As if the flashy purple uniforms worn by the flight attendants aren’t eye-catching enough, the track lighting below the overhead storage compartments on my WOW Air flight started to glow in soft neon greens, purples, and pinks around 9 p.m., about two hours into my six-hour flight to Keflavík International Airport in Iceland. The lights seemed cosmically perfect, giving the cabin a soft, disco-like glow as my fellow passengers slowly drifted off to sleep or dully stared at whatever was playing on the digital-device-of-choice propped up in their laps. I tried desperately to squeeze my eyelids into sleep, but instead my tired eyes blurred, making those hazy hues start to look like the northern lights dancing along a snowy horizon. We hadn’t even finished crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and I already conjured up my very own aurora borealis.
I couldn’t sleep a wink on that overnight flight to Iceland, probably because I was so hopped up on the pre-trip buzz I feel every time I travel. So I frittered away my time imagining how one of the sharply dressed flight attendants—the dark-haired gal with the Cinnabon-sized hair bun rolled near the nape of her neck, a perfect shelf for her jaunty Jackie Kennedy–esque purple WOW Air pillbox hat—really could be Wonder Woman, since she bore such an uncanny resemblance to actress Gal Gadot. She was flanked by equally attractive male flight attendants, each more Scandinavian-looking than the other. They were effortlessly muscling the drink cart up the aisle, politely offering its over-priced wares, but I didn’t fall for any of their charming Icelandic hospitality. On a low-cost airline like WOW, I came prepared with my own snacks and drinks to avoid racking up expensive charges on my credit card for a bottled water or tiny pack of peanuts or whatnot. I was packing carbohydrates and beverages like a marathoner who planned to get lost at mile 7.
WOW Air is definitely a no-frills carrier, but since it started flying to Iceland, it’s been enticing those who want to escape for a weekend adventure to this cheery island of fire and ice—or who might see Iceland as a handy jumping-off point for a European vacation. Whatever you might think about flying to Iceland—and listen, you really should think about flying to Iceland—you can’t deny the allure of those promotional-rate prices WOW is dangling to lure vacationers to give Iceland a whirl. If you go, be prepared to pay extra for a carry-on, a checked bag, or just a crumb of food inflight—and to splurge while in Iceland, which isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination.
The airport in Keflavík is about a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík, the country’s capital and home base for my three-day trip; shuttles to the city are frequent and easy to catch, about $40 one-way. I was determined to save every krona (Iceland’s currency) I possibly could, so I opted to stay at Bus Hostel Reykjavík, one of several popular hostels in the city. I’m geeky that way, though; I prefer mixing it up with a bunch of twentysomethings from around the world so I can practice all of my Rosetta Stone sampler DVD lingo.
The average rate for a hotel in Reykjavík is about $260/night, although you can find better deals through Airbnb or—if you’re not high-maintenance—by shacking up at a hostel and sharing a bathroom with a bunch of backpacking hooligans. But beware: Hotel prices can soar in the peak of the summer season—mid-June through August—when tourists smother the island like hordes of fish-hungry puffins. Iceland welcomed more than 2 million tourists in 2017, more than six times the tiny island nation’s population. And a good number of those tourists are Americans, as WOW now flies direct to Iceland from a slew of U.S. cities, including Cincinnati.
I spent an entire day walking around Reykjavík, a remarkably safe and accessible city dotted with fascinating architectural gems and adorned in surprisingly beautiful graffiti. I hit the highlight reel of must-see sights, using Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic Lutheran church with its 74.5-meter tower, as my guiding landmark. I marveled at the life-size whale models hanging from the ceiling at the Whales of Iceland museum near the harbor (where whale-watching tours launch throughout the week); I perused the “puffin shops”—which is what locals call souvenir shops—inside the spectacular, shimmering Harpa cultural center at the water’s edge; and I explored a man-made glacial ice cave and took in panoramic views of the city from the observation deck of the Perlan, a water-tank-facility-turned-museum that tells the story of glacial erosion through high-tech, interactive exhibits.
