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In Omaha, a progressive approach to free time

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“Hey! Lucas, right?” I heard a voice as I walked around the Gifford Park Neighbourhood Market, a compact but lively farmers’ market that was a quick walk from the room I was renting on Cass Street in Omaha.

The voice belonged to Alex O’Hanlon, whom I’d met just a couple of days earlier at a donation-based fermentation workshop she had led at City Sprouts, a local organization with a large community garden that promotes health and seeks to improve food quality in the community. Alex and I chatted, and I shared some tamales I’d bought from a market vendor. Remembering my name and saying hello was maybe a small gesture for Alex, but as an out-of-towner, I was impressed.

Omaha’s Old Market District has shops and restaurants in repurposed buildings that are more than 100 years old.
Omaha’s Old Market District has shops and restaurants in repurposed buildings that are more than 100 years old.  (CHRIS MACHIAN / The New York Times)

But I wasn’t really surprised that the locals were friendly in Omaha, the biggest city in Nebraska, located about halfway between Sioux Falls, S.D., and Kansas City, Mo. What surprised me during a recent four-day trip was how big the city seemed. I’m not talking about surface area: Omaha, in addition to its famous zoo, has a progressive sensibility that places its good restaurants, live-music scene and diverse entertainment options on par with cities many times its size. And it’s worth a visit for any curious traveller who, like me, is keen on saving money.

My Airbnb host, Orenda, was accommodating when a flight cancellation led me to arrive a day later than expected (my private room with bath was $41 (U.S.) a night). She and her partner, both musicians, gave me some recommendations for activities in the area and let me use their driveway for the car I’d rented through Turo.

This was the first time I had used Turo, a service that operates something like Airbnb and lets private citizens list and rent out their own cars online. The high rates from the national agencies made me get past my trepidation of renting from a total stranger, and I picked a Hyundai Accent from a woman named Stephanie for $33 a day. Luckily, Stephanie was an old hand and she made the pickup and drop-off of the car seamless. One difference with Turo is that there are frequently limits on the number of miles you can drive your rental (300 in my case) — be careful not to exceed your maximum, or you’ll pay an extra fee.

I also made good use of the public bus system, which I found to be a reliable way of making short trips. I bought a book of 10 rides ($12.50) at a local supermarket, and set out to see the city. My first stop was at Artifact, a store that specializes in handmade aprons and tote bags. The Omaha-based brand, which got its start on Etsy, makes its products locally. I was even encouraged to peek into a large area behind the showroom to watch some items being sewn and assembled. They’re not exactly for shoppers on a budget, however: Some run well over $100, so I picked up a locally made bar of eucalyptus and rosemary soap from Benson Soap Mill ($6).

The nearby Joslyn Art Museum, just south of Creighton University, was a logical next stop: The only thing better than a world-class art collection is a free world-class art collection. The Joslyn’s collection includes exceptional examples of work from the ancient world, Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, modern and contemporary art, and pieces inspired by the American West. The museum also made very effective use of multimedia in one of the first exhibits I saw.

Using a small touch-screen, visitors can watch an examination of a Madonna-and-Child triptych, painted by an unknown artist, that carefully explores the work, section by section, explaining its style, composition and symbolism. It explains how the museum came to deduce that the painting was likely done in the early 16th century by a follower of Flemish artist Jan Gossaert. All in all, a fascinating and educational whodunit for a painting I might otherwise have overlooked.

Head upstairs for the American Indian art collection, with artifacts like ration ticket bags and medicine pouches from the Ute and Sioux tribes, as well as work like the pictograph-based “Horse Sense (for advice and council)” by New Mexican artist Jaune Quick-To-See Smith.

El Museo Latino ($5 admission) features Hispanic and Latino art and history and also serves as a cultural centre. A larger-than-life textile exhibit from Mexican artist Marcela Diaz was particularly enjoyable, and included a comically large hammock woven from coconut fibres. Some exceptionally beautiful prints were also on display, like Gabriel Macotela’s “Ruinas de la Independencia” and Manolo Roldán’s “Fragile.”

