stone Creek Golf Club in Makanda, Kokopelli Golf Club in Marion, Crab Orchard Golf Club in Carterville, and the Gambit Golf Club in Vienna.
These golf courses have in common incredible value - green fees rarely exceed $40 with cart - and friendly Southern-style service you just won't find at most courses in and around big Midwestern cities. For these reasons, golfers are beginning to flock to the area from not only St. Louis, as Day points out, but also Indianapolis and Chicago.
"A lot of parents bring their kids down to Southern Illinois University, or come down to visit them, and turn it into a golf vacation," says Day.
One of the big draws for the area is also the weather. The courses here are far enough south that year-round play is a legitimate possibility many years. Year-round outdoor activities, including 27 holes of golf, can also be found 30 minutes north of the official trail at Rend Lake Recreation Complex, situated on the shores of the 19,000-acre Rend Lake.
Opportunities for hiking, biking, hunting, camping, and fishing abound in and around Shawnee National Forest, Giant City State Park and Cave-in Rock State Park (where the movie "How the West Was Won" was filmed). The Cache River is excellent for canoeing.
If your interests lie indoors, the area also boasts nine wineries located along the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail and another six wineries south of I-64. However, if you like wine and outdoor recreation, I'd recommend you get your workout in before going wine tasting, as wine tends to soften one's resolve to exercise.
Antique stores are plentiful, and the largest collection of them is in Benton Square in Benton. Makanda is home to a small but vibrant artist colony. Amish handicrafts are also widely available, along with Amish breads, pies and other treats made with delicious local apples and peaches.
The inaugural season for the Southern Illinois Miners minor league baseball team was a tremendous success, and the shiny new stadium in Marion has been a boon to the local economy. In Carbondale, the Southern Illinois University Salukis are also a perennial powerhouse in NCAA Division I basketball and baseball, and Division II football.
At the very southern tip of the state, about 30 minutes south of the Gambit Golf Club in Vienna, you'll find Metropolis, home of both Superman (the kids will love the giant statue of the Man of Steel) and Harrah's Metropolis riverboat casino and hotel (Grandma will love the slots).
Southern Illinois dining and lodging
"We're only about 45 minutes away from eating grits with every meal," quipped one local when asked about the area's culinary offerings. And indeed, if you're looking for Southern-inspired cooking, there is plenty to be had.
Most notable is the superb barbeque. 17th Street Bar & Grill has two locations (Murphysboro and Marion) and boasts three World Barbeque Grand Champion trophies. For a family-run take on barbeque, seek out the newly opened KC's across from the fair grounds in Marion.
Another Southern tradition is family-style, all-you-can-eat fried chicken, and the best place for that is the historic Giant City Lodge. And if you feel like a far-south tradition, La Fiesta Mexican Restaurant in Marion (618-993-0028; also locations in Benton and West Frankfort) serves up excellent authentic meals.
What you might not expect in this area is true gourmet cuisine, but you'll find it nevertheless at Tom's Place in Desoto (618-867-3033). Master Chef Lasse Sorensen's menu has been recognized by Wine Spectator Magazine with four consecutive awards of excellence. Be sure to ask for the seasonal specialties, which include - if you're lucky enough to come during the right time of year - meals centered around local morel mushrooms.
Another fine dining venue is Christophe's at The Gambit. One option here for groups of six to eight people is reserving the Chef's Table, where for $100 per person you can enjoy a seven-course meal with seven different specially paired wines. The experience lasts four hours, and you must have a designated driver or reservations in the Gambit Inn.
For breakfast, Mary Lou's in downtown Carbondale is recommended by everyone you talk to. Try the biscuits and gravy in the morning and the fresh cream pies after 11 a.m.
Finally, pubs a-plenty dot the streets of Carbondale near the SIU campus, but for a bit more upscale adult beverage, try the martini bar upstairs at Newell House in downtown Carbondale.
Lodging can be somewhat sparse, but Marion does have a few larger chain hotels. In Carbondale, the Holiday Inn (618-549-2600) is the best bet. For on-course lodging, Stone Creek offers cabins, the Gambit offers the Gambit Inn adjacent to the course, and Rend Lake has both a lodge and condominiums.
The best part about visiting Southern Illinois is the service extended by the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau. Visitors interested in arranging a golf vacation can simply phone (800-526-1500) the office and tell them what sort of vacation you have in mind. Completely free of charge, the staff will put together an itinerary for you that will include tee times, lodging, even meals and tickets to local attractions. There is even a "Girlfriends' Getaway" that can include wine tasting, golf or both.
This really must be "Southern Illinois," because that's authentic Southern hospitality right there!
May 8, 2008