Artful adventure in Lancaster: Explore creative pursuits in historic downtown

Explore creative pursuits in historic downtown

Artful adventure in Lancaster: Explore creative pursuits in historic downtown

Lancaster’s history is steeped in creativity. It’s the home of the Anchor Hocking Company, once the world’s largest maker of glass tableware. Today, artistic enclaves can be found throughout “Glass City,” near the Hocking River, just 30 minutes southeast of Columbus.

We found a bounty of opportunities for budding artists at businesses along Main Street in Lancaster’s historic downtown. We painted ornaments in a paint-your-own pottery studio, gazed at glass in a museum and toured an art exhibit at another. In between, we admired the unusual murals that decorate the alleys and parking lots.

All the while, we appreciated a slower pace and individualized attention at the businesses we visited, not to mention an absence of traffic and ease of parking.

Art & Clay On Main
150 W. Main St., Lancaster

Artful adventure in Lancaster: Explore creative pursuits in historic downtown

We started our adventure at Art & Clay On Main, located within a cheery, sea-foam green building in the heart of downtown. Here, you can order an espresso from the onsite Square Seven Coffee House and pick a piece of unpainted pottery from the shelves.

There’s no need to make a reservation, and the process is simple. We arrived at Christmastime, so among the plates, bowls, mugs and vases, we chose ornaments.

We filled our plastic palettes with paints, then sat at paint-splattered tables. The kids went freestyle with their designs, while I examined finished pieces for inspiration.

I took my time painting a cupcake design, enjoying the serenity of smearing on layer upon layer of dull glaze. An instructor helped me add bits of color that would later resemble sprinkles.

I saw on the calendar that local musicians periodically play for patrons and thought what a joy it would be to paint and listen to live music.

We left our pieces on a tray to be glazed and fired, and retrieved them the following Saturday, pleased as punch.

Ohio Glass Museum and Glass Blowing Studio
124 W. Main St., Lancaster

Artful adventure in Lancaster: Explore creative pursuits in historic downtown

Get a handle on Lancaster’s glass-making history and even blow glass yourself at the Ohio Glass Museum and Glass Blowing Studio, one of four museums in the downtown area. Others are the Sherman House Museum, Georgian Museum and the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, mentioned below.

I visited the glass museum on my own, after retrieving our family’s painted pottery next door, thinking that maybe a place that’s protecting precious glass isn’t the best spot for children. Au contraire!

The glass museum is a wondrous setting, filled with colorful glass collections that pay homage to Ohio’s once-booming glass industry. They include examples of vaseline glass, which contains uranium and glows under a black light. What kid wouldn’t like that?

I also learned that abundant supplies of natural gas and sandstone in this nook of Fairfield County made it a logical choice for the establishment of the glassmaking industry.

Visitors can produce glass pieces at the on-site glass-blowing studio. Classes, starting at $27, cover how make ornaments, flowers, paperweights and Pandora-like beads for a bracelet. Also be sure to check out the gift shop that’s chock full of locally made merchandise.

Decorative Arts Center of Ohio
145 E. Main St., Lancaster

Artful adventure in Lancaster: Explore creative pursuits in historic downtown

See an art exhibit at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio, located in the 1835-built Reese-Peters House adjacent to the Sherman House. The museum, open Tuesday through Sunday, is free to visit.

I popped in while the artwork of Nelly Toll was on display, and was impressed by the magnitude of the exhibit, which included more than 40 prints of her childhood paintings. When Toll was eight years old, she and her mother went into hiding for two years from Nazis occupying Poland in 1943. Amid tragedy, young Toll envisioned a brighter life through her watercolor paintings.

Besides thoughtful exhibits, check out the onsite Wendel Center for Art Education for equally thoughtful classes such as the Adult and Child Watercolor Workshop and the Art of Manners, where kids ages 8 through 17 can learn about table manners and cell phone etiquette.

