Hello, Columbus

At the Topiary Garden in Columbus, a Seurat painting is re-created using artfully pruned shrubs. About 20 miles away at the Columbus Zoo, below, children get a close look at a gorilla.
At the Topiary Garden in Columbus, a Seurat painting is re-created using artfully pruned shrubs. About 20 miles away at the Columbus Zoo, below, children get a close look at a gorilla. (By Andrea Sachs -- The Washington Post)
By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007

This year, Columbus Day came a little earlier than usual.

Nearly two weeks before the holiday, I arrived in the Ohio capital on the wings of Skybus, a new low-fare carrier that started daily nonstop service between Richmond and Columbus in May and has been adding destinations since. The airline, modeled after Europe's ascetic Ryanair, entices travelers with fares that, in some cases, are less than a cab ride in the District: On every flight on every route, the airline allots 10 seats to be $10 one way.

Unfortunately, I wasn't one of the quick-draw bookers who snagged the deal. Instead, I paid $71 round trip (including taxes), which I've easily dropped on sushi and a concert. But instead of sashimi and an encore, I was on a quest for some Buckeyes-style entertainment. After all, this is the home of Ohio State, and the Big Ten refers to more than just a Skybus bargain.

Columbus is a full-blown metropolis, with enough attractions to cram a week's itinerary and overwhelm a day's calendar. The Arch City has the requisite diversions: culture (Columbus Museum of Art, Wexner Center for the Arts), sports (Blue Jackets hockey, Bruce Lee Legends of Martial Art Hall of Fame Museum), nature (Olentangy River Greenway) and "theme" neighborhoods, such as German Village and Victorian Village. However, when time is short, you have to be shrewd and even selfish with your hours. Yes, a tour of the Ohio Statehouse would enrich my brain, but honestly, I'd rather see Fluffy the snake at the Columbus Zoo, said to be as long as 31 children. (Would love to have witnessed that measurement.)

Having declined the airline's offer of an $8 egg, sausage and cheese sandwich, I headed downtown to the Lynn Alley Market for a bite of breakfast. On Tuesdays and Fridays through October, 12 to 30 vendors line the narrow passageways between Broad, High, Gay and Third streets, sharing exterior wall space with the Rhodes State Office Tower. Initially, I was wary of ducking into a shadowy alley, yet the merry sound of a live accordion allayed any concerns of a sinister setup. Plus, the sellers, full of smiles and small talk, were tossing out enough free samples to build a meal: a crisp red apple, a handful of pralines, a thick slice of Popeye bread (spinach, parmesan, red bell peppers) accompanied by a metal bucket of butter.

However, the alley is not the most pastoral picnic setting. A better option is the stunning Topiary Garden in Old Deaf School Park, which features a re-creation of Georges Seurat's pointillist painting "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" made entirely of greenery. The garden is ringed by a few tables and benches where visitors idled in the sun, chatting or reading the day's news. Yet I was alone among the 54 sculptural figures, plain old shrubs transformed into a monkey, an elegant couple, a scene of artful leisure.

As any fan of David Letterman's knows, frequent "Late Show" guest Jack Hanna is the rock star of zoology, and his amphitheater is the Columbus Zoo, about 20 miles north of the garden. And while viewings of the director emeritus are spotty, Fluffy has no place to hide. Such is the life of a 24-foot-long, 303-pound reticulated python with a kitten's name.

The zoo stresses education and conservation, and the animal residents and human visitors seem to share personal space. For example, in Asia Quest, where Fluffy lives in a spacious glass cage, I stood yards from an African elephant shifting hay around with her trunk like a bored housewife. I could hear her enormous ears flapping in the wind and her vacuum-extension nose blowing out air. I also could imagine her stomping over the low fence and using me as a barbell. I slowly backed away . . .

With six theme areas, plus a boat ride through "Southeast Asia," you can get quite a workout exploring the zoo. I, however, saved my leg warmers for punk aerobics at the Surly Girl Saloon, in the happening neighborhood of Short North (vintage clothing shops, tapas bars, art galleries, organic coffeehouse, etc.). For two years, the bar has been holding the free weekly exercise program, which is basically Jane Fonda getting physical in a mosh pit. The Cramps, the Clash and the Buzzcocks can really get the heart thumping.

For about an hour, eight of us hopped, stretched and crunched abs on the wood floor. Neither instructor really knew what she was doing: Amanda Waluzak frequently fell back on her geek-jogging-in-place move, while bar co-owner Marcy Mays regressed to her wild groupie days, head wagging and limbs flailing as if she were front row at a Ramones show.

Surly Girl gives aerobics participants $1 off a Salty Wench, but I wanted my nightcap to be in a place where sleep -- and good grooming -- are irrelevant. The Blue Danube is a well-known college dive bar near campus, where students add to their Freshman 15, pore over Freud and basically fritter away the night.

I couldn't be as capricious with my time, since my 'bus home was leaving in a few hours. As the amber color drained from my glass, I realized that my holiday was drops away from being over. Then again, with some savvy planning and a spare 10 bucks, I won't have to wait until next October for another Columbus day.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company