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Morning coffee at a cozy cabin

Everyone deserves a great Birthday getaway, and a friend suggested a bed and breakfast style cabin about an hour away from me called Rimrock Dogwood Cabins deep in the Shawnee National Forest.  I am going to rave about them because you should simply stop what you are doing and call them RIGHT NOW. Bob and Dixie Dart own about 300 acres across from Rim rock National Recreation Trail in Hardin County. They are sweet, funny, and went out of their way to help make our stay romantic and secluded.
Our little cabin was cute & cozy!   It was called Cougar’s Bluff and everywhere you looked was a piece of art on cougars. On the table was a journal from past guests.  I read through about five years worth – it made the stay feel very personal, not like staying anonymously in a hotel but staying in someone’s guest room. We made sure to add our entry when we left.
We went across the road and hiked Rimrock National Recreation Trail, which was beautiful. This trail was an easy walk with a lot of stairs. The elevation was 600 feet and offers great views!   After we got done hiking, we drove over to a place called high knob and then to Illinois Iron Furnace Historical Site. Just the drive around these things was gorgeous. The pine trees thickly line the roads so closely that you know you are deep in a forest and far away from city life!
Hardin County is simply packed with things to do. On our list to do is Garden of the Gods, Cave-in-Rock, Tower Rock, Pounds Hollow Lake, River-to-River Trail, Elizabethtown, Fluorspar Museum, and Stone Face. There is so much to see in Southern Illinois.  Book now, and, you can get three days for the price of two through February!

Enjoy Southern Illinois!


The Gelato Bar
For many who have visited Michigan Avenue in Chicago, you’ll remember

Levy Restaurants’

signature French brasserie, Bistro 110.  Sadly, we had to say goodbye to the roasted garlic and steak frites, along with chef Dominique Touge (for now, I hear he may be opening his own place soon) this past fall.  Not to worry as chef Tony Mantuano (


Terzo Piano is on it.

New for 2012, the space has transformed to Bar Toma, the perfect addition to Streeterville.  Walking in, the layout is very similar to B110 days, with a bar area and show kitchen, but now with a wood-burning pizza oven in the center of it all.  Another great new feature is the gelato, panini and coffee bar, which transported me back to my recent travels to Rome where you can find little bars with these offerings on almost every corner.

It was easy to decide what to order – a little bit of everything of course!  Per our server’s suggestion, and my undying love for truffles, we started with the arancini (golden, filled rice balls) with black truffles.  Next, some mozzarella from the mozzarella menu, stuffed with tomatoes and basil.  I wanted to try some of their small plates too, so rock shrimp it was!  With that wood oven beckoning from the center of the room, I was also drawn to the pizza menu – 20 varieties offered (did you know that January is pizza month?).  Again, led by our stellar server, we chose the fennel, sausage and sesame seed pizza as a unique option.  Once the pizza showed up, we realized what the “bookends” on our table were for – pizza holders.  Got it.

Pizza and view of bar

What goes with great Italian food?  Vino, of course.  They have a list of Italian wines to pair nicely with any menu you choose.  We decided to take some gelato to go, and were wowed by the hazelnut and the wild raspberry flavors which once again brought me back to walking the cobblestone streets of Cortona, Italy taking in the Tuscan lifestyle.

I recommend Bar Toma for a light meal if you are shopping at Watertower Place for the day or meeting up with a gaggle of friends over wine in the evening.

Ciao!  Monika


It’s a third-year tradition now, a girls trip up to Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.  We go out the opening weekend to ski, attend a few fun parties, hang out on Main Street, eat at some fabulous restaurants and maybe see a few movie stars (Justin Long, Neil Young, Paris Hilton, Zachary Quinto, Dax Shepard, Mario Lopez) all in the unique atmosphere of this small mountain town.  Our first year we did watch a few films, and this year we are supporting our Columbia College friend Dr. Eric Winston, Vice President, and taking in his students’ film shorts screening as well.   I took in learning about the newest in technology that Columbia offers as well as some amazing success stories.  Last year students actually filmed “Taking Park City while we were there.


Sitting in The Canyons Resort, in a private viewing room at the Waldorf Astoria (the official hotel partner of Coumbia College), we are happy to see a true Chicago buffet sponsored by Connie’s Pizza: deep dish pizza, Italian beef, hot dogs, signature cheesecake and cannoli.  We’re told the Sundance staff looks forward to his meal every year.  And why not, everything tastes better in the mountains.  We Chicagoans take pride in our foods no matter where we are.  (Special note: I went to school at the University of Colorado-Boulder and love anything in the mountains.)

After I devour my slice of sausage pizza, I can’t help but show our new friends from LA how to build the perfect Italian beef sandwich – giardiniera and extra jus, of course.  They loved it and may very well make a special trip out to Chicago just to sample some more.

At the next table I overhear a conversation of someone explaining how “Everyone in Chicago has their favorite Italian beef place.”  It’s true right?  Personally, mine is Al’s Beef, specifically the location on Taylor Street.

The presentations start and we remember why we’re here – the films!  Some interesting and unique films go on and we realize we need to get ready for the next party – and more Chicago friends -hosted in a private home in Deer Valley.


