Saturday, November 11, 2023

Fall Bound Vacations – Ark Encounters and Cincinnati Parks

(Overlooking Cincinnati, the family and I posed for a picture atop the roof of Rhinegeist Brewery.) 

Typically, Lisa and I take Jace and Annabelle to a football game in South Carolina on a short vacation over a long weekend in the fall. Over my fall break this season, we desired to take a family trip centered on time together, some fun activities outside, and going to museums. Like many sports enthusiasts, I enjoy attending a good Saturday college football game. However, on some weekends, I try to focus on events where I can spend more time with my family instead of watching sports. For instance, taking Jace (a 1-year-old) and Annabelle (a 3-year-old) to a college football game is not necessarily a wise choice. When each child was a baby, we could take them to any type of event, including sports and concerts. When Jace and Annabelle grew up into active walkers, their mobility became a whole new ballgame!  

With these thoughts in mind, we ventured from our hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee to Cincinnati, Ohio, during the first weekend in October. I recently heard positive feedback from a friend about northern Kentucky and the city of Cincinnati, including the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum. The Ohio River serves as the state line that separates these regional areas in Ohio and Kentucky. So, we rented a house in Covington, Kentucky, a town located just across the bridge from downtown Cincinnati. In past years, Lisa and I usually took a short trip to celebrate our wedding anniversary in October. While this trip was meant to serve mainly as a family vacation, we set aside moments to commemorate and remember our marriage. Anniversaries remind us to be grateful for one another in the adventures that we share together.  

In northern Kentucky near Cincinnati, the towns of Ludlow, Covington, and Newport have their own places of interest and tourist sites. If we had only stayed on this side of the Ohio River (across the skyline of Cincinnati), we would have been plenty busy with the hidden treasures that northern Kentucky bestows upon its many visitors.

We arrived in Covington from Knoxville at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET. After a long day of traveling, at the recommendation of our Airbnb host, we ate at the Fort Mitchell Public House. The building that Fort Mitchell Public House resides in possesses a long local history. It was initially built in the early 1900s as a private residence. In the 1940s, it was converted into a restaurant called The Hearthstone. The Hearthstone was a popular spot for many years, but it eventually closed in the 1980s.

The building sat vacant for approximately two decades until Mike Hang purchased it. To restore the building as an original public house from the early 1900s, he renovated the building and opened Fort Mitchell in November 2015. A large outdoor patio with comfortable seating surrounded a courtyard, especially for families with energetic children after a four-and-a-half-hour car ride. As an appetizer, we ordered the loaded Saratoga chips, a wholesome dish of handmade potato chips with made-from-scratch BBQ sauce, queso, tomatoes, and green onions. I honestly thought Annabelle would eat the chips with whole mouthfuls. Instead, she was captivated by the outdoor environment of streetlamps and other patrons in their best Sunday dress clothes. I ordered the fish tacos made with blackened whitefish, flour tortillas, corn salsa, lettuce, cheddar cheese, and sour cream. Lisa ordered the spicy black bean burger on a gluten-free bun with fries. The burgers were made daily by the head chef with black beans, corn, brown rice, chili, fresh corn salsa, and pickles. We ate food at some unique, established landmarks; however, Lisa and I agreed that this restaurant was our favorite place to eat during our five-day vacation.

After a quick trip to the grocery store, we finally reached our Airbnb rental house. The neighborhood where the historic home resided was quaint, with quiet streets and one-family homes surrounded by large oak trees. The home had three bedrooms, a spacious kitchen, and a large den for the kids to play with their toys. Jace is obsessed with dirt, hence why he is often filthy from playing outside these days. This house had several soiled plants with pots inside the house. So, I baby-proofed the house to keep Jace from playing in the dirt of each pot and throwing it across rooms like marbles. It can definitely make a huge mess when playing with the soil inside. For reasons unknown to young parents, the dream of a one-year-old boy is to make messes for Mom and Dad to constantly clean up.

