Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Hiking, Museums & Tours, School

Fort Ancient

Will is a huge history fan, so we decided to take a trip out to see Fort Ancient.

The price is pretty reasonable at $7/adults, and $6/students. Admission is paid at the museum/visitor center (not the unmanned booth in front) and covers the grounds and the museum.

The museum had some interesting information (a lot of reading), a few mannequin types of displays, and a gift shop. (Restrooms are also located in the Museum building.) There are a set of round mounds right near the visitor center/museum.

There are a few hiking trails available on the grounds. We went along three short trails. Our first trail, Mound Trail, was not maintained that well and was not very well marked. We did not get lost, but there were a few spots along the trails that seemed like another path joined in or it wasn’t well defined. I would recommend bug spray and long socks or pants, as we came across a lot of poison ivy.

The mounds were hard to see in the woods, as nothing is cleared around them and nature has taken over (trees, grass, weeds, etc. growing out of them). The Mound Trail supposedly had 5 mounds; we did some numbered posts, but it wasn’t clear if those were the mounds. If it was, we did not see them for the forest.

We did see a fawn in the woods and they had a decent sized picnic area available. It was a decent short excursion, but if you are looking for well-defined/visible mounds, you may be disappointed. There are several long ones along the park road, but again, the forest is reclaiming them. I want to take him out to Serpent Mound, which is much more visible as a mound (trees/grass/weeds trimmed around mound).

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop

When I was searching for things nearby that we had not done before, Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop popped up in a Facebook group. They have a $5 candy buffet.

We went to the Middleton location, although there are many locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and one in Florida.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the store was cute. It had an ice cream counter, a gift area (crazy socks, games, Pop Funko, special candies, etc.). There was also a good variety of candy, some of which I remember from my childhood and some from other countries.

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The candy buffet was in the back right corner. You picked your box (2 different designs, same size) and filled it with any candy from the buffet area. The lid had to close, but the $5 was based on the box, not the weight.

There were a lot of chewy options, but we managed to find some braces-safe options. The boys had a fun time filling their boxes. (I think these would be fun for a party favor or a treat for going to the movies.)

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Posted in: Exploring Illiniois, Exploring Ohio, Food, Sightseeing

Top 10 Tips for Amtrak Travel

Amtrak is a great way to travel!

I can see why writers wrote on trains. It is a ‘romantic’ way to travel and the perspective change gives different insights. Something about going a little slower, the changing scenery and interacting with so many different people creates a spark of creativity. This summer I got the opportunity to take two train rides on Amtrak. We traveled the mighty Cardinal through the Midwest.

Here are my top 10 tips to make your Amtrak trip outstanding this summer.

1.    Be patient. Trains in the USA get delayed. Just expect things to move slowly. If they aren’t delayed, you will be pleasantly surprised. On both of our trips this summer the train was delayed. One for just 30 minutes, the other for nearly 2 hours. The more flexible you can be on your destination commitments the less stress you will have.

2.    Bring your own food. The food on Amtrak is rough. The menu is limited and they are reheating the food. Mostly anything you bring is going to be better than what they serve.

3.    Charge your phone, bring a battery backup and bring your charger. Each pair of seats has a set of 110V outlets that are great for keeping your device fully charged. However, see tip #1. If you find yourself stuck in a terminal, it’s no fun to fight with your fellow passengers for a wall outlet. (We have used this power bank* for years for hiking and school, and love it. It holds the charge well and will completely charge your phone.)

4.    Bring a pillow and blanket. The seats are large, comfortable and adjustable. However, a little extra padding goes a long way in avoiding neck pain in the morning.

5.    Plan to socialize. Amtrak is a very social environment. Unlike flying, people tend to be friendlier and want to talk. If you are an introvert I highly recommend bringing some big headphones*.

6.    Bring a friend. If traveling in coach by yourself, you will be paired up with a seat partner. It is always best to make this choice for yourself by bringing a friend. We were able to snag a great companion fare BOGO at Valentine’s Day. Look out for those sales.

7.    Use the bathroom before boarding. The bathrooms on Amtrak are kind of gross. They meet the minimum, but would get old over days of traveling. They use a vacuum assist flush and my travel buddy said they seem like RV toilets. I think he means that they have smaller seats. We were reminded by the conductor to make sure we lock the door when we use it because he said, “there is always one that doesn’t on every trip.”

8.    Download the Amtrak App. I found this super handy for keeping my tickets and seeing maps of the train terminals.

9.    Go higher than you expect if you want to “win” on BidUp for a roomette or room. I was not successful. My bids were rated as fair and poor when I submitted them.

