Sure, Athens is widely known for its infamous Halloween celebration, which draws party-ready college students from around the state, along with numerous outdoor “fests” (to the uninitiated, these are enormous student-run block parties). But did you know Athens County—just a three-hour drive from Cincinnati—is also home to two forests, 16 parks, and dozens of locally owned restaurants? You didn’t? Then Athens is a hidden treasure just waiting to be discovered by you.Eat & Drink Casa Nueva—or “Casa,” as the regulars call it—has been an Athens staple for more than 25 years. With two kitchens and a seemingly endless menu, Casa is the best nouveau-Mexican food in the Appalachian foothills. With choices like tofu fries, chorizo albondigas (spicy sausage meatballs), and a special gluten-free menu, Casa offers a fresh take on the delicious classics that keep Athenians coming back for more.Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery (not named for Jacqueline Onassis, FYI) took over the old Skipper’s in 2009. Perhaps best known for their powerfully fresh Razz Wheat beer, Jackie O’s offers a wide variety of locally brewed beers such as Chomo-lung-ma (a brown ale named to commemorate a fund-raising climb of Chomolungma, more commonly known as Mt. Everest) and Mandala Columbus DIPA, a double IPA brewed with all Columbus-grown hops. Or if beer just isn’t your thing, knock back a Dill Thrill Shot, a peppery vodka shot served with Frank’s RedHot sauce and a slice of—you guessed it—dill pickle.After all that feasting and gulping, you’ll probably need a sweet treat. Enter Whit’s. Chuck and Lisa Whitman opened Whit’s Frozen Custard in Granville, Ohio, in 2003. Since then, Whit’s has added 17 locations—with more sure to follow—one of which is in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash. The Whitmans keep it simple. They only serve three flavors: chocolate, vanilla, and a Special Weekly Flavor, but there are plenty of nuts, candies, and fruit toppings, and you can pack it all into a hand-dipped waffle cone. PlayAthens Underground is arguably the most unique shop on busy Court Street. For starters, this vintage clothing store is literally underground (heads up: you have to walk down a set of dark steps to find the entrance). Once inside, you’ll feel like you’ve stumbled upon a giant, amazing, completely packed closet. The surprisingly large store is covered from floor to ceiling with everything from clothing, shoes, and wigs to costume jewelry and vinyl records. One of Athens’s hallmarks is its undeniably beautiful scenery. Make time to take a stroll through College Green to get the full university experience. Then motor out approximately 25 miles to Zaleski State Forest, a mammoth 26,827-acre preserve that borders the Waterloo Wildlife Research Station in Athens County and features a shooting range, horse camping, hunting and fishing, and the eerie Moonville Tunnel, an abandoned B&O rail right-of-way that comes with the requisite ghost story: Legend has it that a drunken brakeman accidentally stumbled into the path of the locomotive and met an untimely death. Some folks say you can still see the brakeman’s lantern glimmering and waving, trying to stop that train. For a more leisurely getaway, visit Shade Winery, located just 15 minutes from Athens. This micro-winery is an escape from an escape, growing many of its own grapes on the property and bottling the wine on site (our pick is The Estate Grown Vidal Blanc, a refreshing, citrusy white). Have a small taste for just a buck, buy a whole glass, or pick up a few bottles and spend the evening on the charming wrap-around porch. And here’s a thrifty bonus for you: Shade’s proprietors, Neal and Oui Dix, sell vino-friendly olives and local cheeses, but they also encourage visitors to bring along a picnic of their own.StaySet off on a wooded hillside just 15 minutes from Athens is Sand Ridge Bed & Breakfast. The former farmhouse, built in the 1860s, offers two bedrooms, a spacious living room, and a cozy loft-library with a wall full of books. While much modernization and restoration has occurred over the life of the building, Innkeeper Connie Davidson has worked hard to maintain a balance between the history of the property and the comfort of her guests. Don’t miss the original sandstone fireplace, the 1880s-era root cellar, and Davidson’s collection of new and antique quilts, which are displayed in the guest rooms. Her garden, which features only plants native to the area, has drawn many guests to her door. Cap your visit with a carefully planned breakfast from Davidson’s kitchen—the menu is practically a who’s-who of Ohio’s best local and regional farms. Look for eggs from Bircher’s Retreat Farm, bacon from King Family Farm, maple syrup from Sticky Pete’s, Paw Paw Jam and goat cheese from Integration Acres, and whatever else Davidson happens to pick up from the Athens Farmer’s Market. In other words, you might be staying in a college town, but you don’t have to eat like a college kid.
Originally published in the August 2013 issuePhotographs courtesy Shade Winery
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