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.

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Entertrainment Junction

Southwest Ohio county caters to kids

Butler County Donut TrailWe recently toured the Butler County Donut Trail, a collection of a dozen doughnut shops in southwest Ohio. The opportunity to gulp down well-crafted, sugared balls of dough at stop after stop is exciting enough.

But if you’re considering a visit to the trail, we recommend also spending some time at a few other attractions that Butler County has to offer.

9568 Water Front Dr., West Chester Township, OH 45069

This indoor/outdoor entertainment venue lies somewhere between a golf driving range, a sports bar and a family restaurant. The main game involves hitting golf balls containing computer chips into targets at varying distances. Unlike the real game of golf, the more points you score, the better you do.

Our family found the experience really fun. We opted to use Topgolf’s clubs as we aimed for targets ranging from 25 to 215 yards away. The more accurate you are, and the farther you hit the ball, the more points you can score.

The balls didn’t seem to fly as far as I could hit a regulation ball with my own clubs, but it was pretty realistic. Sometimes you depended on the ball getting a kind bounce on the artificial surface. Yes, that happens sometimes in the real game, too.

Our waiter brought us food and drinks. I’d term the menu as upscale appetizers, less than you’d expect from a fine restaurant but way better than you might expect at a family sports venue. We had waffle and chicken sliders and injectable donut holes, round balls we infused with chocolate cream and raspberry jelly.

Topgolf also has billiards tables, an area for live music and a sports bar where you can socialize without golf. They also give golf lessons and are set up for parties for kids and adults. It seemed people came for all that Topgolf had to offer. By early evening on a Saturday, the place was packed.

The great thing is that you now don’t have to leave central Ohio to play. Topgolf recently added a location at Polaris Centers of Commerce, near the IKEA store, one of about three dozen sites worldwide.

Entertrainment Junction
7379 Squire Ct., West Chester Township, OH 45069

What started out as a collection of model trains by Cincinnati businessman Don Oeters has morphed into what Oeters bills as the world’s largest model train display. Built by the Greater Cincinnati Garden Railway Society, Entertrainment Junction covers more than 2 miles of track, about half of which is visible to patrons.

It took 230,000 hours to build over 10 years, and Oeters says that if they were billable hours, it would have cost “16-to-22 million dollars.”

The track displays continually rotate 15 minutes of daylight and 5 minutes of night viewing. You’ll see Coney Island in Cincinnati circa 1965, the Space Needle, subway trains in New York and Washington, D.C. The seek and find game contains 250 items to look for amid the dozens of tiny displays.

There are more than trains inside the 25,000-square-foot building. The biggest draw is a funhouse with five attractions including a mirror maze and an optical illusion tilted room “all kinds of old-fashioned fun,” Oeters says. We found the funhouse truly enjoyable.

There’s also a café, hobby shop and party rooms, as well as a gift shop.

“I retired 10 years ago, and I needed something to do,” Oeters says. “We’ve been open for eight years, and it keeps growing, and we keep adding to it.”

Jungle Jim’s International Market
5440 Dixie Hwy., Fairfield, OH 45014

If you like to go grocery shopping, you’ll love this gigantic, quirky, surprising supermarket located in Fairfield. It claims to have 180,000 items for sale, and after taking a guided tour of the place, I’m surprised it’s not more.

Jungle Jim’s is the brainchild of James Bonaminio, of suburban Cleveland, who began selling produce out of a truck in the Cincinnati area in the early ’70s. By the middle of the decade, he settled on the current location for a permanent structure to sell produce, and he’s added on ever since.

Today, Jungle Jim’s covers 200,000 square feet, and there are foods and other goods of every kind imaginable in seven wide-ranging departments:

  • Fresh foods: Produce, meat, cheese, seafood, bakery, deli and the “olive pit,” which includes house-made mozzarella.
  • International: Aisle after aisle teeming with more than 70,000 items from around the world.
  • Specialty: This department includes unique foods such as hot sauces, honey and unique sodas, as well as cooking supplies and a cooking school.
  • Beer and wine: Select from more than 17,000 wines and 4,000 beers from around the world.
  • Cigars and liquors: Fine cigars line the walls of the extensive walk-in humidor. Jungle Jim’s holds weekly cigar tastings if you need to try first.
  • Natural foods and supplements: This department offers vegan, gluten-free and natural foods and beverages as well as vitamins, essential oils and related items.
  • American grocery: Oh yeah, Jungle Jim’s is a grocery store too, with tens of thousands of products, including many private-label goods.

