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The Heritage-Filled Midwest

Wilber, Nebraska

Immersion into the Czech culture and heritage is a given in Wilber, located 90 miles southwest of Lincoln. Year-round, Czech music plays over loudspeakers in the downtown, which boasts European-style architecture. Every storefront prints the Czech pronunciation of its business name on its signage. Many sell Czech imports and breads, kolache and meats.

“Our community honors our heritage and culture 365 days a year,” said Sheryl Kastanek, president of the Wilber Chamber of Commerce and secretary of the Nebraska Czechs of Wilber. “Groups can take a docent-guided walking tour and explore the Wilbur Czech Museum that preserves artifacts of Czech pioneers who settled in Nebraska.”

Each year, Wilber hosts the largest ethnic festival in the Midwest. This tiny town of 1,800 residents recruits 1,000 volunteers for the event. In addition to the festival’s 50 bands, the two-hour parade on both Saturday and Sunday showcases bright Czech colors and lots of music.

The Wilber Claytonia Alumni Marching Band is made up of approximately 200 past band students, ages 18 to 80, who return from across the nation to play in the parade. Folk dancers perform at the outdoor theater, and more than 75 teenagers dance the intricate Befeda, Czechoslovakia’s national dance.

Amish Country, Indiana

With its distinct sense of place, the Amish country of northern Indiana is home to one of the nation’s largest Amish communities. Quaint family-operated shops located in friendly hometowns welcome groups, and crafters are always eager to share a piece of their tradition. Group leaders might have difficulty deciding between the number of interesting tours available in the area.

The Quilt Gardens Tour along the Heritage Trail is a tour of 19 gigantic gardens planted in the shapes of quilt patterns and 21 supersize quilt art murals that contain a total of 38 quilt designs found in seven communities. Master gardener step-on guides bring the tour to life.

Other opportunities to learn about the Amish lifestyle include a visit to an Amish buggy shop, a coffin tour and a tour called the Real Housewives of the Amish. The Amish Acres Historic Farm and Heritage Resort looks at the Amish from a historical viewpoint, and its Restaurant Barn features a thresher’s dinner.

“Our experience is all about understanding and connecting with the Amish in their homes and their places of business,” said Sonya Nash, director of destination experiences for Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Amish have many products that they use only in their culture, and visitors can chat with the Amish and ask questions.”

The CVB specializes in building an itinerary with insider tips and recommendations specifically for each group, from quilts to food, gardening and crafts.

Pella, Iowa

An itinerary that includes Pella will transport groups to the Netherlands without their ever leaving the continent. Brick streets are lined with narrow European storefronts and galleries. Shops sell intricate Dutch lace and hand-painted delftware. Patio dining takes place along the canal.

Along the Molengracht Plaza, groups can stay at the Royal Amsterdam Hotel and stroll the bricked pedestrian walkways along the authentic Dutch canal. At regular intervals, the Klokkenspel’s 48-inch figurines perform the music generated by its 147-bell, computer-driven carillon. Container gardens and 18th-century Dutch storefronts surround a working drawbridge.

Pella Historical Village delights with flower gardens, architectural models and antique Dutch heirlooms brought to Pella by immigrants from the Netherlands. The Vermeer Windmill still works, and tours include the observation and grinding level.

“We grind grain in the mill, and the Jaarsma Bakery uses it in their windmill bread,” said Jill Vandevoort, director of the Pella Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Groups can tour the Scholte house and gardens, the home of Pella’s founder, which has 22 rooms and is over 150 years old.”

Pella’s celebrated Tulip Festival takes place the first full weekend in May. On Thursday nights on the square in June and July, themed evenings feature the city band, the farmers market, entertainment, food and more. Fall brings the Herfst Feest, with street performers and a wine walk. Second in popularity to the Tulip Festival is the Pella Christmas Tour of Homes.

Elizabeth Hey

Elizabeth Hey is a member of Midwest Travel Journalists Association and has received numerous awards for her writing and photography. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @travelbyfork.