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Music and Meals in Oberlin, Ohio

OK, so it's not Greece or Italy...but little Oberlin is worth writing about.

We've entered a new phase: looking at colleges (wasn't it just a few months ago that I was writing about how to travel with toddlers?). And with its combination of strong academics and a world-class music conservatory, Oberlin has been at the top of my daughter's list for about a year now.

So, during school vacation week, we bundled a lot of small suitcases into the back of our new hatchback and headed west, to visit Oberlin and one other school. We did the other school first; neither the city nor the school were memorable.

But Oberlin...by the time we left, we joked that we should all apply to college there, including my 12-year-old son.

Driving about ten hours from home, we arrived at the main square, all in bloom with the full effect of green and pink and white and purple from the dogwoods, magnolias, cherries, and more—a delightful first impression.

The college borders the square on three and a half sides; one of the two main shopping streets in the tiny downtown fills in the remainder. And the college buildings are attractive, mostly built of stone, around the turn of the 20th century or a few decades later but made to blend in with the older buildings. Others, including the conservatory, are newer and don't try to hide it. Apparently the college had been built originally (starting in the 1830s) right through the square, and a rich benefactor actually funded a plan to tear down most of the buildings and rebuild them around the perimeter, creating a town/college green.

Culturally, Oberlin is thriving. Concerts are a constant; the conservatory alone offers over 1000 free classical, world music, and jazz concerts per year, including the mandatory junior- and senior-year recitals, as well as performances by faculty and visiting artists. Our first night in town, we got to choose among five, settling on a junior student's French horn recital: three classical pieces and a hot salsa-jam-style original composition.

On our second night, we skipped the recitals and a major theater production in favor of a concert by the misnamed Oberlin Chamber Orchestra, which is really a full symphony with dozens of players. This took place in magnificent Finney Chapel, dominated (as is the main conservatory concert hall) by a massive pipe organ. The conductor was #2 at the Cleveland Philharmonic, and this orchestra was so tight and talented that even Stravinsky managed to sound sweet. If I were choosing between the Oberlin orchestra and, say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra (which I've seen many times), I'd unhesitatingly vote for Oberlin.

There's also, we're told, a world-class art museum. Unfortunately for us, it didn't open until 10, and we'd planned to see it at 9 on our last morning. Oh, well!

But Oberlin students can actually check great masterpieces out for a semester at a time, for five dollars. And it's the same cost to rent a bicycle for the semester. Oh, and computers can be checked out of the library, if you don't feel like using one of the many computer labs and didn't bring your own.

The hospitality industry is small. We found the terrific Hallauer House bed and breakfast over the Internet, in an 1830 farmhouse two miles out, jammed with antiques and featuring very rich repasts in the morning. At $110 per night including tax, it was more than we usually pay for lodging, but the breakfast alone—an elaborate bread pudding the first morning, and creamed eggs on bread platters the second, plus homemade muffins, several kinds of juice, and a fruit cup with creme fraiche, served on fine China with antique-looking real silver cutlery—would have been $60 to $80 if the four of us had gotten the same meal in a restaurant, making the lodging cost seem quite reasonable. There are a few other B&Bs and a small inn right on the common.

As for restaurants...we found one very good one, the Weia-Teia, offering Asian-influenced fusion cuisine (such as goat cheese ravioli in a lemongrass curry sauce) at very reasonable prices. Our family of four spent $35 before tax and tip, ordering off the ample vegetarian menu. The regular menu emphasizes fish and seafood in similar around-the-world blends. We were also happy with our much less expensive meal at the Oberlin Market, a no-frills natural foods cafe. If all you've got near you are chain restaurants near highway exits, Oberlin will feel exotic and exciting. But living in a major restaurant destination as we do, to us, the dozen or so choices seemed limited.

But the students rarely dine outside the college, since they're all on the meal plan. A sizable portion eat in a dining co-op, saving several thousand dollars by cooking or cleaning five hours per week—and participating in one of the largest student-run corporations in the country (a rare opportunity to gain business skills in a school that doesn't offer much in the way of traditional business instruction; the acquisitions librarian even told me that he just doesn't buy business books). One of the co-ops is vegetarian, another vegan, and a third is Kosher/Halal. Several others offer more mainstream diets. Some students live in the co-ops, others lived in themed houses (foreign languages, ethnic groups, etc.), and others in the dorms: choice of same-sex or co-ed, freshmen only, upper-class only, or mixed.

Environmental and political awareness extends well beyond the 170 student organizations (it only takes three students to start a registered organization, if they can find a faculty member to sign off on it). One of the newest buildings on campus, the Environmental Science facility, is itself a working sustainability laboratory, with most of its power coming from the sun, graywater recycling feeding a greenhouse of very healthy looking plants, and so forth. The main science building, also spanking new, is a cheerful, sunny place whose architects actually consulted with the professor to design perfect lab and classroom spaces for their individual needs.

My own college experience was also at an innovative, progressive Ohio school—but one that perpetually struggles to make ends meet, and whose facilities are in constant disrepair. How exciting it would be to attend a school with such amazing resources! And while an Oberlin education is far from cheap, the school goes out of its way to make the experience memorable.

Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.


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