Best New Midwest Attractions: 2009
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Four hotels worth a trip
Outside, the 23-story Beaux Arts Blackstone along South Michigan Avenue in Chicago looks much like it did when JFK learned of the Cuban missile crisis here. A recent renovation preserved the public spaces' rich styling (left) and gave 332 rooms hip touches such as Eames-style chairs.
In a largely Victorian downtown Holland, Michigan, City Flats added a twist in 2008. All 56 rooms offer different takes on the hotel's "anti-vanilla" tone. Highlights: floor-to-ceiling windows, walk-in showers and cork floors.
In St. Louis, the new Four Seasons stands in the heart of downtown's entertainment district and boasts one of the best views of the Arch and the Mississippi River. A lavish spa and an eighth-floor pool add to the pomp.
Detroit's MGM Grand, open since October 2007, deftly separates hotel and casino. The luxuries aren't just in the spa, restaurants and 400 rooms' multi-headed showers and rich linens. Touches such as wicker cabanas make the indoor pool a resort itself.
The latest thrills
Sandusky, Ohio -- Daredevils who find Cedar Point's 17 roller coasters too tame head for the adjacent Challenge Park, which opened the Skyscraper (left) last May. Seats spin on two arms twirling like a giant electric mixer 16 stories high at 55 mph.
Cincinnati -- Live your Superman fantasy on Kings Island's new Firehawk. After launching on their backs, riders flip face-down to race along 115 feet high at 51 mph. In 2009, the park opens Diamondback, a 230-foot-high coaster with 10 vertical drops and 80-mph speed.
Put more Iron (Chef) in your diet
Long before becoming a culinary duelist as a Food Network Iron Chef, Cleveland's Michael Symon built a national reputation with innovative cuisine at his restaurants Lola and Lolita. His empire expanded last October with the opening of Roast at Detroit's Westin Book Cadillac. This meat-eater's nirvana does nothing daintily. Come here for 14-ounce veal chops and porterhouses the size of shoeboxes. When the gregarious Symon is in town, expect to see him working the dining room, asking customers about their meals.
Walk over the Big Mo
Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa, got a bit cozier last fall with the much-anticipated opening of the $22 million Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. The 3,000-foot-long lighted span links the cities, soaring 52 feet above the Missouri River. The pedestrian bridge is one of the world's longest. Twin towers and a cable design mark it as an instant icon.
Detroit Institute of Arts -- Motown has a new hit: the DIA's six-year, $158 million overhaul, which debuted in late 2007. New galleries cover topics such as African-American art, and an interactive "art of dining" experience lets visitors have a mock meal, 18th-century style, complete with an elegant centerpiece. Some greatest hits remain, too, including Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry murals (left) that fill an indoor courtyard. Admission charged.
Art Institute of Chicago -- Star architect Renzo Piano's monumental new Modern Wing (set to open May 16) boosts the campus' size by one-third. Highlights include a "black box" theater for new media and a third-floor sculpture terrace. A sleek, new pedestrian bridge will shoot over Monroe Street to Millennium Park, offering primo skyline views. Admission charged.
Cleveland Museum of Art -- Last year's reopening of the renovated 1916 main building and East Wing exhibition hall is only the first act in a long production. The museum's full makeover, priced at $350 million, won't wrap up until 2012. Free.
An old friend's new shop
Many home decor shoppers equate "Nell Hill's" with "road trip." Mary Carol Garrity's (left) massive Atchison, Kansas, store draws 75,000 shoppers a year. In late 2007, she expanded to Kansas City, Missouri's, Briarcliff Village. The urban store's 16 rooms (with crackling fireplaces) feature the melange of hand-painted dishes and luxe French antiques that made you swoon over Mary Carol's impeccable taste in the first place.
Have fun with your food
Milwaukee -- Inside an 1893 Third Ward building, fans of the bubbly gather at the year-old Cuvee champagne bar's circular, velvet-lined booths. The menu features truffles, a cheese plate and about 100 champagnes and sparkling wines (by the bottle or glass) from Napa, France and diverse locales such as New Mexico. A champagne cocktail list includes The Cuvee, with cider and spices.
Chicago -- Chef Graham Elliot Bowles' pricey new Graham Elliot restaurant in the River North neighborhood mashes up fine dining and pop art. Knowledgeable servers wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers present dishes such as a Caesar salad with Twinkie-like croutons and aged-cheddar risotto infused with chopped Granny Smith apples and topped with Cheez-Its. The menu changes seasonally.