On Saturday, we got an early start to visit the Ark Encounter, the modern-day museum that displays Noah's ark in a life-size replica of the boat. Before going inside the ship, the kids rode a carousel. The landscape of the grounds surrounding the ark was amazing. It reminded me of the picturesque blossoms and flowers at Disney World or Dollywood. While the ark itself was the main attraction, the Ark Encounter resembled a theme park with a zoo. The ark paralleled a long, enormous barge at sea. It was huge!   

In addition to the ground level, the ark encompassed three floors. There were spaces where Noah’s family lived, and the animals were stored in baskets, cages, and other containers. The boat was built to the exact specifications of the Bible, and the nautical operations of the boat were also thoroughly explained. It seemed like there were millions of available details and information tidbits in the museum. So, one day alone does not suffice to fully appreciate the craftsmanship and history of the ark, even if exploring the ship for five to six hours. Annabelle and Jace lasted about four hours, which I was pleasantly surprised to see. Annabelle wanted to stop and stare at every scene, statue, and fake animal in the museum. The exhibits included information about Noah’s life, a blacksmith shop, animal care, the animal species carried in the boat, dinosaurs, and educational films in multiple theaters. The ark's size and the volume of included knowledge about this historical event were overwhelming, to say the least.

While skipping our usual lunch time, our ark museum adventure made us hungry. We ventured to a southwestern-themed outdoor restaurant. It was a cooler day without extreme heat because of the fall weather. I had chicken tacos, despite just having fish tacos the previous evening at the Fort Mitchell Public House. Lisa ordered a burrito bowl with rice, black beans, cheese, vegetables, and chicken. Annabelle and Jace also ate tacos. There were plenty of places to get food in the park, especially since our visit turned into a full-day excursion. Annabelle loves animals. So, we visited the zoo before leaving the grounds. The zoo had several types of animals, including birds, lemurs, reptiles, kangaroos, a petting zoo, and several other creatures.

For a simple yet tasty dinner, we ate at Chick-fil-A before returning to the Airbnb. While we do not eat at Chick-fil-A often, our kids really like their food. We quickly gave the kids baths and put them to bed after the long day of festivities.

On Sunday, I really wanted to venture into downtown Cincinnati, so we could take in some of the local sites on the other side of the state line between northern Kentucky and Ohio. We rested in the early morning and left our Airbnb around lunchtime to eat at The Findley Market, which resembled The Quincy Market in Boston, Massachusetts. Like the structure of an open-air narrow warehouse, Findley contained a food marketplace with cuisine vendors from all over the world. Chefs made these meals fresh on the spot for those looking for an affordable meal with a delectable taste. Like a food court, the advantage is that anyone can find an interesting delicacy one might savor. The market is filled with businesses and chefs taking orders from hundreds of people, all there for the same purpose to enjoy the local flavors. There were a few open tables to sit down and eat. I got the impression many people arrived to order food on the go. There was live music outside, and there were several local shops to buy souvenirs. There were also some artists with outdoor tents. Lisa and I finally found a table for all four of us to sit down outside. I ate an Italian sub. The kids had deluxe grilled cheese sandwiches. Lisa ate some grilled lemon pepper chicken with fried rice and vegetables. All the food choices were excellent!  

After spoiling our taste buds at the Findlay Market, we walked over to the Rhinegeist Brewery to drink some local brews (gluten-free cider for Lisa) and socialize with more Cincy locals. Rhinegeist inhabited an entire city block in a building that was over one hundred years old. Similar to the interior of an old factory, the brewery's interior was larger than a football field with a rooftop bar. Of course, there were cornhole boards, indoor swings, and other family festive activities. We stayed at the brewery for a couple of hours, and the kids loved playing indoors, like an outdoor playground. It was lightly sprinkling rain outside. So, Lisa and I ventured into Deeper Roots Coffee Shop until we could walk back to the parking garage. I did not drink any coffee. Lisa drank the barista’s seasonal version of a Pumpkin Spice Latte. The coffee shop provided a chill place to relax until the sprinkles subsided to go back to the car.   

