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TRAVEL: Columbus daze
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Alongside Provincetown, Mass.; Palm Springs, Calif.; and Saugatuck, Mich., you can place Columbus, Ohio, as a gay mecca.

Although some may be surprised by the previous statement, keep in mind that 15 percent of the city's population is LGBT—and those individuals control 25 percent of the economy, underscoring their influence here. Moreover, the LGBT population is what one might call vibrant, in part because of a thriving theater scene but also because of the people who attend The Ohio State University.

A recent trip for travel writers helped bring to light all that this intriguing city has to offer.

Sugar, sugar

The first day, I checked into the Hampton Inn ( 501 N. High St.; ) . Normally, checking into the Hampton would probably be a ho-hum affair. However, there were two exceptions here. Number one, Columbus happened to hosting about 10,000 Pentecostals ( which made for some interesting encounters ) , but the more enduring reason comes in the form of bellman Clifford Stewart. If you looked up "personality" in the dictionary ( or looked it up online ) , you'd probably see Stewart's photo—a beaming man with a quick smile and a charming Southern accent as he constantly said, "Bless your heart."

From the hotel, the writers went to Sugardaddy's ( 11 E. Gay St. and other locations; ) , which sells brownies, blondies and other sumptuous treats. Gay couple Tom Finney and Mark Ballard established the eatery in 2005, Sugardaddy's handmade goodies come in 20 signature flavors. Be sure to try ( or order ) Pocket Change, small bites of Sugardaddy's Sumptuous Sweeties ®.

Then, it was time for a little mental lift ( and shopping ) . The Book Loft of German Village ( 631 South 3rd St.; ) is 32 ( ! ) rooms of mostly vintage items—and "vintage," in this case, is code for "low-cost." As you can imagine, walking through such a labyrinthine place can take a lot of time but, as I stated, it won't take a lot out of your wallet. I bought a pack of four classic movies for about $10—and a few other things as well.

The area of German Village is also home to the Keny Galleries ( 300 E. Beck St.; ) . Established in 1980 with a huge house purchased for less than $150,000, Keny Galleries has built substantial collections of U.S. art ( categories: historic art, folk art and portraiture ) . Among its museum clients are the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; and the Columbus Museum of Art. Words fail to describe how stunning some of the items are, so hopefully the corresponding photos will provide some justice to them.

The group then rode to the home of Jim Reesa and Steve Zawada—a stunning two-story domicile. Among those who were present was Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman, a very affable man who revealed that he will be grand marshal during the city's pride parade next year—which also happens to be Columbus' bicentennial.

The night wrapped up at the Spanish restaurant Barcelona ( 263 E. Whittier St.; ) . Even traveling with a large group, one could sense the intimate atmosphere that's so pervasive throughout the place. As for the menu items, be sure to try the Iberico de Bellota 'Fermin'—a "royal ham" that is sea-salt-cured and aged for at least three years. The chicken dish is another can't-miss item—and there is an impressive list of tapas. You can't go wrong with the desserts, either, which include Barcelona bread pudding and Spanish raspberry flan.

Shop 'til you drop

Most of the day, it was all about the Short North area of Columbus, which is on the main strip of High Street immediately north of downtown and extends just past the Ohio State University campus area. Things started with a tour of North Market ( 59 Spruce St.; ) , which incorporates 35 different merchants into one indoor marketplace that's open all year, seven days a week. Among a few of the merchants are Sarefino's Pizzeria & Italian Deli, Market Blossoms, CaJohn's Flavor & Fire, Taste of Belgium, Best of the Wurst, Flavors of Lincoln and Pam's Market Popcorn. I can attest to how good several of the items are.

From there, it was on to investigating the many small shops in Short North. le Chocolholique ( 601 N. High St.; ) sells enough items to tempt anyone, with items such as sable viennois ( shortbread dipped in chocolate ) , red velvet almonds, truffles and bacon toffee. A lot of gay men flock to the attractively named Torso ( 772 N. High St.; ) , which sells everything from clubwear to underwear—although sometimes they can be one and the same. Posh Pets ( 743 N. High St.; ) currently offers Halloween outfits for pets, but you can find stylish gear all year, including T-shirts that read, "I have 2 Daddies."

For those who love vintage items, you can't do much better than the Grand View Mercantile and ReVue . Grand View ( 873 N. High St.; ) is an 8,000-square-foot antique marketplace that showcases china, jewelry, furniture and many other items. ReVue ( 881 N. High St.; ) is a home-consignment store that sells antique, contemporary and various other types of furniture; there was a pool table I saw that I could envision in my dream house. Also, there's Loot ( 641 N. High St.; ) , which has a collection of home accessories that can be best described as eclectic, with items for all ages.

