Nebraska: River City Star, Joslyn, Brother Sebastian's, and Hotel Deco

After leaving Iowa, our first destination in Nebraska was the River City Star Riverboat for their one-hour sightseeing cruise on the Missouri River.


We received the Groupon rate, which made it very affordable. We sat on the shaded upper deck and enjoyed views of both the Nebraska and Iowa sides as we floated along. We loved looking up at Bob the Bridge (more on that later).


When our cruise ended, we zipped over to the Josyln Art Museum to see the Chihuly sculptures in the lobby. Even though we only had 30 minutes until it closed, the Joslyn is free and I (foolishly) thought we'd be able to zoom through everything we cared about in that short amount of time. Wow, was I wrong! The Joslyn is amazing. I loved the Chihuly, of course, and was captivated by the Native beadwork.... 


.... but what truly blew me away was the extensive European collection. Renoir, Degas, Pissarro, and Monet, just to name a few. How does this museum offer free admission?!?

And if that wasn't enough, the children's art exploration area was amazing. And I loved the gallery featuring children's art. I kept saying over and over, "HOW IS THIS FREE?!"


We stayed until the last possible second and it wasn't nearly enough time. After the museum closed, we enjoyed the grounds. The building itself is gorgeous and there's a really neat water feature where play is encouraged. Sculpture gardens surround the property. 


At this point, we were starving, so it was time to visit one of the restaurants recommended to us by locals: Brother Sebastian's. A monastery-themed steakhouse that has won numerous 'Best of' awards? Waiters dressed like monks? We are SO in! It did not disappoint. The food classic steakhouse fare, done to perfection. And the atmosphere was awesome, starting with the Gregorian chants playing in the parking lot.


Our final stop of the day was at Hotel Deco, our home for the next five nights. What a wonderful place! The building and furnishings were gorgeous and the staff so friendly and helpful. The location was just a short walk to Old Market, the river, and more. The grab-and-go breakfast in the lounge was convenient and yummy. 


I received a discount on our stay, but let me assure you that I'd stay at Hotel Deco at full price without hesitation. They're in the middle of renovating their restaurant (hence the grab-and-go breakfast); I would love to return once it is complete. Our room was comfortable, clean, and spacious. Basically, it was everything you'd want in a hotel. 

I loved seeing checking the message board by the elevator each day. As you can see, our visit fell on National Corn on the Cob Day! 


More of our Nebraska adventure next week!


Exploring Iowa Through Little Passports

Before I tell you all about our family's adventures in Nebraska, I wanted to share the Iowa activities we did through Little Passports. 

Iowa is famous for growing more corn than any other state, so it's no surprise that the model and the first activity in the State Journal were both about corn. By solving the maze in the book and using a list of five of Iowa's state symbols, Trevor and I were able to discover which facts about corn were true and false. For example, did you know that an average ear of corn has hundreds of kernels arranged in 16 rows? 

We learned that Le Mars is "The Ice Cream Capitol of the World" because Wells Enterprises has been making ice cream there since 1913. They hold an Ice Cream Days festival each year. How fun! Next, we did an activity about the Iowa State Fair, which is over 150 years old and one of the largest state fairs in the US. I was fascinated by the Butter Cow, sculpted every year from 600 pounds of butter. Crazy! 

The state fair inspired the recipe in the Iowa State Journal: bacon-wrapped corn dogs! Trevor mixed the batter, poked skewers into hot dogs, then wrapped the hot dogs with par-cooked bacon.


Steve and I jumped in to help with the deep-frying. And, of course, we all had a bacon-wrapped corn dog for dinner. Yum!

We learned about the Loess Hills, formed thousands of years ago from windblown silt. The thickest loess hills in the world are the ones in Iowa and near the Yellow River in China. Following the directions in the book, Trevor and I drew a flock of the wild turkeys that are common at Loess Hills State Forest. 

We did dot-to-dots inspired by Effigy Mounds National Monument, read about famous events in Iowa history, and tried to spot the differences between two drawings of the Vermeer Mill in the town of Pella. We did a decoding activity based on the Literary Walk in Iowa City. I'd love to see it in person.

