The season of the road trip has begun. If for you this means you’ll be on the receiving end of some couch-flopping friends/relatives, right now you might be wondering where to take them during their visit.
Rest assured, fun will be had by all. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: The great thing about living here is that C-U has the amenities of a larger city coupled with the charm of a rural setting. There’s a little something for everyone.
This got me thinking about the whole city cousin/country cousin cliché, as in where to take a city cousin to showcase the charming small-town aspects of central Illinois life, and vice-versa for a country cousin. So, I’ll be dividing my advice along those lines: First, I’ll list some places to take a city cousin to demonstrate the ample charms of life on the Grand Prairie. Then, I’ll dish out tips for giving a country cousin a dose of city life.
Of course, you should feel free to mix and match ideas from Columns A and B. And, you should most DEFINITELY feel free to add suggestions of your own.
Deduct points for creativity if you must, but you can’t go wrong by kicking off a guest’s visit with a trip to the Market at the Square in Urbana. This is a multi-tasker, really: You can enjoy a nice breakfast (my family goes for the sausage and/or egg items at Fryer Tuck’s and sweets from The Muffin Man) while you pick up amazing fresh ingredients to cook with during the visit. Your city cousin may have regular access to McCormick & Schmick’s, but I doubt she’s ever tasted anything like one of Triple S Farms’ rib eye steaks cooked on your grill.
After the market, I would suggest heading south for a swing through Arthur so that cuz can get a taste of sharing the road with horse-pulled buggies. While there, you can visit the Great Pumpkin Patch (if open for the season) or quaint Rockome Gardens in nearby Arcola, get some yummies from The Homestead Bakery, or swing by Beachy’s Bulk Foods for a Wilbur Buds chocolate fix.
Continue south for a tasty fast food lunch at The Burger King in Mattoon — no, not the home of the Whopper — and then on to nearby Lerna (via Charleston) for a true Lincoln-slept-here experience at the Lincoln Log Cabin and museum. Our family went there last summer on a whim, and we were all surprised by how enjoyable the experience was. The interpreters blew our minds. My kids still think they time traveled somehow.
More ideas along these lines: take your guest to pick your own fruits and veggies at one of our local farms/orchards, stroll through restored prairie at Meadowbrook Park, enjoy the critters at Prairie Farm, join a sky-watching event led by the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society, or attend a fun fair or festival.
Shopping, dining, nightlife, museums, fabulous spa treatments — so much awaits your rural relations when they come to hang out in C-U for a spell.
Again, I suggest starting out with breakfast. This time, though, take your gang to downtown Champaign for a yummy meal with a side of people watching. If your cousin is a diner person, try Sam’s Café or Merry Ann’s for tried-and-true local breakfast favorites. If she’s more a pastries-and-fancy-coffee type, Café Kopi, Aroma Café, and/or Pekara should strike her fancy.
Stick around downtown to shop at locally-owned stores such as Carrie’s, Circles Boutique, The Dandelion, Copasetic Consignments, and (my own beloved employer) Ten Thousand Villages. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shopping locally in the C-U area; consult this list for other places to visit.
To give Country Cousin a taste — literally — of the variety our slightly-urban setting affords, consider taking her to World Harvest (especially on a Saturday between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when free samples are available), Strawberry Fields or Common Ground for exotic, local, and/or organic eats.
As for dining, ahhh, where to begin. There are as many choices for having a fine, fun or fancy meal in this town as there are potential cravings.
For a truly top-tier dining experience, you may want to book a sitter and head to Bacaro (to settle this debate once and for all, according to chef/owner Thad Morrow it’s pronounced “bach-a-row”), where guests feel like Top Chef judges. It’s not going to be a cheap meal, but it should be a memorable one.
Of course, this is just a starting point. The options are endless. Blogger Lisa Morgan has done her best to chronicle all of the culinary choices available to us in the area — complete with fabulous high-color illustrations — so I’ll just direct you to her hyper-adequate blog Champaign Taste to help you decide where to eat during your guest’s visit.
Similarly, look to the217.com to get the scoop on happenings in bars, clubs and theaters around town. For me, it took one visit to The Embassy (R.I.P.) to fall hopelessly in love with this area. I’d say the odds are good that your guest will be similarly enamored of one of our local venues.
When it comes to museums, both Krannert Art Museum (which will reopen on Aug. 23 after building renovations) and Spurlock Museum hold their own as excellent places to view art and artifacts. But there are also a number of smaller area museums with more specific focuses, any of which could charm an out-of-towner.
And when it’s time to visit the spa, let me just say this: Yes, Spa Envy is one of our sponsors. However, I can honestly give them my heartiest personal endorsement. I’ve had a facial and a massage there, and both rank among the best of those types of treatments I’ve ever had.
Let’s see, what am I forgetting? Where have you taken out-of-town guests to make them super-jealous of you for living here?
Rachael McMillan is a former high school teacher, social worker, cake decorator and just about any other profession you can think of do-er. In addition to writing, tutoring and giving talks about fair trade, she is currently staying home with the highly entertaining Jack and Kate.