Fans of Vera Bradley products—those colorful quilted handbags you see everywhere—know Fort Wayne as the company’s headquarters and flock to Indiana’s second-largest city every April for the Vera Bradley Outlet Sale. Anyone planning girlfriend trips for the annual event know the hotels are packed that weekend and realize they need to book rooms well in advance.
More than 72 truckloads of Vera Bradley merchandise—from duffels, baby bags and backpacks to wallets, jewelry boxes and checkbook covers—fill the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum during the outlet sale (set for April 11-15, 2012). Ladies from around the country prowl the aisles, sorting through piles and piles for just the right style, pattern and color. Surveying the frenetic scene during a Fort Wayne CVB fam trip this past spring, I spotted one lady with 15 bags slung on one arm, 10 on the other. Many walked out with three or four garbage bags full of Vera treasures sold at discounts of 40 to 70 percent. The limit per buyer is $3,000.
During the outlet sale, hotels offer shuttle service to and from the Coliseum. Shuttles also serve Jefferson Pointe shopping mall, site of a large Vera Bradley store.
If your group is touring Fort Wayne any other week of the year, its Vera Bradley experience will be limited to the Jefferson Pointe store. The company does not offer tours or an outlet store at its headquarters. Bags are manufactured in Fort Wayne and other locations around the country.
But there’s more to this Northern Indiana city of 300,000 than Vera Bradley.
Some of the finest chocolate in the country is made at DeBrand Chocolatier, which offers tours of its kitchens. After a short video, guests get a chance to peek through the windows and perhaps see caramel pretzel bars being enrobed in chocolate or the production of gelato in flavors like sweet potato, apricot, orange peel and marzipan. Samples are given out along the way. The premium chocolate, priced at $42 a pound, is shipped around the world, as far away as Australia. After a tour of the immaculate facility, guests can peruse the chocolate shop or relax over coffee, hot chocolate or a sundae in the elegant, wood-trimmed cafe.
Edy’s ice cream also is made in Fort Wayne, and group tours—with sampling—are available. In nearby St. Joe, tour Sechler’s pickle plant and learn how cucumbers are transformed into more than 40 varieties of pickles.
The highly rated Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo really appeals to all ages, but lower barriers and a number of interactive features make it especially kid-friendly. Besides looking at animals, visitors can pose with an orangutan statue, lie on a hammock and hit an Indonesian gong. Other activities include taking the Skyride over the African Journey grounds, hand-feeding giraffes and watching the daily sea lion feeding. Australian Adventure features the Great Barrier Reef Aquarium, Walkabout Aviary and habitats for wallabies and kangaroos. Come nose-to-nose with Sumatran orangutans, a python and Komodo dragon under the geodesic dome at Indonesian Rainforest.
Parkview Field, home of minor league baseball’s Fort Wayne TinCaps, is the jewel of downtown. The Single-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres draws 400,000 fans a year to the retro-style brick ballpark, one of the most attractive and popular minor league stadiums in the country since it opened in 2009. Many games are sellouts. It also boasts the second largest video board in the minors.
Now in its third season, the Midwest League team (formerly the Wizards) has a distinctive logo—a feisty red apple character wearing an overturned tin pan. The mascot (Johnny) is patterned after Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman), a local legend who roamed this part of Indiana (and Ohio and Michigan) planting apple seeds. He supposedly carried his cook pot on his head to free up his hands for handing out seeds. Chapman, buried in a local cemetery, is remembered every September during the Johnny Appleseed Festival.
Affording good views of downtown Fort Wayne, Parkview Field offers groups a variety of seating options, from exclusive suites and a picnic pavilion to left field’s Home Run Porch with padded seats and waiter service. Besides four concession stands, there are 18 carts peddling everything from Mexican specialties to cheesesteaks. The Treetops area across the street, modeled after the rooftop buildings overlooking Wrigley Field in Chicago, offers an all-you-can-eat menu.
Family-friendly features include between-innings entertainment, fireworks and running the bases after the game. The ballpark is open to the public during non-game times, and joggers are often seen on its concourse. The field also hosts concerts and other events.
Downtown attractions also include the Embassy Theatre, a restored 1920s movie palace/vaudeville house that presents concerts, Broadway shows and headliners like Jerry Seinfeld. Tours are available of this brick-and-terra cotta gem saved from the wrecking ball.
Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, another downtown oasis, has four outdoor gardens in addition to the Tropical Garden with orchids and palms and the Sonoran Desert Garden.
For more information, contact the Fort Wayne CVB, 800-767-7752; www.visitfortwayne.com.