Champaign-Urbana is, at least culturally speaking, the second city to the second city. The best surprises you'll find here are those big-city cultural advantages that are rare in flat old central Illinois. You'll find the state's second-largest planetarium and a fine art museum here.
The William M. Staerkel Planetarium (217-351-2568), on the campus of Parkland College, 2400 W. Bradley Ave. in Champaign, claims number-two status because its 50-foot dome is smaller only than the Adler's. They've installed a fog machine for their 60s music-and-lights show, The Age of Aquarius.
The shows and free telescope viewing of the skies are normally held on weekends. Parkland is open to the public on Thursdays only this summer. Wheelchair access is fine.
The Krannert Art Museum in the Kinkead Pavilion (217-333-1861), 500 Peabody Drive on the University of Illinois campus, has a wide variety of works ranging from pre-Columbian finds to 17th-century Dutch paintings to contemporary American art. We saw drawings and etchings by Matisse, Calder, and Jackson Pollock, which, if not on display, are always available in the print room. I exited with a much slower and relaxed pace than I entered with, which is the mark of a good museum. They say the full tour takes about an hour but it could easily take longer. Access is good. And it's free, too.
The cavernous Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, not to be confused with the museum, is a five-story brick bunker that takes up two whole blocks. It's at 500 S. Goodwin in Urbana (217-333-6280). Its four theaters and concert halls range in seating capacity from 200 to 2,000. Luciano Pavarotti and Dizzy Gillespie are among those who have performed here. The Intermezzo Pastry Shop in the lobby serves French and Viennese desserts before and after shows.
By contrast, there's the Station Theatre (217-384-4000), so named because it's housed in the former Urbana train station at 223 N. Broadway Ave. We drove past this tiny place twice before we got the bright idea that it must be somewhere near the railroad tracks. Sure enough, there was the old brick depot.
Inside is a friendly little black-box theater with about a 90-seat capacity. There's not even room for a backstage area. They produce all year. Summer shows include Macbeth. Wheelchair access is good, even in the bathroom.
There's a generous amount of live theater in Champaign-Urbana. Parkland College also has a theater next to the planetarium and the Chancellor Hotel and Convention Center, 1501 S. Neil St. in Champaign (217-359-4503), has a dinner playhouse that does musicals.
We ate at Jumer's Castle Lodge, 209 S. Broadway Ave. in Urbana (217-384-8800), more as a public service than anything else. We felt it our duty to see if this regional chain of pseudo-Bavarian luxury hotels was as tacky inside as out. It is.
Picture a prefab Alpine chalet with the strains of John Fogerty's "Centerfield" wafting from a breathlessly hokey lounge singer. At the door of the dining room stands a suit of armor. I should have knocked to see if it was plastic.
I guess the dining room is supposed to be a replica of a great hall of a castle or something. From the staid oil portraits and big-game heads on the wall to the high-backed chairs, everything about the dining room screams phony feudal. Everything except the Wal-Mart chandeliers.
The sauerbraten was cold and tough and $10.95. The swordfish ($15.95) wasn't bad. The duck part of the duck a l'orange ($17.95!) wasn't as scrawny, dry, and fatty as duck can be. But the chef's secret recipe for the l'orange seemed to be thickening Tang with a lot of flour.
We couldn't resist having lunch at La Bamba, 410 E. Green St. (217-344-6600) in Champaign, a local Mexican fast-food chain that advertises "burritos as big as your head." I didn't expect it to be as big as mine, with my 7 7/8 hat size. But the super size, which is made with a 10-inch-diameter tortilla, comes close. The regular size bean and avocado was filling and pretty good but no big deal.
The best Champaign-Urbana food experience we had was at Garcia's Pizza (217-359-1212), another regional chain. Even spoiled Chicago pizza snobs like us enjoyed the deep-pan mushroom special. Lots of sauce and a moist crust. You can carry out slices or a whole pie, or there's lots of room to sit down and have a beer. The atmosphere at the one we went to, 108 E. Green St. in Champaign, was just your basic pizza-joint decor. It seems designed to appeal mostly to students. There are five locations in town.
Our lodging was in the guest rooms of the university's Illini Union, 1401 W. Green St. in Urbana (217-333-1241). A room for two ran $69 including tax. It overlooks the green in the heart of campus, which is a vision right out of those university promotional videos they show during halftime of college football games.