To see some of Iceland’s natural wonders—which include volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, and thermal springs—I took a day-long bus tour around the Golden Circle, three popular attractions within 90 minutes of the capital. At Þingvellir National Park, where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia meet, I was awed by the immense, fissured rift valley filled with rivers and waterfalls. And at Geysir, the original hot-water spout that all other geysers in the world were named after, I tiptoed around steaming mud pits and witnessed the Strokkur geyser faithfully shoot hot water nearly 100 feet up into the frigid air every five or six minutes. Finally, I was mesmerized by Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall, a spectacular double cascade where rushing water drops 105 feet over icy falls before racing down a rocky ravine.
And if evening clouds hadn’t hampered my plans, I might have even seen the aurora borealis, those magical curtains of color that light up the northern sky (typically from September to mid-April). I missed them this time, but I’m already planning a return trip to this mystical island of fire and ice for another chance to see them dance.
Bus Hostel Reykjavík, $30/night and up ($130/night for a private double), bushostelreykjavik.com
Messinn, which locals say has the best seafood in the city, lunch entrées $15–$25, dinner $20–$40, messinn.com
With the region’s only daily direct flight to Paris departing from CVG (average cost: $1,500), Cincinnatians have little excuse not to hop the pond. Herewith, an insider’s guide to the City of Light from one Cincinnatian who calls it home.
Parisian hotels are notoriously formal (i.e., stuffy). The Hoxton, a boutique hotel in Paris’s coveted second arrondissement, eschews that tendency. Looking for the reservation desk? It’s tucked behind a sunny cafe, past a French-style brasserie, and through one of two courtyards. A former hôtel particulier, an ornate mansion built in the 18th century for a member of King Louis XV’s royal court, the building boasts original spiral staircases and marble floors. For even more French flair, head to nearby Rue Montorgueil and peruse its lively market street.
Clown Bar has been a local institution since 1917, when it served as a watering hole for acrobats, magicians, and—you guessed it—clowns, after they performed next door at the famed (and still operational) Cirque d’Hiver. Today, the jovial restaurant dishes out some of the best contemporary French cooking in the city in a setting unchanged since les années folles. Don’t miss the duck and foie gras pie for a traditional dish you’ll dream about long after vacation ends. Hungry for more? Les Arlots serves up stellar French comfort food in a relaxed setting, and Breizh is the place to go for galettes (a savory crepe) and cider.
You can’t come to Paris without a culture fix. What are you into? Art? Le Louvre is a must-visit for the palace alone, but the Musée de l’Orangerie is a better (and far less crowded) option if you fancy 19th century art. Its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings features works by such masters as Monet, Picasso, Renoir, and Matisse. Architecture? The flying buttresses of Cathédrale Notre-Dame are surely worth a gander, but be sure to climb up to Montmartre’s La Basilique du Sacré Cœur for its travertine stone facade and unparalleled view of the city. Theater? Catch a show at Palais Garnier, the stunning opera house that inspired The Phantom of the Opera. Anglophones, fear not: Subtitles are in English. History? Les Invalides is widely known as the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte, but it also contains France’s national military museum and artifacts dating back to the Middle Ages.
The Hoxton, $122–$740/night, thehoxton.com
Musée de l’Orangerie, $11, musee-orangerie.fr; La Basilique du Sacré Cœur, free to visit, sacre-coeur-montmartre.com; Palais Garnier, ticket prices vary, operadeparis.fr/en; Les Invalides, $15, musee-armee.fr/en
Skiing in June? Can that be true? It’s not fake news: Even in these days of global warming, at higher elevations it is possible to hit the slopes this late in the season. (But schuss while you can; these precious days don’t last.) Try it for yourself at Arapahoe Basin and Loveland, neighboring ski resorts less than two hours from downtown Denver in the front range of the Rockies. Get some time on the snow and experience Loveland’s outstanding alpine skiing, then take the Ridge Cat—Loveland’s own passenger-equipped snow cat (a kind of multi-person snowmobile)—into the backcountry to A-Basin, where you can ride the exposed spine of the Rockies and experience the lively après ski atmosphere at one of the mountain’s five bars and restaurants (we recommend the bacon bloody mary from the 6th Alley Bar & Grill).
