Base Camp Series: A Whirlwind Tour of Northeast Ohio

By Derrick McKee

Weelunk Contributor

As I mentioned in my original post on why we moved back, I consider Wheeling to be a base camp for adventure because of its proximity to so much. Whether you want to go skiing in the winter, white water rafting in the summer, hiking up mountains in the fall, or go jet-setting to the Caribbean in the Spring, you can get anywhere you want to go by plane, train, or automobile within a handful of hours. In this series, I intend to explore as many of those options as possible while suggesting highlights and itineraries to inspire, and to help you navigate.

When I moved to Northeast Ohio in 2010, I didn’t really have any expectations, good or bad. However, over the four years I lived and worked there I came to be incredibly impressed with everything the Akron-Cleveland Metro Area had to offer. Therefore, figured I would write about the possibility of a very fun and exciting three-day weekend centered around one of their greatest events taking place in about a month — the Brite Winter Festival, an outdoor food-truck, music, and arts festival within a stone’s throw of the shores of Lake Erie. And yes, the more snow, the better!

Day 1: Wheeling to Akron

I’ve done this drive more times than I can count, and you can be from Point A to B in exactly two hours. Leave Wheeling in the morning on a Friday, and make it to beautiful downtown Akron in time for lunch. Plan on heading to Nuevo Mod Mexican & Tequila Bar for some incredible authentic Mexican (Try the salsa and guacamole flights.), or give Crave a shot at creative takes on classic American favorites. If you’re in the mood for pizza, Luigi’s is billed as Akron’s top spot and it is definitely delicious, but I recommend holding off on the pizza until Day 2 when you’re closer to my all-time favorite.

After you’ve got a full belly, take a stroll around downtown Akron, particularly around the Ohio-Erie Canal area and baseball stadium. Akron has been working on its downtown for quite a few years, and it’s quickly becoming a trendy, exciting locale for dining, nightlife, theatre, and sports. (If you go in the summer, check out a Rubber Ducks minor league baseball game.)

Once you’ve seen the sights in downtown Akron, hop in your car and either shoot over toward the interstate for a Thirsty Dog Brewing brewery tour, or head northwest on West Market Street toward my old stomping grounds and your destination for the evening: Fairlawn.

While heading up West Market, you’ll pass West Point Market, and many beautiful/historic houses and businesses along the way. Eventually, you’ll start seeing signs for Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens. This is an absolutely breathtaking and gorgeous estate which opens for tours in the afternoon and is worth the trip. You’d have to go to Europe to find grounds more beautiful than this. Around Christmas they do an amazing grounds event which could be paired with the Polar Express through the Cuyahoga Valley and a ski trip to the easy slopes of Boston Mills / Brandywine for a trip in and of itself.

Once you’ve checked out Stan Hywet Hall, it’s probably not quite time to check into your hotel yet, so you can either cruise around Cuyahoga Valley National Park (if you’re there in the summer you HAVE to plan on taking a hike on any one of the Valley’s beautiful trails, or if you want to stay close try Sand Run Metro Park), or you can stretch the legs and do some first-rate shopping at either Summit Mall in Fairlawn, or any of the numerous shopping centers lining West Market Street / Route 18.

Of course, you’re on vacation, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a top-quality place to wet your whistle mid-day. This one is easy: Head to the Copley Lizardville. (Quick note: For some reason you can’t go 200 feet in Ohio without running into a new city name — Copley, Fairlawn, Montrose, Bath, West Akron. It’s all the same general area and is equivalent to Elm Grove to Woodsdale. Don’t be intimidated by various city names.) Lizardville is attached to the Winking Lizard, an excellent sports bar and grille chain located all over Ohio. The Lizardville side is something special though. They sport 900+ beers quartered off into various sections (American, English, Belgian, German, Stout, Porter, etc.). They also have a binder three inches thick full of world-class whiskey options, and their cider/malt drink selections are strong. (My wife recommends Vandermill Toasted Hard Cider.) Grab whichever drink you want and hand it to the bartender. They’ll blast chill it and pour it for you in about five minutes flat.

By 4 p.m. or so, check into your hotel. The Fairlawn / Copley / Montrose area offers plenty of hotels at various price points. All of them are pretty central to what you’ll be doing at night, so choose your favorite brand and grab a breather.

At night, you have plenty of options for both dinner, nightlife, and shopping. Fairlawn is very chain-heavy, but there are some classic local spots you can pop into. Cafe Bricco located in the Doubletree Hotel offers trendy, delicious plates in the $20-30 range, Ken Stewart’s Lodge offers higher-end fine dining, and Vaccaro’s Trattoria offers classic and delicious Italian. If you’re in the mood for burgers or the like, you can’t go wrong at either The Rail or Pub Bricco, which also doubles as a really, really cool English-style pub. If you want to go for some ethnic food, check out Pad Thai for Asian cuisine or the Saffron Patch for the best Indian food I’ve ever had. Finally, Swenson’s Cheeseburger’s (a drive-up burger joint) is any Akron resident’s equivalent to DiCarlo’s or Coleman’s in that every single local absolutely loves it and runs to get it whenever they return home.