While you’re in town, have lunch at JB’s Downtown Grill, 111 N. Columbus St. They’ve got kid’s entrees for less than $3, juke boxes on every table and tasty homemade ice cream cookie sandwiches.

Newport Aquarium: One of the nation’s finest fishy exhibits

One of the nation’s finest fishy exhibits

Newport Aquarium: One of the nation’s finest fishy exhibits

During our recent visit to Cincinnati, we made sure we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and scheduled a visit to the Newport Aquarium, billed as one of the top aquariums in the country.

We were glad we did. After spending a few hours making our way through the winding subterranean seascape, we felt it was perhaps the best aquarium we’ve ever visited.

As its name suggests, the aquarium is located in Newport, just across the Newport Southbank Bridge from Cincinnati. This is the “Purple People Bridge,” so named because it’s pedestrian-only and (you guessed it) is lighted purple at night. Of course, there are plenty of other bridges to drive across from Cincinnati to Kentucky if you prefer, the closest being highway I-471, known as the Daniel Carter Beard Bridge.

Parking was readily available (and affordable) outside the aquarium. The attraction is part of Newport on the Levee, a shopping and dining attraction that has lots of restaurants and stores, a movie theater, a bowling alley and even a “fish spa” called Garra.

Newport Aquarium: One of the nation’s finest fishy exhibits

Why did we like Newport Aquarium so much? Let’s start out with what you can see – more than 65 exhibits containing hundreds of aquatic species in 1 million gallons of salt and fresh water. The aquarium felt almost like a museum, albeit a crowded one.

We liked the clever reuse of the shark tank, allowing visitors to first go through it via a long tunnel, then ending the aquarium’s circuitous trek by walking over the open tank on a daredevilish bridge (that was fully netted).

Maybe it was the opportunity to see things we hadn’t seen before – like a white alligator that apparently gets along with turtles, and a giant Pacific octopus, which has the ability to camouflage itself and change its shape.

Newport Aquarium: One of the nation’s finest fishy exhibits

We also enjoyed the huge arapaima, one of the world’s largest freshwater fishes, which trolls the Amazon River. Visitors also can view seahorses in a large tank and go eye-to-eye with a penguin swimming under water.

Rosie and Max got a thrill by interacting with some of the sea life. They were able to touch a sea anemone, a horseshoe crab and a baby shark, then pop their heads through a porthole to see stingrays swimming around them.

It was these collective experiences that made Newport Aquarium memorable.

We did find that the passageways were sometimes a bit narrow for all the people there. This is one popular attraction, so if you can, try to visit during the week. There’s plenty of opportunity – Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year. We’re already looking forward to our next visit.

The Newport Aquarium is located at One Aquarium Way, Newport, Ky. Learn more at

Find cold-weather fun in Mansfield area

We’re on top of a snowy mountain, poised to plummet 1,100 feet down on a rubber inner tube.

With a push, we’re off and rushing toward the bottom, laughing all the way.

It’s Ohio, where the weather can fluctuate like the wind. Today it’s sunny and 50 degrees. But here, at the family-owned Snow Trails resort, we’re surrounded by snow.

Winter is no reason to hibernate in Columbus. We ventured to the Mansfield area, about 45 minutes north of Columbus, for a weekend adventure. We slid down the slippery slope, sought out waterfalls in a hemlock-filled forest and took a spin around a whimsical carrousel in a historic downtown.

Weather in these parts doesn’t hinder the experience. It only enhances it.

Snow Trails

Feel adrenaline of racing down a hill at this resort and lodge, which opened in 1961 and features skiing, snowboarding and tubing. If it’s not snowing, the owners of Snow Trails create it and spread it around using high-powered machines on the slopes.

Snow Trails offers six tubing lanes and a carpeted conveyor belt to transport you up the hill. Go Glow Tubing after dark Thursday through Sunday, when you can slide under a series of illuminated arches.