After a day on the mountains, head back into the city to the Castle Marne Bed & Breakfast, a family-owned historic inn in Denver’s City Park neighborhood. Made with stone quarried from Colorado’s own Castle Rock, the Marne has served as everything from a real estate show home in the 1890s to a parolee processing center, and is now home to 10 luxurious rooms. The mansion’s John Mason Room is a beautifully sunny mini-suite with 17-foot cathedral ceilings and Palladian windows, where you can relax on the king-size brass bed or work the kinks out in the jetted whirlpool tub.
Stay in the neighborhood to refuel the next morning—Onefold in City Park is a sleek breakfast and lunch joint with a widely varied menu of family recipes that are entirely non-GMO and mostly local and organic. Go for breakfast and try their huevos rancheros with house-made green chili or the bacon fried rice with fried eggs and a Japanese tamari soy sauce. Still have that green chili on your mind? Head back at lunch and order the green chili bowl with pork or veggies.
Castle Marne Bed & Breakfast, $184–$361/night, castlemarne.com
Onefold, entrées $8–$12, onefolddenver.com
Fair warning: This will ruin you for all other forms of air travel. If you aren’t already among the fortunate few (read: P&G executives) to experience Ultimate Air Shuttle, consider this endorsement an excuse to indulge a little. It’s an admittedly high price point ($499 round trip), but you really do get what you pay for. Departures to Chicago (one of the five Ultimate Air destinations) leave from Lunken Airport weekdays at 8:55 a.m.; the flights are direct charter service, pre-screened (meaning no TSA security checks), with free parking, snacks, and drinks and no baggage fees. You can even show up as late as 15 minutes (!) before takeoff. It’s the closest thing to a private jet for those of us not named Beyoncé.
Arrange for the complimentary shuttle service at Midway Airport to drop you at the train and head into the city for a stay at the ACME Hotel in the River North neighborhood. The place has a funky, artsy aesthetic—and suites with wireless sound systems—and is supremely located and a nice change of pace from standard hotel sterility. Take a stroll along the Magnificent Mile to a modern Italian dinner at Spiaggia Restaurant, home to Top Chef–winning Joe Flamm, then head to the Second City comedy club for a post-meal chuckle.
When in Chicago, you gotta go to Wrigley Field. Even if you’re not up for a game—or the Cubbies aren’t in town—daily tours offer a behind-the-scenes look at the “friendly confines,” including a walk on the field. If the weather won’t cooperate or baseball just isn’t your bag, swing by the Art Institute of Chicago to check out Picasso’s The Old Guitarist, Wood’s American Gothic, and more than 90,000 works of art in the museum’s permanent collection.
And because Ultimate Air’s weekday return flights depart from Midway at 5:15 p.m., you’ll be home in time to make dinner and catch Jeopardy. Just like Beyoncé.
Ultimate Air Shuttle, $499, ultimateairshuttle.com
ACME Hotel Company, $250–$350/night, acmehotelcompany.com
Spiaggia Restaurant, $18–$245, spiaggiarestaurant.com
Licking County, Ohio
Licking County, just east of Columbus, is home to nine active or in-progress breweries, making it well worth a visit. We chose five to form the spine of our trip.
Granville, home to Denison University, is the perfect base camp. The village oozes small-town charm, most evident in its marquee B&Bs. The main Buxton Inn dates to 1812; four other homes on the block hold more guest rooms. Across the street, the Granville Inn, built in the 1920s, gives off a more Gatsby-esque vibe.
To start, walk over to Three Tigers Brewing Company on Prospect Street. Plenty of restaurants grow out of food trucks; it’s a little unusual to grow a brewery, too, but that’s what Scott and Ashley Wilkins did. In 2013 the couple, who spent time in Vietnam, launched Mai Chau, a Vietnamese food truck. The truck begat Mai Chau on Prospect, which was swiftly followed by the brewery. The Three Tigers lineup is built around a core of pale ales; My Two Cents, a single-hopped American IPA, is the most popular. The full Mai Chau menu is available, so dial up a Sriracha pulled pork banh mi and Mai Chau cracklins (tossed in a sweet and spicy sauce) to balance out the brews.
