Most people don't put Omaha, Neb., at the top of their vacation wish lists, but maybe they should. And even if they did, they probably wouldn't dream of going between November and March, but they could. The people in this city know how cold it gets on the prairie in the middle of winter, and they've built their major attractions so they can enjoy them -- and welcome visitors -- year-round.
Take the Henry Doorly Zoo, for example, where the state-of-the-art indoor exhibits are so realistic that visitors feel as if they are in a South American rainforest or an African jungle rather than a building in Nebraska.
The Desert Dome, which has become the city's landmark, is the largest glazed geodesic dome in the world at 13 stories high and covering an acre of land. Inside are animals and plants from three deserts from around the world separated by a 55-foot-tall "mountain" under which are tribal paintings on cave walls.
"It's all of these details that enhance a visitor's experience," said Lindsay North, lead keeper of mammals in the dome.
Beneath the deserts, in the Kingdoms of the Night exhibit, zookeepers use lighting to reverse the day-night cycles so that daytime visitors get to see nocturnal animals at their best. In another building is Lied Jungle, where rainforest animals roam free or are contained behind rock and water barriers. Visitors can walk at the tree-canopy level for a monkey's-eye view and then see it all again from the jungle trail below. At the butterfly and insect pavilion, they can watch caterpillars become butterflies and learn about spiders, scorpions and beetles. There are also cat, polar bear and giraffe complexes -- all inside so that a winter visit is every bit as fun -- and less crowded -- than coming in the summer.
The zoo was named for Henry Doorly because his widow gave a large donation in his honor. Sarah Joslyn had done the same thing three decades earlier when she commissioned the city's world-class art museum to honor her late husband, George. Her plan was to build a concert hall and surround it with art galleries, but the art quickly gained equal footing with the music, and today the complex is known as the Joslyn Art Museum.
The original art deco building was built in 1931 from pink Georgia marble. In 1994 Sir Norman Foster was chosen to design an additional building that he connected with the original by way of an atrium that houses the museum's restaurant. At each end of the atrium is a massive, 34-foot-high glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, and a sculpture garden outside contains 23 more pieces by significant artists.
Inside, the collection is equally impressive, with paintings by artists ranging from Titian, El Greco and Claude Monet to Winslow Homer and Jackson Pollock. A Degas sculpture titled "Little Dancer" is one of only 20 bronze casts made from the artist's wax original.
The centerpiece of the museum's holdings, however, is the Maximilian-Bodmer collection -- drawings and watercolors by Karl Bodmer and hand-written journals by his companion, Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied. The young Swiss artist and the German naturalist traveled across much of North America from 1832 to 1834, recording the people and nature they saw and chronicling the European encroachment on the indigenous populations.
Several other Omaha venues offer additional types of art. The Bemis Center showcases modern art by contemporary and emerging artists, and the Artists' Cooperative Gallery provides a lively mix of oil paintings and watercolors, mixed media, pottery and textiles by local artists.
Hot Shops is a collection of studios and galleries so named because the four artists who founded it in 1999 used fire in creating their work. Today its 92,000 square feet house 56 studios and 70 artists who paint, sculpt, pot, weave, draw, photograph, restore furniture and blow glass -- and sell what they've made at reasonable prices.
To learn something about Omaha's history, the Durham Museum in the old Union Station is the next place to stop. The Union Pacific Railroad donated the station to the city after the last train left in 1971, and it was soon slated for demolition. Local citizens, among them the Durham family, raised enough money so that the building, called one of the best examples of art deco in this country, has been restored to the way it would have been in its 1940s heyday.
In the station's Great Hall lifelike resin statues created by Omaha sculptor John Labja buy tickets, check the schedule and board a train. A young couple snuggles together on a bench, and a soldier and a sailor chat before heading off to war. And sundaes and malts are still being served up at the soda fountain.
Downstairs, at track level, it's possible to tour old train cars, and in other parts of the buildings various bits of Nebraska's history come to life. As a partner with the Smithsonian Institution, the museum often displays traveling exhibits and maintains its own permanent collection of Western heritage items. The grocery store run by financier Warren Buffett's grandfather has also been re-created here. Travelers who come during the holiday season will get to see the giant Christmas tree that hangs suspended from the ceiling each year.
But not all the winter activities here are inside. Just outside the city is Fontenelle Forest Nature Center, a private preserve with a lot of history. Archeological evidence suggests that several Indian tribes were on the land between the years 1100 and 1400, and Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed the property during their expedition in 1804. The Missouri Fur Co. built a trading post here in 1822 that began the settlement of Bellevue, Nebraska's oldest community.
Today in these woods there are 19 miles of hiking trails and a mile-long boardwalk that leads to a spectacular view of the Missouri River. There's also an observation tower and nine forest play areas, and the fun and learning don't end when summer is over.
"We encourage people to come for all the seasons because it changes so much," said Brad Watkins, director of communications.
In the winter they offer snowshoeing and "Wild About Winter," a program designed to help people learn animal tracking and how to identify trees when their leaves have fallen off for the season.
At day's end there are plenty of places to unwind and have a good dinner in Omaha, but pizza-lover that I am, my favorite was Pitch Pizzeria in the Dundee neighborhood. The restaurant is the brainchild of Willy Theisen, who also started the Godfather's Pizza chain, and it has its unusual name because the tasty pies are cooked over coal.
WHEN YOU GO
The Henry Doorly Zoo: www.omahazoo.com
The Joslyn Art Museum: www.joslyn.org
The Bemis Center: www.bemiscenter.com
Artists' Cooperative Gallery: www.artistsco-opgallery.com
Hot Shops: www.hotshopsartcenter.com
The Durham Museum: www.durhammuseum.org
Fontenelle Forest Nature Center: www.fontenelleforest.org
Pitch Pizzeria: www.pitchpizzeria.com
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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