Adventurous souls will find a mixed bag of engaging attractions in Northwest Indiana.
From recreational activities to culinary gems, cultural and shopping opportunities, the region offers a plethora of tourist magnets.
Local tourism experts say though the economy has gone through tough times, the outlook for area tourism and travel appears bright.
"2010 is expected to be better than 2009," said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission.
"People are looking for things that are unique and something different than they can get in their hometown," she said.
And Northwest Indiana provides all of that.
"We've found great success in being ourselves and telling the stories, great history and traditions of Northwest Indiana," said Speros A. Batistatos, president and CEO of South Shore Convention and Visitors Commission.
The Gary South Shore Air Show has proven to be a popular tourist attraction, Batistatos said, annually drawing people from 30 states, 40 Indiana counties and five countries.
"What's been critical for our area (in terms of tourism) are The Dunes," Weimer said. She said the Indiana Dunes State Park and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore combined draw about 3 million visitors to the region annually.
Weimer said 60 percent of Dunes tourists add unplanned activities to their agendas after learning what else is in the region and about 15 percent extend their stays.
"We have more than 70 miles of hiking and biking trails," said Ruth Keefover, public relations director for Porter County's visitor board.
One of the new trail projects currently under way is The Dunes Kankakee Trail, connecting Lake Michigan to the Kankakee River. Another project is the Indiana Beyond the Beach Trail, a driving trail that would link various communities.
Keefover and Weimer said the area also is known for other natural assets such as Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in Valparaiso and Coffee Creek Watershed Preserve.
Attention sports fans
The region is a hotbed of activity for sporting events.
The National Softball Association's Girls Fast Pitch World Series has also drawn thousands of tourists to the region, Batistatos said.
And since 2001, regional, national and international visitors have flocked to see the Gary South Shore Railcats play at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary. The minor league baseball team had its first Fan Fest last year and drew more than 1,000 people.
A region of festivals
Whether you're a music, food or nostalgia fan, you'll find a festival or fair for you.
Popular festivals in Lake County include Pierogi Fest in Whiting and the Festival of the Lakes in Hammond.
Pierogi Fest found its way into the national spotlight a few years ago when it was featured on Food Network's "Best American Festivals" show. And big name acts such as REO Speedwagon, Gin Blossoms, Randy Travis, Los Lonely Boys and The Black Crowes have entertained at Festival of the Lakes.
Valparaiso's Popcorn Festival and the Wizard of Oz Festival in Chesterton are two of Porter County's big events, Keefover said.
"And for the Elvis Fantasy Fest in Portage, we get people from as far away as London, Japan and Italy," she said.
The Porter County Fair, which last year drew 160,000 people and the Lake County Fair, considered the second largest fair in Indiana, also are among popular attractions.
Diverse eateries and all styles of restaurants star on the local culinary landscape.
"More than 80 different ethnic groups call Northwest Indiana home and that's reflected in how we eat and the restaurants we visit," said Batistatos.
The culinary diversity is seen in a variety of eateries including Italian-themed Ciao Bella; a new trattoria in Schererville, Rodizio's; an Argentine/Brazilian steakhouse in Meyer's Castle in Dyer; and House of Kobe, with locations in Schererville and Merrillville.
Among other destination restaurants in the region are the new The Lighthouse Restaurant in Cedar Lake, Miller Bakery Cafe in Gary and the turkey-themed Strongbow Inn in Valparaiso.
Also still getting plenty of diners at their tables are Teibel's Restaurant in Schererville, Gaucho's in Valparaiso, Gamba's in Merrillville, Don Quijote Restaurant in Valparaiso and Lucrezia's, with locations in Chesterton and Crown Point.
A Peaceful sanctuary
The Shrine of Christ's Passion in St. John has drawn visitors from various countries and states since it opened a year and a half ago.
"We foresee that we'll have buses coming in from all over the country in the next four years," said Paul Anderson, the shrine's general manager. "We'll be a national destination because there's nothing like it in the world."
On the grounds of the free attraction is a half-mile trail featuring stations of the cross, dramatic sculptures, poignant audio accompaniment and a gift shop/visitors center.
Melting pot of attractions
Northwest Indiana also has its share of museums, hotels, entertainment complexes, theaters and other venues packing people in.
Tourists are drawn to Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Ameristar Casino in East Chicago, the Majestic Star Casinos in Gary and Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City.
Diners looking for picturesque scenery can opt for a meal at Jack Binion's Steakhouse at Horseshoe. The restaurant overlooks Lake Michigan and the Chicago skyline. Performers such as Natalie Cole, Air Supply, Vince Gill and Bette Midler have all entertained at Horsehoe's The Venue.
Also attracting tourists over the past three decades has been the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza and its adjoining Star Plaza Theatre. Its roster of stellar performers has included the Oak Ridge Boys, Tony Bennett, Donna Summer and many other musical greats.
Region museums such as the Dillinger Museum in the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond, draw visitors with its memorabilia and "crime doesn't pay" message. Another popular display that brought more than 25,000 guests was last season's Christmas Story exhibit at the center. The exhibit included animatronic scenes from the popular movie and a recreation of "Santa's Mountain.