Exploring The Big Friendly: Experiencing Oklahoma City

Oklahoma City has several nicknames, but the one that resonates with me most after vacationing in this ever-changing city is the Big Friendly. Many Oklahomans exemplify this personality trait, along with kindness, which goes to show the deep roots and resilience the city has after bouncing back from the devastating Oklahoma City Bombing. The city is taking charge, too, when it comes to bringing and also supporting creative and crafty concepts all over the downtown region. Mix that in with the immense amount of sunshine, a generally mild climate and easy access to all its attractions, and its simple see why this is a city on the rise.

Where to Stay: 21c Museum Hotel

This hotel, a quick 15-minute drive from the city’s airport, impresses me most for being an art gallery first and a hotel second. After checking in, the hotel receptionist suggested my husband, TJ, and I grab a cocktail from the hotel bar, Mary Eddy’s, and check out the art. We had traveled with our 7-month old son, E, so after getting wowed in our room (more to come) we walked around exploring with a drink in one hand while the other pushed the stroller. I was amazed at the variety and depth of the contemporary art that features artists from across the country. And because the exhibitions rotate, there is always a reason to come back. The current show is titled “OFF-SPRING: New Generations” and runs through April 2018.

Another thing that makes this hotel cool is that the development group rescued a former Ford Motor Company plant to set up shop. We stayed in a Lightwell King Room, which features a large glass window that overlooks a lightwell, which truly is one of the most unexpected and coolest views I have experienced in a hotel room.

The most memorable part about staying in the hotel for me, however, was the three foot tall purple interactive penguin sculptures. After coming back from dinner our first night, I let out a chuckle when seeing one staged right outside our door as if it was waiting to come in. We later learned, these penguins are the hotel group’s mascot and each 21c Museum Hotel around the country has them in a different color, which adds a playful touch.

Where to Eat & Drink:

1. Bleu Garten

Here, you will find three to five food trucks dishing up big flavor, two bars serving cocktails, beer and wine and community style tables made from various materials — my favorites were the one made from repurposed paddle boards and another that was made into a teepee structure with chairs underneath. This spot was incredibly family friendly too, with low music playing overhead and plenty of space to set up with our stroller. Our favorite part was being able to chat with other couples at the fire pit where we set up for the night. Even with dinner ahead, TJ couldn’t resist ordering the signature dish from Yum Pig- pork on fry bread with coleslaw. Good thing he grabbed two forks because my fingerprints were all over one.

2. Barrios

This modern Mexican cantina, also in the midtown neighborhood, serves up everything from fajitas and tacos to tamales and enchiladas.  If you sit on the patio, try to grab a seat by the fireplace but sitting inside has an equally awesome vibe with an industrial meets garage interior complete with funky tables and an open kitchen.

3. Hatch

For breakfast, lunch or brunch make sure Hatch is on your list. And if you go on a weekend, use the NoWait app because there will almost certainly be a line. It is easy to understand why when Loaded Tumblers (crispy hash browns topped with bacon and cheddar and hollandaise) are just the start of what’s to come. I end up ordering the Chieftain’s Revenge, which is two eggs over easy and beer-braised pork, tomatillo salsa and cojita cheese served over spicy Grits. For something sweet, order the Oklahoma Pancake, which is shaped like the state and comes with toppings that include bacon and pecans. The setting is industrial with electric and geometric pops of bright yellow and silver.

4. Cheevers

In Oklahoma’s uptown district, Cheevers is a signature spot that serves one of the most famous desserts in town, the roasted pecan ice cream ball, which is vanilla ice cream rolled in pecans roasted with brown sugar and red chili smothered in chocolate sauce. But it’s also a place to come for a proper meal. For an appetizer, try Juans Queso Chihuahua — not it’s not a dog it’s a yummy a southwest layer dip. For lunch and dinner you have a kind of global meets Mexican line-up featuring pastas, sandwiches, salads and heartier items like chicken fried steak or mixed seafood tamale. The restaurant, once a family owned floral shop, uses a refrigerated floral case to display wine, beer, fresh flowers and desserts.

Where to Wander:

1. Plaza District

This is an exciting neighborhood that gives Oklahoma City a pop with two blocks of local boutiques, restaurants, bars, a local theatre and art galleries. Jewelry lovers, you must check out Well Beauty Bar for handmade custom jewelry and even a mani and pedi if you need to kick back. We also couldn’t pass up Thrive Mama and Collected thread to shop for baby clothes and toys before having a coffee at District House, a spot with an industrial vibe with a touch of steam punk. One of TJ’s favorite finds was Oak and Ore, which has 36 rotating craft beer taps set up along a white tile background void of tap handles to customers stay focused on beer with no distractions. If you are looking for a family friendly spot, come in for Fried Chicken Tuesday for food specials and board games. We also both loved checking out some of the art galleries like Graphite, a spot that feature local artists.

2. Oklahoma City National Memorial

This Memorial tells the story of the devastating Oklahoma City Bombing that took place April 19, 1995. We started by walking around the outdoor memorial, which is set up on the site of the bombed Alfred P. Murrah building. There are 168 chair sculptures (which includes 19 smaller ones for the children in the day care) to honor each person whose life was lost in that attack, a survivor tree and reflecting pool that are all framed by the Gates of Time.

The museum is set up in a building across the street that miraculously wasn’t completely destroyed by the bombing (though you can see some damage from the outside). Inside, tells the comprehensive story that led up to the bombing, the tragedy and chaos that followed and the justice that was served. There are more than a million photos, videos, artifacts, and pieces of evidence but one that stood out the most is Timothy McVeigh’s getaway car: a yellow 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis. It was added to the museum in 2014 and was stored in an FBI Warehouse before then. It’s a powerful experience that provided us insight on the cities character to pull together and stand stronger in the wake of tragedy.

3. Oklahoma City Zoo

The highlight of visiting the zoo was the Wild Encounters program, which allows visitors behind the scenes to meet animals up close ranging from grizzly bears and sea lions to flamingoes and elephants, which is the encounter we chose. We hopped on a cart with a guide who took us to meet 21-year-old Chandra and 3-year-old Achra, both Asian elephants. During the encounter, a trainer coached the elephants through different behaviors and rewarded them a mix of apples, bananas and sweet potatoes. The trainer explained the trained motions, such as lifting their feet and opening their mouths, helps them evaluate their health. Towards the end, we were able to pet the elephants before we continued on to other parts of the zoo, which included catching a sea lion show and walking around the Great to see gorillas.

4. River Sport Adventures

This city is home to the countries only urban man made white water rafting park, which means we capped of our trip with a healthy dose of adrenaline on class III-IV rapids. After a safety demo, we hop in a raft with our well-seasoned rafting guide, Andreas, who instructs us to paddle towards a conveyor belt that takes us to the top of the reservoir. From this point, rafters choose to go down a milder recreational channel or the more advanced competition channel. How does it work? Pumps recirculate treated water in an 8.2 million gallon tiered pool through a system that can alter the intensity of the rapids. Afterwards, we also checked out the tallest dry slide complex in the United States. It’s easy to spot two 72-foot tall spiral slides, the Sky Slalom and Sky Luge that can pick up speeds close to 22 miles per hour.

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