By Arvin Steinberg
Many people who have never visited Cincinnati and surrounding areas don’t realize all that this city has to offer. Cincinnati provides endless opportunities for family fun and adventure. But the city is also steeped in historical attractions and great educational experiences, some dating back to prehistoric times.
Even the food is top-notch. Do you like barbecue? If the answer is yes, Cincinnati has the place. On my first evening in Cincinnati I had dinner at Montgomery Inn Boathouse where they serve the best ribs I’ve ever tasted. The Inn is the #1 rib restaurant, and the #1 restaurant featuring barbecue in the entire United States, according to “Restaurants & Institutions” magazine. It is located on the banks of the Ohio River, and following dinner, I took a cruise on the river aboard a sightseeing boat. The Ohio River separates Ohio from Kentucky, and the cruise was a relaxing way to see the bridges connecting Ohio and Kentucky. I also had great views from the boat of the Cincinnati Reds baseball stadium and the Cincinnati Bengals football stadium as well as the Cincinnati skyline. Incidentally, the Cincinnati Reds baseball team is the oldest major league baseball team. BB Riverboats offers a one hour sightseeing cruise, adults $12.50, children $6.25.
One attraction that I did not want to miss in Cincinnati was the zoo. I knew that the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is one of the top five zoos in the United States, but my visit to the zoo far exceeded my expectations. It is the second oldest zoo in the country (opened 1875), and offers an animal collection beyond compare exhibited in 85 acres of naturalistic surroundings including Asian plants and jungle sounds. The zoo houses more than 700 different animal species and more than 3,000 types of plants.
There are more than 20 major exhibits at the zoo, and all of the exhibits are outstanding.
I especially enjoyed The Lords of the Arctic exhibit that features polar bears and allows visitors to view the bears walking through a shallow stream or plunging into a 12 foot deep, 70,000 gallon pool. Visitors can also view the polar bears almost nose-to-nose through underwater glass panels. The exhibit also has five dramatic waterfalls and a replica of a bear den with educational interactives.
Another exhibit, Manatee Springs, provides spectacular underwater views face-to-face with two enormous manatees. A nearby wetland offers amazing views both from land and under water, of alligators and crocodiles.
In addition to the animal exhibits, there are 12 special gardens at the zoo. There are also three entertaining and educational shows at the zoo, Elephants and Man, Wings of Wonder, featuring free-flying birds of prey and talking parrots, and Cats, Cats, Cats, with rare and exotic cats including cheetahs and ocelots.
Admission to the zoo: Adults $11.50, children $6.00, children under two are free, shows are free with zoo admission, adult and child strollers are available.
For a fascinating historical and educational experience for your family, I recommend visiting the small town of Ripley, Ohio, an hour’s drive from Cincinnati along the Ohio River. Ripley, located on the Ohio River, became the point of entry to Ohio for hundreds of fugitive slaves during the years before emancipation. They were helped on their way by some of Ripley’s leading citizens, who secretly cooperated in the illegal activities of aiding and hiding the slaves on their way to freedom.
Rev. John Rankin, a white Presbyterian minister, was an outspoken opponent of slavery. His house situated high on a hill overlooking the town of Ripley and the Ohio River, was a stopping point for slaves who crossed the river from the slave holding state of Kentucky into the free state of Ohio. Most of the 2,000 slaves who traveled through Ripley before the end of the Civil War stayed in the home of John Rankin. The Rankin family, which included 13 children, often hid as many as 12 slaves in their small home at one time.
In the winter of 1838, a slave woman and her baby crossed the Ohio River from Kentucky on floating sheets of ice to the safety of the Ripley shore. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a resident of Cincinnati at the time, included that story and others she heard from John Rankin about escaping slaves, in her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
The Rankin House is now a National Historic Landmark. I toured this interesting house and even retraced the route of escaping slaves by walking up the “stairway to liberty” which was built on the hill slaves climbed to reach the Rankin House – and safety. Admission: adults $2.00, children (ages 6-12) $.50.
Another National Historic Landmark in Ripley is the Parker House that faces the Ohio River and northern Kentucky. It is the former home of John P. Parker, an African American who was born into slavery and escaped into freedom. He moved to Ripley where he became a prominent inventor and business leader. John P. Parker often ventured daringly at night into Kentucky to guide fugitive slaves in crossing the Ohio River. He is reported to have aided more than 900 people en route to freedom.
The network of safe houses and trails that helped slaves flee the South before the Civil War is known as the Underground Railroad. Plans are underway to open a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati in 2003. The site for this new museum is on the land between the Reds baseball stadium and the Bengals football stadium on the banks of the Ohio River.
After spending the morning in Ripley, I had lunch at Coheart’s River House Restaurant about two blocks from the Parker House. The restaurant overlooks the Ohio River and serves tasty country cooking.
After lunch I drove on State Route 41 north from Ripley for about an hour and 15 minutes through scenic rural Adams County, Ohio. I arrived at Serpent Mound State Memorial situated on 56 acres in the northern part of Adams County, and I was still only an hour’s drive from Cincinnati.
Serpent Mound is a prehistoric structure that apparently represents an uncoiling serpent thought to have been built by the Fort Ancient people more than 1,000 years ago. This animal effigy mound is 1,350 fee in length (about a quarter of a mile). It is considered to be the largest and finest snake effigy in North America. Studies of Serpent Mound began in 1846 and still continue today. Serpent Mound was not built over any burials or remnants of living areas, nor were any artifacts found to identify which prehistoric people constructed it. But it undoubtedly symbolized a significant religious or mystical principle for the builders of Serpent Mound because of the time and effort that must have been spent constructing it. Admission: $5.00 per vehicle.
