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January 26, 2011

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                    Columbus, Ohio

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To get to Columbus I was on United's partner airline Shuttle America (it was painted with old United colors and logo). They were operating an Embraer 170 with Explus (Economy Plus seating). Flight time was a short 40 minutes for the 296-mile flight and it was smooth. I love flying over the Midwest when it's covered in fresh snow--it's so dang pretty.

Amy Weirick from Weirick Communications, Inc., was one of the key people to bring me to Columbus so I could speak at the AAA Expo. She picked me up at the airport when I arrived around 1:30 p.m. We drove to the city (about 15 minutes away), and our first stop was the Surly Girl Saloon to have lunch. It's owned by a bunch of fun, young, pretty women. I met one of them, Carmen Owens, who told me all about the place. They serve 24 beers on draught--from premium microbrews to PBR and High Life--as well as a large selection of whiskey, quality wines (including organic), and a full menu of interesting cocktails. Amy loves their Posole soup ($5), and I enjoyed my bacon lover's grilled cheese with tomato soup and Fritos ($9). They also make cupcakes ($2 each) from scratch. Surly Girl Saloon, 1126 N. High St., Columbus, OH; Tel.: 614-294-4900.

Our next stop was at Middle West Spirits a few blocks down the road. It's owned by Brady Konya and Ryan Lang, who have spent the last few years getting their unique operation up and running (Ohio has some crazy laws). These guys brought over a machine from Germany that allows them to distill in one shot instead of the usual five or six times, cutting down their energy use. They are obviously big into the environment, as they use the first copper still of its kind in North America. Their ingredients are all local and they make an artisan vodka called Oyo.

Oyo is named after the original word for the Ohio River Valley ("O-Why-O") and is a smooth, full-bodied vodka brimming with character. It's made from local soft red winter wheat and demonstrates a perfect balance of cutting-edge technology, Old World traditions, and the finest farm-fresh ingredients. It is an excellent sipping vodka, and is also a perfect pairing for mixers and culinary creations. These guys love sharing their passion and offer free tours ( of their distillery. They have a weekly open house 5-7 p.m. every Wednesday, which can accommodate groups of 6 to 40. All guests must be 21 years of age. Middle West Spirits, 1230 Courtland Ave., Columbus, OH; Tel.: 614-299-2460.

Next stop was to taste Jeni's Ice Creams. The temperature was in the teens and I really didn't want to get out of the car, let alone have ice cream, but I had heard so much about these unique organic and exotic flavors that I at least needed to try it. Besides, the mural on the side of the building deserved a proper photo (the city has a bunch of fun and colorful public murals). Jeni's shop didn't disappoint. In fact, I was so impressed with the whole operation, especially the friendly workers who had no idea who we were and offered us as many tastes as we wanted, so we didn't even end up buying any ice cream.

I learned that Jeni Britton Bauer might make some of America's finest ice cream. For sure it's the most unique. First of all everything is handcrafted in Jeni's production kitchen, and she uses only fresh ingredients found in the Ohio countryside as well as responsibly raised exotics from around the world. She opened shop in 2002; some of her unique flavors and descriptions are: Bangkok Peanut: Complex blend of hot, salty, savory, and sweet melt for a satisfying treat. Peanut butter and toasted coconut give way to lingering spicy finish. The Buckeye State: Our version of Ohio's favorite confection. Rich and salty peanut butter yields to the crunch of exceptional dark chocolate for perfect balance. Wildberry Lavender: Intense lavender with hints of exotic spices and lots of brambly berry flavors. Goat Cheese with Cognac Fig Sauce: Mackenzie Creamery super-fresh goat cheese with pockets of saucy cognac-soaked figs and almonds. For more, see her complete list. And if you want to try them for yourself without going to Columbus, she ships all over the country using dry ice--see this link for more information.

I then went to the AAA Great Vacations EXPO at Veteran's Memorial. The show was well attended, except during the times I was speaking (Friday at 5 p.m. and Saturday at 11 a.m.), so I had a small crowd. But what was great (besides getting paid) was that the organizer said I gave the best presentation out of anyone in their three-year existence. How awesome is that? Everyone in the audience seemed to enjoy it and, most importantly, they took away some money-saving strategies.

One thing that I loved about the show is that AAA members (I am one, and have been for years) could get passport photos taken for free. I got mine since my passport expires next year and I will renew shortly. One of the other highlights from the show was that I got on the public address system and made an announcement (I felt like a school principal) to encourage more people to come to my session. I also did a segment on the local NBC affiliate. At the show I got a private viewing of some of the exotic animals (baby giraffe and porcupine) a nearby Amish farm had brought in. However, I didn't get to see Samantha Brown (from The Travel Channel) talk; her session was on Sunday and I was already back in warm and sunny Southern California, playing beach volleyball and watching the NFL playoffs.

