Bloomington and Normal are located in Illinois' biggest county, McLean, which is about the size of Rhode Island. There are a lot of colleges here besides Illinois State University, including Illinois Wesleyan and Lincoln College.
No one can accuse Normal of not living up to its name. Illinois State's Ralph Weisheit says the most common thing people say around here is "It's a nice place to raise kids." And I imagine those kids get the itch to leave right after high school. Normal is more pedestrian than its sister city of Bloomington, but both towns feature a few things worth getting off the interstate for.
One is the Normal Theater (209 North, 309-454-9722). Originally built in 1937, this downtown movie house has been reopened by the municipal government and restored to its original design. It's not the overblown, ornate palace you'd expect. With its colorful neon marquee, white stucco exterior, and art deco interior, it must've been the hippest place around. All food and drinks are $1 and served by an usher behind a folding table in the back of the theater (in the 1930s there weren't many candy counters in the lobbies of theaters). All ushers and most of the staff are volunteers. The Normal shows a variety of stuff from Hitchcock classics and Busby Berkeley dance extravaganzas to Sleepless in Seattle. A cartoon precedes the feature every night. Admission is $3. Wheelchair access is very good.
Downtown Normal is pretty much the main campus of Illinois State University and therefore tends to be full of students. Those preferring to be more among the locals should escape south to Bloomington.
One place that definitely does not live up to its name is the Ramada Inn Fundome (Veterans Parkway and route 9, Bloomington, 309-662-5311). It is neither a dome nor fun. The rooms are arranged cellblock style, overlooking an atrium with a pretty nice pool. There are also Ping-Pong tables, video games, and a tiny sauna. The miniature golf course is basically a maze with holes in the floor. It's pretty hokey. Rooms range from $52-$77, with poolside double rooms being the most expensive. The restaurant is closed all afternoon so don't show up between meals or you'll be captive to the vending machines.
We probably would have done much better at the Burr House bed and breakfast (210 E. Chestnut, 309-828-7686), a Victorian house located in the heart of Bloomington. But like all B & Bs, it's grossly wheelchair inaccessible. So is the Rose Manor (501 S.E. Main, 309-449-5522), a farmhouse in Hopedale, 20 miles west of town, a quarter mile off route 122.
Foodwise, Bloomington has good and bad news. The good news is Central Station Cafe (220 E. Front, 309-828-2323). This cozy place, full of potted ferns and ceiling fans, used to be a fire station, but you'd never know it. The Jamaican jerk chicken ($9.95) was excellent, and the shrimp roasted in garlic sauce ($12.95) was good too. The honey mustard dressing was the best I've tasted. Domestic beer sells for only $1.25 and $1.50. Another plus is that Central Station is probably too far from campus and too pricey to attract swarms of students.
The bad news was the Bombay Bicycle Club (305 N. Veterans Parkway, 309-663-6422). We should have known what the deal would be since it looks suspiciously like a Bennigan's, with lots of bikes as decorations. They say they specialize in Tex-Mex cuisine, an assertion that's untrue unless they think serving quesadillas and fajitas qualifies. I ended up getting that Tex-Mex classic, Yaki Soba ($7.59), Japanese buckwheat noodles stir fried with vegetables in a sauce made from sake and ginger, among other things (they'll add chicken for an extra buck). It was a generous portion, but quite ordinary. Cheese pizza and quesadillas weren't great, but the garlic bread was good. Beware: they have karaoke nights.
It seems like the most fun and interesting things to do in Bloomington-Normal are outdoors. Constitution Trail is a paved 5.2-mile hiking and biking trail that winds through town. It leads you deep among the trees but sometimes you'll find yourself crossing a street in a sleepy neighborhood.
Not too far from the southern end of the trail is Miller Park (1020 S. Morris, Bloomington). It's a good picnic oasis not too far off the I-55 exit at Market Street. It's green and peaceful, though probably crowded in summer. Miller Pond is stocked with trout. There's a small beach, and swimming and paddle boating are permitted.
There's also a zoo in Miller Park that's been around in some form for more than 100 years. They've got tigers and snow leopards and singing dogs from New Guinea. (I was hoping for show tunes, but they don't really sing so much as howl like coyotes.) Admission to the zoo is $2 for adults and $1.50 for seniors and children 3 to 15 (kids under 3 are free).
Not far from Miller Park is the Highland Park Golf Course (1613 S. Main, Bloomington, 309-823-4200). What makes this nine-hole course unique is the annual Snowbird open tournament. It's played every January 1, regardless of the weather. The only concession to snow is using orange golf balls. There's a $1 fee.
ISU is also home of the Gamma Phi circus, one of two college circuses in America where students are the performers. It began in the 1930s as a fraternity tumbling troupe and is now a full traveling circus that performs two big shows a year at the Redbird Arena in Normal. This year's shows are April 21 and 22. Tickets are $5.50 in advance for adults and $3.50 for children 4 to 13 (kids under 4 are free). Call 309-438-5444 for info.
Another spring event, held for the past 71 years, is the American Passion Play at the Scottish Rite Temple (110 E. Mulberry, Bloomington). The annual spectacle uses 2,000 gallons of water in its current production. It runs through May 6. Tickets are $12. There is wheelchair access. Call 309-829-3903.
If you take the deserted route 9 eastbound on your way home you can check out Moraine View state recreation area (309-724-8032) and the tiny town of LeRoy. It's easy to miss the small sign directing visitors to the park. It's an excellent place to stretch out the trip for a few more hours. It would be an especially gorgeous drive in the peak of autumn.
The highlight of the drive would be crossing the bridge over beautiful Dawson Lake, which is full of crappie, bass, and catfish. The fishing pier is wheelchair accessible. There's an accessible hiking trail, too. Some pheasant hunting is allowed.
If you still have time, head down to LeRoy, a seemingly typical small town that is a hotbed of spiritualism. Two of the town's most celebrated former citizens, James and Elizabeth Crumbaugh, took to communicating with spirits after their only child died. Their estate supports the Crumbaugh Memorial Library and Spiritualist Church (405 E. Center, 309-962-3911) in one of LeRoy's Victorian homes. Every Sunday after a pretty standard service mediums proceed to the front and profess to relay messages from the dead.
Downtown LeRoy does look a bit depressed and threadbare. Several locals paid for the new light posts out of their own pockets. I guess that's what passes for urban renewal. One place that's thriving is Gibson's Old Bank Inn restaurant (201 E. Center, 309-962-9651), which used to be the LeRoy State Bank. It was also a hotel for a while, and Thomas Edison is said to have once slept here. Outside it still has the granite pillars of a sturdy financial institution. Inside the former teller counter now separates the restaurant from the bar. There are still stained glass windows and marble floors. The salad bar is in one of the vaults. The atmosphere is fun, but the menu is pretty predictable. Entrees are a little high in price. Shrimp, which is nothing special, is $12.50. But most sandwiches are under $5, and there's a Sunday buffet from 11 AM to 2 PM that's $6.50 for adults. The cobbler ($1.50), a specialty of one of the waitresses, was outstanding.