Park with a Purpose

Too often, Indianapolis, Indiana, is a quick destination. We visit for meetings, conferences, concerts, Colts and Pacers games, and youth sports, squeezing in an attraction or a favorite restaurant. Not often enough do we visit Indianapolis as a vacation destination.

I recently spent three packed days in a special part of Indianapolis: White River State Park.

White River State Park partners with Indianapolis-based White Lodging properties, owner of the $450 million Marriott Place, to offer accommodations right in the park. The gem of the development is the striking JW Marriott; the other properties are the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, Springfield Suites, Fairfield Inn, and Courtyard by Marriott. All are located in the middle of the park and are easy walks to the attractions at the park. I parked my car in the underground lot located between the Eiteljorg Museum and the Indiana State Museum and didn’t move it until I departed.

Robert A. Whitt, executive director of the White River State Park, explains the park’s significance to Indianapolis and tourists worldwide:

“In recent years, White River State Park has grown significantly in stature and attendance. We welcome well over 3.5 million annual visitors, from around the globe, to our world-class attractions: the Indianapolis Zoo, White River Gardens, the Eiteljorg Museum, the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Indiana State Museum, the IMAX Theater, the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn amphitheater, and Victory Field (home of the Indianapolis Indians),” he says. “The number and variety of public and private events occurring in this 250-acre park has grown to over 150 per year, including major festivals and community gatherings. It’s very fulfilling to work at a destination where so many people come to have fun and enrich their lives.”

Here’s what to do in three days — or a week — at White River State Park.

I’ve admired the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art since I first took note of it around 2005 when it significantly expanded. Our first stop was the Eiteljorg Museum Café, since most of us had been traveling. The café is a delightful, easy experience; if your afternoon permits beer or wine, a nice selection is offered. The museum galleries contain among the most renowned collections of Native American and Western Art in the world. Fall programs at the Eiteljorg include Native American Art and Jewelry Sale (Oct. 31, 4-8 p.m.), Navaho Rug Auction (Oct. 3, 9-11 a.m.), and Day of the Dead (Oct. 31, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.)

Next, we boarded Segways to tour the park, available at Segway of Indiana. Tours for 10 Segway riders depart daily at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m.; the cost is $55. It’s a great way to see the park and plan what areas you’ll return to during your visit. (Lessons are given and helmets are worn.)

With our feet back on the path, we stopped at Growing Places Slow Food Garden at White River State Park, a 6,000-square-foot garden between the JW Marriott and the Indiana State Museum.

Guests to the park don’t have to walk far for dinner. On this first night, we dined at Georgia Reese’s Southern Table and Bar (14 E. Washington St.), owned by former Colts player Gary Brackett and restaurateur Jeff Smith. Brackett stopped by to talk to us about the upscale soul-food spot, named for his youngest daughter.

The next day, be prepared to be out and about all day. In the morning, walk to the Indiana State Museum and have an early lunch at the Farmers Market Café, the museum’s dining spot. The Indiana State Museum consists of 12 locations through the Hoosier state, including Angel Mounds and Historic New Harmony.

Visitors are greeted by the 55-foot Indiana Obelisk by sculptor Robert Indiana. Evansville residents should be sure to note Don Mattingly’s and Bob Griese’s inclusion in the Famous Hoosier Gallery and the Mead Johnson display in the Heritage Corner on Level 2 in the Cultural History Gallery.

Be sure to take part in the museum’s 92 County Walk. Created in 2002, the sculptures on the exterior walls of the museum represent each of the state’s 92 counties. Vanderburgh County, no. 22 located on the west side, features feather and bead-like fragments crafted from aluminum, sketching an incomplete profile of a Native American chieftain.

Save time for a movie at the museum — it’s home to the state’s largest movie screen: the IMAX Theater at the Indiana State Museum. I saw Jean-Michel Cousteau’s “Secret Ocean.”

My visit was during baseball season and our afternoon was spent at Victory Field, home to the Indianapolis Indians. Opened in 1996, Victory Field competes with, and surpasses, the minor league ballparks built today. Go to a ballgame if you visit between April and September.

On our second night in the park, we dined at Osterior Pronto, the polished dining room at the JW Marriott featuring upscale Italian cuisine. I knew the dinner would be a treat when one of my favorite wines, Cakebread Chardonnay, was offered. While well worth the expense, a lighter-on-the-pocketbook experience (that I’ve enjoyed many times with my family) is the JW Marriott’s High Velocity Sports Bar.

Arrange your visit around a concert at the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn at White River State Park. I saw Canadian band Barenaked Ladies with the Violent Femmes, and Colin Hay (Men at Work). Upcoming concerts include alt-J (Sept. 19), an English indie rock band, one of the last concerts in the fall series.

Still on the agenda for my third and final day was the Indianapolis Zoo and White River Gardens and the NCAA Hall of Champions. The NCAA is headquartered in Indianapolis, and the headquarters and the Hall of Champions are prominently located in the park. At the Hall of Champions, visitors experience all 23 sports of the NCAA in a positive interactive environment. The Flying Wedge, football’s major (and dangerous) offense in 1905 and depicted in the Hall of Champions with a life-size sculpture, spurred the formation of the NCAA.

Located on 88 acres within the park, the Indianapolis Zoo and the White River Gardens is the only institution in the U.S. accredited as a zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden. The $21.5 million International Orangutan Center is the newest attraction in the zoo. The exhibit, with a 90-foot-tall viewing atrium, houses eight orangutans. A series of cable highways allow the orangutans to traverse above the zoo. An aerial cable ride gives visitors a close-up view of the apes.

Getting in my car to return to Southwestern Indiana, I marveled at all I had been overlooking in Indianapolis — specifically the White River State Park — and vowed to make plans to return with my family soon.

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