My wife and I take pride in exposing our two young children to city life through mini-vacations. We lived in Columbus for a time, but now have a home near Ashland. So we've taken trips to bustling, historic, cultural-rich towns such as Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Chicago within the last two years.
Yet, despite growing up in Northeast Ohio, we never really thought of Cleveland for a quick family-friendly getaway. But it turns out the city on the lake has much to offer a 7-year-old boy, a 4-year-old girl and their parents.
As aquarium junkies (we'd visited the Shedd while in Chicago and the National Aquarium in D.C.), our family starts at the new Greater Cleveland Aquarium. Located in the Powerhouse on the west bank of the Flats, the aquarium falls somewhere between those two attractions. At 70,000 square feet, the Greater Cleveland Aquarium offers much more than the National Aquarium's 200 species, but is less than half the size of the Shedd's Oceanarium wing.
Still, with more than 35 tanks of various sizes, housing thousands of aquatic creatures ranging from almost 30 varieties of clown fish to the 7-foot-long sand tiger sharks and Ohio-native brook trout, there's plenty to see.
Emery and Lily are most impressed with the alligators in the aquarium's Everglades Zone. They stare, their faces pressing against the exhibit glass, as one gator stalks the two others in the enclosure, which resembles the Florida Everglades. The gator snaps at the others' tails, causing them to thrash about and splash water against the glass. Lily laughs and Emery screams, running away, as though the gators are coming to get him.
In the Coastal Zone that follows, curious kids and parents alike can touch rays, starfish and crabs.
Finally, we make our way to the aquarium's signature feature: a 145-foot-long, winding SeaTube with water on the right, water on the left and water on top of you. As we look into the murky water, a sand tiger shark materializes out of nowhere, staring at us and swimming toward the glass, then up and over and away from us.
But even with sharks and fish swimming all around us, our kids can't get the gators out of their heads. "Please," they beg. "Let's go back."
So we make one more stop to see them. But unfortunately, the alligators' earlier antics must have tuckered them out as they are all snoozing when we return.
Luckily, the same cannot be said for our kids. After an hour-and-a-half in the aquarium, we make the quick drive to the Great Lakes Science Center.
While the science center has plenty of hands-on exhibits ranging from space to sound and light, we are here to watch a movie on the six-story-high, domed Omnimax screen.
Our film, the World's Most Amazing Places, opens by zooming us through space and around the planets until bringing us down to Earth. "It looks like we're flying," Lily says at one point. And it feels like it too.
We experience the variety of life in Madagascar and the Himalayas. We see "beetles the size of a person's fist" from the Amazon and the Namib Desert along the coast of Southwest Africa.
For Emery and Lily, the Omnimax experience is way beyond seeing moving pictures of these places; they actually feel like they are there.
With a few hours before dinner, we check in at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, get settled and wander around Tower City before making the short walk to The Greenhouse Tavern on East Fourth Street.
Getting a good meal while on vacation with kids can be a challenge, but owner and chef Jonathon Sawyer makes that easier with his approachable restaurant. Besides being Ohio's first eatery certified green by the Green Restaurant Association, Greenhouse Tavern will also make almost any dish on the menu in a kid-sized portion for $10.
Emery orders — to our great disbelief — the chestnut gnocchi. I cut one in half and hand him my fork. He sticks it in his mouth, but just a couple of chews in, he decides he doesn't like it.
It doesn't matter, though. We are proud he has tried something new.
He ultimately settles on a big bowl of buttered noodles that the kitchen made special while Lily munches on the restaurant's pommes frites. They are content, allowing us to enjoy a wonderful grass-fed burger and an absolutely delicious dish of Ohio pork and pumpkin pasta.
The next day, we head south to board the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad train in Independence. We are directed to the west side of the railcar, opposite the Cuyahoga River, because it offered the best view of nesting eagles several miles up the track.
We stare at the trees, until Daniel Nowak, a naturalist with the national park, tells us we are coming up on the nesting area. This is the fourth consecutive year the eagles have come back to this spot. "Look," Nowak says. "Up at the top of that tree."
And there it is, a huge nest. And sitting on a branch beside it is a regal bald eagle.
"Where is it?" Emery asks. "Where is it?"
The train keeps moving forward, slowly. But within a couple minutes, the eagles are out of sight. "Where is it?" he asks again. "I didn't see it."
He is near tears. But we assure him he'll get another chance to see them on the return trip from Peninsula, where guests can get off to browse shops and art studios.
In Peninsula, we find the towpath and cross the Cuyahoga River on a bridge. It is quiet save for the sound of the water rushing below. This is something no other big-city vacation had ever offered, a chance to disappear into the woods and be relaxed by the sound of a river.
After about an hour, we make our way back to the train. As we near the eagles' nest, Emery runs to the other side of the train. He is determined to see the eagle.
One of the eagles stands on the nest. It opens its wings and shakes its feathers.
Emery runs down the aisle of the train car to where Lily and I are sitting.
"I saw the eagle," he says, a giant grin on his face. "He flapped his wings for me."
The eagle is about the length of a football field away, but it really does look like it is stretching and preening just for us. Or just for Emery, at the very least.