10.    Experiment with the seat prior to quiet hours. The seats are generous. About 2x the size of a coach airplane seat and have several comfort adjustments: foot rest, leg extension and reclining. With unskilled hands, the seat can make a lot of noise and react violently when adjusted. It is quick to learn, but that first time can be loud and embarrassing.

Hopefully these tips help you have an amazing train trip. If you have other helpful tips, please share them with me and others in the comments.

Safe travels y’all!

*Amazon Affiliate link.

Posted in: Exploring Illiniois, Exploring Ohio, Food, Hiking, Hotel, Museums & Tours, Sightseeing

Exploring Chicago

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I have always wanted to try traveling by train. Something about it sets your imagination wild. Nick and I decided to take a trip to Chicago on Amtrak this summer. We had been to Indianapolis multiple time, but Nick had never been to Chicago and it was the next closest stop. The Saturday train was scheduled to depart at 1:41 AM. Sarah and Will dropped us off and we got to Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio at 12:30AM. We checked in and Nick’s state ID came in handy. (An alternative could have been a school ID). The train’s arrival was delayed until 2:01AM, and then again to 2:16AM.

We finally boarded and were underway by 2:30AM. Our conductor assigned us our seats, which were towards the front of the train. It was a relief to be assigned rather than having to scramble and fight for a seat together. They were big seats (2x the size of an airplane) with many comfort adjustments (foot rest, leg extension and reclining). There seemed to be plenty of overhead room for carry-on items. The restrooms were in the back of each car.

Expert tip: Remember to bring your phone charger and longer cords. Each pair of seats has two 110V outlets. This is super convenient and way better than coach seats on planes.

Indianapolis was the only stop longer than 1 minute during our trip. We didn’t get off, but some smokers did to get their fix and stretch their legs.

The train started much slower than I expected (9-10 mph through city area) and gently rocked like a boat. As we got further out from the train station, the speed picked up to around 30 mph. The snoring of other sleeping passengers lingered in the air. If you really want to sleep well, ear plugs, eye masks and a pillow are mandatory equipment. It was fun to try to identify the various chemical plants as we passed by them in the city. I never realized how many existed in the Cincinnati area along the train line.

By 3:30 am Nick had calmed down and fallen asleep. He didn’t look comfortable, but even uncomfortable sleep was probably good for him.

We crossed a river near Hamilton, Ohio. It was fun to see the river from a different perspective. I can see why writers wrote on trains. It is a ‘romantic’ way to travel and the perspective change gives different insights. Something about going a little slower, the changing scenery and interacting with so many different people creates a spark of creativity.

Nick and I both managed to sleep a couple hours before it got light again around Indianapolis. The seat was rough on my knee somehow and left me feeling stiff, but rested well enough.

The track seemed bumpier after passing through Indianapolis. We moved at a quicker speed (up to 60 mph), so that likely played into it.

At 6:30AM we rope-dropped the Cafe car for breakfast. It was a reheated, unremarkable, bordering on gross breakfast sandwich that I ate completely. Despite the food, the cafe car was a different and nicer venue than our seats and we got to sit in a booth. The coffee was fine. Nick liked his bagel and hot chocolate. It was $13+$1 tip. I also grabbed a can of Diet Coke for an exorbitant $2.50. Expert tip: Bring your own food.

The bathrooms on Amtrak are kind of gross. They meet the minimum, but would get old over days of traveling. They use a vacuum assist flush and Nick said they seemed like RV toilets. I think he means that they are smaller seats. We were reminded by the conductor to make sure that we locked the door when we used it because he said, “there is always one that doesn’t on every trip.”

I am glad we chose a short trip to test things out on Amtrak. The price was certainly right since we got a Valentine’s Day BOGO, making the whole thing $84 for both of us. The fare was by far the cheapest part of the trip. With gas prices over $5/gallon, other than biking or walking, it seemed the cheapest way to go. Maybe the Megabus is competitive? I will have to check it out.

The train was 75%+ full in the coach sections. It was quite the eclectic mix of people with a large mix of all races, ages, ethnicities, and wealth.

The sleeper car people are at the back of the train and are really separated from the masses. They get the VIP treatment starting with the boarding processes, where they are taken out a separate way to the train. I would like to see what a sleeper room or roomette would feel like. Maybe next time.

It takes about 5 hours to drive from Cincinnati, OH to Chicago, IL. Flying is just 1.5 hours (+1 hour of airport security and chaos). We took from 12:30 AM to 10:00 AM terminal to terminal (9.5 hours) via train. All that to say, train travel via Amtrak is not fast. For Cincinnati users, the departure time is very inconvenient at 1:41AM.

