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My dad stole my mom from a drummer.
It was the late ‘60’s. A young clarinetist arrived at Jacobs School of Music, joining her older boyfriend, a drummer. She settled in and deposited her books in the drummer’s locker. (Freshman weren’t allowed lockers, you see.)
She wasn’t there very long before he told her that he wanted to see other people. “Fine,” the feisty young clarinetist thought. When a Junior bass trombonist invited her to a party that same day, she said yes.
The drummer was at the party.
The drummer was not happy.
The next day, the drummer dumped the clarinetist’s books in the hall. And the bass trombonist promptly scooped them, and her, up.
Four months later they married, and three years after that they had a daughter.
Dad was a year into his Masters for trombone performance when I came along, and that arrival signaled the end of their musical aspirations and their time in Bloomington, Indiana.
Fast-forward eighteen years. I enrolled at Indiana University with a major in clarinet performance, but after one semester I realized that I would have to eat, drink, and breathe the woodwind and that was not what I wanted to do with my life. I left, and with the exception of a visit to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2000, I never returned.
A lot has changed since that clarinetist met her bass trombonist, and since I put away my reeds, but one thing that’s been constant is Indiana University. While it would be easy to dismiss Bloomington as simply a “college town,” and there’s no denying that the presence of a large student population inherently changes the character of a community, that influence goes beyond the superficial stereotypes. As I’ve learned through visits to Iowa City, Iowa, and West Lafayette, Indiana, college towns are often some of the most diverse places to visit.
In Bloomington, Indiana, there are about 83,000 residents and 48,500 students, and 8,500 of those students come from 170+ countries. That translates into diversity and a community that’s progressive and cultured.
It’s also delicious. I discovered this last characteristic on a two-day tour that consisted almost entirely of eating and drinking, although we did take a campus tour because, when in Bloomington…
We started our exploration at an oasis on the southeast side of town. My husband (who is a musician – seeing a theme here?), Jim, and I had plans to visit Bloomington after a couple of nights at the Abe Martin Lodge in nearby Brown County. Despite the short half-hour drive, those scarcely populated hills felt far-removed, so we decided to ease into the relatively-big city with a tour of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center (TMBCC).
The Center was established in 1979 by the Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu. Norbu was exiled from Tibet in 1950, and he created the center with a mission to foster and preserve Tibetan and Mongolian cultures, and to help “preserve cultural and Buddhist traditions among the Tibetan exile communities, and the Mongolians of Kalmykia, Buyatia, and Tuvia.”
We drove through an ornate gate and stopped at the Choekor Pagoda, which sheltered a permanent sand mandala created by Tibetan monks to honor the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2010. The gently curving road took us past two stupas, tall white structures that fairly glowed, and the Mani Korlo, a prayer wheel house. At the end of the drive was a pond with nearby yurts that could be reserved for a quiet sleep in the woods.
There wasn’t much time to explore, but the serene beauty readied us for the bustling energy of my birthplace. With everything that was on our plate, so to speak, for the next 42 hours, we would need it.
We quickly checked into our hotel, the SpringHill Suites on College Ave, and crossed the street to Switchyard Brewing. Owner Kurtis Cummings sat down with us, and over a flight of beers we chatted about his family-friendly brewery.
That’s not an oxymoron. The brewery is the same age as his daughter, and Kurtis, a former paramedic, wanted a place he and his wife could feel comfortable bringing their baby. It’s Bloomington’s first tap-room, and it’s also a co-working space, with wi-fi and cold-brew coffee in the mornings. They use local ingredients, have a tab average of two beers, support a running club, host Harry Potter trivia Wednesdays and vinyl Fridays. They pay their staff a living wage, close before midnight, are dog-friendly, and donate to a different local charity each month.
“We believe that business can and should be a catalyst for positive change,” Kurtis said.
They’re the community brewery you wish your community had.
TLTip: get a flight, because you’ll want to try as many of their beers as you can.
We finished our flights, I ordered a pint of Hopscotch Coffee Stout (YUM), and Troy, a friend I hadn’t seen since our Junior High years in Terre Haute, joined us.
Troy didn’t know this, but he was part of the reason (in addition to my origin story) that I wanted to visit Bloomington.