The final activity in the Iowa State Journal was a combination craft and science experiment - building your own paddle wheel. Trevor decided to use the basic instructions from the book but to change the materials from plates, tapes, and straw to LEGO bricks! Once it was built, he took it to the backyard for testing. 


He experimented with holding the hose in different positions, varying the flow of water, and using different sprinkler heads to direct the water. Here's a video of one of his tests:

We had almost as much fun with our virtual Iowa adventures as we did actually visiting. I love how much we learn through Little Passports and how many wonderful educational activities are packed into each.


Iowa: Capitol, State History Museum, Zombie Burger, and More

After exploring the outstanding Living History Farms, we continued our exploration of Des Moines with a visit to the Iowa State Capitol. We've visited around a dozen state capitol buildings and love seeing the similarities and differences between them. We started by exploring the grounds. We found a miniature Statue of Liberty statue erected by local Boy Scouts, as well as the Liberty Bell replica. 


The Statue of Liberty is unique to Des Moines, but all 50 states (and US territories) have Liberty Bell replicas that date to 1950. We've found them on display both inside and outside the various capitol buildings we've visited.

We'd planned to do a self-guided tour at the Capitol, but a free guided tour was starting right as we got there, so we joined it. That turned out to be a very good decision, as there were multiple locations in the Capitol you can't visit without a guide. Here's the inside of the dome from the bottom floor, which is publicly accessible, compared with the same dome after climbing a couple hundred steps up a narrow circular staircase, accompanied by a guide.


Here's what it looks like when you're ready to head back down that same staircase. And speaking of staircases, that's Trevor standing beneath the US and Iowa flags with the Grand Staircase behind him.


We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the Capitol. From there, we crossed the street to the excellent State Historical Museum of Iowa. This museum is free and filled with lots of neat exhibits about the history of Iowa. In these photos, Trevor is attempting to drill into rock and to plow the land.


It's not all about technology; I enjoyed seeing the marionettes from The Sound of Music. The artist was from Iowa. 

I really wanted to tour the Better Homes and Gardens test garden, but we weren't in Des Moines on the correct day of the week (Fri). So we settled for photographing their giant trowel and oversized golf ball sculptures outside the headquarters.


We'd been asking people where to eat in Des Moines. We got a lot of suggestions, but the one place that literally every single person mentioned was Zombie Burger and Shake Lab. It did not disappoint. Not only was the food outstanding, but I took two photos that are among my very favorites from the whole trip:


That's the menu that Steve is holding. 

Zombie Burger is famous for their shakes as well as their burgers. We ordered a rhubarb pie shake (because RHUBARB!) and a peach shake, then struggled to decide which burgers to try. After much debate, we chose two to share amongst the three of us.
grilled-cheese-sandwich bun, American cheese, caramelized onion, bacon, Zombie sauce
American cheese, fried pickle, chicken fried bacon, cheese curds, ranch dressing


Both were outstanding. It turns out that using grilled cheese sandwiches instead of a bun is an excellent idea. We almost chose THE WALKING CHED (breaded + deep fried macaroni + cheese bun, bacon, Cheddar cheese, caramelized + red onion, macaroni + cheese, mayo) because a bun made of mac and cheese sounds awesome, but we guessed (correctly) that two burgers, fries, and two shakes would be the right amount of food for the three of us. We didn't have a way to deal with leftovers and I am rabidly against food waste.

After our very full day exploring Des Moines, we headed back to the hotel and collapsed into bed so we'd be ready for the next day's adventures. In the morning, we checked out of our hotel and drove west back toward Omaha. It was really nice to be able to see the landscape and surroundings that had been too dark to view during our drive east. 

We stopped in Council Bluffs, located on the Iowa side of the Missouri River, just across from Omaha, to visit the Western Historic Trails Center. We watched a very interesting video and then explored the exhibits. I loved the dimensional metal artwork that accompanied each display. 


Obviously, a place dedicated to western trails is going to have some trails. We strolled along the Iowa Riverfront trail. Some of the trees and wildflowers were familiar to us, but many weren't. 