After arriving via the Amtrak in Chicago, Nick and I had 3 hours to kill before going to the Skydeck in Willis Tower. We walked by Millennium Park (the Bean), Maggie Daly Park with an amazing “Play Garden,”and rode Centennial wheel at Navy Pier ($40).

After 2 hours of walking we were beat and Ubered back to Willis Tower from Navy Pier to catch our 1:00PM appointment.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears tower) was wonderful. My friend Bill sent us on a wild goose chase for Chicago dogs that he said were in the Willis Tower food court lobby. Not finding them and running out of time before our ticket time, Nick and I settled for a trail-mix that we had brought for emergencies. It had been awhile since breakfast, so we counted it as an emergency.

After our snack, we went to the Skydeck ($80). There was a nice Chicago fact museum and Instagram selfie studio prior to going in, where we grabbed several pictures. I got pictures with Michael Jordan and Oprah. Nick got pictures with the Obamas and Chicago food.

After capturing enough selfies, we ventured up 103 floors to the glass ledge where we “dangled” out past the building. It is a great hook and super fun. Nick, who doesn’t like heights, did great. We grabbed some pictures and some great footsies.

Having conquered the Himalayas of Chicago, we were ravenous and decided to go to Giordano’s. The restaurant was a block away, so we didn’t have far to go. We got the appetizer sampler, a Cobb salad, and a small stuffed deep dish Meat & More Meat pizza (each slice is 1,000 calories). The pizza was amazing!

Naomi was a great server and even helped us get pictures and video of our experience.

We left Giordano’s right at 3PM, which was the  first available time we could check in to the hotel, and headed to the hotel. The Central Loop Hotel was close to all the things we wanted to see and it was reasonably priced for a bedroom with two twin beds. We had no issues checking in and found ourselves exhausted in our room at 3:30 PM. We showered, changed, and promptly fell asleep with an alarm set for 7:30 PM and no specific plans for what we would do when it went off.

~Ben

Posted in: Animal Sightings, Exploring Ohio, Museums & Tours, Sightseeing

Kanga Klimb at the Cincinnati Zoo

The Cincinnati Zoo has added a few things since we last had a membership. Ben and I went a few weeks ago for a date day and made sure to check out the new Roo Valley. It was lots of fun and the kangaroos are adorable! (Make sure you go earlier in the day to see them active. They are diurnal, active at dawn and dusk.)

One of the things we saw was a new ropes course called Kanga Klimb. It is next to Roo Valley; in fact, if you are on the upper level, you can see into the kangaroo exhibit. Both boys took a break to stand or sit on the platform and watch the kangaroos.

I really wanted to give the boys a chance to do the course, especially since Will will be under activity restrictions in July and August.

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The lower level is easier. The platforms are mostly stationary. The upper level is harder; the ropes and platforms move. If you are an observer, the upper level has a walking deck where you can observe your climbers. I could see most of the upper-level course from the walkway. There is part of the walkway that is a clear glass/plastic, so you can see down to the lower level as well.

The average length of climbing on the course is an hour, but it is up to you how long you want to climb. It looked like there was a nice variety of obstacles: a climbing wall, a rope wall, a platform to pull yourself across, a few different kinds of walkways.

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The zoo employees have to check the course every morning! They walked the boys through using the safety gear. They were all really nice.

The boys had lots of fun and were even a little worn out at the end. They were a little sore the next day, so it must have been a good workout.

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Tips: Closed-toed shoes are required, no sandals/crocs. Wear sunscreen. Drink water. If observing, a hat would be good. Climbers must be 48″ and taller (48″ to go with a partner, 60″ to go alone), ages 4+.

DETAILS:

  • WHERE: 3400 Vine St., Cincinnati, Ohio 45220 (Parking lot address is 3427 Vine St.)
  • HOURS: Daily 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Members can get in at 9:00 am (except during Festival of Lights).
  • COSTS: Kanga Klimb ($18/zoo members, $21/non-members). Purchase Kanga Klimb tickets at the attraction entrance booth. Zoo admission prices vary on the day. Prices start at $15.50/adult (ages 13+), $9.50/child. Please check website for pricing. Parking is $10 (or included with membership).
  • PARKING: Yes, on-street or paid zoo lot.
  • BATHROOM: Yes
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1 hour+ for climbing, 2+ for the zoo
  • COVID RESTRICTIONS: N/A
  • Details correct at time of posting, please double-check before you go.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Museums & Tours, YouTube Video Link

The Van Gogh Exhibition: Immersive Experience

If you didn’t know, Ben is a big art fan. He enjoys art museums and has taken art lessons to learn new techniques. When he heard the Van Gogh exhibition was coming to Cincinnati, he was excited to go. The Van Gogh Exhibition travels to different cities in the US and Europe. We made it a date day and got the VIP tickets (which included the VR room).

