Nov 10, 2014

Gallivanting through Grafton

Not long ago, Grafton, Ill., wasn't much more than a sleepy river town that just happens to be perfectly positioned where the Illinois River runs into the Mississippi River.  In fact, the Great Flood of 1993 almost washed Grafton off the map.  Even now, the official population stands at 675 people, according to the last U.S. Census. 

But since then, the tourists have been showing up in ever-increasing numbers.  Grafton had always had a devoted following among bird watchers due to its proximity to a bald eagle nesting area.  Pere Marquette State Park and its lodge have also attracted visitors for a long time.  But then wineries came, followed by the art galleries, specialty stores and other tourist traps.  Now, you can even zipline, parasail or hit a water park (summer only, of course).  

Still, Grafton retains much of its original small river town charm.  So, a few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were among the hundreds of tourists to descend on Grafton and take advantage of the last blast of warm weather this fall.

The first place we found after parking our car in one of the public lots along the river was the Piasa Winery and Pub, which takes its name from a mythical bird that was believed to inhabit the bluffs nearby.

I hate making decisions. 
I was drawn to here not by the wine, but instead by a sign out front advertising $6 Fruli Strawberry beers.  No better time to try something new, right?  Although, the other options on tap were numerous and intriguing. 

Thankfully, the Fruli did not disappoint.  It was probably a little fizzier and fruitier in taste than the Abita Strawberry harvest, one of my personal favorites. I’d still give Abita a slight edge, but I could easily drink the Fruli all day during the summer.
Tastes just as good outside.
With the crowd a little overwhelming inside, we stepped outside and “lucked” into seating on the patio.  It turned out to be a double-edged sword, since the service left a lot to be desired, and the food we ordered (spinach and artichoke dip and chips and a cup of jambalaya) was ordinary at best.  I’m not a fan of finding cold spots in my food. 

Still waiting on the food ... should have read the online reviews first.
And although I’d like to excuse the place due to the large crowds, I've noticed other reviews aren't too kind on the service, either.  Oh, well.  I have no complaints whatsoever about the bar.  I’d give it another shot for drinks, anyway. 

It really is a nice viewpoint. 
On we strolled across the highway to the largest winery and brewpub in Grafton, and frankly probably the town’s biggest draw for those who love their libations – the Grafton Winery & Brewhaus.  The picture gives you just a small indication of how large the property is. 

No sooner had we settled into the Brewhaus to share a tasty nut brown ale made on-site than we learned out friends Sue and Terry Hupp were also in Grafton.  We made plans to meet them and drove down the road to a Sue Hupp kind of bar – the Hawg Pit.

Live music?  Check.  A large area for covered outdoor seating?  Got it.  The aroma of barbecue in the air?  Makes the nose happy.  Cute waitresses selling Jell-O shots?  Nothing wrong with that (especially when the Jell-O shots are done right like these were).  Well-poured Jack and Cokes?  Yes, please!

And the last piece that definitely made it a Sue Hupp kind of bar – every biker in three counties seemingly descended on this place while we were there.    

With Jell-O shots inspiring us onward, the Hupps led the way as we drove up an incline steeper than any you’d ever expect in Illinois to Aerie’s Winery and Lodging, perched high above the old town of Grafton.

As a first-time visitor, I wasn't expecting what I saw.  But after we parked in the woods and walked past cabin after cabin, the approach to the winery just kept getting more spectacular. 

Seriously, this is in Illinois? 

The view from the Aerie’s balcony wasn't too bad, either. 

Enjoying the view ... and each other
Oddly enough, after visiting three wineries in Grafton, I still can’t say anything about the wine.  We started with beer and mixed drinks and stuck with our game plan throughout the day.  But the view alone puts Aerie’s on our short list of places to go back to when we visit Grafton again. 

The Crazy Beaver drawing us in.
We ended our afternoon of drinking with the Hupps very close to where it began – across the street from the Piasa Winery and Pub, and next door to the Grafton Winery, at the Crazy Beaver Pizza Lodge.  Don’t ask about the pizza (although it apparently gets mixed reviews at best); we couldn't tell you.  We just saw nice outdoor seating and easy access to the bar inside.  Plus, I think the name lured us in.  After all, who wouldn't be drawn to a place called the Crazy Beaver?  Nonetheless, it was certainly good enough for us to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, and the Stags were priced right at $2.    

As you probably surmised, we got easily distracted during our brief time in Grafton and never did make it to several places we intended to see.  But that’s what’s great about taking a day trip without an agenda.  You discover things you didn't expect, and you find new reasons to come back – whether it’s the spectacular view of the river from Aerie’s Winery … or the low-key atmosphere of the Crazy Beaver.  


Unknown said...

This sounds like a trip hubby Mike and I would enjoy!! And a few other couples I know, including your GF'sboss! We love to try out the locals and make pit stops through out day trips like the one you describe here, John. And it's been too long since we made one. I hope we can all go together sometime. If you haven't been to the Hermann, MO area, there's some gorgeous views at those wineries also. This makes me ready for a road trip!

Thumbs up for your blog, enjoyed catching up on the last few posts.

John Watts said...

Thanks, Cheryl! I'm glad you continue to enjoy the posts.

I also enjoy Hermann, Augusta and the Missouri Wine Trail quite a bit. I need to make a point of getting the GF there on a weekend road trip this spring!

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