From Granville, head east to Newark’s Trek Brewing Company. John and Kristen Rehm came back to their hometown from Seattle and opened Trek in March. The early beer lineup was limited to five—a cream ale, a pale ale, a vanilla stout, an IPA, and a red ale—but the addition of a bigger brewing setup means their lineup, and their hours, will expand. About four miles away, near the Newark Earthworks, Josh and Heather Lange’s DankHouse Brewing Company pours the hop-centric creations its name implies, including the 60 IBU Super Fantastic IPA.
Just south, in Heath, is Homestead Beer Company, launched in 2012 by Adam Rhodes and Kevin Atkinson. The Homestead lineup is pretty broad, includinga pilsner, a brown ale, and a mocha porter, an indicator of their experience and love of beer. Wrap up your tour seven miles south in Buckeye Lake, where Rich Hennosy’s Buckeye Lake Brewery started out in 2012 in 1,400 square feet of repurposed service station, expanded twice, and is now poised to expand again. Their strong Scotch ale is our favorite, but the Buckeye Lake Blonde and Legend Valley IPA are mainstays, and the brewery has a loyal following in this tiny village.
Mai Chau on Prospect, $2.50–$9, maichaustreetfood.com
Three Tigers Brewing Company, threetigersbrewing.com; Trek Brewing Company, trekbeer.com; DankHouse Brewing Company, dankhousebrewing.com; Homestead Beer Company, homesteadbeerco.com; Buckeye Lake Brewery, buckeyelakebrewery.com
In about seven and a half hours, you can drive from the Queen City to a chocolate-coated wonderland, otherwise known as Hershey, Pennsylvania. Often referred to as “The Sweetest Place on Earth,” Hershey has plenty of opportunities to make your vacation as rich as the chocolate the city is known for.
After trying and failing three times to get into the candy-making business, founder Milton Hershey finally found success in 1883 with the Lancaster Caramel Company based in his Lancaster, Pennsylvania, hometown. After selling the company for $1 million, Hershey completed what was, at the time, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturing plant in 1905, near Derry Church, then built an entire community around the factory. He even built a park nearby in 1907, and the rest is history.
To experience a piece of this history, stay at the 1825 Inn Bed and Breakfast, a charming farmhouse just outside of town that’s nearly two centuries old. Touted as a perfect space for outdoor lovers, the Mallard Room has a standard TV setup as well as a king-sized bed and an all-season fireplace. Once you’ve settled in, head over to Hershey’s Chocolate World, where you can learn about the company’s chocolate-making process on a free 30-minute tour. Chocoholics might want to try the Chocolate Tasting Experience or even create your own custom candy bar, complete with custom wrapper. Hershey Trolley Works can shuttle you around town to Highpoint Mansion, Milton’s birthplace, or Chocolate Avenue and its Kiss-shaped streetlights. Finally, stop by the Hershey Pantry, a restaurant that boasts “the best breakfast in Central Pennsylvania,” which includes Italian-stuffed French toast, buttermilk pancakes, and crab Florentine eggs.
The 1825 Inn Bed and Breakfast, $144–$279/night, 1825inn.com
The Hershey Pantry, breakfast entrées $4.75–$14.50, hersheypantry.com
Hershey’s Chocolate World, free tours; Trolley Works, adults $15.95, children 3–12 $12.95; Tasting Experience, adults $10.95, children 3–12 $7.95; Create Your Own Candy Bar, $19.95 per person. Package discounts also available, hersheys.com/chocolateworld.
For some of us, the Ohio River doesn’t offer the kind of relaxing waterside reprieve we seek in the summertime. But rather than pack up the minivan for a 12-hour trip to Florida, consider a four-hour drive to Ohio’s own waterfront, Lake Erie. Marblehead is a perfect city to experience the cool, deep-blue waters of the Great Lakes.
Most first-time visitors gravitate to the well-known Marblehead Lighthouse to see the most photographed place around, but the city has much more to offer. Take in all the rocky shores and the coastline on a boat tour with “Admiral” Jim’s Erie Spirit Adventures. Boat tours are a great way to experience the landscape and to learn more about the area’s history. Ohio born and raised, Admiral Jim has been sailing since 1978 and currently commands the 33-foot Erie Spirit.