For my one night in town I went to Barcelona Restaurant and Bar for dinner with Amy and a couple of executives from the Columbus CVB. The restaurant has an authentic global dining experience and is a culinary fusion of metropolitan chic and Old World European charm. It's located in the historic German Village (only a few token Germans live there). I had the Espinacas salad--baby spinach, gorgonzola, Fuji apple, candied pecans, with sherry vinaigrette--to start. For my main I had the Bistec--grilled skirt steak, roasted potatoes, asparagus, and chimichurri sauce--and then the white chocolate banana pie with gingersnap crust to finish. All three dishes came from their Winter Celebration Menu, which cost $30. FYI: One of my colleagues said the warm chocolate pudding cake with vanilla ice cream was the best she's ever had. Barcelona Restaurant and Bar, 263 East Whittier Street, Columbus, OH.

I was back in the German Village the following day to have lunch at Katzinger's Delicatessen. It's an extremely popular place that has darn good sandwiches. I ordered Kahrl's Killer Club (#70): Oven-roasted turkey breast, honey ham, Applewood-smoked bacon, Vermont white cheddar, lettuce, tomato, and Hellmann's mayonnaise (I substituted honey Dijon) on toasted hand-sliced challah. A big sandwich costs $10.50 and a huge is $12.50. I went with the big, and I took half of it for my flight home. It was BIG. I also had the matzo ball soup ($2.95), which was kind of bland, but the turtle brownie ($1.75) was ridiculously good. Katzinger's Delicatessen, 475 S. 3rd St., Columbus, OH; Tel.: 614-228-3354.

If you are into books, one of the coolest independent bookstores I've ever been to is just three blocks from the deli. It's called the Book Loft, and they have 32 separate rooms all filled with books. It's like a maze going through the place. Book Loft, 631 S. 3rd St., Columbus, OH; Tel.: 614-464-1774.

I stayed at the Victorian Village Guest House. It was just a few blocks from the Surly Girl Saloon. All the historic houses in the Victorian Village (the name of the section) look like old haunted houses. Well, at least at 9 p.m. on a dark and cold night they do. I was thinking, Why would they put me up here and not in one of the city's nice hotels? Amy said it was because she wanted me to have a unique experience. Unique it was. I was only there for 10 hours, which really isn't enough time to even get a feel, and usually it takes me a day to warm up to a place.

The sole guest house is above the garage of the owner's immaculately kept house. It must be a real treat in the summer, since there's a big garden in between the main house and the guest house. It would be great for families that need a lot of space, because the guest house is huge and clean with fine china decorations. It has high ceilings, ceiling fans, a mini kitchen, washer and dryer, living room with a medium-size flat-screen TV, free Wi-Fi, an open bedroom, and a bathroom with designer toiletries. The bed was firm, with comfortable sheets and pillows.

What I didn't like is that the heat was loud when it turned on, which was often (every five minutes or so) since it was so cold outside. Also, the curtains are not blackout, and the neighbor's light would switch on and off--it was on a sensor and the wind must've been blowing--and finally, the garage door opened at 7:23 a.m., which woke me up (although in this case that was a good thing, since they knew I had to be out by 8 a.m. for a TV appearance). All of those negatives are very fixable, with the exception of maybe the heat. If you're a light sleeper like me just bring ear plugs and an eye mask, or don't stay there in the cold winter. I had my ear plugs and eye mask in my bag but I was just too lazy to get up. Rates start at $185 a night and last year they were booked for more than 100 nights. FYI: It's not a B&B, since food isn't included. However, they do have a wide variety of bottled water (Fiji, Perrier, Evian…) and amazing cookies, which I'm going to tell you about now.

For me, the best thing about the Victorian Village Guest House was that the owner left Pistacia Vera cookies as a welcome treat (she does for all guests). Amy had warned me that they are the best cookies, but I didn't think anything of it. That is, until I was about to give them away to the cool United gate agents at CMH airport and decided not to since the tag read Bittersweet Fudgie (nut-free) cookies. They are the "best chocolate cookie ever! Made with Valrhona Manjari (64%) chocolate from scratch in our Historic German Village shop." Well, I'm so glad I kept them, and that I waited until I got home to eat them, because they seriously might be the best chocolate chocolate chip cookies I've ever had. Oh my gosh--I ate five out of the six the first day, and I'm staring at the poor sucker that's about to get wolfed down right now. If I were still in Columbus, I would go by the shop to buy presents for everyone, but instead I will just have to order them online.

Because of my canceled flight I was only in Columbus for 27 hours, which was too short (except when it's unseasonably cold). I hope to make it back when it's a lot warmer and I can partake of their organic food scene, food trucks, and attractions.

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  • The column was great, you’re back on track, to the point and interesting lately you seemed to be wandering in your stories but this one was interesting and fun. PMR – Dallas, TX

  • Thanks so much for your weekly travel news letter. I love it! Every week, I’m looking forward to read your new travel adventures. I have been following your stories for years now. After I read this week travel news letter and I found out that you will be presenting at the AAA Travel Expo in couple of weeks in Columbus, Ohio I got so excited! I’m planning to attend so I can meet you in person. Thanks so much for sharing all your wonderful trip pictures and travel hints. Sincerely, Elia D - Columbus, Ohio

  • I am wondering why the “travel news” section of your excellent newsletter is so awful. This used to be my favorite and most informative section; now it is not worth looking at. What happened? Thank you, Susan T - REPLY: We agree it is awful. The newspaper websites have made it more difficult for us to pull their stories off of their websites. We will do a better job next week.

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