With a wicked snow storm outside we motor up the winding mountain roads to one of our hosts’ most gorgeous home, just past the Stein Erickson Lodge.  The party was organized by Brenda Sexton, Founder and President of Chicago Link Productions.  We arrive and are once again reminded of “Sweet Home Chicago” with huge tins of Garrett Popcorn and Eli’s Cheesecake.  The simple treat of Garrett’s “Chicago Mix” (caramel and cheese) will make anyone swoon.  Hobnobbing with Chicago ‘Who’s Who’ (ABC7 news anchors Sylvia Perez & Linda Yu, Lester Coney and Billy Dec to name a few) and even a few Hollywood filmmakers and talent, I enjoy striking up a conversation with a producer putting the final touches on “Born to Lead”,  a movie about Sal Aunese, former quarterback for the Colorado Buffalos (small world indeed) as well as meet Vic Zast one of the ‘travelers’ of a movie starting from and premiering in Chicago this year “Our Longest Drive”.  On the way out I even get a quick pic with Caroline Lagerfelt, the actress that plays Blake Lively’s grandmother  “CeCe” Rhodes on the TV show “Gossip Girl,” a very nice Sundance highlight.

The night went on, with many more memories including a surprise appearance by Robin Thicke… whose song “Pretty Little Heart”  is currently a favorite!  My Sundance celeb sightings now fulfilled, it came time to turn in.  My friends call one of our cabby pals we’d made over the weekend to hustle us back home.  As is the norm out west, the cab driver was friendly and inquired where we were all from.  When I proudly shouted “CHICAGO!” would you guess what one of his favorite memories was?  Garrett Popcorn!  Turns out, it is a holiday tradition to order a giant tin to enjoy with his family.  To his surprise, I reached into my purse and pulled out a bag of the famed “Chicago Mix” from the party earlier and gave it to him.  He was super excited.  Chicago karma.

Park City is a great dining town.  There are some amazing high-end, casual and eclectic options.  A special shout-out to the Valaika brothers who stem from Long Grove, IL who own and operate Shabu located on Main Street.  We couldn’t get it in this year due to their popularity, but will certainly try again next year.

Missing the mountains, Monika.

Superman Tired of the same ol’, same ol’?   Well, go ‘on location’  to see some of Southernmost Illinois’ ties with the big screen that might be just the trip to add a bit of pickup to your days. Instead of watching TV, you could be seeing where Tommy Lee Jones filmed the movie U.S. Marshals and glimpse the plane he flew in from an underwater view.

If you are a Super-hero fan like me, a visit to Metropolis is a must!  Metropolis is the home of Superman, the Super Museum and the Americana Hollywood museum, as well as a 15 ft statue of the Super Hero, and a life size statue of his love, Lois Lane.  The Superman hook came about because of Jim Hambrick’s fascination with Superman lore. Hambrick, a California native, brought his hobby to Superman’s hometown and opened a Super Museum. This fun stop boasts over 20,000 items, covering the earliest to the latest Superman memorabilia.  The Americana Hollywood Museum is dedicated to Hollywood of yesterday and today.

Remember the scene from U.S. Marshalls where the 727 crashes into the Ohio River? That was right across from the Bay City General Store & Lodging. The movie was filmed in 1997 and owner Donna Norton shared a bit of information about the film that put their little burg on the map. “The casting included countless local persons who posed as restaurant employees of Roy Willy’s World’s Best Bar-B-Que, local and state law enforcement and first responders,” she said.     Although visitors often think otherwise, there is no barbecue to be had, but there is RC Cola, Moon Pies and a great variety of antiques and collectibles and a general store restored to all of its 1915 glory.

If you are wondering what happened to that 727 used in U.S. Marshalls, it is at Mermet Springs, a scuba diving and training site.Mermet Springs

Interested in western history? Scenes from How the West Was Won were shot at Cave-In-Rock State Park, which is located, like the Bay City General Store, right along the Ohio River.  It took eight days to film Davy Crockett and the keelboat race.

Cave-In-Rock State Park was created in 1929, but its history dates back several centuries. The 55-foot-wide cave, situated on the banks of the river, served as shelter for Native Americans as well as French explorers. Then later in the 18th century and the early 19th century, the cave was used by outlaws and river pirates.  Later, it was used for revivals, town meetings, shelter and even as the backdrop for a western movie.     We filmed our own adventure here using our video camera, and, you can too!

These are just a few of the fun ways you can get a Hollywood fix without flying halfway across the United States! Keep in mind Southernmost IL. weather is much milder than that of Northern IL, but,  it can still freeze and ice up in Jan. & Feb., so check out the weather conditions. If the road is clear, hit the road!

Enjoy Southern IL!


It’s better in the ‘burbs

When I was 16, a wise teacher forced the class to brave the cold, hop on the “el” and head to Chicago to experience La Bohème at the Lyric Opera House. The performance, the music, the venue moved me so that I’ve been passionate about theatre ever since.

The Paramount Theatre in Aurora pulled a gutsy move and launched their  own Broadway series this season—something the 1930s grand movie palace has never done in its 80-year history. It remains one of my most favorite places on the planet because of its history and its elegance—from the the rich salmon-and-gold Venetian panels to the enchanting cerulean ceiling (a good shot of that is in “Public Enemy” with Johnny Depp).

I heard the buzz about Paramount’s launch of the four shows that would be costumed, directed, choreographed and set designed—all in-house.  Plus a full orchestra.

Their production of “My Fair Lady” blew me away, as well as many Chicago theatre critics. The orchestra charmed, the cast the choreography was outstanding and it was as if the Lady Paramount opened her eyes and took her first breath. The performance was as grand as the theatre.

“Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” also wowed me with its dance numbers and exhilarating cast. Next up? “A Chorus Line.” I. Cannot. Wait. Treat yourself to an amazing performance in a stellar venue this winter. Performances run Jan. 18-Feb. 5.