Warm up by a fire pit and grab some snacks indoors. No experience is needed, and all ages are welcomed, they told us. It’s fun to slide solo or grab onto your mates to form a chain.

We paid $25 per person for two hours of tubing, which was plenty of time. The cost included the use of a tube and transportation on the conveyor belt. Arrive early to avoid evening crowds.

Snow Trails is located at 3100 Possum Run Rd., Mansfield, and is open December through March. Learn more and make a reservation.

Mohican State Park

We pulled into the Mohican Lodge and Conference Center just in time for some games in the lively lobby before dinner. Mike taught Max how to play pool while Rosie and I played ping pong. Others played board games or sat in chairs that formed a circle around a fireplace.

The lodge is rustic and could use a facelift in some places. But what it lacked in style, it made up in its outdoor surroundings.

It’s situated in the 1,110-acre Mohican State Park, which is adjacent to the 4,525-acre Mohican-Memorial State Forest. Peaks and valleys formed here 12,000 years ago by glaciers define what is known today as the Clear Fork Gorge. This land was once explored by the Delaware Indians and frequented by John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, a pioneer who introduced apple trees to Ohio and neighboring states.

Mike and I set out on our own to explore the outdoors. We started at Pleasant Hill Lake, where we walked on a bridge at the Pleasant Hill Dam. We then took a two-mile looping path to investigate two waterfalls that jutted from sandstone cliffs. The Little Lyons Falls is visible from an overhead bridge. It drops 25 feet into a narrow gorge. The 80-foot Big Lyons Falls is more impressive and viewed beneath in a recess cave. We also visited a covered bridge that spans the Clear Fork River.

Mohican Lodge and Conference Center is located at 1098 Ashland County Rd., 3006, Perrysville, Ohio. Learn more.

Richland Carrousel Park

To a child, the only thrill greater than seeing an old-fashioned carousel is climbing aboard one of its shiny, majestic creatures. One of the best places for children of all ages to do just that in Ohio is in Mansfield.

The city pays homage to the amusement-park ride in its downtown Carrousel District, which features several blocks of unique shops and restaurants in beautifully restored Victorian buildings. There are restaurants on every block, seemingly. We enjoyed some good burgers and a couple pints of Guinness at Uncle John’s Place on Main Street.

At the heart of the area is the Richland Carrousel Park, where guests can ride an old-fashioned roundabout for $1. It has 52 animal figures, each carved and painted in a 1900s style by Carousel Works in Mansfield. Among the menagerie are 30 horses, several bears and ostriches, a zebra and a goat. The company also restored the rounding boards, mirrors and mural frames, which depict past and present attractions in Mansfield.

The ride is housed in a heated pavilion that contains the carousel and a gift shop featuring musical figurines and other playful items.

The Richland Carrousel Park is located at 75 N. Main St., Mansfield. It’s open seven days a week, except major holidays. Learn more.

Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal

Historic train station shines after $228 million restoration

Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal
Cincinnati Union Terminal

As we approached the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, we didn’t quite know what to expect.

We often like to explore landmarks without a mission, letting spontaneity be our guide. That was the case recently as we entered the stunning train station built during the Great Depression.

We knew we wanted to take in the art deco architecture and experience the workmanlike grandeur of Winold Reiss’ mosaics, which help to create an eye-popping entry when combined with the vibrant ceiling, the largest half dome in the western hemisphere.

But this depot in the city’s Queensgate neighborhood is much more than an old train station. It’s the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, consisting of three museums and an Omnimax theater. So there are plenty of places to explore and have fun once you stop gazing at the 180-foot rotunda dome.

The terminal opened in 1933 and was built to serve 17,000 passengers and more than 200 trains daily. It closed to passenger traffic in 1972, then reopened as an Amtrak line in 1991.

In November, the center completed a $228 million renovation on the terminal, bringing it back to its original glory.