I won’t spend too much time singing the praises of the Omaha Zoo, which has been one of Omaha’s major tourist draws for decades, but I can’t leave it out because it is too good to miss, especially if you have children. The minute you enter the gate ($21.95 for adults, $15.95 for children) and see the awe-inspiring geodesic Desert Dome, you know you’re in for a treat. Don’t miss the primates, particularly the Western Lowland gorillas and Diana monkeys, as well as the lemur enclosure: Red-Ruffed lemurs are running free, sidling up close enough to touch (but don’t).

The Fontenelle Forest Nature Center has miles of hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty.
The Fontenelle Forest Nature Center has miles of hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty.  (CHRIS MACHIAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

To experience nature in a slightly different way, head farther south to the Fontenelle Forest Nature Center, on the Nebraska-Iowa border. The serene forest ($11 admission), along the Missouri River, has miles of trails of varying degrees of difficulty for those looking for a healthy hike. Don’t miss the Raptor Woodland Refuge, where the centre rehabilitates injured birds of prey. On my visit, Rusty, a red-tailed hawk suffering from a gunshot wound, and Minerva, a great horned owl that suffered two broken wings after a car hit her, both seemed to be recovering admirably.

Omaha’s Old Market area, a charming concentration of repurposed buildings over a century old, is worth a quick visit. Once the home wholesale and retail grocers in the city, there are now art galleries, shops and restaurants lining the brick streets. I parked my car in a $1-an-hour lot and stopped for an iced tea at Urban Abbey, which might best be described as a coffee house of worship, as it combines both a church and a coffee house.

There are modern church services in the shop’s warm, open space (“The World According to Mister Rogers” is the name of one sermon series) and part of my purchase ($2.50 for a mango peach iced tea) went to benefit Nebraska Appleseed, an organization that supports immigrant rights. I wondered if activism with a decidedly progressive bent struggled to thrive in a state as red as Nebraska, and I asked Eithne Leahy, an Omaha native who was working behind the counter. “It sort of works,” she said. “There’s lots of great work being done on a grassroots level with non-profits and churches. But with the government …” She paused. “Not so much.”

There’s as much to do in Omaha at night as there is during the day. A hip-hop variety night at the Reverb Lounge, hosted by DJ Houston Alexander, was a great place to kick back with an Old Style beer ($3.50) and enjoy music by local artists. Brothers Lounge, with carpeting and a fireplace, had a pleasingly dingy atmosphere that went well with the $1 bag of Gardetto’s and $4 Pyramid apricot ale I purchased. I snacked and listened to a couple of bands ($5 cover) that were playing that evening: The dreamy, synth-heavy Rogue Moon, and Media Jeweller, a four-piece outfit that I can best describe as Weezer meets Frank Zappa.

While I only caught the tail end of their show, I thoroughly enjoyed Dent May, a Los Angeles-based band playing at the Slowdown ($12). Their song “Born Too Late” was both pop-y and wistful; I liked it so much, I bought a band T-shirt. But little could compare to Hard Candy Omaha ($20), a drag show hosted by the Max, a gay club on Jackson Street downtown. In a saunalike room jam-packed with people, the evening’s emcee introduced a series of impeccably dressed performers who lip-synched, vogued and cartwheeled down a short runway to different popular songs (and the dollar bills of appreciative audience members).

Finally, the emcee gave the crowd what it had eagerly been awaiting. “Are you ready for something thin, white and salty?” he asked. The crowd roared with enthusiasm as the evening’s headliner, Miz Cracker, a popular drag performer who was on the reality series RuPaul’s Drag Race, came onstage to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and blew the roof off.

Nourishment is needed after any good night out, and Omaha proved more than up to the challenge. Steak is synonymous with the city, but good steak isn’t cheap. Fortunately, there are a number of good steak houses with reasonably priced lunchtime options. The Drover is one, a dimly-lit, cavernous restaurant with a very tasty 7-ounce, whisky-marinated sirloin ($15.95).

Johnny's Cafe is celebrating its 96th anniversary this year.
Johnny’s Cafe is celebrating its 96th anniversary this year.  (CHRIS MACHIAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Johnny’s Cafe, opened in 1922, greets diners with a vaguely intimidating, elaborately wrought set of metal front doors. Two long, pointed steer horns that act as handles foreshadow the meal to come. Johnny’s is a relic from a bygone era: red leather booths, martinis and plenty of taxidermy adorning the walls. The lunch special, a $9.96 prime rib sandwich (so-priced for the 96th anniversary of the restaurant) with fries and coleslaw, is tough to beat.

