By Cortney Fries
This August, Camp Aramoni opened near Starved Rock State Park in Illinois. The first and only luxury campground in the state, it features 11 safari-style tents from South Africa, all inclusive, chef-created meals and 24/7 concierge service available via text. It is the opposite of roughing it, more akin to indulging in nature.
My family of four drove approximately 90 minutes from our Chicago-area home to Camp Aramoni in Tonica, Central Illinois. Eleven large tents line the 96-acre property, a former 19th century brickyard. Our abode was Sweet William, named after the local pink flower, one of the two family-centric tents. Enthusiastically inspecting our digs, we quickly realized that the feeling inside was similar to that of staying in a new hotel room. Plush bedding, two sets of stylish and sturdy bunkbeds, one queen bed, artwork, a full bathroom, heating, air conditioning and electricity came together to make us feel completely at home.
The first question I often encounter when camping is about the bathroom situation. Our restroom in Sweet William was just like one in a hotel room, although maybe bigger. It featured a standard shower, sink, flushing toilet and plenty of room to change.
The people we meet are often the biggest gift of traveling; and Camp Aramoni offers some of the most attentive and conscientious service we have experienced. Packing and planning for meals can often be a frustrating part of camping. At Camp Aramoni, all the meals are taken care of, courtesy of Chef Cleetus Friedman, formerly of Theater on the Lake and City Provisions in Chicago. This talented chef concocts coffee drinks in the morning to craft cocktails in the evening, served from a 1961 Airstream named Burlington, after the railroad that used to run through Tonica.
“We try to honor the people that worked here and pay respects any way that we can,” said Andrea Mason, Camp Aramoni Concierge, who happily escorted us around the property on an upgraded golf cart, answered our questions via text, took meal orders and set up a picnic for us by the creek.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner and s’mores are elevated and included with your stay. Start off the day with a breakfast buffet that had my choosy son going back for thirds. Local salads, sandwiches and entrees like pesto grilled chicken thighs will fill your belly in a satisfying and sustainable way, served in all eco-friendly containers. Chef Cleetus was intent on exceeding the expectations of our wheat-intolerant 10-year-old daughter, and whipped up gluten-free muffins, chicken tenders and other dishes just for her. When Camp Aramoni says they are happy to accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies, they mean it.
You can also order additional culinary experiences a la carte, like the picnic we requested by Blue Heron Creek. Champagne, hummus, charcuterie, cookies and more were packed up in a basket and set out on a blanket by the water. We dangled our legs in the cool creek and toasted to good times soaking in nature.
The kids cheerfully explored the quiet property, which often felt like all ours. We hiked the verdant trails, splashed in the Vermillion River and took a peek at Bricks & Stones, their beautiful nearby venue to exchange nuptials, host a baby shower or birthday.
Jennifer and Tim Bias purchased the property to create Camp Aramoni in 2017. The Barn, where guests check in and enjoy breakfast buffets, smelled of fresh wood and dangled with chandeliers. “This was made out of a Ponderosa pine barn kit,” Jennifer laughed. “It was not quite as easy to put together as Legos.” The luxury campground is coming together nicely, with a small general store, Gertie’s, named after a historic local luncheonette.
Reservations are now available through October, and possibly further into the fall. The high level of service comes with a price tag; but the outdoorsy setting with supreme comforts might be just what pandemic-weary travelers are looking for.
Starved Rock State Park, arguably one of Illinois’ most beautiful outdoor destinations, is just a few miles down the road. Brimming with canyons, sandstone bluffs and dripping waterfalls, the fresh air feels encouraging for a hike. Nearby Utica features a cute downtown with farmers markets and outdoor dining.
You might want to call Camp Aramoni glamping; but it’s even better than that. It’s pampered camping with chef curated meals and cocktails. It’s lavish comforts in an outdoor setting made for relaxing and resetting. It’s pretty spectacular.
(Go Magazine Fall 2021)
Photos courtesy of Camp Aramoni and Cortney Fries