Remember those back-to-school essays that required you write what you did last summer? Well, this summer I did Seoul and Los Angeles as well as Omaha and Madeline Island, Wis. And the last two held as many charms as the first two.
I’ve already written about Korea and LA, but who knew Omaha had such a cool warehouse district? Or that the sunsets could be so vivid over Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin?
Omaha was the venue for one of my goddaughter’s weddings. I have three goddaughters, and much to my surprise, they keep getting older. One called me the other day from her home in Dallas to remind me I’d promised her 12 or 13 years ago that I’d take her to Paris when she turned 18. And suddenly, she’s about to turn18.
“Um,” I said stalling for time, “Yeah ... I do seem to recall that ... yeah ... I did promise to take you to ... Paris, but I think it was Paris, TEXAS.”
She was not amused.
Anyway, the Omaha goddaughter scheduled her wedding over the July 4th weekend, and I thought the town would be dead. It wasn’t. I checked into the downtown Hilton Omaha, Nebraska’s only four-star hotel, and was delighted to find that my room on a top floor had enormous floor-to-ceiling windows with views for miles.
Across the street, flocks of teenage girls laid siege to Omaha’s Qwest Center where someone named Justin Bieber was in concert that evening (see picture, left). When I asked a couple of teenagers in the hotel lobby who Justin Bieber was, I was met with shocked looks that turned to pity. In case you didn’t know, he’s the new Miley Cyrus, except he’s a guy. And if you know any 13-year-old girls, they can fill you in on the rest.
Anyway, since I couldn’t get tickets to Justin’s show, and since Omaha-born entertainers such as Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Nick Nolte and Henry Fonda (all true!) had long ago left town, I sauntered a few blocks to the coolest place in Omaha, the Old Market, center of commerce in the last quarter of the 19th century when Omaha was flying high as a railway hub.
In the 1950s, a forward-thinking local named Sam Mercer suggested instead of tearing down the old red-brick buildings that had housed produce dealers and their warehouses, maybe those buildings could be used in new ways.
Today, the cobblestone streets of Old Market are once again the focus of downtown life, with great restaurants and bistros that rock until late at night as well as galleries and clothing stores. Try lunch or brunch at La Buvette, where owners Vera and Mark Mercer (yup, he’s Sam’s son) let you choose a bottle of wine for your meal from the retail shelves (at retail prices) that line the wall of the restaurant. For fine dining for dinner, the Mercers’ The Boiler Room a few blocks away offers an inspired menu that locals praise (pictured left, with Vera Mercer).
Downtown Omaha still needs lots of work, but public money spent on parks is notable and commendable, and I hope I’ll be able to go back soon to spend a bit more time and take dinner at The Boiler Room.
And what can I say about northern Wisconsin except that before I moved from the East Coast to Minnesota six years ago, I wouldn’t have accepted a free trip to the place.
But this was the fourth summer I’ve vacationed on Madeline Island, a small, flat, bucolic island in Lake Superior—the largest freshwater lake in the world by surface area, and it’s said to have the cleanest water of all the Great Lakes.
Madeline is part of the Apostle Island chain, and while there are no chic restaurants on the island, there are plenty of great local kitchens using fresh, local ingredients to turn out lovely dishes and an up-to-date hotel, the Inn on Madeline Island. For terrific meals, try DaLou’s Bistro in nearby Washburn or Wild Rice or the Gourmet Garage for homemade pies at $10 each, both in Bayfield, the town where you meet the ferry to Madeline.
I also go for the sunsets on Madeline Island. I took this picture (pictured left) with my iPhone4 one evening. I did no color manipulation of this photograph. That’s really how red the sunset was.
It’s almost the third week of August here in Minnesota as I write. At night, there’s already a hint of fall in the air. For a former Washingtonian, where summer stretches into late October, it’s quite an abrupt climate change. But I always say that traveling is about making memories, and, sometimes, summer memories are the sweetest when the summer is short.
Photos by Rudy Maxa