Hocking Hills: A Cottage Industry

New York Chef Anthony Schulz had never heard of Hocking Hills, Ohio, when he applied for a position at The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls, a snug retreat in the state’s remote and picturesque southern third. Trained at the French Culinary Institute and working on Long Island, he was ready for a change, although he admits, “My knowledge of Ohio was limited to Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.”

A phone interview led to an invitation to travel west for the ultimate test-to create a four-course meal for the innkeepers, using whatever he found in the kitchen’s lander. Not only did he pass the test, he the also caught the vision. “We want to take the inn to the next level, and one way to do that is by offering a heart-healthy menu,” explains Ellen Grinsfelder, who operates the facility with her husband. Two years later, Chef Anthony, now a confirmed Buckeye, oversees the kitchen staff, teaches occasional cooking classes, and scours the local markets for the freshest produce to serve guests who come from as far away as Chicago and Detroit.

Grinsfelder’s plan is to preserve the delicate balance between the inn’s rustic setting and its first-clas service. The dining room is housed in an 1840s log cabin, but the art on the walls is original, the food on the tables is elegant, and the wines on the list are diverse. Guests can watch Chef Anthony prepare their North Atlantic flounder stuffed with ricotta and sweet basil knowing that the basil came from the herb garden located atop the inn’s roof, safely out of reach of the deer that wander the grounds.

Hocking Hills—all 11,000 square acres of it—is a sprawling community of cottage industries in the truest sense of the term. Some 200 innkeepers offer cottages, cabins, and rooms to the thousands of tourists who visit each year. Although summer and fall are considered high season for guests, “winter and early spring are my favorite times,” says Grinsfelder, whose mother opened the inn in 1987 to provide a place where city dwellers could retreat to a natural setting. Less than an hour’s drive southeast of Columbus, the region is a doable destination for urbanites in need of rejuvenation.

“Baby boomers are our largest single group of visitors,” says Karen Raymore, a recent transplant from northern Wisconsin and now the executive director of the local tourism association. “People that age—and I’m one of them—like to prove that they can still hike, climb, and zipline.”

Zipline? The latest craze to hit the area has adventure-seekers locked in harnesses and zipping along a network of cables at speeds up to 50 mph. The thrill begins with a 1.5-mile drive via golf cart through the woods to where a giant oak awaits. Guests climb up to a launch pad and for the next two and a half hours are airborne as they soar from one platform to another, some located as high as 70 feet above ground. The views are incredible (if you dare look down) and include the Hocking River, a waterfall, and dramatic rock and cliff formations.

The same rough terrain that draws zipliners also lures hikers who prefer to enjoy the scenery with their boots planted firmly on the ground. Nearby Hocking Hills State Park is massive, as is the state forest that surrounds it. A series of caves is easily accessible through trails and bridges that were built as public works projects during the Great Depression. The steps are still sturdy and the passages from cave to cave are large and airy, causing one claustrophobic hiker to remark with relief, “It’s not like slipping through a birth canal.”

To generate tourism after the spectacular fall foliage season, park officials schedule events that help fill the inns and cabins during the slow months. A six-mile winter trek draws 3,000 and has been a January tradition since 1965; a “sweethearts hike” commemorates Valentine’s Day; and March guests learn the process of turning maple sap into syrup before sitting down for a hardy pancake breakfast. Innkeepers collaborate with local venues to put together “packages” that offer a variety of places to stay, things to do, and restaurants to sample.

Working independently, the scores of inns carve out niches that set each one apart from its competition. For example, the Bear’s Den Cottages is a “nature and wellness retreat” that focuses on fitness and health. The Inn & Spa at Cedar Falls has a full-service spa that offers mother-daughter getaways and a “desperate housewives package.” The Hocking Hills Resort enjoys a reputation as a one-stop wedding destination with an outdoor chapel and an in-house minister.

“We’re not on Main Street, so we knew we had to be versatile,” explains innkeeper Melody Strickland, whose husband, Randy, is certified to officiate at wedding services. Working together, the Stricklands host about 100 weddings each year. Among the most memorable was the formal event they arranged for a New York City couple who were so precise in their plans that they sent recipes for the foods they wanted served at the reception. The pressure was on, but the inn passed the test, recalls Melody. “If we can do that, we can do anything.”

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