PEORIA, Ill. -- There was an old saying in vaudeville: Will it play in Peoria?
The saying (which originally derives from a Horatio Alger Jr. novel published in 1890) suggested that Peoria, Ill., was a barometer for mainstream, Main Street, America. Belying this reputation, however, was the city's long traditions of whiskey distillation, riverboat gambling and various other less-than-angelic industries, all of which persisted up until about 1950, when most of the fun was driven out of town.
But not all of the fun.
Gaming has returned to the Illinois River, in the form of the Par-A-Dice Hotel Casino. And the RiverFront area of downtown is also re-populated with restaurants and bars, free concerts in the summer months, and periodic arts and crafts shows. The Caterpillar Visitors Center is also downtown, for fans of the gigantic yellow machinery.
And then there is golf. Peoria is situated along the Illinois River, which, although still wide and swift-flowing, is but a fraction of its former self. The ancient banks of the enormous prehistoric river rise for miles from today's river valley, creating surprising elevation changes. Although over a dozen public and private golf courses can be found in and around Peoria, three tracks in particular stand out.
Golf in and around Peoria
WeaverRidge Golf Club in Peoria proper is regularly rated as one of the top five public golf courses in Illinois. With five sets of tees stretching up to 7,030 yards, it is a stout test for golfers of all skill levels.
Architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry routed WeaverRidge up and down the sides of the ancient river bank and pulled out all the stops. Don't count up your score before you hole out on the 556-yard, par-5 18th, which demands concentration on every shot from tee to green. The clubhouse is also famous for offering arguably the best Sunday brunch in town.
About 15 minutes south of Peoria lies the town of Pekin, which boasts one of the best-conditioned, most-interesting municipal courses in the state, Lick Creek Golf Course. Don't let the somewhat dog-eared clubhouse fool you: The 6,910-yard, par-72 course was renovated in 2006 -- including bent grass from tee to green -- and can stand up to the best players with the most discerning eye. It is tree-lined and replete with semi-blind shots.
Holes 5-7 -- the third-, first- and fifth-handicap holes -- are Lick Creek's version of Amen Corner. Depending on which sets of tees you're playing, the tee shot on the par-5 sixth will require a carry of 200-250 yards just to reach the tiny sliver of fairway that's visible from the tee through a chute of dense tree limbs.
Drive approximately 30 minutes east of Peoria to the town of Metamora, and you'll find the newest addition to the Peoria area, Metamora Fields Golf Club. This D.A. Weibring/Steve Wolfard design opened in 2011, and it stands in stark contrast to the hilly, wooded WeaverRidge and Lick Creek. Metamora Fields is a relatively flat, inland, links-style layout sculpted from a former cornfield.
However, at 7,100 yards from the tips, golfers visiting Metamora Fields Golf Club will find plenty to grab his or her interest, including large, undulating greens, strategic approaches, superb conditioning and constant winds. The immense, meticulously and adorably decorated clubhouse is a favorite for weddings and receptions and has the feel of a vast bed-and-breakfast.
Dining in Peoria
Let's just cut to the chase: You can go high-brow or low-brow.
For fine dining, head downtown to Jim's Steakhouse (and take a look at the website for some good coupons).
For dining that recalls Peoria's river-roots, drive just down the road from the Par-A-Dice Casino to the Burger Barge. (There's also one downtown but without the atmosphere.) This hodge-podge of a building, situated down on the slightly funky riverbank, feels like a spring break dive bar, and the several pages of outrageous burgers will make you wish you had more than one stomach (or more than one heart). The Kraken, for example, is a loaded burger with two grilled bacon-cheese sandwiches as buns.