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Spirit of Illinois

It might be called the Prairie State, but Illinois offers an enticing array of boating destinations and activities.

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Has a state ever been so misrepresented? It’s nicknamed the Prairie State, yet Illinois is edged on three sides by water, borders a Great Lake and is bisected by a major water thoroughfare for recreational boaters and the marine transportation industry. So say what you want textbooks, we know the true spirit of this territory — a water-rich landscape packed with a long history of great river towns and local shoreside attractions. Keep reading to meet four of the state’s top boating destinations and their seemingly endless leisure options, so you can know the true spirit of Illinois, too.

Our visit to Illinois begins, appropriately, in one of the busiest ports in the world. Chicago’s history and development are defined by its location, which provides access to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Lawrence Seaway, as well as to the inland rivers that lead to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Indeed, the Windy City has long been a stopover for those traveling the Great Loop, and with its megawatt downtown and outstanding attractions, it’s not hard to see why some may find it hard to leave.

You can’t miss Navy Pier, once a shipping and military training facility but now a major tourist destination. Located east of downtown on Lake Michigan, the pier consists of 50 acres of parks, promenades, shops, eateries and more. There’s no admission, but some of the attractions do require a fee. Take a ride on the 150-foot-tall Ferris wheel, see an IMAX movie or check out the children’s museum.

Caught in Chicago without your boat? Hop on one of the cruise vessels departing from Navy Pier’s South Dock. Shoreline Sightseeing operates nine touring boats and 11 water taxis here and in other parts of the city, offering guided skyline tours, architectural tours, fireworks cruises and special events such as Brew Cruises and Wine Tasting Cruises.

Currently under reconstruction, the Chicago Maritime Museum will open in the next few months at a new facility adjacent to the Chicago River in the Bridgeport neighborhood. It features historical photographs, artwork and displays tracing the significance of the city in the marine transportation industry.

Tie up at one of the Chicago Park District’s 10 lakefront harbors, which include Jackson Park Outer Harbor, Jackson Park Inner Harbor, 59th Street Harbor, 31st Street Harbor, Burnham Harbor, Monroe Harbor, DuSable Harbor, Diversy Harbor, Belmont Harbor and Montrose Harbor. With room for more than 5,000 boats, these marinas feature state-of-the-art docks, moorings, fuel facilities and other amenities. They all have transient docking except for Monroe Harbor, which has transient mooring with tender service.

Mark your calendar for summer, when thousands of boaters take to the lake each day for cruising, sailing and fishing. In June, the Chicago In-Water Boat Show returns to 31st Street Harbor for its third year. Highlights include Fred’s Shed Interactive Learning Center, the Antique & Classic Boat Display and Try It Cove, where you can get hands-on with some of the boats on display.

In July, SCENE Magazine and host an annual Boat Party so epic that it has been featured in the New York Times. The giant raft-up is open to anyone with a runabout, yacht or personal watercraft and draws some 700 vessels each year. Bring plenty of food and drinks and let it all hang out for a few hours or the whole day! The party takes place off Chicago Avenue Beach, north of the water filtration plant.

Visit nearby Lockport, Ill., about an hour from downtown Chicago, to explore its four museums within walking distance of each other. One of the sites is a unique outdoor museum known as Lincoln Landing. Adjacent to the Illinois & Michigan Canal, it follows the channel’s original line and has mile markers with historic information and character silhouettes, including one of President Lincoln contemplating the waterway.

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