Catoosa: The Blue Whale
One of Tulsa’s premier Route 66 attractions was the giant Blue Whale sculpture, in the suburb of Catoosa, northeast of Tulsa along the stretch of the old road that runs from I-44 exit 240. The park, built as an animal-themed tourist attraction in the 1970s by Hugh Davis, a curator at the Tulsa Zoo, closed down long ago and was left to crumble. Unlike so many other long-suffering Route 66 landmarks, however, the Blue Whale has been lovingly restored by the family of its original creators (with a little help from the Hampton Inn brand of Hilton Hotels).
Catoosa, surprisingly, is also a major port, linked, by way of impressively engineered improvements to the Arkansas River system, to the Gulf of Mexico. Even more surprising may be the presence in Catoosa of the 20-story Hard Rock Casino (800/760-6700), where there are three acres of gaming, a 24-hour Route 66 Diner, and 454 plush rooms, plus big-name entertainers performing in the state-of-the-art concert hall.
Home to fine art deco buildings built during the 1920s boom years of the Oklahoma oil industry, Tulsa (pop. 403,090) is a bustling big city that doesn’t make a song-and-dance out of its many treasures. It’s a fascinating place to explore. If your time is limited, spend it at one of the country’s top art museums, the Gilcrease Museum (918/596-2700, Tues.-Sun., $8), on the northwest edge of town. Bought with the fortune benefactor Thomas Gilcrease made when oil was discovered on his land, the collection includes some of the most important works of Western American art and sculpture, with major works by Thomas Moran, George Catlin, and others, plus Native American artifacts and early maps that put the frontier region into its historical context. The expansive grounds include a lovely series of gardens and Mr. Gilcrease’s old house.
Due south of downtown Tulsa, the art deco spire of the Boston Avenue Methodist Church (1301 S. Boston Ave.) is a national landmark tower rising over Route 66. South of the Tulsa airport, a few blocks north of Route 66’s run along 11th Street, is a different sort of landmark: the Admiral Twin Drive-In (7355 E. Easton St., 918/878-8099, $3), which was a key setting in S. E. Hinton’s best-selling coming-of-age novel The Outsiders.
For dinner or a drink, the liveliest part of Tulsa is the Brookside district, south of downtown around 34th Street and Peoria Avenue, where there’s a handful of trendy cafés, nightclubs, and restaurants, including the R Bar and Grill (3421 S. Peoria Ave., 918/392-4811). Downtown, you can get a feel for the old days at the retro 1920s New Atlas Grill (415 S. Boston Ave., 918/583-3111), serving full breakfasts plus soups, salads, and lunchtime sandwiches in an art deco tower. Much of the old Route 66 frontage along 11th Street near the University of Tulsa has been rediscovered by retro-minded revivalists who enjoy the good honest food at Tally’s Café (1102 S. Yale Ave., 918/835-8039). Another fixture on Route 66 since the early 1950s is the El Rancho Grande (1629 E. 11th St., 918/584-0816), which still offers unreconstructed Mexican food.
The usual chain hotels and motels line all the freeways around Tulsa. There is a big Holiday Inn City Center (17 W. 7th St., 918/585-5898, $80 and up) downtown. For the full Route 66 experience, try the renovated and stylish Campbell Hotel (2636 E. 11th St., 855/744-5500, $135 and up).