During the many air and road trips I’ve taken over the years I had managed to visit or work in 46 of our 50 states and 107 countries. When the prodigal daughter moved to the Midwest, it made sense to take a drive next door and see a bit of the Buckeye State. (Sorry Dakotas and Maine — that will have to wait for another day.)
Living in dry, often drought-stricken California, the first thing one notices about Ohio, even near downtown Cleveland, is how green it is. If it’s possible to have water table envy, then here it would be acute. This naturally comes with the need to never lose one’s umbrella. And when it comes down, while it can end quickly, it can pour so furiously that windshield wipers are an adored automotive accoutrement.
Museums, rock and roll and RBG, oh my
Cleveland’s University Circle is a cultural and social hub with world-renowned museums – many of which are free – universities, parks, fountains and restaurants. Though Cleveland is not a walking city, this area is a pleasure to stroll.
The Cleveland Museum of Art has an excellent collection of European impressionists including numerous Picassos, several well-curated Asian art exhibits and an entire hall dedicated to suits of armor. The atrium’s Provenance Restaurant had irresistible oversized white chocolate, macadamia nut cookies. Clevelandart.org
Nearby, the Cleveland Botanical Gardens contain 10 acres of impeccably maintained outdoor gardens and a two-part, 18,000-square foot glasshouse. The Madagascan desert biome section houses two-toned, 3-inch hissing cockroaches, the world’s largest. I was pleased as punch that their abode was fully enclosed. In the other biome, a Costa Rican rainforest, shimmering Blue Morphos and other butterfly species skittered about. Holdenfg.org
Downtown near the waterfront, rock and roll fans will swoon at the Hall of Fame, often called Rock Hall. Designed by I.M. Pei 26 years ago, it has seven floors filled with Fenders, Gibsons, photos and interactive exhibits of the music greats. The Super Bowl half-time shows tribute was exceptional. Rockhall.com
As a longtime Ruth Bader Ginsberg fan, I enjoyed the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage’s retrospective, running through Aug. 29, on the trailblazing U.S. Supreme Court justice and cultural icon, affectionately known as RBG. Devoted to diversity and tolerance, Maltz’s permanent exhibit hall houses the fantastically curated “An American Story” reflecting the Jewish experience in Cleveland and the northeast from first arrivals to present. Several stunning Chagall pieces line the gallery section. Maltzmuseum.org
In Cleveland Heights’ Fairmont section is Zhug, named after a Yemeni hot sauce. Listed last year by Esquire as one of 23 best new restaurants in America, Zhug is headed by James Beard-nominated chef Doug Katz.
Katz doesn’t rest on laurels. In a minimalist, casual space, sharable plates were fresh, unique and inspired. Highlights were feta and leeks with scallion-pistachio pistou, warm, tangy citrus cured olives with fennel pollen and hot chili flakes and grilled eggplant moussaka with lentils and button mushrooms. While the creamy tahini ice cream sundae sealed the deal, a server was nearly abducted while walking by with another table’s order of Yemenite curry fried chicken with harissa. Zhugcle.com
The weather was perfect for al fresco dining at University Circle’s L’Albatros Brasserie & Bar. The onsite garden provided the freshest salad greens and the menu had a nice mélange of traditional bistro fare: terrine du chef, escargots and foie gras mousseline, but also had pizzas, roasted cod and burgers with Guggisberg Swiss cheese. More on that later. albatrosbrasserie.com
With its landmark 137-foot clock tower, downtown’s West Side Market has over 100 food vendors, including an abundance of tantalizing baked items and the perfect place to gather picnic provisions and bags quickly became full. Nearby Lakefront Reservation next to Edgewater Park was the spot to revel in Lake Erie’s vast beauty. Waves and marvelous sunsets made it feels downright ocean-like.
Along Route 71, rolling hills appeared like emerald shaded carpets interspersed with homes and farmhouses. An intentional 13-mile detour brought me to Mansfield, home to the 250,000-square foot Ohio State Reformatory, which opened in 1896. The structure, boasting an exterior architecture combining Victorian Gothic, Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne styles, masked the harsh interior conditions well. The building, which once held 3,400 inmates, served as the set of “The Shawshank Redemption,” the film with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1995.
Displays of items made by former inmates include crude tattoo implements; there’s also a brief history of capital punishment with an actual electric chair used from 1897 to 1963 at Ohio’s first prison in Columbus. Several areas of the movie’s original set have been maintained, including Warden Norton’s office where – spoiler alert for anyone residing under a cinema rock – he ate his pistol.
The sheer magnitude of the prison, which had a hospital, chapel and library, is mind-boggling. Cells are so miniscule it’s hard to grasp how at its peak, 70 guards managed to control 3,400 prisoners. The Reformatory closed in 1990, but minimum-security Richland Correctional Institute is nearby – with several current inmates training guide dogs – and maximum-security Mansfield Correctional Facility is around the bend.
Loudonsville, population under 3,000, is Ohio’s canoe capital along the Mohican River and has a large livery. About 25 minutes away off Wally Road Scenic Bypass, amid towering trees, is Mohicans Treehouse Resort & Wedding Venue, known for its 15 treehouses, cabins and an elevated airstream. Comfortable accommodations with kitchens or kitchenettes and excellent bedding served as digital detox, a base for hiking in the 1,100-acre Mohican State Park with its striking views of Clear Fork Gorge and visiting several regional Amish towns. Themohicans.net
Historic, charming Millersburg has some great antique shops and a beautifully restored 1885 courthouse. Throughout this area there are signs to yield to Amish horse-drawn vehicles. And yield one must, as the buggies, with their traditionally dressed and hatted occupants, are ubiquitous.
Along Millersburg’s border with the township of Charm rests the Guggisberg Cheese Factory, where, since the 1940s, the family-owned business has been using milk from local farms to create a creamy and delicious product, forever altering my view of the holey cheese. It’s one of the leading Swiss cheese producers in the U.S.
In Berlin, another antique mecca, visitors will want to stop at Boyd & Wurthmann for a slice of the restaurant’s signature peanut butter pie.
Though I traversed only a bit of this friendly, perpetual swing state, its slogan “The heart of it all” seems true when you consider that nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population is located within 500 miles of Ohio’s capital of Columbus.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com. Some vendors hosted the writer however content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.