Champaign Illinois: Urban haven and outstanding beauty

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Champaign County, Illinois, is an inviting, urban haven in the Midwest. The county, known for the prestigious University of Illinois, arts and culture, fantastic restaurants and agricultural bounty, draws visitors from around the globe. However, if you explore this region, you'll find outstanding forest preserves parks and gardens, as well as a whole host of splendid outdoor activities and attractions.

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Natural Beauty

Located in Monticello, just 22-miles from Champaign, Allerton Park and Retreat Center (free admission) is named one of the 7 Wonders of Illinois. This beautiful and stunning, 1,500-acre park features extensive formal gardens, upland forests, hiking trails and a magnificent Georgian-style mansion. As visitors explore the park, they are often amazed to see formal European gardens with classic sculptures popping up on hiking trails, especially in the Midwest.

Although, Allerton didn't start out as a public park, it was the creation of Robert Allerton on his own land. Born in 1873 in Chicago, Allerton was an aspiring artist and spent many years painting and studying in Europe. After he returned to the U.S. to mange his family's agricultural holdings, he began to acquire sculptures and artifacts that he later donated to the Chicago Art Institute. Eventually, many of his favorite models and replicas ended up in his gardens. It took Allerton and his adopted son, John Greg 40-years to create the astonishing gardens.

One of the most picturesque sections of Allerton is the spectacular Reflection Pond, located behind the mansion. The absolute stillness of the water reflects a mirror image of the deep blue sky, trees and sprawling lawns. Continue on to the formal gardens and you will see over 100 outdoor sculptures and garden ornaments accenting the various themed garden sections, such as the Triangle Parterre and Peony Gardens. And, if you plan to go hiking in Allerton Park, you'll find 14-miles of scenic trials that meander past the Sangamon River and through scenic woodlands. Moreover, the best time to visit is in the summer and fall, as several of the low-lying areas of the trails tend to be wet in the cooler months.

There are five wonderful forest preserves located in Champaign County. The oldest and most developed of the preserves is Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve & Maybery Gelvin Botanical Gardens, located in Mahomet (11-miles from Champaign). The free-admission, 900-acre preserve is perfect for fishing, boating, golfing and hiking, as well as a leisurely bike ride or just sitting under a shady tree by the iconic covered bridge for a picnic lunch.

For a stellar panorama view and some great photos, walk up the six-story, HI-Tower Bell Carillon. The tower, constructed in 1963, is one of the forest preserve's most popular facilities.

Within the preserve, you may wish to visit the Maybery Gelvin Botanical Gardens that encompass eight-acres of beautiful and diverse flora. From lovely waterfall features, to the popular Japanese-style red iron bridge, the botanical gardens are the site of many weddings and photography sessions. In addition, the Museum of the Grand Prairie features interesting exhibits and prairie stories about early settlers and Abraham Lincoln's ties to Champaign County. Open March-Dec.

Homer Lake Forest Preserve, located by the charming town of Homer, is extraordinarily beautiful (14-miles from Champaign). Situated on 814-acres, the preserve resides on the east, west and south side of shimmering Homer Lake. The forest preserve is loaded with day-use activities and 10-miles of hiking trails that circle the serene lake. Trails cross grasslands, prairies and woodlands, as well as the Salt Fork River, for some truly inspired hikes. And, if you want to picnic or boat, the preserve is equipped with lakeside picnic tables, four boat ramps, a shelter area and docks. If you plan a family outing, the kids will love the new playscape area with a massive spider web rope and a host of natural play structures designed to connect people to nature.

If bird watching or nature study is your passion, the preserve features viewing areas and an observation tower on the northeast side of the lake and a fascinating interpretive center located at the entrance. Moreover, the preserve is a popular destination, whether you want a tranquil hike or a family adventure; the spacious preserve accommodates a multitude of fun, outdoor activities with plenty of space to accommodate all.

Homer and its Must-Visit Soda

The charming city of Homer, located just a few miles from Homer Lake, is a must-visit if you enjoy soda pop. We're not talking any ordinary cola, we're talking over 250 amazing varieties of the best soda and some of the hardest to find in the nation. In fact, the Homer Soda Company is so popular, there is a Homer Soda Festival located in the city's downtown; now in its second year. Yes, the soda company has all of your favorites; but have you ever tried Were Wolf Howling Ginger Beer, Coco Fizz Chocolate Soda or Candied Bacon Cream Soda? Well, the folks at Good Morning America TV show have and even Country Living Magazine has lauded the Homer Soda Company for its awesome sodas.

