St. Louis: Gateway to the World

Come see the whole planet without ever leaving the Lou.

A St. Louis summer is a thing of wonder: You wonder how much hotter and how much more humid it can get before saltwater lakes of sweat spontaneously engulf the streets. It only makes sense that some people try to leave behind the burning concrete and the near-liquid air for cooler, breezier locales in the summer months.

But you're not one of those people.

Maybe you feel you deserve the punishment. Perhaps you are an ecologically conscious non-flyer. Or, more likely, you don't have two perspiration-soaked dollars to rub together.

Trust us, we understand.

Yet even if you're broke, you need to make the most of these hazy days. You need to feel like you've had a change of pace, a break from the everyday — we think that's what the charmed call a "vacation."

But how? You've been to all of the cultural institutions in St. Louis at one time or another. What else could there be to see? In a word: plenty. But you'll have to change that been-there-done-that attitude. You need to look at our local riches through the sunglass-lens of a vacationer.

That's what we're here to help you do.

So think back to that summer you spent backpacking through Europe, dining on piazzas and touring the treasures that are so old, they make our country seem like a newborn babe. Are you there? Now, keep those thoughts, and drive to Tower Grove Park (4256 Magnolia Avenue; 314-771-2679 or www.towergrovepark.org).

While there isn't anything quite that aged within the shady oasis, park founder Henry Shaw did salvage bits of the Lindell Hotel and place them around the fountain pond, creating an old-country vibe within these ruins. Lie among them, read a book, close your eyes, take deep breaths. You're starting to relax already!

To keep the Euro-sans-cash vibe going into the evening, try dinner outdoors at Sofia Bistro (7401 Pershing Avenue, University City; 314-862-5224 or www.sofiabistro .com). By offering lots of feta (to complement salads, apps, entrees, you name it) and tasty pasta dishes, this affordable spot dietetically covers the Mediterranean region. And the residential neighborhood ensures a peaceful sidewalk meal just like one of those you remember.

In addition to the refreshing al fresco dining, another charming part of the continental continent is its intricate network of trains, which transport you from country to country with just a few chug-chugs. So hop aboard your mind's Orient Express (in your hand-me-down car), and get over to the U. City Olive Link area (www.olivelink.net), a.k.a. Chinatown.

In Soo (8423 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-997-7473) and Lu Lu Seafood Restaurant (8224 Olive Boulevard, University City; 314-997-3108) are recommended eateries in these parts, and while you feast, you can pretend you're on a business trip as you peruse the St. Louis Chinese American News (www.scanews .com), our own bilingual newspaper. A few supermarkets populate this stretch of road, too, so you can bring some eats from Asia home with you.

But before you head back to your habitat, it's time to check out some creatures within their own natural space, like, say, Australia — by way of Grant's Farm (10501 Gravois Road; 314-843-1700 or www .grantsfarm.com). In the Tier Garten area, kangaroos make their home, but don't ask 'em for a Foster's (despite your exotic travels, you're still in Anheuser-Busch country). And if you're into a more rugged rendezvous in the wild, reserve a spot in advance for a private expedition through the farm's Deer Park area during an animal feeding ($150 for ten people). The buffalo will be roaming, and the atmosphere will be clear.

Or perhaps not. As we've discussed, sometimes the air around the confluence of our two great rivers doesn't feel so, well, fresh. When sticking your head in the freezer just isn't enough to lower your temperature, go to the only place that can cool your whole body at once: Antarctica, a.k.a. the Penguin & Puffin Coast at the Saint Louis Zoo in Forest Park (314-781-0900 or www.stlzoo.org).

Within this space, the Antarctic and South American gentoo penguin and its cold-weather buddy the king penguin chill all summer long, along with some of their other relatives. Too bad the water's a smidge too cold for you to swim alongside these smartly dressed birds.

It's also a shame that the zoo doesn't serve adult beverages on the coast — but if it did, most people would probably never leave. For your cocktail hour, you'll have to move up the eastern coastline of that friendly American continent to the south, right into Brazil — Yemanja Brasil (2900 Missouri Avenue; 314-771-7457 or www.brazildining.com), that is.

Here, the official drink of the largest country in South America, the caipirinha, flows like water (literally — the Yemanja folks have served more than 90,000 of 'em), and in fact, the restaurant offers a Rapid Caipirinha Rewards Card for those frequent drinkers. Buy ten of the sugar-lime-and-brandy delights by Saturday, June 30, and get one free! But know that the other drinks here are just as great — the batida de coco (coconut cream and vodka on ice) is like vacation in a low-ball.

But it's not time for a nightcap just yet. You still haven't ventured to Africa, or to the St. Louis African Arts Festival (314-935-9676 or www.stlafricanartsfest.org), happening Saturday through Monday (May 26 through 28) at the World's Fair Pavilion in Forest Park. A marketplace provides all manner of souvenirs you can purchase to take home from your journey, and dance, drum and other musical performances throughout each day will transport you across the Atlantic.

Then, all you have to do to get back there after the weekend-long fest is break bread at Meskerem (3210 South Grand Boulevard; 314-772-4442). This Ethiopian spot offers up cuisine from the eastern African nation every single day. Easy enough!

And if simplicity is what you crave, the end of summer is the time for an intense, two-day dose of all things international at the place where your "world" travels began, Tower Grove Park. On Saturday and Sunday (August 25 and 26), the grounds serve as the host of the International Institute's Best- of-St.-Louis-award-winning Festival of Nations (www.iistl.org/events/festival.asp). During this multicultural to-do, dance, dine, do a little shopping (the jewelry is divine), and celebrate diversity — that's what traveling is all about, right?

Well, that, and coming back home and realizing how much you love where you live, how much you missed your bed, how great your city really is. Despite whatever faults our little river town might have, she's a beauty, a place to be treasured, a metropolis to celebrate. Good thing you're sticking around this summer.

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