Here’s a flavor of the various museums that occupy parts of the building. You can enter each with a Discover Pass, and there’s plenty of additional admission information on the museum’s website.

Cincinnati History Museum

The city’s past is on display, from the initial settlers through the second world war. Costumed actors give you a feel of what it was like living in the Queen City, and you can check out the Queen City of the West, a replica side-wheel steamboat. Next year the history museum will include Cincinnati in Motion, what it’s calling the country’s largest s-gauge model train display.

Duke Energy Children’s Museum

Duke Energy Children’s Museum
Duke Energy Children’s Museum

We really liked this museum, which is essentially a huge play area for kids. There are eight interactive spaces to explore and learn about such topics as energy, nature and science. Highlights include a webbed enclosure called the Energy Zone where kids can release steam throwing balls and working simple machines, and a two-story jungle gym called The Woods where kids can tunnel through an aquarium.

Museum of Natural History & Science

Cincinnati History Museum
Museum of Natural History & Science

Dinosaurs dominate this exhibit. There are six prehistoric creatures on display, covering the Jurassic Period (153 to 145 million years ago) and the Cretaceous Period (145 to 65 million years ago), five of which are on display to the public for the first time. They include the only known associated skeleton of a Torvosaurus, a meat eater of the late Jurassic period.

Our son, Max, enjoyed an add-on activity ($5), going face-down into a motion simulator for a three-minute ride through a Jurassic jungle.

The Discovery Pass, $14.50 for adults and $10.50 for kids, provides admission to the three museums. For extra fees you can see a film at the Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater, or visit two special exhibits: Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World, and Chocolate: The Exhibition.

Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World
Guitar: The Instrument that Rocked the World

The guitar exhibit has dozens of guitars on display, ranging from the classic Fender Stratocaster to lutes and other antiquities. We learned about the history of chocolate production through informational displays and antique tins and other collectibles. (There were no chocolate samples, much to our dismay.)

If you visit on a weekend, be prepared for good-sized crowds and a somewhat congested parking situation. Lines were long to exit when we arrived, but we stayed until the museums almost closed, and it was easy to get out.

Learn more about the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo

Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo
Two rhinoceros hornbills perch on a tree in the Wings of the World exhibit.

As longtime members of the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium, we’re offered reciprocal agreements to visit other zoos at a discount.

With our busy lives, we never carved out time to venture to nearby zoos. But that changed during the holidays, when we made a road trip to Cincinnati to see the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

This wonderful urban amenity opened in 1875, making it the country’s second-oldest zoo. That kind of longevity means it’s located right in the city, giving it a certain metropolitan appeal absent from the Columbus Zoo (which we really love, by the way).

The complex houses more than 500 animal and 3,000 plant species, making it a one-of-a-kind destination. We focused mainly on the zoo side, and came away impressed with the variety and uniqueness of several of the exhibits.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo
A gorilla claims a hammock at the Gorilla World exhibit.

We especially enjoyed Gorilla World, the recently renovated space for the zoo’s collection of western lowland gorillas and colobus monkeys. The zoo refreshed the outdoor area in spring 2017 and built a new indoor space for the primates a year ago. It was fun watching two of the gorillas battle over a hammock inside their indoor playground.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo
Merchandise featuring Fiona the hippo is all the rage in the zoo’s gift shop.

When the weather warms up, most of the attention will be captured by Fiona, a plump, young hippopotamus born on Jan. 24, 2017. The city has gone Fiona gaga, with several businesses supporting her. Fiona hangs out with 19-year-old Bibi in Hippo Cove, which offers underwater viewing and a play area where children can learn about the African mammals. We weren’t able to see Fiona or her friend, as the hippos can’t come outside until it’s 45 degrees or warmer, and their indoor living space is not viewable.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo
An owl peers at us in the Night Hunters exhibit.