Check out Farine and Four if you’re after coffee — the bright, spacious cafe with an open kitchen also served a mean $8 herring toast when I visited. Nearby Spielbound is a good option, too. A board game cafe with more than 2,000 games ($5 for a day pass), it also serves coffee, beer and food. I stopped in for a good $3.75 hibiscus iced tea. On the slightly more upscale side of the dining spectrum, Yoshitomo in the Benson neighbourhood made for a great sushi stop one afternoon during their weekday happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.). The yaki gindara, torched sablefish with yuzu miso ($7.50), was particularly good.

And then there’s the Alpine Inn. It’s tough to explain my immediate love for this magnificent, slightly off-kilter establishment. Is it the outstanding fried chicken, hot and juicy on the inside with skin that shatters like the shell on a crème brûlée? Or is it the outdoor platform where raccoons and cats gnaw on the discarded chicken bones and potato wedges?

It might be Justine, who fretted over my ID for about five minutes, initially refusing to serve me the Coors Light I ordered. “Nope, nope,” she said, shaking her head. “You’ve got a baby face, this can’t be you.” The other week, she said, an underage woman working with a police sting operation came in trying to get served. “You promise you’re over 21?” she asked. “I promise,” I said, and she handed me my beer.

“You’re under arrest!” I said. Justine’s face fell for a second, then she burst into laughter when she saw that I was joking. “I swear I was about to jump over the bar and beat the hell out of you!” While I waited for my chicken, we made small talk, chatting about our families, the history of the inn — everything and nothing. I felt perfectly comfortable and at home; It was a feeling I’d become well acquainted with during my stay in Omaha.

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Travel & Escape

Why your hotel mattress feels like heaven (and how to bring that feeling home)

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(NC) Choosing the right mattress is a long-term investment in your health and well-being. To make a good choice for your home, take a cue from luxury hotel-room beds, which are designed to support the sound sleep of tens of thousands of guests, 365 nights a year.

“When we’re shopping for a mattress, we do lab testing, identify the best materials, bring in multiple mattress samples and have our associates test them,” explains David Rizzo, who works for Marriott International. “We ask for ratings on comfort level, firmness, body support and movement disruption. It takes 12 to 18 months just to research and select materials.”

Here, he shares his tips to pick the perfect mattress for your best sleep:

Understand your needs. People have different food and exercise preferences, as well as different sleep cycles. So, it’s no surprise that everyone has unique mattress preferences. Not sure whether a firm or a soft mattress is better? Rizzo says the best gauge is to ask yourself, “Do I wake up with aches and pains?” If the answer is no, you’re golden.

Foam versus spring. All mattresses have a core that is made up foam or innersprings or a combination of the two. Today’s foam-core mattresses contain memory foam — a material engineered by NASA to keep astronauts comfortable in their seats. It’s special because it retains or “remembers” its shape, yielding to pressure from the sleeper’s body, then bouncing back once the pressure is removed.

An innerspring mattress has an encased array of springs with individual coils that are connected by a single helical wire. This wire creates continuous movement across the coil that minimizes disruption if the mattress is disturbed, such as by a restless sleeper. According to Rizzo, the innerspring is “bouncier.”

Temperature preference. Consider how warm or cool you like to sleep, and factor in the construction of the mattress to find one with a temperature that suits you. The air space engineered into an innerspring mattress promotes ventilation, which some people find keeps them pleasantly cool. To accomplish the same purpose with a foam mattress (or the foam layer of an innerspring) it may be infused with metal, usually silver or copper, to help dissipate heat and humidity.

Need to test out the right mattress for your needs? Find the right fit during your next trip by booking your stay at marriott.com.

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Travel & Escape

How to make the most of summer travel

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(NC) One of the best parts of our short Canadian summers is the opportunity to enjoy them a little bit extra on long weekends. If you need ideas, check out these creative things to do whether you decide to stay in town or go away.

Do a dinner crawl. Pub crawls are fun for couples, friends and also families with older kids. For an exciting twist that stretches your dollars and lets you taste food from several spots before you get too full, try a dinner crawl. Eat apps at one restaurant, mains at another and dessert at another.