Troy is a big man, with a big beard, and he is about as close to what you’d expect a viking to look like as you can ever hope to see. He knows this; he embraces this. Troy is the Very Vocal Viking.
Part of his Very Vocal Viking persona is the ability to consume mass quantities of food (pillaging and plundering and all). But this viking is particular and critical and won’t eat just to eat. I’ve been following his adventures and know that when he recommends a place, it should be added to my itinerary. He wants great food, or a story, or preferably, both.
That’s how we ended up at Nick’s English Hut. Within easy reach of I.U.’s Sample Gates, this staple has been serving students and locals since 1927. My parents could have, and probably did, eat there. (I’d ask them, but they’re gallivanting around Italy right now.)
Troy, being a viking with a big appetite, suggested we order the breaded mushrooms, onion rings, and fries.
The fries arrived in a bucket. This is not a metaphor. The server set a plastic pail filled to nearly overflowing and two plates brimming with fried fried fried.
It was glorious.
Nick’s also has burgers and sandwiches and pizzas and non-heart attack inducing entrees like grilled salmon and chicken breast.
We didn’t get those.
We dove into our bucket and plates of fried-ness, I drank a local beer, we soaked in the ambiance of 90+ years of history, and I caught up with a friend I knew from long ago.
Troy drove us back to our hotel and we said our ’til-next-times.
It had been an odd day, one where we started in the woods, tread where the Dalai Lama trod, drank the passion of a paramedic in the place where I was born and ended with a viking whom I’d known as a child.
What, we wondered, would tomorrow bring?
I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels that offer free breakfast. It’s one of the ways I save money while traveling, especially when I’m on an extended road trip. These breakfasts typically include scrambled eggs, a cooler with yogurt, fruit, cereal, and a Plexiglas container filled with bread, pastries, and, sometimes, bagels. Occasionally there’s a waffle maker. If it’s fancy, there might even be sausage.
The breakfast buffet at SpringHill Suites by Marriott is, by that measure, luxurious.
I doctored my eggs with salsa and cheese, loaded my plate with sausage and bacon, split a bagel with Jim, and filled a bowl with pineapple and strawberries and grapes. I showed considerable restraint by foregoing the biscuits and gravy, but I did indulge in some French Vanilla creamer for my cup of local coffee.
Now, normally I don’t eat that much for breakfast, but later that morning I was very glad I fueled up. I was going to need it.
Our first adventure was the obligatory tour of Indiana University.
Erin from Visit Bloomington, an I.U. grad, showed us around her alma mater. We began with a drive past the university’s enormous sports complex, which includes Assembly Hall, Champions Hall, and Wilkinson Hall. The university’s motto is “24 sports, 1 team,” and they’re all Hoosiers.
We then parked near Kirkwood and walked through the Sample Gates. While this entrance feels like it’s been welcoming students, faculty, and visitors since Indiana University’s inception in 1820, the gates are actually a recent addition. Funded by Edwin Sample in 1987, they’re an impressive door to the Old Crescent.
All but two of the buildings in this historic campus are made of Indiana limestone, and those two are constructed of red brick. (Conversely, all of Purdue University‘s buildings but two are made of red brick, and those two are built with Indiana limestone.) The sidewalk meandered past woods, a creek, and the Rose Well House, a site of frequent kisses, engagements and weddings.
I wondered – was this a spot my parents visited?
Erin told us the sidewalks followed the natural paths made by students, the same way many roads follow Native American trails. We passed Dunn Meadow, site of student events, morel foraging, and peaceful protests. Above, the occasional gargoyle watched our progress.
As we strolled, Erin told us about Herman B (no period) Wells. He was the eleventh president of the university, its first chancellor, and by all accounts a visionary who transformed the college over the course of seventy years. He began integrating the campus fifteen years before Brown v. Board and furthered academic freedom and understanding of human sexuality by supporting the controversial studies of Alfred Kinsey, creating an inclusive environment for all. He welcomed Thubten Jigme Norbu as Professor of Tibetan Studies, the same man who founded the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.
We toured Memorial Union, struck by the number of paintings by T.C. Steele and other artists from the Brown County Arts Guild displayed on the walls. It made sense; Steele was Indiana University’s first artist-in-residence, and had built his home and studio in nearby Brown County.
