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Don't Give Up What Everyone Else Wants

Rob Bignell

Iowa City Press-Citizen

April 24, 2005

Travelocity . . . collected 30,000-plus nominations to compile a state-by-state list of places and events that "... help people try true local flavors," . . .. No theme parks and no casinos got mentioned. But good food, friendly service, outdoor activities and historical places did.
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Iowa ranks among the least expensive places to vacation in America, according to an AAA report released a few days ago. Fifth lowest to be exact, with the average daily cost of food and lodging for a family of four a mere $189. That places us among such exotic states as Nebraska (a mere $5 a day cheaper than Iowa), North Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma.

Hawaii, in stark tropical contrast, is the most expensive, at $518 a day.

Of course, Iowa hasn't been a travel destination since the mid 1800s, when we were the frontier. Even Bing Crosby's No. 1 song "Sioux City Sue" didn't help much.

Movies did, however. These days, Iowa's major destinations are the bridges of Madison County and Dyersville's Field of Dreams. This is not to disparage them. They stand as symbols of lost America, monuments to a past that most gave up when relocating to suburbia after World War II (listen to another Crosby hit, "San Fernando Valley").

Indeed, Iowa's biggest destinations are the Amana Colonies and venerable Kinnick Stadium.

What makes Iowa so charming and livable is that we don't have glitzy travel spots.

Which means we get slighted.

Iowa native and Midwest Living editor Dan Kaercher agrees. Last summer, he traveled the state and Midwest to find those unique spots others really should see.

"You don't have to go thousands of miles to see stuff," Kaercher told The Associated Press.

Next month, a book about his trip, "Best Of The Midwest: Rediscovering America's Heartland," will hit bookstores. Iowa Public Television plans to highlight Kaercher's trip in several half-hour shows this winter.

Among Kaerchner's Iowa favorites? The Great River Road and fruit pies in small town restaurants. In Chicago, he recommends stopping at the Art Institute to see Iowa native Grant Wood's "American Gothic."

Look through any major metro paper's travel section, and you'll eventually read an article about visiting Chicago -- and Hawaii, Orlando, Fla., Las Vegas, Napa Valley, Calif., New York City and Paris. Not Iowa, though.

In fairness, though, Lewis and Clark's travels along Iowa's portion of the Missouri River have received some attention, and The New York Times has given accolades to Iowa City for being, well ... for being like a little piece of the big city in Iowa -- except we're peaceful with much less traffic.

I wonder: Do Iowa City's features stand as symbols of a lost Gotham?

From my balcony window on the outskirts of town, I see that the neighbor farmer plowed the middle third of his cornfield this week. Out west of town on the naked fields that stretch from here to Des Moines then beyond to Omaha, Neb., farmers have applied lime and fertilizer, started tilling and planted oats.

It's out there where "real" Iowa rests. And when non-Iowans stop amid those great stretches of farmland, they're really not certain where to go.

Most think the best thing is to hit the interstate and keep going. That's what Mike Martin, the production manager for the musical "Stomp" did when his show recently stopped in Ames. Martin drove two hours north and visited the Spam museum in Minnesota, he told The Olympian (Olympia, Wash.) paper. Then he came back and did the show.

Noted Martin, almost apologetically, "If you're going to see the world, you might as well see it."

Martin should have checked with Travelocity, which collected 30,000-plus nominations to compile a state-by-state list of places and events that "... help people try true local flavors," as the travel company's editor-at-large Amy Ziff told the Mason City Globe Gazette last week.

What 10 spots made Iowa's list?

A family-owned hamburger shop, open since 1936, in Ottumwa. The Danish windmill in Elk Horn. Davenport's Community Art Resource Tank, which offers art workspace for beginners. Cantril's Dutchman's Store, a grocery and market like those that existed during the 1940s in all small towns. The Franklin County Fair, which features grandstand events, pioneer farming exhibits, sarsaparilla and homemade ice cream. Gray's Lake Park, where people can canoe, kayak, run, hike and bike. Adel's Sweet Corn Festival. Burlington's 1890s-built Snake Alley, which "Ripley's Believe It or Not" calls the "Crookedest Street in the World." Mt. Vernon's Lincoln Café, described as "familiar and welcoming."

Locally, the Devonian Fossil Gorge made the list. "It's a great place for kids to explore and climb," Travelocity says.

No theme parks and no casinos got mentioned. But good food, friendly service, outdoor activities and historical places did.

Such places, one might say, encapsulate the soul of who we collectively are.

None of this is too different from what makes Cape Cod or Wisconsin's Door County so attractive. Of course, they've got an ocean and a Great Lake going for them -- and marketing.

These days, though, many don't want to travel to such places. They're crowded with a lot of traffic. Dissatisfied travelers seek an alternative.

May I suggest Iowa?