You've probably heard about them in a song (John Mellencamp's "Small Town") or seen them in a movie (Breaking Away), but to really experience those friendly Midwestern Hoosiers you need look no further than Bloomington, Indiana. Its cobblestoned streets, limestone buildings, and old-fashioned porches create a laid-back setting, while the outdoor markets and frequent concerts and lectures keep energy at a steady high. To paraphrase one local artisan, Bloomington has the soul of a big city but the heart of a small town. And though it took a university to lay the city's foundation, the townspeople's desire to prosper is what turned Bloomington into the cultural pulse of the Midwest. So get out your basketball jerseys, reserve a room at an inn, and take a few days to feel the beat.
WHERE TO STAY
Don't be deterred by the stream of Holiday Inns and Motel 6's lining Walnut Avenue. Bloomington does have alternatives; you just need to know where to look.
Scholars Inn 801 N. College Ave.; 800/765-3466 or 812/332-1892, fax 812/355-8785; doubles from $115. So small most residents haven't even heard of it. The Scholars Inn aims for comfortfrom the milk and cookies set out in the lobby to the reading material arranged beside the bathtubs. The six guest rooms, each named for a regional scholar, vary in size and color but are consistent in their French-country feel. Ask nicely and Nikki, the innkeeper, might prepare the house special for breakfast: German-style oven-baked pancakes topped with fresh berries, served in the inn's café next door.
Grant Street Inn 310 N. Grant St.; 800/328-4350 or 812/334-2353, fax 812/331-8673; doubles from $119. If you're lucky enough to reserve a room at the brightest Victorian B&B in Bloomington, you'll know why the waiting list is so long. The owners have expanded twice in the past 10 years, but 24 rooms still can't handle the hordes of devoted guests. The two rooms in the cottage are the coziest, but the eight in the annex are quieter, and six have fireplaces. In the morning, fresh-from-the-oven bread gets guests out of bed in a hurry.
Indiana Memorial Union Hotel 900 E. Seventh St.; 800/209-8145 or 812/856-6381, fax 812/855-3426; doubles from $94. Although the contemporary rooms with country flourishes are small, the location can't be topped: in the largest college union building in the United States, right in the middle of the student hustle and bustle. Besides its 186 rooms, the union houses an auditorium, bookstore, bowling alley, candy store, and food court. Just don't interrupt the crammers who might be hitting the books in the student lounge above the lobby.
Indianapolis International Airport, served by most major airlines, is just a 45-minute drive from Bloomington. The Bloomington Shuttle Service (800/589-6004 or 812/332-6004; $20 one way, $35 round-trip) makes nine trips a day from the airport, but renting a car is the easiest way to travel. From the airport, head south on Interstate 465 to Harding Street, which turns into Highway 37. It's a straight shot south until you hit College Avenue, the first of four Bloomington exits.