Sure, it’s fun to hit the big iconic cities that have been branded into our brain since childhood, but often the real travel delights come from visiting a dot on the map that’s a complete unknown. Who’s ever heard of Grafton, Illinois? I hadn’t until this past March, but I’m glad I took the time to discover it.
Before I set off riding my bike for 105 miles on the Katy Trail in Missouri, I spent the weekend near St. Louis in Alton and Grafton, IL. I covered larger Alton in this earlier post, but Grafton is the kind of cool little town where you could waste away a week just chilling out and soaking up the atmosphere.
I had hoped to ride my bike there and back from Alton, along the Sam Vadalabene bike trail that connects the two cities, but buckets of rain kept that from happening. So instead my exercise was lifting a wine glass to my lips in multiple locations.
Grafton is located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. So historically it was a key spot for catching a ferry or restocking with supplies if moving down the rivers. A boating works produced and repaired paddleboats. Now Grafton is known as a place to chill out on vacation, soaking up a small town atmosphere and trying out some local wine.
Like a lot of U.S. states, Illinois is putting out far better wine than it did a few decades ago and some of what I had was quite good. There’s a lot of dessert wine and fruit wine about, but Piasa Winery, with a sampling room and full bar right on the main drag, pours an impressive array of dry whites and reds. When you find something you like, wine by the glass is then $5—a screaming bargain. You need to get to know that word “Piasa” in these parts. It’s a fearsome mythological creature from the native American legends, a man-eating bird with antlers who would swoop down and carry people off in its claws.
Grafton Winery & Brewhouse, right across the street, has a wide selection, a restaurant with views of the river from a deck and inside, and there’s a nascent beer brewery downstairs currently putting out a lager (called an “American Pilsner”) and a stout. There’s a tasting room for the Mary Michelle winery at Pere Marquette State Park lodge. If you’re more of a beer nerd than a wine snob, the best place to pull up a bar stool is at Rotten Apples, with lots of obscure beers on tap and cider as well.
The best place to kick back and watch the rivers flow by is the Loading Dock, with a huge deck that’s hopping in warm weather and bartenders that are used to keeping the beers and fruity cocktails flowing.When I visited the river was almost up to the deck. The owner didn’t seem too phased. “We’ll keep an eye on it, but if a flood comes we just remove everything from the restaurant to higher ground, clean up, and then put it all back.” A sign on the wall marks where the last great flood of 1998 reached. I had to jump up to touch it with my hand. (This time the rain stopped and the river receded a few days later.)
When it’s time to eat, you can go lowbrow for cheap at one of the fish sandwich joints scattered along the main drag. Five bucks will set you up right. For a splurge that’s worth it, Mississippi Half Step is the top restaurant in town. Surprisingly there’s no local wine on their list—there’s still a stigma when you get to this level—but the refreshingly odd menu goes from chicken livers to baked brie to pasta. Housed in an 1885 brick home, it’s a cozy and romantic spot. (Too bad I was by myself…)
So what do you do when you’re not eating and drinking in Grafton? There’s a water park right down the road for the kids and the historic little town of Elsah nearby for stepping back in time. Pere Marquette State Park is a few miles away and has 8,000 acres of land. You can ride horses at the Pere Marquette stables. Ferry rides will take you across the rivers and small boats can reach small islands for exploration.