CINCINNATI — When Central Kentuckians think of a desirable place for a mini-vacation, they tend to overlook Cincinnati, 11/2 hours away by car. What is it they say about familiarity breeding contempt?
Cincinnati just seems so ... conventional. What new attractions does it offer to lure us? The answer, at least this spring and summer, is threefold: Cleopatra, Johnny Bench and penguins.
Let's start first with the comically tuxedoed birds at Newport Aquarium, which is across the Ohio River in Kentucky but in the Cincinnati area. After spending the past several months literally in "cold storage," the penguins have returned, trading in their starter home for what amounts to a penthouse.
The Penguin Palooza exhibit introduces two new species — rockhoppers and Inca terns, six of each — to the 28 Gentoo, king and chinstrap penguins that were part of the aquarium's cold-weather habitat. That makes this one of the most diverse collections of cold-weather penguins in the world.
The newcomers and old-timers must be flapping those flippers in delight at their new digs. The redesigned habitat has 16 additional feet of vertical space, allowing the Inca terns to soar and swoop at will, and an improved rock formation rising out of the pool. Additional steps carved into the rock provide more places for the penguins to explore and more nesting opportunities for the terns.
Last month, the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, next to Great American Ball Park, welcomed back a Reds icon: No. 5, legendary catcher Johnny Bench, who cut the ribbon on a temporary installation tracing his life and career. The exhibit, which will run through Jan. 31, follows Bench from the sandlots of Oklahoma to the majors, and it features many objects from his personal collection. Among them: his first Reds jersey from the 1966 spring training camp; his first contract with the Reds, for $9,000; and his five National League Gold Glove Awards.
After you've explored the Bench exhibit, wander through the 10 permanent galleries, including such favorites as an exhibit honoring the 1990 world champions and The Reds Are on the Radio, a re-creation of a broadcast booth, where visitors may take a shot at providing commentary a la Marty Brennaman and Joe Nuxhall.
Pete Rose might never make it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but here at the museum, he has a Wall of Fame. The three-story "Wall of Balls" is a collection of 4,256 balls, one for each of Rose's major league hits.
No exhibition in recent memory has impressed me as much as the current one at the Cincinnati Museum Center, in the former Union Terminal. Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt takes visitors on a fascinating journey into the world of Cleopatra VII, a world that had been lost for nearly 2,000 years after a giant tsunami submerged her ancient capital of Alexandria.
French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, the leader of what is called the most ambitious underwater excavation ever undertaken, has located the Temple of Isis, part of Cleopatra's royal palace, and the earliest astrological calendar ever found. Through eight galleries, the visitor is transported to the ruins of Alexandria after the tsunami; to Canopus, another submerged city that served as a religious center and a decadent playground for the pharaoh's court; and to Heracleion, coronation site for all of Egypt's pharaohs.
Among the more than 150 artifacts are such crowd-pleasers as the two 16-foot granite statues of a Ptolemaic king and queen from the fourth to third centuries B.C., retrieved from the sea by Goddio's team. The exhibition continues through Sept. 5.
While you're at Union Terminal, you can check out its other cultural attractions: Duke Energy Children's Museum, the Museum of Natural History and Science, the Omnimax Theater and the Cincinnati Historical Society Library.