What’s really cool about Jungle Jim’s is its quirkiness. There are several animatronic displays, including a funky “Elvis” lion, restroom entrances disguised as portable toilets, and safari animal statues in an outdoor garden.

There’s a second Jungle Jim’s location in suburban Cincinnati, but for the full show, head to the original location in Butler County.

Learn more about Butler County, including Pyramid Hill, a 300-acre sculpture park.

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Pyramid Hill: Inspiring outdoor sculpture park in the Miami Valley

Drive golf carts around 300-acre sculpture park in southwestern Ohio

Pyramid Hill: Inspiring outdoor sculpture park in the Miami ValleyWhile recently exploring the Butler County Donut Trail in search of pillowy rings of sugared dough, to our great surprise my family of four also experienced a tasty cultural morsel.

We visited Pyramid Hill, a 300-plus-acre sculpture park in Hamilton, Ohio, on a sunny Saturday afternoon and fell in love with its quirky character and compelling artwork. It presents more than 60 sculptures amid the rolling hills of southwestern Ohio, with the mood ranging from quizzical to thought-provoking.

The park was made possible by Harry Wilks, a local lawyer and philanthropist who purchased the land in the 1990s, saving it from development. Wilks died in 2014.

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The best part was driving a rented golf cart around the pretty property that’s dotted with lakes and gardens. I wasn’t surprised to see a wedding happening near a sculpture called Age of Stone, which brought to mind Stonehenge.

Other notable outdoor pieces included The Cube, a Rubik’s Cube-like structure that spins on its axis, and Paul, a bench that’s missing its midsection. It was amusing trying to take a seat on it.

Pyramid Hill: Inspiring outdoor sculpture park in the Miami ValleyWe were amazed to stumble upon what we considered the highlight of the park: the Ancient Sculpture Museum, a curated collection of artifacts dating to 1500 B.C. that was Wilks’ personal collection before the museum opened in 2009.

The collection includes Greek, Roman, Etruscan, Syrian and Egyptian sculptures. There’s also a wonderful courtyard modeled after a Roman residence.

Pyramid Hill is open 365 days a year and attracts more than 30,000 visitors annually.

It’s located at 1763 Hamilton Cleves Rd., Hamilton. For more information, visit or call 513-868-1234.

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Castaway Bay: Cedar Point’s indoor waterpark offers 82-degree escape to Caribbean

Cedar Point’s indoor waterpark in Sandusky offers 82-degree escape to Caribbean

Castaway Bay: Cedar Point’s waterpark resort offers 82-degree indoor escape to CaribbeanWhile driving along U.S. Rt. 250 near Sandusky, we pass several indoor waterparks on our way to Cedar Point’s Castaway Bay. This must be the Vegas Strip of indoor waterparks, I think as I observe colorful tubes snaking out the sides of one hotel after another.

Castaway Bay isn’t the largest, showiest one on the block. With a 38,000-square-foot indoor waterpark, it’s smaller than the nearby 173,000 square-foot Kalahari Resort and bigger than the 33,000-square-foot Great Wolf Lodge.

For us, it was just right. Castaway Bay is perfect for anyone looking for an excuse to don a bathing suit in an 82-degree-controlled environment when Ohio’s outside temps aren’t cooperating. The contrived, Caribbean theme – with painted blue skies, synthetic palm trees and animatronic parrots that squawk and talk – also is convincing enough when you just can’t get to the real thing.

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We ventured two hours north from Columbus to Sandusky on a cold, winter weekend, eager for an excuse to pretend it was summer. If you stay the night, you have access to the waterpark for two days. Check in is 4 p.m., and check out is 11 a.m.

The resort offers 237 hotel rooms and suites and several onsite restaurants. Prices for a room-and-waterpark combo start at $149 when I checked the resort’s site in March. Day passes to the waterpark are $29 each.

We stayed in a Starfish Room with two double beds, sleeper chair, private screened balcony, small refrigerator, microwave and coffeemaker. The room accommodates up to five guests and comes with four waterpark passes.

We started our adventure by picking up an “Island Times” at the front desk. The one-sheeter states the times and locations of daily activities, such as decorating T-shirts and bags with fabric paint, and visits with Snoopy and other Peanuts characters.

We made our way to the 6,000-square-foot arcade to play unique crane games. One had us vying for large bouncy balls at $2 a pop. We didn’t win anything.