A few unique exhibits really captured our attention. One was Night Hunters, a trek in the dark where we saw wild animals in a dim atmosphere. They included clouded leopards, Pallas’ cats, a sand cat and predators such as vampire bats, aardvarks, a Burmese python and the potto, a big-eyed prosimian native to Africa.

The Cincinnati Zoo has an awesome aviary exhibit called Wings of the World, which houses birds from various habitats, including rainforests and grasslands. We were impressed by the rhinoceros hornbill, with its striking, horn-shaped casque on its beak, and by the quizzical buff-crested bustard, which lets out a shrill call while traipsing around the African savannah.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden: Find unique exhibits, sense of history at urban zoo
Cockroaches craw through an exhibit at World of the Insect.

We also enjoyed (well, some of us) World of the Insect, a huge collection of things that creep and crawl. Yes, there are big, hairy tarantulas and lots of cockroaches. But the best experience was seeing the amazing giant walking sticks, a species the zoo has maintained since 2000, garnering nationwide acclaim. The captivating creatures can measure over a foot and are incredibly “stick like” in appearance.

Our zoo pass allowed us a discount on food, but if you go, check out the parking situation carefully, which was not organized well.

Learn more about the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Watch and listen to this buff-crested bustard we heard at Wings of the World.

Appalachian landscape reels us back to Wheeling for golf, flowers, lorikeets and more

The par-3 hole No. 13 at Oglebay’s Palmer Course

Playing golf at Oglebay Resort is like stepping into the past, yet remaining firmly planted in the present.

We’ve always felt a special attraction to this wonderful resort, tucked into 1,700 hilly acres just northeast of Wheeling, W. Va., about a two-hour drive from Columbus. After all, Wendy and I held our wedding reception at Oglebay in April 2005.

We try to return at least once a year, and this time we visited during early October so I could play golf and Wendy and the kids could explore the resort. Golfing at Oglebay presents an excellent opportunity to enjoy the vistas of the Appalachian landscape. The resort offers four courses – the two main layouts called Jones and Palmer, the classic Crispin course and a nine-hole, par-3 layout that’s perfect for youngsters.

They combine the new and the old, which is always what I liked about Oglebay. This is no modernized golf mecca. Crispin dates to the 1930s. There were no bulldozers employed to sculpt out the course. It simply followed the contours of the land, so you have some very abrupt elevation changes.

Lovely Appalachian terrain is on full view at Oglebay.

It was joined in 1970 by the Jones Course, which legendary architect Robert Trent Jones, Sr. built in a somewhat similar manner, although much better. Most of the fairways on Jones have some contour, and the drainage rolls with the slope of the terrain.

The Palmer Course rounded out the package in 2000 and best reflects modern golf course design, as much dirt was moved to create a more playable layout. The Jones Course and the Palmer Course comprise the Speidel Golf Club, and growing up in eastern Ohio, I’ve always considered Speidel a true test of the game. Not only for me – for professional golfers as well. The Jones Course was a regular stop on the LPGA tour from 1974-84, its hilly terrain often causing havoc for some of the best golfers in the world.

It was a fairly new course then, and Jones’s design takes advantage of the mountainous terrain. It offers several elevation changes, plenty of side-hill lies, lots of trees, and small, contoured greens. The routing follows the land, and you’re likely to find yourself punching out of a grove of trees into a fairway if your drive is a bit off center.

Oglebay commissioned Arnold Palmer’s golf architecture firm to build the Palmer Course to make Oglebay more of a resort destination.

Oglebay Resort, Wendy Pramik

Earl W. Oglebay willed his mansion to the city of Wheeling after his death in 1926.

One of the main attractions is the former summer estate of the late industrialist Earl W. Oglebay. The yellow mansion with stately white pillars is a museum that’s a tribute to Oglebay and the history of the property.

The resort is a great place for families. There are plenty of things to do, and they’re often rather quaint in their simplicity.