Go on a mini getaway. You don’t need to go very far to enjoy a vacation – exploring a Canadian city over a summer weekend is great way to treat yourself to a holiday. Whether it’s checking out the museums in Toronto or the parks in Vancouver, there’s something for everyone. For upgraded benefits, special experiences and the best rates guaranteed, join Marriott Bonvoy and book direct on Marriott.com.

Host a potluck. Perfect whether you’re staying at home or going to your cottage, gather friends and family together for some food and fun. A potluck is an easy and affordable way to host a big get-together and lets everyone try something new and swap recipes. Make the festivities extra special with a fireworks potluck, too – ask everyone to bring some fireworks or sparklers and put on a light show. Just be sure to follow local regulations for consumer fireworks.

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Travel & Escape

Lottoland: Here’s why Canadians love it!

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Lotteries have been in existence for many centuries now and it’s an open secret that most people enjoy playing a good lottery.

Asides from gauging your own luck, the thrill of playing, the anticipation of the results and the big wins every now and then is something most people look forward to. Since 1982, the lottery has been in Canada, but now there is a way to play both the Lotto and other international lotteries from Canada, all from the comfort of your home.

With Lottoland, all you need to do is register and get access to numerous international lotteries right from their website. The easy-to-use interface has all the information you need, and great amount of care has been taken to ensure that the online experience is similar—and even better—than if players were to visit each location personally.

The Powerball and Mega Millions lotteries are hitting record highs with their prize money, in what the organizers claim to be the largest jackpot in the history of the world. However, the U.S. has gambling laws that are state controlled and buying your ticket through an online broker can be considered gambling.

“No one except the lottery or their licensed retailers can sell a lottery ticket. No one. Not even us. No one. No, not even that website. Or that one,” Powerball’s website says.

Therefore, to stand a chance to win the $1.5 billion-dollar lottery jackpot it means you have to purchase your lottery tickets directly from a licensed retailer such as Lottoland.

Since 2013, Lottoland has been operating in Canada, rapidly growing in popularity amongst Canadians. Due to its easy of use and instant access to lotteries that were previously considered inaccessible—as Canadians had to travel all the way to the U.S. to purchase tickets in the past—Lottoland has attracted lots of visitors.

Currently, there about 8-million players on Lottoland, a figure that points to the reliability of the website.

One of the core values of Lottoland is transparency and that’s why a quick search on the website would show you a list of all of their winners. Recently, a Lottoland customer was awarded a world-record fee of $137 million CND.

Also, due to the incredibly slim chances of winning the grand prize not everyone would take home mega-dollar winnings, but there are substantial winnings every day.

Securing your information online is usually one important factor when registering on any platform and as the site explains, “Lottoland works very hard to verify your information.”

The site has a multi-verification process that will ensure that you confirm your identity and age before giving you a pay-out. However, in the rare case that a player has immediate luck and wins a lottery before completing the verification process, Lottoland will hold on to the winnings until they complete your verification.

While this might seem like a tedious process, it is very important as these safety features would ensure that your information wasn’t stolen and ultimately your winning routed to another account.

Lottoland is licensed with the National Supervisory Bodies For Lotteries in several countries such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Sweden, Ireland and Australia—where it is called a wagering license. Typically, most gaming companies don’t establish insurance companies as it entails that their activities have to be transparent and the must be highly reputable in the industry.

Nonetheless, Lottoland has no issues meeting up to these standards as they have established themselves as the only gaming sector company who has its own insurance company—an added advantage for new and existing users.

Lotteries aren’t the only games Canadians enjoy playing and Lottoland recognizes this by providing players with other types of gaming. As an industry leader, video designers of online games often make them their first choice when it comes to publishing their works.

Online games such as slots, blackjack, video poker, baccarat, keno, scratchoffs, roulette and many others are always on offer at the Lottoland Casino. There’s also the option of playing with a live dealer and a total of over 100 games.

Lottoland has received numerous rave reviews from its growing list of satisfied customer and their responsive customer service agents are always available to answer any questions users may have, along with solving challenges they may have encountered.

More and more Canadians are trooping to Lottoland in droves due to the unique experience of going to a casino without having to leave the comfort of their homes.

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