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Thursday, May 24, 2007 04:55 pm

See you in the cornfields

There’s more to Champaign and Urbana than a big university

Untitled Document Sure, the skyline isn’t much, and there’s nary a roller coaster in sight, but for a low-key trip out of Springfield, the charming twin towns of Champaign and Urbana may be just what a capital-city resident needs. Whether you want to disappear in a dark theater for hours or push the limits of your new cross-trainers on a hike, the home of University of Illinois’ flagship school has plenty to offer outside the limits of Campustown.
The great outdoors
Curtis Orchard, 3902 S. Duncan Rd., Champaign Meadowbrook Prairie, Race Street and Windsor Road, Urbana There are plenty of reasons to tramp the fields at Curtis Orchard in Champaign, but the best thing about visiting the 80-acre farm, boasting 5,000 apple trees and 20 acres of pumpkins, is what the Curtis family does with the fruits of its labor: serve them up as lunch items and other earthly delights in its café and bakery. The tastiest offerings are apple pies, doughnuts, and cider. The grounds — kept in the family for more than 100 years — are kid-friendly; there are feature wagon rides on weekends, plus a corn maze, kettle corn, and obstacle course in September. July through October, patrons can pick their own apples, and Halloween lovers can snatch up choice pumpkins from the sprawling grounds starting in late September. The orchard opens July 20.
For those seeking an even more natural setting, Meadowbrook Prairie presents a great opportunity for a hike or a roll in the prairie grass. The seeds of the endeavor were planted in 1978, and since its inception the prairie has grown to 60 acres. Large lawns and a playground surround the prairie center. Throughout the 130-acre park, winding paved trails beckon walkers, runners, bikers, and folks on Roller-blades. There’s more to look at than just prairie: The paths take visitors over streams, beside large sculptures, and through wooded areas.
Get thee to a theater
Boardman’s Art Theater, 126 W. Church St., Champaign Virginia Theater, 203 W. Park, Champaign Boardman’s Art Theater and Virginia Theater offer a taste of quality cinema past and present. Boardman’s, a single-screen historic art house, shows a variety of independent and foreign films — this month alone, the offerings included Japanese horror flick The Host, Cannes Film Festival favorite The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and Into Great Silence, a spiritual documentary about a monastery. At the Virginia Theatre you can sit back in the plush seats that theatergoers reclined in during the Roaring ’20s, when the theater opened as a vaudeville, theater, and moviehouse. The Virginia, which has bounced from owner to owner, was owned for a long stretch by Springfield-based Kerasotes Theatres, but since 2000 it’s been operated by the Champaign Park District, which is overseeing the restoration of the Italian pavilion-style outdoor architecture and interior Spanish Renaissance decor. This summer the theater features a plethora of old and new films, including a matinee of The Big Country, starring Gregory Peck (June 2); Steve Martin’s hit The Jerk (June 15 and 16); and the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (July 14). New films on the reels this summer include 300 (June 12 and 14) and Ghost Rider (May 29 and 31). In April, the theater was once again the setting for Roger Ebert’s film festival, Ebertfest. In addition to the movies, the Virginia offers a schedule of theater events and music this summer.

Food fight
From a tasty stop at a C-U barbecue institution, Lil’ Porgy’s Bar-B-Que (101 W. University Ave., Urbana), to the Nuevo Latino creations of new kid on the block Escobar’s (6 E. Columbia Ave., Champaign), the twin university towns offer plenty for your palate. Downtown favorite Radio Maria (119 N. Walnut St.), a fusion spot, recently introduced a tapas bar (open until 2 a.m.) to go along with its ever-changing menu of eclectic offerings, which include a grilled coffee-crusted fillet and, whenever possible, fresh organic produce. Radio Maria is a triple threat: In addition to great food and libations, the décor — no doubt chosen by the two artists who run the joint — makes dining an elegant experience. For Italian food, hit up the Great Impasta (114 W. Church St., Champaign), where the pasta is fresh and the seafood gumbo is of New Orleans quality. If simple fare is in order, visit downtown Urbana’s Courier Café (111 N. Race St.) and order a burger matched with sweet-potato fries and one of the many flavors of homemade milkshakes. (Peanut butter-and-chocolate is our favorite.) Other eateries of note: Strawberry Fields, a vegan/vegetarian-friendly deli (306 W. Springfield Ave., Urbana); Siam Terrace, Thai (212 W. Main St., Urbana); KoFusion, Japanese (1 E. Main St., Champaign); and The Seaboat, soul food (1114 N. Market St., Champaign). Spend the night at the Historic Lincoln Hotel (209 S. Broadway Ave., Urbana). The 83-year-old edifice has plenty of character and sits on the edge of Urbana’s downtown area.
Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.
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