Take the Good Zoo. Opened in 1977 in a wooded area, it contains African wild dogs, meerkats, kangaroos, lorikeets and other animals, as well as a dinosaur exhibit with animatronic creatures. The lorikeets are particularly friendly if you entice them with nectar that the zoo sells for $1 a cup. Several of the colorful birds were perched on Rosie and Max as they tried to grasp a taste of the sweet liquid.

Max maneuvers around the Oglebay Aerial Challenge Course.

We took a mile-and-a-half ride aboard the C.P. Huntington train, an open-air recreation of a 19th century locomotive. It moved rather slowly, and to our amusement required the conductors to stop the train, get out and disperse sand on the tracks so the wheels could grip well enough to propel the train up a couple of mild inclines.

We had fun riding paddleboats around Schenk Lake, and Max had a blast on the Oglebay Aerial Challenge Course, a combination of rope walks, climbs and maneuvers high above the ground. Max spent an hour exploring the course, while safely tethered, with one of the friendly guides.

We also love exploring the surrounding landscape, so thoughtfully cared for and manicured. Visitors also can tour a glass museum and wander along a red brick path through a garden that dates back a century.

Oglebay also offers quality horseback riding opportunities, being the home of the nearby Bethany College equestrian team. You also can play tennis, ride a mountain bike or discover one of the walking and hiking trails.

Oglebay’s Crispin Center hasn’t changed much since opening in the late 1930s. Built of locally-quarried sandstone, it’s elegant alongside the sky-blue pool. It’s closed now, but when the weather warms it’s a lovely place to take a dip.

We stayed two nights in a newly remodeled, lakeside room at Wilson Lodge, which has 270 rooms. The accommodation was comfortable and quiet, and we easily accessed the indoor pool, outdoor patios, Ihlenfeld Dining Room and wonderful upstairs sitting area.

Wintertime it’s a poplar site for the Winter Festival of Lights, a six-mile drive showcasing millions of twinkling lights on more than 300 hilly acres.

On the back nine at the Palmer Course

I played the Palmer Course with two of my childhood buddies on a brisk October Saturday.

The first thing you notice about this course is the lack of trees along many of the holes. The fairways are a bit wider, too, and there are multiple tee boxes that can allow you to play according to your handicap. You get the feeling that Oglebay tried to wedge the course in where it had room. There are six each par-3s, par-4s and par-5s, which certainly is unique, and you play three holes then drive quite a distance under a road to get to most of the rest of the course.

We found it well-conditioned and very playable. There are five set of tees, ranging from 4,569 yards to 6,725 yards. The men’s tees (second longest) measure 6,498 with a slope of 130 and a rating of 70.9. The comparable measurables for the Jones Course are 6,650, 134 and 72.5.

Having played the Jones Course multiple times, I can attest that it is tighter and can be more difficult. We’ve played it since our teens and prefer it to the Palmer Course. Crispin is fun if you want to give it a try. It is shorter, but bring your climbing shoes. The elevation changes are stark.

Oglebay offers golf packages from late March to early November. Call 800-577-9519 or visit for more information.

Oglebay Resort, Wendy Pramik

Oglebay Resort, Wendy Pramik

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Discover Ohio’s most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field It’s the middle of August, and I’m in the middle of a field, sun blazing overhead, sweat dripping down my back.

“Let’s pretend we’re paleontologists at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota,” I say to Rosie and Max, who are with me at Caesar Creek State Park in Waynesville, Ohio, an hour southwest of Columbus.

Although we’re far from South Dakota, where the kids once watched paleontologists delicately unearth woolly mammoth fossils at an excavation site, the game doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

We find fossil after fossil at the Caesar Creek Spillway, a swath of land that spans several football fields and contains some of the best opportunities for fossil finding in Ohio.

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil fieldThe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the spillway and adjacent Caesar Creek Lake in the early 1970s to control flooding in the area. Doing so unveiled a layer of fossils that date back hundreds of thousands of years when Ohio was under water and near the equator.

