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Biking, block parties and antique hunting draw visitors to Alton
By Mike Michaelson | Midwest Travel

Bikers ride the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway.


Courtesy of Alton CVB

Visitors enjoy live music at block parties.


Courtesy of Alton CVB

Brats are the quintessential street food at Alton's block parties.


Courtesy of Alton CVB

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Published: 7/5/2008 12:08 PM

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Plan a visit to Alton, Ill., later this month and you'll discover a little piece of Margaritaville down by the Mississippi levee. The Jimmy Buffett Parrothead Party (July 26) is one of a series of lively block parties scheduled to be held at this Mississippi River town on the last Saturday of the month through Sept. 27.

While you're in this bustling river town, you can make your trip a full-blown getaway as you enjoy bicycling and hiking along the river bluffs and explore Mississippi backwaters by canoe or kayak. You can go antiquing in colorful river communities such as Grafton and Elsah, where you'll also discover a quaint tearoom or two.

Last month's flood caused some roads and businesses in the area to close; for an update visit or call (800) 258-6645.

Alton's downtown block parties include live music and dancing in the streets and plenty of kids' activities as well as great food. They are held along a closed-off section of Third Street between State and Piasa streets. There are kids' activities, such as bounce houses, craft stations and face painting, that are scheduled for 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Adult music is played from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. You'll find additional bands and live music inside the bars and restaurants along Third Street.

Downtown restaurants set up booths on the street to offer a sampling of some of their favorite dishes at a reasonable price. Eats range from pepperloin kebabs from Tony's (made from a family recipe and a tradition for more than half a century) and jalapeno brats from Chili Heads, to homemade tacos, hot fish sandwiches, steak burgers and other fair food. Except for food and drink, everything is free, including admission.

With its sunny Caribbean flavor, the Parrothead Party is undoubtedly the favorite block party in the series. It features the returning Phin Band, a Jimmy Buffett cover band that actually played with Buffet once at one of his Margaritaville restaurants. People arrive in droves for this party, wearing their favorite Parrothead apparel for dancing in the street, determinedly armed with - as Buffet might say - a License to Chill.

Plan an early-summer getaway that includes time spent bicycling, hiking - or even motoring - along the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway. This 33-mile-long byway is viewed as one of the most beautiful stretches of roadway in the Midwest. It is cradled by soaring limestone bluffs that reach down to the Mississippi.

Spend time exploring the colorful river towns of Grafton and Elsah, traveling at your own pace and perhaps stopping to treasure hunt at a flea market and to sample the grape at a riverside winery. Find plenty of one-of-a-kind cafes and tearooms along the trail.

Take your bicycle with you or rent one in downtown Alton. Wild Trak Bikes, at the corner of State Street and Route 100, is a great place to pick up the bike trail and start your ride.

Antique hunters, though, need go no further than the 50 shops of Alton's "Antique Row." It is extends mainly along Broadway, from State to George streets. For a bumper crop of more than 70 dealers, head for the Grafton Riverside Flea Market, held on the fourth weekend of the month (through October) at the Historic Boatworks. You'll find a wide range of antiques and lots of pure "junque." Admission is free.

You'll also find plenty of studios and galleries along the way. In downtown Alton, Mississippi Mud Pottery is a popular spot for observing pottery being thrown. It makes custom pieces and also has a full line of its own designs.

The slopes and valleys alongside the river also provide fertile agricultural land. If you're shopping for fresh produce, check out plump local blueberries and strawberries and Calhoun County peaches. Alton Farmers' and Artisans' Market is held on Saturdays through September, 8 a.m. until noon. Find it at the corner of Henry Street and Landmarks Boulevard with locally grown produce, plants and flowers, as well as baked goods and handcrafted artwork.

Finally, for something a little different, consider a Segway Tour, riding the self-balancing personal transportation device that is being widely adopted by police departments and tour operators. Several scenic tours are offered, including Segway 101, a tour to become acquainted with the equipment in the classroom and then on a "glided" tour alongside the river (two hours, every other Wednesday, $40).

There are Thursday Night History Tours (three hours, $80) and the highly popular Taste of Alton Segway Tour (Saturdays through Oct. 25, $100), a 3-hour tour that glides through the streets of Alton past some of its historic sites and includes a lunch stop at My Just Desserts, known for ambrosial pies (where it is the prudent practice of locals to reserve a slice - against potential sellout - when placing their entree order). "Mrs. Ledbetter's chocolate pie" is a perennial favorite; ask for a recipe card. On selected Saturdays, a three-hour Segway tour stops for dinner at Hartford Ribs ($100). Note: In addition to set dates, Segway tour operators offer tours for groups of four or more, provided Segways are available.

Find lodgings at the many hotels and motels representing national economy and midrange market, many offering attractive package deals. If your taste runs to bed-and-breakfasts, you're able to choose from 15 in the region.

MikeMichaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."