The rooms are quiet, roomy, comfortable, and some are quite user-friendly for the disabled, right down to the showers with benches, the strobe-light fire alarms for the deaf, and TTY phones. Should you feel a sudden urge to be among bustling masses of students, just go down to the first floor or basement. You'll find a bowling alley, a pool hall, a cafeteria, video games, pinball machines, study lounges, and a small art gallery. Everything, sadly, but a bar. The cafeteria and newsstand are the only places to eat, but there's plenty more within walking distance, like La Bamba and Garcia's. There are also tons of bed-and-breakfasts in the Champaign-Urbana area (call the visitors bureau, 800-369-6151).
The Krannert center and the art museum are also within walking distance of the union, as is the John Philip Sousa Museum. It would more aptly be called the John Philip Sousa Storage Closet. It's a few rooms full of Sousa memorabilia at 1103 S. 6th St. in Champaign (217-333-3025), aka the Harding Band Building. Former Illini bandleader A. Austin Harding was a good friend of Sousa's. You have to wander around knocking on doors in search of someone with a key to let you in. Try room 140.
It's kind of creepy, actually, being alone amid battered horns and marching-band uniforms. A mounted magazine profile says Leopold Stokowski thought Sousa was a genius. Among the mounted Sousa quotes: "A horse, a dog, a gun, a girl and music on the side. That is my idea of heaven."
Every year the sprawling agriculture school puts on a three-day open house that features live appearances by the porthole cows. It's usually around late February or early March. Last year they had an exhibit titled "Exploring Exotics With Zelda the Zebra Mussel" and another on identifying animal tracks.
Illinois Amish country is so close by that we also felt it our duty to go take a look. We had strong doubts. In the tourist brochure the humble, self-effacing, publicity-shy Amish have their own tourism number, 1-800-72-AMISH. We feared Arcola, about 35 miles south on Route 45 or I-57, would be exactly the kind of souvenir-happy tourist trap it is. There's a well-publicized hitching post where the Amish supposedly tie up their buggies, though the place was empty when we were there. The only thing we expected to see and didn't were Amish people cardboard cutouts beside which tourists could pose for souvenir pictures.
There's also a distinct Raggedy Ann and Andy motif in Arcola, because this is the birthplace of their creator, Johnny Gruelle. We just missed the annual Raggedy Ann and Andy festival held in May. There's also the annual broom corn festival the weekend after Labor Day. It features a national sweeping contest.
Our timing was also bad to see Rockome Gardens (217-268-4106), which was closed. This may have been merciful judging by the slick brochure. It looks really corny. It's a theme park with lots of rock and flower gardens and exhibits like the Amish house, the blacksmith shop, the Indian trading post, the Indian tepee, and the elves' workshop. And of course there are gift shops and snack bars. It looks like one of those places where you pay an admission fee for the right to come in and spend more money.
But things get more interesting if you take Route 113 toward Arthur (about 10 miles from Arcola). There you see what we learned were the main indicators that you're approaching authentic Amish country: (1) horse and buggy crossing signs, (2) horse droppings on the shoulder, (3) lots of signs that say Yoder this and Yoder that. There's Yoder's Country Kitchen in Chesterville (217-543-2714) and Yoder Gazebos outside Arthur (815-767-1311). "There's a lot," said the Amish teen in her white bonnet behind the counter of Country Cheese & More, 205 S. Vine in Arthur. "I'm a Yoder and we're not near all related."
You see Amish folks riding their buggies and bikes past the sign that says WELCOME TO ARTHUR A TOWN OF PROGRESS. The shops along Vine Street aren't much better than the ones in Arcola. Expensive quilts (up to $650), more Raggedy Anns. Rockers and dulcimers. A cheaper indigenous keepsake would be a souvenir jar of udder cream. Or you can buy a jar of Planks's apple butter at Country Cheese & More, 205 S. Vine (217-543-3544). We bought the sugarless kind, sweetened with apple cider, and it's quite good.
Our last meal was our best, at the Dutch Oven, 116 E. Illinois in Arthur (217-543-2213). It's just a family-style place with a spinning dessert display and lots of hungry Amish. There's a fairly extensive salad bar that's included with entrees. The fried popcorn shrimp ($5.95) were mostly coating, but the fried chicken ($5.85) and whole catfish ($5.95) were good and hearty. You can get a very good and large twice-baked potato with the meal too.
A copy of the Arthur Graphic Clarion (available here for 50 cents) makes a good souvenir. While you eat, read all about local births, deaths, and graduations and how Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Yoder visited Mr. and Mrs. Elijah Yoder last Sunday after church.