We spent the majority of our time in the waterpark – nearly seven hours playing and splashing. We bypassed the Toddlers Tide Pool in favor of the following:

Castaway Bay Wave Pool
This 100,000-gallon wave pool periodically produces 3-foot waves. A buzzer signals the arrival of waves that continue for roughly 10 minutes.

Lookout Lagoon Family Funhouse
It’s a multistory, interactive play area with a 1,000-gallon tipping bucket and twisty slides.

Tropical Tube Slides
There are three enclosed, tubular body slides that protrude from the side of the building. One affords a speedy slide through complete darkness.

Rendezvous Run
This 35-foot-high, 520-foot-long water rollercoaster propels riders uphill using water jets. It winds near the ceiling and partially goes outside, and you must be 42 inches tall to ride.

For more information, visit

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Nutcracker Family Restaurant: Quizzical ’50s-style diner near Pataskala makes you smile

Quizzical ’50s-style diner near Pataskala makes you smile

After visiting the impressive Works science museum in Newark, we were famished. Wendy had heard about a ’50s-style diner in nearby Pataskala, so we sought out the Nutcracker Family Restaurant.

It’s easy to see where the place got its name. There are nutcrackers everywhere, on wall ledges, windowsills and even on top of an old gas pump.

The combination of retro signs, neon lights, classic candies at the checkout counter and other ’50s accouterments didn’t seem to jibe with the dozens of nutcrackers, which emit a Christmasy, Germanic vibe. Still, it’s one of those places that elicits a smile when you enter.

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The counter has seating for half a dozen or more, and I suppose the wonder of finding a place like this amid rural Pataskala was worth the effort. The fact that the Nutcracker has been open more than 20 years is impressive enough on its own.

But the food isn’t something to write to Vienna about. My Reuben sandwich used what seemed like a pressed type of corned beef that wasn’t overly flavorful. Wendy said her veggie burger was “good.” The kids had kids meals, and they were decidedly kids-meal like.

However, like 6- and 8-year-olds would say, they can’t wait to go back. “It was so much fun,” Rosie said. She and Max dared each other to pick up one of the nutcrackers that was decked out like a firefighter. Wendy thought they would be glued down, but they weren’t.

They also enjoyed an animatronic-type band that appeared from behind a curtain and played along with the music they chose for a quarter on the jukebox. They also loved that their meal came with a free lunchbox, which they each chose upon departure.

The bottom line is that the Nutcracker Restaurant is a fun place to seek out if you’re on an adventure. As long as you check your “foodie” instincts at the door, you’ll enjoy the visit.

That said, the pies are made fresh daily, and weekly specials include all-you-can-eat perch on Tuesday and Friday, all-you-can-eat pasta on Wednesday and all-you-can-eat fried chicken on Thursday. Veterans eat free on Veterans Day and the day after Memorial Day.

The Nutcracker Family Restaurant is located at 63 E. Broad St., Pataskala. For more information, call 740-964-0056 or visit

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The Orchard and Company: Come for apples, stay for fall festival

Come for apples, stay for fall festival

Time is of the essence at the Orchard and Co., 30 minutes northwest of Columbus in Plain City. This apple orchard and fall-festival destination is limited to August through October.

Go for their apples – a dozen varieties are available for picking, including sweet and juicy Honeycrisp, which ripens in early September.

And go for fall festival days, on Saturdays and Sundays in September and October. They’ve got pumpkins and hayrides – and plenty more attractions.

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Our kids found extra fun in an indoor box filled with corn kernels and Tonka trucks, so deep they could bury them. They also enjoyed riding in a tractor-pulled train of connected barrels called the “Moo-Moo Express,” which wound through the orchard. They even jumped on a giant, inflated vinyl pillow.

Other unique attractions include a castle made from straw bales, a racetrack for pedal cars that parents can ride, too, and lots of friendly farm animals. We visited a miniature horse family, miniature goats, pigs, sheep, a cow and rabbits in their own area called Bunnyville.

If you get hungry, visit the Pigadeli Cafe for slow-cooked, pulled-pork sandwiches, sloppy Joes and soup. Or just refuel on fresh pumpkin doughnuts and apple cider.

The Orchard and Co. is located at 7255 US Hwy. 42, Plain City. For more information, call 614-873-0510 or visit

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Historic Host: Bed-and-breakfast proprietor offers whimsical lodging options with colorful histories in Hocking Hills area

Bed-and-breakfast proprietor offers whimsical lodging options with colorful histories in Hocking Hills area

Many people travel to Ohio’s Hocking Hills region to explore its breathtaking waterfalls, caves and hollows by day, then burrow inside a cozy cabin at night.