To visit the Findlay Market and the Rhinegeist Brewery, Lisa and I parked at Washington Park in central downtown Cincinnati. We brisked quickly through the park. It was another spacious outdoor green space with unique visuals and walkways that added to the memorable décor and scenery of the city.

We ventured next to Smale Riverfront Park, which had unique playground features. Annabelle loves slides, and several slides were etched into small hills within the park, rather than having a traditional playground that includes handmade structures with slides. Smale Park bordered the Ohio River with an impressive view of the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge. Paycor Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Great American Ball Park, home of the Cincinnati Reds, were within close walking distance of the popular green space. There was a rope bridge, several metal musical instruments, a walk-on keyboard, an Oinkithopter (a flying pig that kids climb on and into), and several streams and water play areas for kids.  

It was quickly getting dark outside. So, we spent less time in Smale Park than we had initially hoped for. I promised Annabelle we would come back first thing the next morning. We were surprisingly hungry again, quicker than usual. We wandered into a restaurant called The Yard House. It was an upscale sports bar that just so happened to welcome families with young children. I ate chicken nachos, and Lisa ate ahi tuna with asparagus on the side. We ordered Annabelle some chicken fingers. Typically, Jace eats off our plates, and we share with him, even though he has a considerable appetite to consume his own food now. The food and the service at The Yard House were exceptional! We stumbled upon this restaurant by accident mainly because it was close to Smale Park and within walking distance.

As promised, we took Annabelle back to Smale Park the next morning, walking approximately three miles on the sidewalk along the river. Annabelle played for another hour in the park, mainly on the slides. It was nice enjoying the park without being in a rush.

For budgetary reasons, we ate lunch at Taco Bell and then proceeded to the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum was part of a three-day combo ticket with The Ark Encounter. There were several exhibits at the museum, including information about how Intelligent Design compares and contrasts with evolution. I remember enjoying some of the displays and statues of dinosaurs and the development of babies in a mother's womb. Much of the tour involved more information about Noah's Ark, dragon legends, an insectarium, the history of the Bible, and other creative exhibits. Like the Ark Encounter, there was a smaller zoo and botanical gardens on the museum grounds. Again, I enjoyed both the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. It was evident that the responsible engineers and designers invested many resources in these tourist destinations. If you visit these sites, the three-day pass is a logical choice, given that it takes hours to tour these museums and truly enjoy them. Set aside at least one day for the Ark Encounter and at least one additional day for the Creation Museum.  

We ate dinner after the Creation Museum at The Hebron Grill, another locally owned restaurant. Surprisingly, our kids were terrific in all the restaurants we attended. I was proud of their well-behaved demeanor in these public places. I ordered the southern fried chicken parm, and Lisa ordered a salad with salmon. Annabelle had pasta with marinara sauce, and Jace shared all of our dishes once again. I was impressed with the restaurant selections in northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. We ate very well and enjoyed our many meals together as a family. 

We returned to our Airbnb in the early evening, where we watched the movie, Kung Fu Panda, with the kids. Our sweet and short time away was coming to a close since we had to head back home the following day, Tuesday. Even one month after taking this trip, Lisa and I are still talking about how much fun we had with the kids on this trip, spending time together as a family. As parents, we have decided to intentionally stop and savor every precious moment with our children. As life moves forward in time, each passing moment is a fleeting gift that warrants appreciation to the fullest extent.

Browse our favorite photo moments from our memorable trip below. 

(You can imagine the vast size of the Rhinegeist Brewery with this picture.)

(Rhinegeist Brewery resembled a playground for the kids. They played there for a good while.)

(After several hours exploring Cincinnati, the kids were worn out from the day’s many adventures.) 

(Annabelle championed the slides at Smale Park.)

(Near Smale Park, these Cincinnati fountains brighten the evening for a picturesque scene.)

(The family poses in front of the ark at the Ark Encounter.)

(Annabelle and Jace enjoy watching the animals in the zoo at the Ark Encounter.)

(Jace smiles while petting goats in the zoo at the Ark Encounter.)

(Annabelle slides down the hills at Smale Park several times.)

(John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge sets the scene over the Ohio River, viewing from the Cincinnati side.)

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