There is a Serpent Mound museum on the premises, and also a craft workshop for children and adults to make various items using primitive tools.
After leaving Serpent Mound, I drove south about a half hour to visit Miller’s Bakery and Furniture, an Amish owned and operated business in West Union, Ohio. This is a stop I think most families would find interesting and educational.
The Amish first settled in this area in the mid-1970’s. There are about 80 Amish families now living there. Visitors will notice the horse drawn buggies and the absence of utility poles, since the Amish people do not use electricity. Of course the characteristic plain dress of the Amish people is evident.
Members of the Miller family were originally farmers and baked for themselves and other Amish. As word spread beyond the Amish of their fresh and tasty baked goods, they began to sell their goods from their farmhouse to everyone. They now have a separate building for their bakery and the building has been expanded to include a bulk food store. Continued growth led to the building of a large furniture store.
It was fun browsing in the stores, but it was also a pleasure to see a family working together and expanding a farm into several thriving businesses. Miller family members are happy to stop working and chat with visitors, but the Amish don’t like to be photographed. However, I did take a photo of a table full of freshly baked pies as a souvenir of my visit.
If you like museums, Cincinnati has some of the most interesting ones in the nation. The city has an entire museum center located in an Art Deco building, the former Union Terminal. Once a bustling train station, the Cincinnati Museum Center is now a major tourism destination with more than a million visitors a year. There are three museums at the Center: Cinergy Children’s Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, and the Cincinnati History Museum. The center also has an OMNIMAX theater.
The Cinergy Children’s Museum has nine state-of-the-art, totally interactive exhibits appropriate for infants to ten year olds.
I enjoyed watching The Woods exhibit where children can look out from a two-story tree house (it is wheel- chair accessible) to view the real waterfall that empties below into a pond of live river creatures. They can also cross the rope bridge spanning the “river” below, or try the horizontal climbing wall.
Another exhibit, Little Sprouts Farm, is ideal for children four years of age or younger. Toddlers and preschoolers can ride down a slide through the barn, sort fruits and vegetables in the garden, fish from a row boat, play at a sand table, and gather around the story tree theater for puppet shows.
The second museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, has eight excellent exhibits for visitors of all ages.
My favorite was the Cave exhibit, a simulated Kentucky Limestone cave, complete with underground waterfalls, streams, fossils, and a live bat colony.
The third museum, the Cincinnati History Museum, is one of the largest urban history museums in the country. It includes a re-creation of the Cincinnati Public Landing in the late 1850’s, where visitors can step aboard a 94-foot steamboat. Plus, visitors can talk with costumed actors who make “history come to life”.
Prices at the Museum Center: Any one museum $6.50 for adults and $4.50 for children (ages 3 through 12); any two museums $9.00 for adults and $6.00 for children (ages 3 through 12); all three museums $12.00 for adults and $8.00 for children (ages 3 through 12). OMNIMAX tickets are $6.50 for adults and $4.50 for children.
If you would like to have some outdoors fun and physical activity, you can find it within 30 minutes of Cincinnati. One day I drove to The Dude Ranch in Morrow, Ohio. This is a working cattle ranch that offers horseback and trail riding, and authentic cattle drives. It also has a petting zoo of farm animals and pony rides for younger children. Horses are available for all ability levels, including horses perfect for children seven and up.
After explaining that I wanted to experience the best the ranch had to offer, but that I had almost no horseback riding experience, I joined a group of 12 novice horseback riders. We mounted our horses and began single file down a slope and then up through a wooded area. Two experienced cowboys rode with us. Here I was in Ohio, but I felt like I was in Texas. And that was only the beginning! We then came to a pasture where about 35 Texas Longhorn cattle were grazing. The cowboys instructed us on how to spread out and form a “U” shape and how to drive the cattle through an open gate in the fence into another pasture and then through another open gate into a third pasture. They explained how to advance our horses and shout repeatedly “YAW”, “HAW”, “MOVE”, or anything else that would get the Longhorns moving. What fun it was driving the cattle. I had become a “wrangler”. Prices: pony rides $5.00; 1 hour trail ride $27.50; 1 hour cattle drive $39.95.
After leaving The Dude Ranch, I drove about 15 minutes to Morgan’s Canoe Livery, situated on the Little Miami River, in Oregonia, Ohio. The river was designated as a National Scenic River more than 20 years ago and is considered one of the top ten scenic rivers in the United States. This particular area of the river is the most natural and undisturbed sections of the river.
I opted to join eight others for a raft ride down the river. The beautiful scenery and seclusion plus the ripple of the river were so relaxing. We saw lots of campsites and fishermen along the way. We didn’t have to do much paddling. The river itself kept us moving at a slow leisurely pace.
Also, Ohio has been the home to eight U. S. presidents, including William Howard Taft of Cincinnati. I enjoyed the interesting guided tour of the home where the president lived. It is also a National Historical Site. Next door to the home is the Taft Education Center that opened in 1999 with many interesting exhibits.
For roller coaster fanatics and all those young at heart, Paramount’s Kings Island amusement park is a 15-minute drive from Cincinnati. It features 364 acres packed full of world-class attractions, including 12 roller coasters, two complete areas for children, and characters from Hanna-Barbera Land and Nickelodeon. There are also several scheduled shows and a 30-acre water park with a 600,000-gallon wave pool. Two of the roller coasters deserve special mention. The Beast is the world’s longest wooden roller coaster, and Son of Beast is the world’s tallest, fastest, and only looping wooden roller coaster. Admission: Adults $39.99, children ages 3-6 $19.99, children under 2 years free.
For more information on tourism in Ohio, phone 1-800-BUCKEYE; www.OhioTourism.com
Photos by Arvin Steinberg