If you buy the tickets ahead, it will say “Secret Location”. You will be notified before the exhibit (we got the email about two weeks before). Cincinnati’s location was located downtown, in the Carew Tower building. There is on-street parking, as well as a parking garage attached to the building.

We grabbed breakfast down at Findlay Market and headed over to the exhibit. After you check in, you enter the Museum portion. Take your time here! There is so much to read and learn. There are prints of his works on the wall (not his real artwork, but canvas prints of his paintings), as well as panels detailing his history. There was a short film about the use of color in his paintings; they think he may have been color blind! The use of bright colors may have stemmed from the fact that those were the ones he saw well. The film showed an image of what Van Gogh may have seen color-wise, and it was all muted.

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As you traveled down the room, there was a statue of a vase against a screen. A projector showed images of different vase-based paintings, imposing them over the larger-than-life-sized vase.

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The Immersive Room was a large open room, and this is the image you will see the most when it comes to advertising the event. There were benches and lounge chairs scattered throughout the room. You could see various paintings of his shown on a large scale. They added movement to the images, for example, the blossoms falling from the flowers and trees. It was nice to sit and relax and take in the experience. (Click for longer video clips of immersive room.)

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After the Immersive Room, you went to the coloring station. You could pick an artwork of Van Gogh’s and color it yourself, or create your own on a blank piece of paper. They had crayons available for you to use. When you were done, you could scan your artwork and it would be uploaded to their website. You could keep your creation or tape it to the wall.

The VR room was next and was optional for an additional cost if you had the standard ticket (but is included with the VIP ticket). I enjoyed it, but Ben’s headset was a little fuzzy. They had you wear a paper mask under the headset (I’m guessing for minimal cleaning on their part?). If you have used a VR before, this isn’t the crisp, clear, high definition you may expect. All the graphics make it seem like you are in a painting.

NOTE: Based on other people’s reviews, we choose the VIP experience because we wanted to do the VR room. The VIP included the standard ticket, the VR, “skip the line”, and a poster. Our ticket time was at 10:00 am, right when they opened, so we didn’t have any trouble with waiting for a spot in the VR room. The VR was only $5 per person, so if you want to save some money and don’t think there will be a big line, and don’t need/want a poster, I would just buy a standard ticket and the VR when you get there. (There was not an option to simply add the VR to the standard ticket online.)

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It was a really neat experience and I am glad we went. If you love art, or are simply a Van Gogh fan, then you would probably enjoy this exhibit.

DETAILS:

  • WHERE: Various locations. Cincinnati’s location is at 18 West Fourth St. Check website for other cities.
  • HOURS: Monday/Wednesday/Thursday/Friday 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Weekends/Holidays 10:00 am to 9:00 pm
  • COSTS: Standard ticket $34.90/adult tickets, ages 13+, $19.90/child.
  • PARKING: Yes (paid on-street or garage)
  • BATHROOM: Yes
  • TIME RECOMMENDED: 1 to 1.5 hours
  • COVID RESTRICTIONS: N/A
  • Details correct at time of posting, please double-check before you go.
Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food, Sightseeing

Holtman’s Donuts: Loveland, Ohio Location

We like finding places that have unique donuts (or bagels), preferably not a chain. There is a local store, Holtman’s Donuts, that has a couple of locations around the greater Cincinnati area. The original store is located in Loveland, Ohio. My favorite part (besides the delicious donuts), is being able to watch as they make and decorate the donuts through their big viewing windows.

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They are known for their maple and bacon donut. The kids like the red velvet and cookie varieties. I like trying their crazier toppings like lemon meringue, apple, or the croissant donut.

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They even make a huge donut for celebration/birthday cakes! It is actually really tasty and you can customize your glaze, fillings, and toppings. We had it once for one of the kid’s birthday parties. Holtman’s is also part of the Butler County Donut Trail. Now that’s my kind of trail!

What’s your favorite type of donut?

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Taste of Cincinnati

This past weekend was Taste of Cincinnati. What was once a small one day event that started in 1979, has now turned into a large weekend-long celebration.

There are food booths, food trucks, and live music of all different types scattered around the area. The food costs between $4-$8 per item. There were different beer and alcohol booths, along with soda and water booths.