Many fossils here resemble shells and coral, remnants of creatures that lived long ago on a large continent called Laurentia. Over time, specimens became sandwiched between layers of earth and formed fossils.

The spillway is open to explore any time of the year, but you’ll need to obtain a free permit first if you’d like to search for fossils. You do so at the Caesar Creek Lake Visitor Center, just north of the spillway. There, ask for a fossil-hunting permit and a copy of the “Common Fossils of Caesar Creek Lake” pamphlet.

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil fieldAn employee will go over the ground rules, which basically are not to use any tools to dig for fossils or to break them apart, and not to take any fossils home that are larger than your fist.

We see signs reminding us not to climb on rock embankments. They’re steep, and the rocks are slippery and sharp. We amble through the open field, eyes fixed on the ground. I pick up a rock that resembles a cone. It’s smooth and pointy. I hand it to Max, who adds it to a collection in his pocket.

We grow thirsty as we hang out in the sun. We head to the nearby town of Waynesville. It’s one of the more picturesque small towns you’ll encounter in the Buckeye State, with rows of beautiful old homes, some of them set up as businesses including antique stores, eateries and candy shops. It’s also home of the Ohio Sauerkraut Festival, held annually on the second weekend in October.

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil fieldWe enjoy lunch at the Hammel House, a bed and breakfast that dates to 1799 and happens to be one of the most haunted buildings in Ohio. We learn that President Martin Van Buren and Charles Dickens have stayed here. We also learn it’s a pet-friendly establishment, which is perfect because we’ve brought along my brother’s dog, Biscuit. (If you have a dog, also check out the Pretty Pooch Boutique, which offers a large selection of cute dog outfits.)

Caesar Creek State Park is located at 8570 E. State Route 73, Waynesville, Ohio. Learn more.

The Caesar Creek Lake Visitor Center is located at 4020 N. Clarksville Rd., Waynesville, Ohio. Hours are 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday; and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Caesar Creek State Park; Discover Ohio's most fertile fossil field

Creature comforts found beside Ohio’s largest forest

Lodge love. That’s what we call the feeling you get when you enter an inviting, well-worn lodge.

We felt this vibe when visiting the Shawnee Lodge & Conference Center in West Portsmouth, Ohio. It was our first visit to an Ohio state park lodge. It’s one of eight state lodges in Ohio. We’re now curious to visit all of them at our own pace. Heck, we liked this one enough to visit it twice – once last fall and again over spring break.

What quantifies lodge love?

First, you’ve got to have a cavernous lobby that somehow connects to the nature of the area. Shawnee has exposed wooden beams, oversized couches and lots of references to the Native Americans who once called the area home. There also are big tables for playing board games that are available at the registration counter.

You also need plenty of outdoor pursuits. Shawnee Lodge offers access to the largest state forest in Ohio. Known as “Ohio’s Little Smokies,” the Shawnee State Forest spans more than 63,000 acres and includes 60 miles of hiking and bridle trails.

Returning to comfortable lodging that’s slightly rustic, yet modern and practical at the same time, is essential if you don’t like to camp.

Our rooms had a set of bunk beds, chunky log furniture and sensible toiletries including pumps of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel.

A good lodge also needs quality comfort food in a setting that offers a panoramic view of the property.

The Smokehouse restaurant at Shawnee offers tasty brisket and other barbecued meats, made-from-scratch soups and a variety of homey classics such as baked spaghetti and meatballs, and liver and onions.

Lively lodges have extra amenities. Shawnee offers two swimming pools, Frisbee golf, canoeing, nearby horseback riding and an arcade.

“Some of our customers are regulars since the lodge opened in 1973,” said Lisa Moran, sales and catering manager. “They like that it’s a central location, so we get a lot of people from out of state. I think it’s all the back-to-nature activities we offer.”

“We actually get the kids to put their phones down.”

What’s not to love about that?

Learn more about the Shawnee Lodge & Conference Center.