Dive deep into history
Even if you haven't thought about Great Lakes storms since "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was a hit, Exploring the Shipwreck Century reveals freshwater fury all over again. The exhibit opened last spring at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center in Alpena, Michigan (on Lake Huron in northeast Michigan). Weather a simulated storm from the tilted deck of an 1870s schooner replica, crawl through tubes re-creating a shipwreck dive, and watch video of researchers working on Lake Huron wrecks (left).
The new sound of music
Indianapolis -- With the river and a picnic out front and Indy's skyline at your back, relax on the grass at the second year of the Family Art Series at White River State Park's Celebration Amphitheater (left). The free summer series includes musical storytellers, salsa bands, dance lessons and informal opera performances.
Cincinnati -- Opened in 2007, the 4,100-seat National City Pavilion offers an intimate option to the 20,000-seat Riverbend Music Center. Summer home to the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops orchestras, the pavilion also hosts indie rockers and punk bands.
Monticello, Illinois -- Set in a refurbished Dutch hay barn with surprisingly flawless acoustics, the University of Illinois' Allerton Music Barn hosts ticketed performances in bucolic Allerton Park. The main event is a Labor Day festival featuring tango, opera, jazz cabaret and Civil War-era brass music.
The Midwest's bear market
Think our winters are a bear? The Minnesota Zoo's new $24 million Russia's Grizzly Coast offers a taste of Siberia. Steaming geysers and erupting volcanoes evoke the wild Russian Far East, and you'll watch 1,000-pound grizzlies roam the Apple Valley grounds and catch live trout. (Neighbors in the exhibit include sea otters, leopards and wild boar.)
More than 200 miles north, Ely's North American Bear Center opened to visitors in 2007 as an educational center and rehab facility for injured and orphaned bears named Ted, Honey and Lucky.
Drives worth the gas price
Kansas -- The Sunflower State's new byway, Prairie Trail, weaves through Smoky Hills vistas in the state's center. Start at Canton and drive 56 miles north for Maxwell Wildlife Refuge's bison and elk tram tours, Mushroom Rock State Park's geologic rarities (left) and Lindsborg's Swedish craftsmen.
Ohio -- Iowa's Madison County has competition. Last summer, the popular driving tour of the bridges of Ashtabula County, Ohio, added a 17th span -- the Smolen-Gulf Bridge, deemed the nation's longest covered bridge at 613 feet. The throwback to the 1800s provides spectacular valley views from pedestrian walkways.
Spin your wheels in a new direction
Wisconsin -- The 40-mile Badger State Trail, opened in 2007, now links Illinois and Wisconsin. Coursing through country scenes, the warm-weather path follows a former railroad line south of Madison. Organizers recommend bringing a light for the trip through the 1,200-foot, curved Stewart Tunnel.
Indianapolis -- The city's newest track doesn't require Indy 500 horsepower. Take a bike (or walk) across pavers on the downtown Cultural Trail's first leg, five blocks of landscaped, side-by-side walking and biking paths. When completed in 2012, the eight-mile path punctuated with public art will navigate Indy's core neighborhoods and attractions.
A state park that makes a statement
Late in 2008, Iowa joined the ranks of states with resort-style state parks aimed at travelers who prefer upscale accommodations. The $58 million Honey Creek Resort sits on Rathbun Lake (80 miles southeast of Des Moines). Even with the landscaping and staff training still in the works, it's off to an impressive start.
The soaring Arts-and-Crafts-style lobby features stained-glass windows and a 50-foot fireplace. The full-service restaurant and 105 rooms and suites are on par with business-class hotels, and Honey Creek includes the new must-have family draw: an indoor water park. Environmental protection guided the design of the 18-hole golf course. This summer, the resort opens 28 modern cabins and offers rental kayaks, boats and personal watercraft. Oh, and there are plenty of trails and ranger pro-grams for old-school parks fans, too.
Where the white buffalo roam
Seeing one albino bison in a lifetime puts you among a lucky few. Find three of them -- in one place -- and you must be in North Dakota. Jamestown's National Buffalo Museum has long been known for its albino cow White Cloud, a sacred animal in many Native American cultures. In 2007, the museum moved into truly rare zoological territory when White Cloud gave birth to the albino calf Dakota Miracle. The odds went completely out the window in 2008 when brown bison at the museum produced yet another albino calf: Dakota Legend (left).
Skate Hans Brinker-style
Glide through snow-frosted woods hand-in-hand with your honey at Muskegon Winter Sports Complex's new outdoor ice-skating trail in Michigan (40 miles northwest of Grand Rapids). The 10-foot-wide ice loop meanders 780 feet through a dimly lit pocket of forest, far from the squeals ringing from the popular luge track and lighted skating rink. In 2009, a new fiberglass luge track will offer more adrenaline rushes for sledding speed junkies.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® January/February 2009.)