At this point, we said goodbye to Iowa, drove two minutes across the Missouri River, and started our adventure in Nebraska. 


Iowa: Living History Farms

Before our trip to Iowa and Nebraska, we had the following conversation a bazillion times with friends, random acquaintances, the dentist, etc:
Them: Doing anything special this summer?
Us: Yes! We're spending a week in Iowa and Nebraska!
Them: Oh, you must have family there!
Us: Actually, no.
Them: Then why would you go there?
The craziest thing is that it didn't stop happening after we'd arrived in Iowa or Nebraska. At the airport, museums, restaurants, and everywhere else, someone would ask where we were visiting from. As soon as we said, "California," they immediately responded with, "You must have family here!" 

I can (sort of) understand why it kept happening. Iowa and Nebraska don't have reputations as major tourist destinations. People from the Midwest are far more likely to vacation in California than the other way around. But I am here to tell you that anyone who doesn't vacation there is missing out! We visited amazing museums, ate spectacular food, learned a ton, and met some of the friendliest people ever. 

On Trevor's last day of school, we grabbed him and zipped to the airport for our non-stop flight from San Francisco to Omaha. We rented a car and drove two hours east to Des Moines, where we checked into the Embassy Suites Downtown Des Moines after midnight. We woke up to a beautiful river view. 

We had two main priorities for our time in Des Moines. We wanted to see the Capitol and we wanted to go to Living History Farms. I'm a huge fan of anything involving living history. (You may recall the Civil War Living History Program I did with my students on Angel Island years ago.)

I received free tickets to Living History Farms, but let me assure you that I would pay full price for tickets in a heartbeat. If I were local, I'd get a membership. 

There are basically two sections to Living History Farms. The first has farms set up as they would have been at different points throughout history. There is a 1700 Ioway native farm, an 1850 pioneer farm, and a 1900 horse-powered farm. There are people in period costume working the land, preparing food, chopping wood, and doing all the other chores for the farm. It is absolutely fascinating to walk from one farm to the next and see the jumps in technology and standard of living, touch the items they used, and immerse yourself in the era. 

The second part of Living History Farms is the 1875 town of Walnut Grove. This town is just as it would have been in 1875. And it too is completely hands-on. Trevor served as an apprentice to the blacksmith, working the bellows. 

Unfortunately, Trevor's career in blacksmithing was short-lived, as he was not able to pass the simple test of holding the tool up with a straight arm. From the age of 3, children in Walnut Grove would have carried buckets of water from the well with their arms straight out to avoid spilling; when you do that every day, you'd have no problem passing this test by the time you were ready to apprentice. 

Trevor had better luck with the druggist. He correctly identified the leaches in the jar and knew how they were used. 

He was a competent assistance when it was time to make lavender toilet water.

At the printer's office, Trevor did an OK job spotting the errors in the hand-set type, but not enough for this to be a good calling for him. Besides, he hates ink on his hands.

Trevor might have enjoyed working in the general store. He's good with math and liked the variety of the work. Plus, there was candy.

We visited the bank, the lawyer's office, the milliner, and the broom maker. We went into the church and looked around the cemetery. Ultimately, Trevor found the place he would be most comfortable if he were an 1875 child.

He thought the desks were cozy and the inkwells interesting. It would take a little getting used to standing to recite.

Living History Farms also does something neat that I haven't seen elsewhere. When you arrive, you're given one of three stickers - member, 1st time visitor, or returning visitor. Our orange stickers let all the employees know that we'd never seen any of it before and to jump right in with the full experience. It was such a nice change from the usual, "Have you visited us before?" question over and over at similar types of museums.

We didn't eat at Living History Farms (other than buying sassafras candy at the general store), but they do have a cafe and snack shop. Another feature we did not use was their "Steer Your Step Visit Guides" guides. They'd be perfect for a return visit.

Obviously, I highly recommend a visit to Living History Farms! Tomorrow I'll share the rest of our Iowa adventure. (Spoiler alert: Iowa is awesome.)