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We were lucky and found parking pretty close for only $5. (Each lot seemed to have their own pricing.) We stopped at a couple different food booths. My first stop was Pompillios, where I tried a chocolate and peanut butter cannoli. I love a good cannoli, and this one did not disappoint. The shell was crispy, the peanut butter filling was delicious. The only real chocolate taste came from a syrup drizzle, which was okay. I’m not sure it added a lot other than stickiness. I would totally eat one of those again.

I wanted to try a mac and cheese topped with goetta, but the line was so long, that I skipped it.

Next, I tried a beef on weck. I had tried this on our trip while in New York. It had been delicious, and I potentially had too high of expectations. The food truck at the Taste had an okay beef on weck. The bun was plain, nothing like the delicious salt and caraway seed topped bun at Adrian’s in New York. (Click here for Adrian’s post.) They seem to sell a lot more wings than sandwiches, so maybe I chose the wrong thing. (Although I am not really a wing girl.)

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My final food of the night was an arapa from Empanadas Aqui. It was delicious and so was the cilantro aoili that came with it. I would have eaten more!

This year had beautiful weather and we were able to see a friend’s band play during the event. They sounded amazing!

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The Taste of Cincinnati is a great way to find new places to eat near the city. We saw lots of new (at least to us) restaurants and food trucks. It is busy, so I would suggest going when they first open or towards the end of the night when it might be less crowded. We seemed to have gone during a peek time, but it was when the band we went to see was playing.

TIP: If you find a map, grab one! They were out most places we went.

Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Food

Ali’s Bar & Grill

We were feeling a little peckish after a round of soccer games and decided to stop by Ali’s Bar & Grill in Madeira. Their menu looked amazing and we were excited to try it out.

We tried the deep-fried cereal funnel cake. It has fruity pebbles in the batter! It sounds crazy, but it was really good. It was sweet, but not too sweet, crunchy goodness. It had a nice flavor, and I’m not even a fruity pebbles fan.

I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other things on the menu! (We have our eye on the poutine—because you can never go wrong with poutine, a burger, the Nashville chicken sandwich…maybe a pizza…Yum!)

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Posted in: Exploring Ohio, Rest Stop/Welcome Center/Visitor Center

Finding A Place To Stop: An Ohio Rest Stop

If you travel any amount of distance, you have probably stopped at a rest stop for a break. Whether it’s a bathroom break, a chance to stretch your legs, grab a snack, let the dog out, or stop for the night, a nice rest stop can make a big difference in your drive. We stopped at so many rest stops during our RV trip, and even stayed overnight at some when the drive was too long. I never paid too much attention before the trip, but there can be a huge difference in the quality of rest stops! We’ve gone to ones that are simply toilets, nothing else there, nothing special. Then of course, you can find really nice ones where everything is new, super clean and bright. Florida’s Welcome Center/rest stop gave out masks and orange juice. Wyoming’s (near Cheyenne) had so many people stopping there, that Uber Eats delivered! (It was a nice stop too, not just due to food delivery.) New York’s Western NY Visitor Center had a little shop and a playground on the campus. Virginia’s Eastern Shore had a wildlife refuge and great walking trails.

Ohio’s have been a mix. On our way back home from Michigan, we stopped at one that was nice enough, but small and older. There were plenty of parking spots though. Between Wilmington and Lebanon, Ohio, on highway I-71, there are a pair of newer rest stops/welcome centers. They are located around mile marker 33.5 and are on either side of the highway, so there is both a northbound and south rest stop. There are bathrooms, vending machines, local tourist information. The southbound rest stop/welcome center has a fun Ohio sculpture that makes for a great photo op. It also has shaded picnic tables along the right side of the building. Along the backside there is a walking path; it isn’t very long, but it gives you a nice spot to stretch your legs and has a few benches along the path. There a is a dog poopbag station as well.

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The southbound rest stop has 20 RV/truck spots. The lanes seemed large enough for easy maneuverability. There were only a few lights in the parking lot, so it may be pretty dark at night if you are here for an overnight stop.

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Normally we only use rest stops when we travel; however, we have occasionally grabbed things for a picnic lunch and headed to a nearby rest stop. They can be great places to have a change in scenery, especially if it has a large open space to throw a ball, picnic tables, and even the hard-to-find playground.

INFORMATIONAL LINKS:

Ohio.gov has a list of Ohio rest stops (including the type of rest stop, amount of parking spaces)

SIMILAR POSTS:

Cheyenne’s Welcome Center

Florida’s Welcome Center

Western NY Visitor Center

Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge

What/Where is your favorite rest stop?

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