Roche Bobois ( 858 N. High St.; ) has items that embody the essence of sleekness. The store, which focuses on European furniture and design, features gorgeous collections from designers such as Daniel Ezan, Philippe Bouix and Daniel Rode. ( There's a Chicago counterpart at 222 W. Hubbard St. ) Bink Davies ( 668 N. High St.; ) is unlike most stores that sell houseware and home décor—this place had me laughing constantly with such items as The Complete Manual of Things That Might Kill You or a package of ramen noodle soup called "Wasted and Broke."

The Candle Lab ( 751 N. High St. and other locations; ) has fragrant soy candles in scents you're unlikely to find almost anywhere else. There are more than 120 fragrances, such as Bubble Bath, Awapuhi, Cannabis, Champagne, Wasabi and Hot Cocoa among the more traditional scents. In addition, The Candle Lab has a tie-in with Project: Zero Ohio, which donates proceeds from locally made products to help HIV/AIDS patients in the Greater Columbus area.

Then, there's Jeni's ( ) , which offers some of the best ice cream I've ever tasted—and that's saying a lot. With locations on High Street and North Market ( among others ) , you're never too far from savoring flavors such as lemon frozen yogurt, salty caramel and wildberry lavender.

( By the way, people can also take Segway tours of the city, which I decided to forgo in favor of more shopping. )

After perusing all those stores, it was time for lunch. Sage American Bistro ( 2653 N. High St.; ) , named after the chef's daughter, is a midscale restaurant that offers contemporary food. Still somewhat full from breakfast at the market, I settled for a salad. However, menu items such as pork belly sliders, bistro banh mi and smoked salmon linguine make for intriguing lunchtime options. ( The dinner menu has blackened crab cakes, blackberry scallops and roasted portabellas among its entrees. )

Vienna Ice Cream Café ( 2899 N. High St.; ) has enough tempting items to entice any dieter, and gives Jeni's a run for its money. The flavors are wonderfully diverse ( e.g., watermelon, Crazy Nuts and strawberry champagne ) , and the sundaes come in such choices as Mozart's sonata ( Crazy Nuts ice cream with fresh whipped cream, chocolate sauce and black forest choclate shavings ) .

At dusk, we mingled with Columbus residents at Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse ( 569 N. High St.; ) , where we had martinis. Everyone was especially friendly; it could have been because they knew who were are, but I suspected it was more genuine. The highlight for me was talking with a gay man in his 80s who told me about his days in the military.

From Hyde Park, we left the city, riding along some rolling hills to Rockmill Brewery ( 5705 Lithopolis Road NW, Lancaster, Ohio; ) . ( When I say "rolling," I'm not even kidding. Very sensitive people might be prone to nausea, but the brewery is worth it. ) What we writers found was a sprawling estate that includes a tiny chapel—but more on that later.

Inside the spacious house, Matthew Barbee ( who lived in Chicago for a time ) had us taste four brews—whittier, saison, dubbel and tripel—and paired them with various cheeses. I'm not much of a beer fan, but I found myself liking whatever I tasted. In addition, Barbee has the sweetest parents in the world, as his father showed us how the beer is made ( in a separate building, of course ) while the mother made some incredible wood-fired pizzas.

Now, back to the chapel: On the far side of the property is a tiny wedding chapel. ( I guess this eliminates the need to elope if such a desire arises. ) However, that wasn't the end of the adventures here. Some of the writers went across a rope bridge ( a fear I managed to overcome quickly ) to walk through the adjacent forest to see a waterfall. There were spider webs, slippery rocks and plenty of humidity—but it was also a lot of fun. ( Barbee, after talking with me later, told me that I'm definitely more of a city slicker—a title I'll gladly embrace. )

After all that, I was definitely ready for bedtime.

Bar none

The third day started with breakfast at Northstar Café ( 951 N. High St.; ) . The classic egg sandwich—a huge buttermilk biscuit with two over-medium eggs and aged white cheddar—is, as they say, worth the price of admission. However, there are other items such as the Cloud Nine pancakes, the Cowboy Breakfast or the Big Burrito. Also, try the drink known as the Shooting Star; it's an intoxicating mix of orange, organic carrot, lemon and ginger.

From there, it was a hop, skip and a jump to Flower Child ( 989 N. High St.; ) a 10,000-foot, two-floor retro vintage shop and museum that several of my friends would probably like to make their home. Each room has its own distinct vibe—you might go from a '60s bedroom to a living room with a distinct '50s style. As my photos indicate, there are so many fascinating items. I have to say thanks to the owners for making the writers' shopping experience complete by furnishing Pop-Tarts and mimosas.

I've been to several conservatories, but the Franklin Park Conservatory ( 1777 E. Broad St.; ) is probably the most impressive I've seen. Built in 1895, it's on 88 acres of Franklin Park and houses 400 species of plants, including 40 types of palms. Its current exhibition, "Hungry Planet: Local Food, Global View" looks at local and global food cultures through artistic expression, horticultural displays and various activities. ( Future exhibitions include "Blooms & Butterflies" and "Orchids! Vibrant Victoriana." )

However, the conservatory is certainly not resting on its laurels, as it's in the midst of a multiphase project. A landscape master plan will help create a range of landscape experiences in the park, including pastoral lands, groves, celebration lawns and gardens.

