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Columbus ... Queer?

Hey, it's not just cornfields!

By Chris Azzopardi

Ohio has this reputation of being flat, cornfield-crazy nothingness: the kind of place people drive through... only to get somewhere else.

It was always the longest strip of vacant land on the drive down South, where I'd gone a couple of times as a kid. It's where I'd tucker out just in time for a new state.

But not this time. I couldn't. I was behind the wheel, heading to Columbus on my own for an LGBT-only media excursion, hosted by the good folks at Experience Columbus http://www.experiencecolumbus.com. I thought I'd seen everything in Ohio (you know, cornfields) until I got to this cozy college town, recently named the Best NewNowNext Up-and-Coming LGBT Travel Destination - an award bestowed upon the city by Orbitz and LogoTV. During my summer stay last year, though, it didn't seem like Columbus was on its way to being a gay city at all, ranking among famously 'mo meccas like San Francisco and New York. It was already there.

Gay was everywhere: Over martinis during happy hour at Hyde Park http://www.hydeparkrestaurants.com, a premier place for steaks and chops. In Sugardaddy's, a place with brownies so delicious Ellen DeGeneres served them for a time to her show's guests. Scattered about the nooks in the 32-room literary-lovers' dream house called The Book Loft. Crazy to think, but Ohio is cool. And queer. For a Columbus quickie, here are my recommendations.

Best Bites

Foodies should have no trouble satisfying their cravings. North Market is full of deliciousness: a one-stop shop for a smorgasbord of eats from local butchers, fishmongers, greengrocers and farmers. Over 30 vendors reside here, including Best of the Wurst, Flavors of India, Pam's Market Popcorn, Heil's Family Deli and Holy Smoke Barbecue. It's the place to be if you're with a bunch of picky, penny-pinching eaters, or if you're looking for a quick bite - perhaps a pastry or gourmet sandwich - for breakfast or lunch.

Set in historic German Village, Barcelona http://www.barcelonacolumbus.com is the dinner go-to with its posh sophistication, Old World European charm and refreshing seaside sangria. Paellas and gazpachos, fishes and filets - expect all that and more from the menu. Wanna make it easy? Just do the tapas tasting.

Like to chow and sightsee? Milestone 229's patio http://www.milestone229.com is in the epicenter of one of Columbus' most popular parks, Bicentennial Park, facing a remarkable illuminated, 15,000-square-foot fountain along the Scioto River waterfront. Expect to get your nom-nom on, too, with the restaurant's scrumptious twists on traditional cuisine. Contemporary and chic and glass-wall enclosed, Milestone is comfort food done differently, all reasonably priced and made from local produce: Skillet Mac 'n Cheese with double-smoked hickory bacon, Really Good Hummus that keeps its promise and hearty salads (do the Roasted Gerber Chicken with dried cranberries, candied pecans, goat cheese and house-made apple cider vinaigrette). Other highly suggested stops: Surly Girl Saloon for premium microbrews and pizza pies, zesty wraps and cupcakes; Northstar Cafe, a healthy locale known particularly for their breakfast foods; and the European-inspired Vienna Ice Cafe.

Sweet eaters must not miss out on Sugardaddy's http://www.sugardaddys.com: all brownies, all the time. And not just straight up. Outside the (brownie) box with its brownie biscotti, bites, bark, cheesecakes and ice creams, the pink boutique boasts a whopping 20 signature flavors. The place - owned, of course, by two gay men, partners Tom Finney and Mark Ballard - is a Food Network fave. It's no wonder.

Keeping Busy

You won't go bored in Columbus, at night or during the day. Hang with hundreds of exotic butterflies in a breathtaking exhibit at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens http://www.fpconservatory.org, a supremely beautiful nature walk that feels otherworldly - not like Ohio at all. Built in 1895, the historical landmark is two miles east of downtown Columbus and showcases exotic plant collections, special exhibitions and a signature collection of work by glass artist Dale Chihuly. Set within the 88 acres of Franklin Park, the Conservatory houses 400 species of plants from a variety of global climate zones and features a Victorian palm house with more than 40 species of palms. Beautiful gardens and floral displays surround the locale.

Hop on a segway for a two-hour tour of the city along High Street, and see the quaint parkland along the Scioto River, the Short North area and the historic downtown http://www.segawaytoursofcolumbus.com. It's a zippy way - and lots of fun - to explore the city for anyone unfamiliar with all the must-sees: The Peanut Shoppe, Veterans Plaza, the Mona Lisa mural, the Santa Maria and the Ohio Theatre, among others.

