Champaign heaven

I visited my alma mater this weekend: the ever-delightful cornfield haven known as the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign, Ill. A perfect and well-rounded visit (minus a few return trip obstacles), my agenda consisted of both old favorites and new discoveries.

Having graduated just over three months ago, I expected to feel an overwhelming shock of familiarity in the city that was my hometown for 4 years. But I have to say, different or not, going back to your college when it’s no longer your college is kind of disconcerting, at least initially. The bar floors were stickier. The people were younger. And it just didn’t feel like home anymore.

But the point of my trip wasn’t just to see my old hometown; the point was to visit my friends that are still there finishing up or earning additional degrees. And it was because of the people I was with that my initial discontentment took a turn for the better.

The next morning was one of the most pleasant days I think I’ve ever had in Champaign, especially now that I’m a food blogger. We decided to visit Curtis Apple Orchard because it was gorgeous outside, and what could be better than some apple-picking fun?

Though it wasn’t quite apple season, the orchard still had plenty offerings. The apples were juicier than I ever remember, and most of us ate some right off the trees. One friend picked a whole bag to take home, a great souvenir if I’ve ever seen one.

I have to say though that my favorite part about visiting the apple orchard is the store of all their home-made products. They sell all sorts of pickled things from pears to peaches, and all sorts of teas and butters. It’s almost overwhelming, but I find it quite impressive.

But of course, what could be better than their apple products? They make apple doughnuts and apple cider slushies, and my visit is never complete without a sampling of both. So I indulged, and it was glorious.

The day was nowhere near over though, and the best part was yet to come. Did you know Champaign has a winery? I sure didn’t! Amongst all of those cornstalks and soybean plants, was a field of grapes…well, sort of.

The place is called Alto Vineyards and we found out about it because of a music festival they were hosting that evening. It turned out though that the wine was actually made in Carbondale but still sold at this Champaign location. More local than the average bottle of wine in my pantry that’s from, say, Salinas Valley, Calif., I decided I wanted some. We went through a mini tasting session to see which wines we wanted to bring home, and despite what you might think, they were fantastic.

Now, I don’t know much about wine, and to be fully honest, I’ve never been wine tasting before. But I have tasted many different types of wine, and know the basic differences between your Merlot and your Cabernet Sauvignon. I like wine. I like whites, I liked reds, and on occasion, I like blush. One of my favorites is Chardonnay, and I loved their rendition that they called their Chardonnel. It was light and had less of a bitter aftertaste than most other Chardonnays I have tasted. I wound up buying their highly reviewed Chambourcin though, a dry red with a very full flavor.

We wanted a tour afterward but since they didn’t make the wine there, there wasn’t much to see. I did however find this shot of the festival set-up to be quite pretty.

So all in all, Champaign proved to have even more offerings than I knew about in my 4 years there, and I left no longer feeling disappointed. But then again, like I said, as long as I still had friends there, it didn’t really matter what I was doing.

-Hillary, counting the days until meeting Morimoto
Editor, Recipe4Living

  • Ellen


    I am also an alumni of the UofI in Chambana, and you know what? Even though I graduated so long ago in the early 70s, I still miss that university so very much. But, as Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” Things change so quickly…if I went back to Champaign-Urbana today I probably would hardly recognize the place. I sometimes think about moving there when I retire, except for the damned snow and ice, and the hot and muggy summers. But I would love to take more classes there, and maybe even get a degree of some kind.

    Thanks for your account of the trip!

  • Shirley Lee

    I now live in Utah after living in Champaign for 35 years. My husband taught biology at the UofI. I don’t miss the weather, but I do miss the excitment of the university and the students. Champaign-Urbana is a great place to raise a family, and although I’m a Westener at heart, I miss the university community. Wish we had known about the winery. Oh well, maybe some day I’ll visit. Shirley

  • http://Recipe4Living Laura Bash-Denslow

    I was born in this area of IL, and in my life have moved back to the area twice. I am always unhappy when it comes time to leave. The diversity of this area rivals many towns several times their size. The locals know to get off the street when the football game is ‘letting out’.
    Much larger places could take lessons on how to manage a huge amount of traffic in a short time. Your blog made me nostalgic.
    I was unhappy to notice I had missed a winery in the area, will correct this on my next visit,
    Thanks again for a trip down memory lane. Of course I always call it Champaign-Urbana even tho I was born near a little town about 10 miles away.
    That beautiful shot of the cornfield brought a smile to my face.

  • Hillary

    I’m glad I could help all of you reminisce about your Champaign days! I know that I will miss it just as much as all of you (I already do…)

LinkWithin Related Stories Widget for Blogs