The scenery changes with the season and keeps people coming back year after year. But numerous cabins remain blandly familiar: log furniture, countrified decorations and a hot tub.

A unique lodging option in the Hills hearkens to the past. Historic Host offers a handful of bed-and-breakfast properties with fascinating histories. Travelers can stay in a cute cottage with a 1930s kitchen containing a collection of vintage cookie jars. Or they can bundle up in a century-old general store with shelves of touchable “merchandise,” such as stuffed animals and wooden cribs.

Overnight stays include breakfast, and a portion of the lodging fees goes toward restoration of more dilapidated buildings.

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“I call it sustainable preservation through tourism,” says Sue Maxwell, who started Historic Host in 2007 with her late husband, Jim Maxwell. In less than a decade, she’s transformed a collection of neglected buildings into unique tourist destinations that respect the history of this scenic Appalachian region in southern Ohio.

“My daughters like to rescue stray cats,” Maxwell says. “I like to rescue stray buildings.”

My family recently visited a 5-acre lot just north of McArthur, Ohio, that Maxwell affectionately named Fiddlestix Village. The whimsical, roadside stop incorporates old and new structures on a plot of land off state Rt. 93 in Creola.

At the heart of the complex is the Appalachian Quilt Cottage, a red, two-bedroom cabin that dates to the 1920s. At one time it served as a farmhouse for a nine-member family.

Sue learned of the building’s history through her visitors. One person told her that the front room once served as a roadside store where the owners sold eggs and homemade breads.

Another accommodation is a cottage holding hundreds of salt-and-pepper shakers that Sue found at auctions, antique shops and thrift stores. She’s billing it as a museum.

But the latest and most playful arrivals are a 1926 B&O caboose that comfortably sleeps two, and an old general store that my children especially enjoyed.

The front of the Martin Store resembles an old country shop, while the rear of the building has a bathroom and a cozy bedroom with a king-sized bed.

Like the other properties, Sue fell for the decaying, 1922-built structure at first sight along a stretch of U.S. Rt. 50 that crossed rural Vinton County. She saw potential and tracked down its owner, sharing her idea of preservation.

“If you can move it, you can have it,” he told her.

For more information, call 1-877-364-4786 or visit

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The Blueberry Patch: Head to Mansfield to pick your own plump berries

Head to Mansfield to pick your own plump berries

If you typically avoid the tasteless blueberries that often populate your local supermarket, there’s no need to plan a trip to Maine to pick your own. Just head to the Blueberry Patch in Mansfield.

The Blueberry Patch is Ohio’s largest blueberry farm, 45 minutes northeast of Columbus. Steve and Lisa Beilstein began planting the now well-established bushes in 1981, and their foresight has paid off. The 27-acre patch yields plump, tasty berries that are easy to pick.

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Seventeen varieties of blueberries grow in the ideal sandy and acidy soil where thousands of honeybees are needed per acre for pollination.

Blueberry season is from late June through August. We arrived in late July to pick mid-season berries called Blue Ray, which are large and flavorful. Each member of our family was given a plastic bucket to take to a designated area in the patch. Rows and rows of bushes were loaded with blueberries, ready to pluck at our leisure. We combined our buckets into one then had them weighed. We paid $20 for four pounds of berries.

Stick around to see all the blueberry products in the gift shop. Troyer Home Pantry in Apple Creek, Ohio, uses the blueberries to make pies and jams. Also on site is a greenhouse, coffee beanery and Blossoms Cafe, where you can get brunch after morning berry picking, which begins daily at 8 a.m. The cafe is open until 4 p.m.

I had the quiche with a warm blueberry muffin, fresh fruit salad and blueberry iced tea, which was delicious. Of course you also can get blueberry smoothies, shakes and parfaits.

On a future trip, I’ll take time to enjoy the onsite winery aptly called Winery 1285 for its address. Sample a selection of wines including dry and sweet blueberry varieties, order wood-fired pizza or even participate in a “wine and paint” party. This handsome bar could fit into a vibrant Columbus neighborhood.

Once home, Mike transformed our blueberries into tasty scones, a sauce for angel-food cake and frozen yogurt.

Can’t make it to Mansfield in the near future? Blueberry Patch berries also are sold at central Ohio farmers markets including the Clintonville and Worthington markets.

The Blueberry Patch is located at 1285 W. Hanley Rd., in Mansfield. For more information, call 419-884-1797 or visit

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