As our canoe emerged from the tranquil Fox River, the reeds parted before our eyes to reveal what appeared to be a tropical island in the middle of Grass Lake. As we paddled forward to investigate, we found ourselves enveloped in a school of speedboats, and the air became charged with the twang of amplified guitars.
We pulled up our wobbly aluminum vessel to the dock and tied up in a slip between two glimmering yachts. I scrabbled out of our low, rented canoe onto the wooden platform. We were in Antioch, Illinois for a weekend of camping at Chain O’ Lakes State Park, but I felt as if we had just entered the Bermuda Triangle. Palm trees and thatched roofs swayed gently in the breeze, and women strode about the decks wearing bikini tops and Daisy Dukes.
We had come upon a floating bar called Blarney Island, hidden among the lakes that snake through northeast Illinois. Dubbed the “Key West of the Midwest,” Blarney Island is a Parrothead paradise and perpetual party, serving up frozen fru-fru drinks, cold beer and classic-rock bands in a tropical atmosphere. The bar is open from the beginning of May through the last weekend in September. The signature drink is the Blarney Stone, a dazzling emerald-toned concoction made with honeydew melon liqueur.
“Leave all your worries on shore,” says Blarney Island president John Haley, who’s been involved with the floating tavern since 1971. Haley describes the island as a haven where people can “relax, let their hair down and have a good time.”
Rock and country cover bands are on deck every weekend. We sipped our margaritas to an acoustic duo playing standards by John Mellencamp, Journey and, of course, Jimmy Buffet. Upcoming highlights at the island include Fantasy Fest Weekend, August 3–5, which will feature a crew of body painters flown in from Key West.
No blarney, there’s a frat vibe to the island, drawing suburban partygoers from far afield. But if you stay long enough, you probably won’t care.
If you drive to Antioch, Blarney Island operates a shuttle between the “Port of Blarney” and Blarney Island, which runs on the hour. If you’re carless, you can reach Blarney Island through a charming combination of Metra, bicycle and canoe, making a real event of your visit. Take the Metra North Central line to Antioch (which unfortunately runs weekdays only), bringing your bike on board. After cycling to Chain O’ Lakes State Park, you’ll be able to rent a canoe at the concession stand for $12. Follow the sound of speedboats and REO Speedwagon. (Elizabeth Winkowski)
Blarney Island/Port of Blarney, 27843 West Grass Lake Road, Antioch, Illinois, (847)395-4122.
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