After the tour, a brief drive will have you at the hometown hit Brown’s Dairy Dock. The Brown brothers, Trent and Tyler, have handed their soft serve concoctions through their window for 25 summers. Enjoy their renowned peach sundae or a dipped cone, because what is a better end to an ideal summer night than ice cream? Maybe a glass of wine. At the Red Fern Inn, the amenities include a complimentary bottle from the inn’s Rocky Point Winery. Both the inn and the winery are located in the historic Marblehead School building, which was built in 1896 from locally quarried limestone. Make sure you climb the spiral staircase to check out the view from the original bell tower.
Red Fern Inn at Rocky Point Winery, $249–$299/night, redferninn.com
Brown’s Dairy Dock, $4.25 for a small sundae, facebook.com/Browns-DairyDock-131796494312/
Erie Spirit Adventures, $160 for a cruise up to six passengers, lakeeriesail.com/captain-and-boat
If you’re traveling south on I-71/75 from Cincinnati, there’s a good chance you’re either looking for the Florence Mall or just driving home. But if you haven’t meandered through Boone County’s salt and pepper seasoning of fast-food chains and gas stations, you might have overlooked the extra spices—the fun spots your summer itinerary has been missing.
The Wildwood Inn isn’t overtly hidden, but its fake palm trees and shuttered windows give it an undercover look. Inside, the four-person, family-sized rooms are cut from a different cloth, featuring themed imitations ranging from stylish New York City suites to the inside of a Kentucky Cave. With a hot tub. Whether you’re looking for a hotel your kids might actually get excited for—replete with a jungle-themed pool and an arcade room—or you’re willing to take a trek on the quirky side, the Wildwood Inn is definitely a conversation starter.
Just 10 minutes from the Inn, discover the Tousey House Tavern through the miracle of its specialty: the Hot Brown. Break into a baked cheese crust topped with two strips of pecan-wood smoked bacon as you enjoy this medley of turkey, ham, and toasted bread soaking in a Mornay sauce. If your head ever stops spinning, ground your senses with the 12-year-old Van Winkle bourbon’s belly-warming caramel notes. It’s a lovely accompaniment to the tavern’s triple chocolate cheesecake in a dark raspberry sauce. Reserve your table at dusk, and experience this Federal-style home by your table’s candlelight—an experience with more charm than many city restaurants.
Then catch an evening baseball game almost every other week at UC Health Stadium. The Florence Freedom compete through early September in the independent Frontier League. Not bad, y’all.
Wildwood Inn, $80–$230/night, wildwoodinnky.com
Tousey House Tavern, entrées $15.50–$35.50, touseyhouse.com
Florence Freedom, tickets $10–$15, florencefreedom.com
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden
Get the African safari experience without blowing your savings or traveling halfway across the globe. Oh, and roughing it? Not necessary. At the Cincinnati Zoo’s adults-only Twiga Overnight, you’ll be transported to the Sahara, but with most of the comforts of home.
First, you’ll set up your campsite overlooking scenic Giraffe Ridge, where you’ll get cozy (OK, not too cozy) with the nine other campers who’ll be sharing your safari-style tent. No, you’re not sleeping on the ground; you’ll rest your head on a cot for the evening. It’s perhaps not quite glamorous enough to be called “glamping,” but it certainly isn’t a struggle—even for urban dwellers who aren’t the most outdoorsy. Still, you might just forget you’re smack-dab in the middle of the city. (Occasional bellowing sirens headed to University Hospital are a reminder, of course.)
The activities kick off as you sip libations and enjoy hors d’oeuvres during a meet-and-greet with animals of the rainforest: Fan favorite Moe the sloth, who’s nocturnal, is particularly active. Get to know your group with a scavenger hunt in the greenhouse, then depart for an after-hours private journey through the zoo’s Africa exhibits, where you’ll get a glimpse of giraffes, cheetahs, African painted dogs, and have an up close and personal encounter with flamingos. Concluding the evening, the whole gang will gather ’round the campfire for s’mores and stories from the zookeepers.
Sleeping among the animals is surprisingly tranquil, and waking up to the sunrise and lion roars is simply something you won’t forget, let alone find on any other staycation.
The real kicker? During the behind-the-scenes tour, you might even get a sneaky look at Cincinnati’s pride and joy Fiona outside Hippo Cove, lounging around her adjacent living quarters, where the little lady was born and raised. Momma Bibi makes her presence known, too, greeting guests with boisterous, wall-shaking roars. Just keep your squeals of excitement to a minimum—they’re trying to sleep!
Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, various dates June–Sept, members $140, nonmembers $150, cincinnatizoo.org
The Whole Bowl, fully loaded Bambino Bowl $5.50, tortilla chips $1, and Kombucha $4; thewholebowl.com.
Can’t get enough of the wild animals? You’re welcome to spend the entire following day at the zoo.
Grant County, Kentucky
Just 40 minutes south of downtown Cincinnati lie the elements of a big weekend adventure: a tiny home, a tiny town, and a not-so-tiny lake. Galloping Goose Cottages, a resort consisting of 10 one-of-a-kind, 190-square-foot train-themed cottages, opened in 2017 to offer a romantic stay in tiny homes outfitted with all the essentials (including a microwave, bathroom with shower, and WiFi). “The cottages aren’t the ‘cookie cutter’ lodges everyone is used to,” says Brooke Rider-Cummins, owner of Galloping Goose Cottages. “I like to joke that once someone stays with us, they’ll be shouting ‘Tiny homes for everyone!’”
Time your visit right this summer, and you can discover nearly 350 acres of Northern Kentucky’s largest lake by paddle. A short ride from the cottages is Lake Williamstown, home to the annual Paddle Williamstown event. Scheduled for August 25, it’s an all-day event when local officials restrict use of powerboats, allowing visitors to enjoy six hours on the lake while aboard a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. The weekend kicks off with a Friday night concert at the Williamstown Marina, and a fireworks show closes out a full day of lakeside adventures.
After your long day paddling, try a gourmet sandwich from Beans Café and Bakery. This local café gives Panera-style dining a Southern touch—the sweet tea is incredible. You can easily eat for under $15 and leave with leftovers to enjoy later in your tiny home.
Galloping Goose Cottages, $99–$125/night, gallopinggoosecottages.com
Beans Café & Bakery, $10–$15 a person, beanscafeandbakery.com
Paddle Williamstown, paddlewilliamstown.com
Symphony Hotel, Over-the-Rhine
The Symphony Hotel—the only boutique hotel in OTR—is a triple threat, featuring entertainment, fine dining, and a place to lay your head. The hotel opened 22 years ago, when owner Karen Blatt transformed the 1871 mansion. Blatt, who graduated from DAAP with a degree in design, gave the nine rooms different styles and named each after a classical composer—a nice touch, considering its location across the street from Music Hall. “All the rooms are different, it’s not a cookie-cutter hotel,” says Keith Gavigan, hotel manager. “We’re in the heart of OTR, a central location to everything you’d want to do in Cincinnati.”
In July at Music Hall, for instance, Cincinnati Opera hosts the U.S. premiere of Another Brick in the Wall, an opera based on Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall. This is obviously not your typical opera, but don’t expect rock music, either. You can also hop on the Cincinnati Bell Connector down to the Aronoff Center, where The Book of Mormon makes its return this summer. Back at Music Hall, you can take the Beyond the Bricks tour for a behind the scenes look at the architecture and history of this newly renovated iconic structure. Or just wander through Washington Park, where there’s always something going on, including musical performances, festivals, and movie nights.
Rather stay in? Symphony Hotel still has you covered. Check out the sophisticated jazz lounge and bar, open Thursday through Saturday. No need to travel far for a fine dining experience either; sample what Chef Mirko Ravlic is serving in the sophisticated restaurant. There are always steak, chicken, vegetable, and fish dishes available, though the menu changes monthly. Before heading home on Sunday, don’t skip the generous brunch.
The Symphony Hotel, $129–$169/night, symphonyhotel.com
Symphony Hotel Restaurant, five course meal $45, three course meal $36, two course meal $31.95
Beyond the Bricks tour, $20, cincinnatiarts.org; Another Brick in the Wall, July 20, 21, 26, 28, & 31, $35-$195, cincinnatiopera.org/the-wall; The Book of Mormon, July 31–August 5, $44–$150; Washington Park, washingtonpark.org
Asheville & Nashville
We’ve all been there when it comes to planning a summer getaway weekend: “Do I go to Asheville or Nashville? What’s the difference?” This handy guide helps you see which city best fits your current travel mood.