A dazzling walk on the conservatory's grounds showed everything from areas that serve as wedding venues to community-gardening plots. Inside, everyone was entranced by the Butterfly Room.

Lunch took place at Milestone 229 ( 229 Civic Center Dr.; ) , which is on the Scioto Mile, a new riverfront park connecting downtown Columbus and the Scioto River. The view was certainly intriguing, as people of all ages frolicked in area with dozens of mini-fountains. As for Milestone 229, the food was superior. The Sonoma roasted chicken salad ( with apples, orange segments, raisins, almonds, goat cheese and pomegranate vinaigrette ) was outstanding. Other lunch options include Three Little Pigs ( pulled pork, double-smoked thick hickory bacon and caramelized pork belly on a brioche roll with slaw, pickles and mustard BBQ sauce ) and the Bye Bye Miss American Pie pizza ( with sausage, pepperoni and banana peppers ) . The company was also exquisite, as my table lunched with the alter ego of drag queen extraordinaire Nina West.

The next stop was a unique one: the Topiary Garden ( 480 E. Town St.; ) . Situated on seven acres, the park is most famous for its topiary interpretation of Georges Seurat's famous post-Impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte. Walking amidst the topiary, I felt like part of artwork myself.

I skipped hitting Pistacia Vera ( 541 S. Third St.; ) , but that certainly wasn't because I didn't want to go. Located in German Village, the dessert boutique has more than 60 seasonal confections and pastries. The next time I'm in Columbus—and I do plan on returning—I'll be going there.

However, I certainly did hit Middle West Spirits ( 1230 Courtland Ave.; ) , central Ohio's first microdistillery, run by Brady Konya and Ryan Lang. The flagship spirit, OYO—named after the original word for the Ohio River Valley—has a unique taste with various undertones. ( It tasted buttery to me, which I liked. ) MWS offers tours to groups from six to 40—and the guys working there are very easy on the eyes, trust me. There are also OYO whiskey and vanilla-bean vodka, by the way.

One of the most interesting stops was at a shop run by Mike Kon that produces T-shirts and other items connected with the FCKH8 campaign ( ) . FCKH8 combats anti-gay attitudes and bullying. Besides giving items connected with the project, Kon also designed "High/Gay" T-shirts for the writers. ( "High/Gay" is an intersection in Columbus, where Sugardaddy's is located, incidentally. )

I had only drunk mead ( fermented honey ) once, so I was intrigued by Brothers Drake Meadery ( 26 E. 5th St.; ) . Not too many know about mead, but hopefully this place will get the word out fast and soon. The apple-pie mead I sampled was so smooth that I could easily see myself getting drunk ( for the first time in my life ) —and, of course, not remembering anything that happened the rest of the night.

Surly Girl Saloon ( 1126 N. High St.; ) is as sassy as its name—a little attitude, with plenty of niceness thrown in to make eating there a complete experience. If you're a beer drinker, you'll love this place; it has brands such as Brasserie de Rocs Grand Cru ( which has an aroma of several fruits, topped with honey and caramel ) and Lindeman's Pomme next to Miller High Life. The food here ( Frito pie, chorizo tacos, spicy peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches ) is filling, and would likely successfully combat any hangover.

After Surly Girl, we walked along High Street, which on this particular Saturday, turned into a visual and auditory extravaganza. There are all sorts of vendors, artists and other individuals milling about, selling their wares or expressing their talents. One of my companions started dancing when she heard one exceptionally talented woman belt Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody ( Who Loves Me ) ."

Level Dining Lounge ( 700 N. High St.; ) reminds me of some of the lounges in Chicago—very sleek, with plenty to offer. The menu is expansive, with appetizers, salads, calzones and entrees ( e.g., sinless chicken ) , elevating the cuisine above standard bar fare. Of course, dining and talking with Kon as well as Level's Uwe Scharfy made the experience even better—which became even memorable when I noticed that the lights along the street were in a rainbow hue in honor of the writers.

Last, but certainly not least, I ended my night at Union Café ( 782 N. High St.; ) . This place is extremely popular ( read: crowded ) , but the place was so much fun I didn't even notice how packed it was. Nina West, who had joined us at Milestone 229, put on a special show, even bringing up a lesbian on stage who was having a bachelorette party. Between the show, music videos, hot guys and hosts/fellow writers, I had an amazing time there. This place is highly recommended. From Union, I slowly but surely made my way back to the Hampton, transfixed by the level of energy on display. I didn't what to expect when I arrived in Columbus, but I left convinced that this is one fun, intriguing city.

Thanks to Experience Columbus and Weirick Communications for arranging and hosting this excursion.

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