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Thursday, April 26, 2018 12:07 am

C-U offers lots to see and do

For the bicentennial, explore Illinois

Fifty Japanese cherry trees bloom each spring on a path to the Japan House and gardens at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Visitors to the Japan House can sign up for tea ceremonies, calligraphy lessons and other cultural activities.
Photo courtesy of the Japan House


Driving east on I-72 on a crisp fall Saturday, you may encounter carloads of orange-clad Illini fans, heading to Champaign-Urbana to tailgate outside Memorial Stadium or cheer the football team inside. While fall can be fun on the University of Illinois campus, the twin cities offer a multitude of treasures in spring and summer.

Several good museums, outdoor adventures, a chance to gaze at the stars and authentic Korean food await, just 90 miles from Springfield. If you hurry, you might catch 50 lovely Japanese cherry trees in bloom. They usually show their blossoms for up to 10 days sometime between mid-April and early May, depending on the weather.

Those cherry trees line the walk to the university’s Japan House, which was built in 1998 but had its origins in the 1960s, according to Michael Darin, the education and experience coordinator. You can sign up for a traditional tea ceremony, practice calligraphy and learn about Japanese culture.

Japan House has limited hours during the summer, but its gardens remain open all year from dawn to dusk. They are part of the university’s larger arboretum, where you can wander through a hosta garden, an idea garden and stands of different trees. “We are working to create a whole arboretum to make it more cohesive,” Darin says.

The site is free, but you will find parking meters that need feeding. And if a southwest wind blows, you might notice odors from the nearby university farms.

The campus also hosts the Krannert Art Museum, the Spurlock Museum and the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, all free. The Krannert claims to be the second largest fine arts museum in Illinois and houses a diverse collection of more than 10,000 pieces.

Its nine permanent galleries contain works from ancient to modern times and from around the world. Special exhibits include fine arts student shows and those devoted to cultural statements, such as Allan deSouza’s “Through the Black Country” on display through July 14.

At the Spurlock Museum, you can travel the globe through galleries devoted to Asia, Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and the native peoples of North and South America. Artifacts and antiquities mix with reproductions of famous works. Without leaving central Illinois, you can view replicas of the Pieta from St. Peter’s in Rome, the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon frieze and Terracotta warriors from Xi’an, China.

The Spurlock grew out of separate collections, dating to 1911, in different university departments. In 2002 they joined forces in a new building.

Music lovers may like the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, with the world’s largest collection of music by John Philip Sousa. The museum also preserves American music from the 19th century to the present and a variety of historical musical instruments.

In nearby Mahomet, you can get another history fix at the Museum of the Grand Prairie, part of the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve. The museum has displays on Native Americans, pioneers, blacksmithing and Lincoln. A discovery room lets children pretend they are prairie settlers, and a one-room schoolhouse with a school marm teaching lessons adds to the experience.

Among the features at the Spurlock Museum on the University of Illinois campus are replicas of Terracotta warriors from Xi’an, China. The museum mixes ancient artifacts with reproductions of famous works from around the world.
Photo by Brent Bohlen

A new exhibit highlighting 1968, the year the museum began, opens in May with sections on pop culture, Vietnam, race relations, the space race and the environment. “We are approaching it from a local perspective in the context of the national scene,” says museum director Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey. For example, the Vietnam section will feature local people who served and local protests against the war.

Outside the museum, you can enjoy a botanical garden, a covered bridge, fishing in Lake of the Woods and a golf course.

Back in the twin cities, you can continue exploring outdoors at Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park with trails surrounded by prairie tall grasses and sculptures. Champaign boasts Prairie Farm, a treat for children with traditional farm animals, trolley rides and farm buildings.

On a rainy day, take the kids to the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in downtown Champaign and catch a show at the Virginia Theater, a landmark since 1921.

Children of all ages can explore the universe at Parkland College’s William M. Staerkel Planetarium, the second largest in Illinois. The spring and summer schedules include rotating shows about the prairie sky, solar superstorms and skywatchers of Africa.

To top off a visit to Champaign-Urbana, try one of the many ethnic restaurants catering to the tastes of a diverse student body. Of particular note are the Korean eateries near campus. The food and atmosphere could be straight out of Seoul.

If you can’t take in C-U’s every offering this spring or summer, you can always join those eastbound caravans in the fall. Wear orange.

For more information, directions and attraction hours, go to www.visitchampaigncounty.org or call 217-351-4133 or 800-369-6151.

Mary Bohlen, a freelance travel writer from Springfield, is celebrating Illinois’ bicentennial by exploring the state in 2018. She shares her findings every month with IT readers.    


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