Up for some gay-peep schmoozing? You got it. A study done by the William Institute at UCLA Law School reported that 50,250 gay citizens reside in Columbus, outnumbering the percentage in Chicago. And there are plenty of homo happenings to make you believe it: along High Street, and nearby, are establishments such as Exile (for leather lovers), Axis Nightclub (where all the Ohio State boys go), Level (a swanky dining club), Club Diversity (the place for martinis) and Wallstreet (for the girls). And the people? A strong sense of community, where people are ultra friendly and charmingly Midwestern, is among them. You'll feel right at home.

Super Shopping

Besides three shopping malls, there are lots of walkable opportunities to throw down more money than you have in the Short North arts district http://www.shortnorth.org/shopping. The tree-lined downtown, a charming Ann Arbor-like strip, is where the city houses a mishmash of specialty shops that offer a delightfully unique shopping excursion.

Looking for one-of-a-kind antiques or quality furniture? Try ReVue, a 12,000-square-foot consignment store housing modern and old-fashioned finds. Hundreds of items arrive daily, and there are lots of good buys. Want something for your animal friends? Posh Pets Boutique http://www.poshpetsboutique.com, with funky pet apparel and toys, is a cute retail store for the at-home critters. Save time for Flower Child http://www.flowerchildvintage.com, a vintage store overflowing with mid-1990s trinkets, accessories and clothing. Each nook is like a time warp, with furniture, art and house wares spanning decades. More than just a store, Flower Child is a neat experience. Shout-outs also to Tigertree http://www.shoptigertree.com, a hip clothing and odds-and-ends space that's almost an indie take on Urban Outfitters, and TORSO http://www.torsoonline.com, the town's proverbial gay-aimed underwear store.

Over in German Village is Book Loft http://www.bookloft.com, which is more than just any readers' retail establishment: It's a 32-room maze of books. In this post-Borders age, it's nice to see a local bookstore still thriving. Other stops that take pride in being local include Middle West Spirits http://www.middlewestspirits.com, an urban micro-distillery notable for using all Ohio ingredients (take a tour, and don't leave without a bottle of their smooth-tasting Vanilla Bean Vodka), and Brothers Drake Meadery http://www.brothersdrake.com, a popular - and very charming - hangout with a fine selection of organic meads. Bottoms up!

Peace & Quiet

Paradise ... in Ohio? Look no further than Hocking Hills, a natural sightseeing retreat that's a gorgeous middle-of-nowhere getaway only an hour drive from Columbus. Their motto: "Close to home. A million miles from ho-hum." No kidding. Waterfalls, caves and some of the prettiest hiking trails - this is not the sleep-through-state I grew up with. It's also not, for better or worse, the kind of place for uninterrupted Facebooking or Grindr access. Expect spotty cell-phone service and Internet (but hey, they have an iPod dock in the rooms!), though that's the point - to disconnect from everyday craziness, to "status update" with real faces (even strangers), and to sit around a board game or a crackling fire. My stay at the Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls http://www.innatcedarfalls.com, in its 25th year, was pleasantly out of touch with everything but myself and the welcoming community, including the lovely innkeepers themselves: married couple Ellen Grinsfelder and Terry Lingo, both accommodating and super gay-friendly.

The backstory made the experience that much more interesting: The site began as a vision of Anne Castle, a well-respected businesswoman (and Ellen's mother) who gave up her corporate life to establish a place where the ever-growing number of urban dwellers could retreat to a natural setting. After two-and-a-half years in the making, the vision became a reality when the inn opened in 1987. But it wasn't without hiccups. Friends, however, believed in Anne's dream and turned it into a reality. Now her family, who runs the inn and spa, likes to think of it as a place where guests "come home." They certainly do everything to make it feel that way.

One night wasn't enough, but in that time I browsed the gift shop, took a nature walk through the flowery fields and had one of my favorite meals ever - filet prepared by in-house chef Anthony Schulz (not to mention a sinful cotton-candy martini) - at their lovely log-cabin restaurant. My stay in one of their cute cottages off in the woods was peaceful and reinvigorating, and I adored flipping through the journal - one's kept in every room - to read handwritten notes on what other people had experienced in the very place I stayed in. This oasis of serenity is a little gem of Ohio that's not to be missed. Who knew?

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