Kate Boyer, the gregarious owner of Homer Soda, bought the shop from a previous owner who kept buying exclusive sodas. But, this hard-working entrepreneur didn't stop with finding loads of new and unique wonderful flavored sodas. Boyer has opened a new deli in the shop, is working on a recipe book for sodas, runs the Homer Soda festival (May 30th 2015) and is developing new flavors for her own soda label. And, if you find soda pop you must have but can't get back home, Boyer will ship it to you. The Homer Soda Company is a blast to visit and have fun trying new and delicious sodas; your kids just might have the bragging rights to say they tried Kitty Piddle soda pop and loved it!


The University of Illinois, located in Urbana is the top college in the state. Several of the college-run facilities are available for the public to experience, such as the Krannert Art Museum, the Arboretum and Japan House and Gardens. Krannert is the second largest fine art museum in the state of Illinois and their permanent and revolving exhibitions are exquisite. Admission is free with a suggested donation of $3.00.

The Arboretum's gardens and habitats are situated on 160-acres of the University's south campus and are a beautiful oasis to meander through on your visit. The gardens and habitats ranges from flowering plants, ornamentals, vegetables and tranquil ponds to woodland Hosta collections. Within the Arboretum, you'll find the Japan House and Gardens. These splendid gardens are landscaped with flowering cherry trees and a serene Japanese landscape path that encircles the building. The Japan House is open to the public to experience the time-honored art form of Chado, the Way of Tea.

Japanese tea ceremony is much more than just a formal way of drinking tea, it is a way of harmony, respect and tranquility. If you wish to attend a tea ceremony or Japan House event, make sure to check the schedule before you visit.


Champaign County's Midwest farms produce a bevy of fresh farm fruits, vegetables and dairy products. A wonderful farm to visit with the entire family is Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery, located in Champaign. Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband founded the organic farm in 2005 offering an array of superb farmstead goat cheeses, goat milk gelato, organic fruits and farm to table meals. Over the ensuing years, the couple has garnered a loyal customer base for their superb goat cheeses and dairy products, including local restaurants and famous chefs.

Many local residents and visitors love to visit the farm to see the cute goats, take a tour of the milking parlor and cheese-making facility, as well as enjoy delicious seasonal meals. And, during the year, the farm offers breakfasts and food events, such as guest chefs preparing tasty, oven fired pizzas. Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery is a fun place to spend the afternoon, pet a few goats (their kids in spring) and experience farm fresh fare.

For more family fun, excellent produce and fare, visit Curtis Orchard & Pumpkin Patch, located in Champaign. Open July through December, Curtis Orchard is one of the most famous family destinations in Central Illinois. The Curtis family has owned the Orchard and farm since 1873 and grown the business to an amazing success by producing the best apples (29 varieties) and produce in the county. Today, the orchard is a must-visit for locals and visitors who can't wait to peruse the country store for scrumptious preserves, syrups, hot cider and the bakery for piping hot donuts and pie. However, the kids (and adults) can't wait for the exciting Wizard-Of-Oz-themed playland that features a sweet petting zoo, giant, inflatable slide, wagon rides, corn maze, pony rides, face painting and a plethora of family friendly activities. In fall, visitors can listen to great live music while sipping a cup of cider or enjoy an appetizing lunch from the cafe. The fall season is also popular for the famous pumpkin patch that grows in a massive field where you can take a wagon and go pick out your favorite pumpkins; it is indeed a sincere pumpkin patch!

The friendly Curtis family not only grows great produce, they know how to have fun and it shows in every aspect of their marvelous orchard and farm.

If You Go

Champaign boasts some outstanding restaurants, cafes and alehouses and out top picks are: Radio Maria with a warm atmosphere that is casual-chic with a fabulous menu of tapas and international fusion. The bar is exceptionally cool with a vibrant and modern multi-colored lit wall and counter. The Big Grove Tavern is comfortable with a relaxed vibe. The menu items are simple Midwestern Craft cuisine and made from locally sourced farms. The Black Dog Smoke and Ale House makes some of the best BBQ in Illinois. The restaurant is a small place but packed with customers every night of the week. Make sure you go early and be patient; it's worth the wait. For additional information on Radio Maria, visit, for Big Grove Tavern, visit, for Black Dog Smoke and Ale House, visit

For accommodations in Champaign, book a stay at the Hyatt Place, located on Neil Street in the center of downtown by the dining and entertainment district. The gorgeous new hotel opened seven months ago and features sleek and modern decor, yet comfortable rooms that cater to savvy travelers. The hotel is only minutes from the university and is a great hub for all of Champaign County's activities. For additional information, visit

Visit Champaign County for more information.

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Patrice RapleePatrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site and is a regular contributor on travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Published: February 12, 2015

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