Related: learn more about the legacy of Indiana’s most influential artist.
During our tour, Erin pointed out the Jacobs School of Music, where my parents met, the I.M. Pei-designed Eskenazi Museum of Art and the Lilly Library on the Fine Arts Campus, and the Jordan Hall Greenhouse.
She dropped us off in front of the latter and we explored the display of exotic plants, skirting students with sketchpads and easels. Before entering the final greenhouse, we smelled something rotten in Denmark.
We smelled the Devil’s Tongue.
This cousin to the corpse flower was quite the unpleasant surprise, so we escaped that singular scent and crossed campus to Lilly Library. Its collections of rare books and manuscripts is enough to excite any bookworm. Holdings include Shakespeare’s First Folio, Audubon’s Birds of America, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” and George Washington’s letter accepting the U.S. presidency.
Speaking of presidents, they have Abraham Lincoln’s law office desk, and an entire room dedicated to the 16th president. In this room, there’s also a Gutenberg Bible.
I cannot describe the overwhelm I felt at first glimpse of that historic and influential tome.
I approached it reverently, appreciating what Gutenberg’s press, what this singular accomplishment meant for humanity, and tears flooded my eyes.
I could have stayed for hours – days – in the Lilly Library, but it was already 1 p.m., we had to speed walk the mile to the hotel (yay for hearty breakfasts!) and we still needed to eat lunch before our 2:30 date at Oliver Winery.
We reluctantly closed the book on our I.U. tour and gathered up Big Red, our Mazda CX-3. Browsing Bucceto’s menu on the way, as soon as our server, Adam, seated us we told him our time limit: it was 1:48 and Oliver was fifteen minutes away. Somehow, we were able to eat a salad followed by individual pizzas. Adam gave us a fifteen minute warning, brought us boxes and a carrot cake to go, cleared our check, and we were out the door by 2:16.
It was a shame we had to rush, because the food was delicious. We split the spring mix salad topped with pecans, candied strawberries, crumbled bleu cheese, and dijon vinaigrette. Honoring my camping obsession, I ordered the Campfire Pizza and loved its smoked sausage, sweet onion marmalade, gorgonzola, and fresh rosemary. Jim preferred his Sweet Lil’ Razorback, a meaty concoction of pepperoni, smoked sausage, and bacon with a touch of basil and garlic.
Next visit, we’ll take our time.
The entrance to Oliver Winery was grandly landscaped, with waterfalls gurgling into a placid pool, limestone pillars, and artfully placed bushes and flowers. It was serene and set the stage for an impressive experience.
Kurtis from Switchyard cut his teeth at Oliver and he based his philosophy of service and community on his tutelage at the winery, so we already knew we were in for a treat. We met Dennis Dunham, VP of Operations and Director of Winemaking, in their production facility attached to the tasting room.
We began with a glass of Creekbend Vidal Blanc Sparkling followed by a taste of Chambourcin. Both wines were estate bottled and defied my expectations. Oliver Winery has been around since my parents were students at I.U. and I remembered the winery produced sweet wines.
They still do, and their Soft Red, made from concord grapes, is their best seller. However, they also create dry white and red wines, including a wonderful Zinfandel. There’s a wine for every taste, and they’ve got a crisp hard cider called Beanblossom. They’re constantly evaluating and experimenting, and their Pilot Project wines, available only in their online shop and their Tasting Room, let them try out twists on their most popular offerings.
Speaking of the Tasting Room, this place is a must-visit when you’re in Bloomington. You can try up to eight wines for just $5 led by someone who will guide you through the list. The lovely Barbara Fuqua, who started at Oliver after retiring as a teacher 18 years prior, listened to our inclinations and steered us in the right direction.
During our tour with Dennis, we’d already tried the Gewurztraminer, the Soft Red, and the Blueberry Moscato, so Barbara indulged my desire for dry reds and Jim’s preference for whites.
All told, we spent two and a half hours at Oliver Winery, and even then we were reluctant to leave. But since dinner was to be at a distillery, we decided a rest was an excellent idea. Jim took a nap and I brought my laptop to the hotel bar to get some work done and let him relax.
