North America is a beautiful continent, vast and diverse, and I’m lucky to have seen a lot of it: sweeping rivers, rolling mountains, the majesty of ancient forests, the severity of the desert. But in my travels, there’s often a tendency to hop from one end of the continent to the other, leaving the vast center of the U.S. as part of the journey, but rarely the destination.
More the fool, me.
When it recently came time for my lady and I to choose a locale for a short 5-day summer jaunt, we thought of the usual hot-spots here in the northeast: Montreal, Boston, NYC, DC, Philly. We wanted somewhere within a comfortable day’s drive, with a lot of cultural activities as well as some nice green spaces, and of course, the more affordable the better. The hot-spots of course are pricy by nature, so I started looking west for some place new. My eyes settled on Cleveland, a smallish unsung Great Lakes city that I had heard good things about, but had somehow never stopped in. A city that, I soon learned, had a lot to offer.
The cityscape as viewed from the highway
When I began researching Cleveland, I was mainly motivated by the belief that it would be a cheap vacation. Which it certainly was. What I didn’t expect was how culturally and historically rich the town is. Cleveland, previously unbeknownst to me, boasts world-class museums, a huge zoo and aquarium, five-star restaurants, amazing local food and beer, and varied neighborhoods from the hip to the historic. It’s the perfect city-size: full of interesting and varied activities, but easy to navigate (once you get used to the crisscrossing highways). It’s also a surprisingly “green” city, with large expanses of protected land, a lovely university campus (CSU), a renowned arboretum, and even a national park. It had everything we wanted, and ended up costing us half what we would have spent elsewhere. Definite win.
An easy highway drive brought us to our hotel, located in nearby Independence, OH, a small suburb only ten minutes from Cleveland proper. This is a great area to stay in because 1.) you save a lot of money compared to hotels downtown, and 2.) you are right next to the Cuyahoga National Park. Independence also has easy access to restaurants and stores, handy for last-minute meals or when you suddenly need a pharmacy. My more-adventurous side would have sooner found a secluded spot to camp in, rather than shell out for a hotel room at all. But my lady had this crazy idea that a proper vacation to a city should include things like running water and a roof. Weird right? We decided to save the camping options for our next visit (and if anyone has tips, please share). Anyway, you’ll get the best lodging deal over in Independence, where you can choose from a dozen hotels ranging from the luxurious to the usual cheap chains.
For our first night in Cleveland, we hit up the Great Lakes Brewing Company (GLBC). I was already a big fan of their beers, and couldn’t wait to visit the source of such libatious glory. It’s located in Ohio City, a downtown neighborhood with some nice brickwork and neo-classical architecture. We had dinner at the GLBC brew pub and ordered some stupendous fish n’ chips. The cod was battered with their Edmund Fitzgerald porter, a dark and malty ale named in honor of the famed shipwreck in Lake Superior (GLBC has a lot of regional pride). The house fries were worthy of epic balladry – possibly the best I’ve ever had. It is not often that a french fry becomes a sensory experience in one’s memory, yet I can conjure up that taste even now. I paired this feast with a draft of a flavorful dunkelweizen (dark wheat ale) dubbed Lorelai, a pub-exclusive brew unfortunately not for sale outside of the bar. If anyone at Great Lakes Brewery is reading this: bottle that beer! I’d be a happy, happy man with a case of Lorelai.
The glories of the Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Next up came a tour of the brewery. Our guide made it fun and educational. Fair warning, Ohio state law prohibits the actual giving-away of alcohol, so the brewery is obligated to charge 25 cents per tasting. So have some quarters on hand. And be sure to spend some dough in the gift-shop, because GLBC is a worthy cause! Not only do they brew fantastic beers, they do so with an eye towards sustainability and integrity. They use locally-sourced ingredients, strive for zero-waste manufacturing, use green energy designs in the plant, and their delivery truck runs on veggie oil! These guys are doing it right. I even bought a t-shirt!
(And I never buy the t-shirt.)
Next day, we headed over to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Now, I hadn’t been to a zoo since I was a teenager, and I do harbor some ethical qualms about them. On the one hand, education and conservation are worthy missions. On the other, a cage is a cage, and there is arguably an innate cruelty in confining certain animals that are biologically wired to roam over miles of territory. But, I took off my activist/philosopher hat for the day, and just enjoyed myself. The Cleveland Zoo is big (165 acres), much bigger than it seems on the cartoonish map you get at the entrance. It’s laid out well, although part of it was built atop a hill, which involves a bit of hiking (unless you’re a wuss and opt to take the shuttle). The zoo is laid out by bio-region, and there are buildings with indoor exhibits which are like mini-zoos in themselves – a rainforest building, an aquarium, and the largest primate collection in North America. Throughout you’ll find the sorts of animals one expects – elephants, camels, lions, giraffes – as well as rarities like the aptly named aye-aye and the sleek fossa, which looks like a cougar mixed with a dog mixed with a weasel. It took us about five hours to see everything, and we are the type of people who like to go slow and savor.
The animals all seemed active and in good health, although (and here comes that activist hat) one never knows what sort of mental or emotional issues are going on internally. There was one thing I know I’ll always remember. I was approaching the gorilla exhibit and I saw these thick, black fingers gripping through the fence with what could only be bored resignation. The stoic ape was hunched over, brow furrowed, staring at the ground. I met this gorilla’s eyes, and saw such a complexity of intelligence and emotion in them that I wanted to knock down the walls (this of course would not have been an improvement for anyone’s situation). It was a haunting thing. But in the zoo’s defense, they also have the Gorilla Health Project, which aims to address health issues of zoo-bound gorillas. So that’s good. The zoo in fact seemed to have a lot of ongoing conservation efforts, which is what I like to see. Gorillas of course are highly endangered, so the question of holding them and other higher species in captivity becomes more complicated. Is it right or wrong to detain thinking, feeling individuals for the sake of preserving the whole species? Perhaps an argument for another day.
Young black rhinoceros
Despite these bittersweet musings, the zoo was a lot more fun than I expected. We saw things we’d never otherwise see, sometimes at very close range (I could nearly pat the heads of the rhinos), and got a bunch of good exercise. For dinner we returned to Independence and ate a great meal at Aladdin’s Eatery, a restaurant chain that is far too delicious and mindful of quality to be a restaurant chain. They offer wonderful and affordable Lebanese food and revitalizing fresh-made juices and smoothies. Best falafel I’ve had outside of NYC. We rounded out the night back at the hotel with a sixer of Dortmunder Gold (GLBC’s flagship German-style lager) and the lame novelty of cable television (we don’t have t.v. service at home, so it’s always an amusement when we come across it). We watched three hours of Mythbusters and made fun of stupid commercials. Pleasant end to a pleasant day.
Coming up: the Cuyahoga N.P., the Museum of Art, and Cleveland’s renowned West Side Market.