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After dinner, you can either head to the Funny Stop comedy club in Cuyahoga Falls, to the Weathervane Playhouse to catch a show, or to 750 mL Boutique Wine Bar, Regency Wine Bar, or Wolf Creek Winery for flights of vino and live music. Wolf Creek allows you to bring outside food in, while the other wine bars serve small plates and flatbreads.

Day 2: Akron to Cleveland

It’s 11 a.m., and you’ve checked out of your hotel. Time for the best damn pizza in Akron at Gasoline Alley! Seriously, I crave this stuff almost as much as I do DiCarlo’s, although its a totally different style of pie (I recommend the Margarita + Pepperoni and a side of pizza sauce). Gasoline Alley also has some mouth-watering, oven-baked hoagies if pizza isn’t your thing (what?!), fresh cut fries (load on the malt vinegar), and some pretty kick-ass pies and cakes they make in-house.

Gasoline Alley is near the Interstate on-ramp, so once you’ve eaten, head north to what I believe is the most underrated city in America – Cleveland! It’ll take you about 30 minutes if you go straight there, but I recommend taking a little detour since it’s probably only 1PM. Save some room at lunch and make a break for Sweetie Fry in Cleveland Heights on the eastern side. Sweetie Fry does some unbelievably creative things with french fries, and is home of the pizza fries! They also make their own hand-crafted ice creams which come in a multitude of crazy flavors such as Maple Bacon, Goat Cheese, French Toast, and Brown Butter Walnut.

Once you’ve loosened your belt, set your GPS for the West Side Market. This is an experience like no other. Hundreds of vendors sell incredibly fresh products from their stands, and you can practice the art of bartering — to a degree — and sampling until you’ve had your fill. Afterward, head into downtown Cleveland. You can do some gambling at the Horseshoe, browse some unbelievable turn-of-the-last-century architecture at the Arcade, or walk through amazing exhibits at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame.

After your afternoon jaunts, you’re probably ready to check into your hotel for a breather before the big night. Depending on what you want to get into, book a hotel in that area. Cleveland’s Playhouse Square puts on some ridiculously good events. A favorite of ours the past few years has been Flanagan’s Wake, an improv spoof on James Joyce’s classic Irish poem Finnegan’s Wake. The House of Blues in downtown almost always has great concerts going on, and if you want to witness LeBron James, “the Q” hosts the Cleveland Cavaliers all spring.

What I truly recommend though is bundling up and attending the Brite Winter Music & Arts Festival in the Ohio City section (Ohio City is what we should all hope Centre Market turns into). Clevelanders have truly made the best of it with this winter festival. All of the restaurants, bars, and shops in the Ohio City district participate, and thousands of people flock to the courtyards and snow-covered-greens bundles up in their warmest winter gear to watch fantastic up-and-coming bands perform on various stages. Gourmet food trucks line the streets, and they’re serving hot, delicious food while the speakeasy underneath Bar Cento, and the cellar at Great Lakes Brewery offer a break from the cold.

If outdoor music festivals aren’t your thing, go to Iron Chef Michael Symon’s restaurant, Lola Bistro, or any of the other great restaurants on East 4th Street. (This area is worth seeing at night no matter what.) After dinner, grab a Guinness in Flannery’s Irish Pub on East 4th, or then check out some live jazz music and hand-crafted cocktails at the Velvet Tango Room, Cleveland’s best kept secret. They take prohibition-era drinks so seriously that they make their own vermouth! I recommend the Vesper — the official martini of 007 himself, or a Whiskey Sour with egg-white froth whipped up by hand. Each drink is about $18.00, but it comes with a “if-you-don’t-love-it-we’ll-make-you-a-different-one” guarantee.

Day 3: Cleveland to Wheeling

It’s Sunday. Time to gather your things and start heading home. If you’re like me on vacation, you’re probably a little groggy, but you’re still ready to go out in style. That means driving south to Independence and hitting up Melt, where the king of all sandwiches is served. These are gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches with crazy, ridiculous combinations such as the Cuban War Pig (honey ham, roasted pulled pork, mojo glazed pork belly, fried pickle spears, honey mustard, swiss), or Parmageddon (potato & onion pierogi, napa vodka kraut, sautéed onions, sharp cheddar — and trust me– add the bratwurst). Ask for their coleslaw. It costs 50 cents and is fantastic.

After Melt, you can either hit the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad for a nice trip, or drink some caffeine and proceed less than three hours home to Wheeling. Go grocery shopping, eat a healthy salad or some soup, rehydrate, and get your ass ready for work on Monday where you can make all of your co-workers jealous by telling them about your amazing whirlwind tour of Northeast Ohio!

Oh, and remember to book another trip because you’ve only scratched the surface!