Refreshed, we went to see what Cardinal Spirits had to offer. This distillery, cocktail bar, and restaurant with a ski-lodge vibe specializes in local ingredients. Similar to Oliver’s belief that “Wine brings people together,” Cardinal Spirits was founded to “increase connections between people.”
In Bloomington, yes, we all can get along.
We began with a spirits tasting to get the lay of the land, and then chose our cocktails. Jim went with the Milk Punch, a creamy concoction made with Nocino, a traditional Italian liqueur that Cardinal makes with Indiana walnuts. To it, they add their Tiki Rum, cream, cinnamon, apple butter, and Angostura bitters, and top it with thin slices of green apple.
I’d already tried their Flora liqueur, made with fresh raspberries, elderflower, jasmine, and hibiscus, so when I saw their brandy was made in collaboration with Oliver Winery, I had to try the old fashioned. The addition of Angostura and orange bitters gave it the perfect balance.
Their dining selections are seasonal, and the chef sent out vodka-poached and smoked salmon with chives and house sourdough, a potential item for their menu.
Jim chose the Fork & Knife, a hot dog so loaded with goodies you needed utensils, and I chose the veggie burger. When you visit, they’ll have something new for you to try.
TLTip: Cardinal Spirits has a happy hour from 4 to 6, Monday through Thursday, with $6 drinks and $1 off all dinner items.
We purchased bottles of Creekbend Brandy and Flora so I could make those old fashioneds at home. We returned to our room and collapsed, foregoing the idea that we could eat our Bucceto’s carrot cake paired with the bottle of Creekbend Traminette we’d picked up. That simply was not going to happen.
The next morning, we checked out and skipped breakfast at SpringHill. While I would have liked to take advantage of their spacious lobby and their buffet, we had two more stops to make before we left B-town, and they were both restaurants (of course).
Our first was the famous Rainbow Bakery. This doughnut shop is all vegan, and while Jim and I are not, we wanted to see what made it so popular. Fortunately, we had a $25 certificate, so we filled that baby up. By the time the cashier rang up the total, she needed $0.11.
Jim: “I’ve got a single.”
Cashier: “A what?” she exclaimed, confused.
Jim: “A single?”
Cashier: “OH! I thought you said a sequin!” she laughed. “I thought, that’s not money!”
Jim: “What if it’s from a unicorn?”
She laughed, we laughed, and we carted our bag o’ doughnuts, muffins, brownies, and cookies to enjoy later. (And enjoy them we did. Oh yes, we did.)
Our final, final stop in Bloomington was Hive. It’s another place that’s all about the local, and the farms that produce their eggs, sausage, and bacon are listed on the menu. I knew it would be good because it’s a Very Vocal Viking favorite, but we didn’t have time to sit, so we took a couple of egg-n-muffin sandwiches to go.
While my waistline (what little of it remained) and my liver were happy to go, I was not. Our exploration barely scratched the surface, and there was much more to see.
This was where my parents met and fell in love. Even then, Indiana University was a place of inclusion, education, and growth. It is still all of those, but the college, and the town around it, have had more than fifty years since that fateful day in Jacobs Music School to continue their evolution.
I don’t think my parents would recognize the Bloomington of today. I’d like to show it to them. I bet they’d fall in love all over again.
Where we ate – Bloomington Indiana Restaurants
These are the Bloomington, Indiana restaurants, winery, distillery, and brewery we visited:
- Switchyard Brewing
- Nick’s English Hut
- Bucceto’s Smiling Teeth
- Oliver Winery
- Cardinal Spirits
- Rainbow Bakery
Where we stayed
We loved SpringHill Suites by Marriott. It was the little touches, like the table that fit under the couch so you could work, or eat, while resting on the chaise lounge. Plus the window that you could slide open between the desk and the bedroom, in case you wanted to have a conversation with someone in the other room. I’m always happy where there’s a refrigerator so I can store leftovers, and a microwave so I can heat them up (when I’m not eating at a gazillion restaurants).
The lobby itself was brightly lit with plenty of room to enjoy that delicious buffet, and the bar was a nice way to get to know fellow travelers. The service was exemplary, too. All-in-all, I’d highly recommend staying at this hotel when you’re visiting Bloomington!
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