Cleveland rocks

No joke: Cultured, fashionable Cleveland is having a moment.

Recently, I revisited Cleveland, an astonishing city that gobsmacked me once more.  Shortly after I arrived, I boarded the Nautica Queen, a dining cruise on Lake Erie and enjoyed a very good dinner and scintillating city views by the light of a silvery moon. Cleveland.  Yes, I know. Comedians have ragged on this city since time immemorial. “In Cleveland, Velveeta cheese can be found in the gourmet section of the supermarket.” “Definition of a plush Cleveland cocktail lounge: A bottle of Seagram’s with a brown bag around it.” And of course, that old saw: “I spent a week in Cleveland one afternoon.”

But enough. It’s time to stop all that, because Cleveland today is nothing short of remarkable and very much of-the-moment. It’s a city with myriad surprises — and all of them good. This is, after all, where rock was born, where people know a thing or two about passion, freedom and doing it your own way. A visit to this town means world-class experiences without the world-class ego.  That’s why Cleveland has been designated one of the 25 best U.S. cities and one of the five most affordable, underrated travel destinations in the country. Visitors to Cleveland are often surprised by the city’s history of risk-taking, artistry and entrepreneurship passed on through the generations. Today, Cleveland is committed to keeping two feet in the past, many hands in the present and all eyes on the future.

Now a somewhat obscure but fascinating fact. Cleveland, each May, hosts its very own Fashion Week. This annual event was begun in 2002 and just happens to be the third largest fashion show of its kind in the U.S., behind only New York and Los Angeles. I had made it a point to be in Cleveland the first week in May so as not to miss the shows and was thrilled to see all of the usual designer suspects represented. As a veteran of Fashion Week NY, I can only say, Cleveland, you did yourself proud. Fashion Week in Cleveland? Surprised? Not a whit.

University Circle is the neighborhood where arts and culture flourish — including The Cleveland Orchestra, celebrating its centennial — and where I spent a good deal of my time on my second visit. I ambled through the neighborhood’s historic institutions, including the Cleveland Museum of Art. The art museum was founded in 1913 and is a neoclassical, white marble, Beaux Arts building encompassing a 75-acre green space. The recent $350 million renovation project added two new wings, making it the largest cultural project in Ohio’s history. The new wings, as well as the enclosing of the atrium courtyard under a soaring glass canopy, have brought the museum’s total floor space to 592,000 square feet, (an increase of approximately 65 percent).

The museum divides its collections into 16 departments, including Chinese art, Modern, African, Islamic and Greek/Roman. Among the artists represented are Botticelli, Caravaggio and El Greco. Corot’s “La Cervara,” a serene scene of the Italian countryside, was swoon-worthy, as was the furious, bruising light of Turner’s “Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.” I look forward to returning to this exceptional museum, if for no other reason than to experience once again its masterful atrium, conceived by architect Rafael Viñoly as the centerpiece of his design. This grand open piazza completely transforms the visitor’s experience — a place to congregate, a source of airy light and a reference point to simplify navigation throughout the galleries. It is simply grand.

On a perfect, sun-splashed day I visited the Cleveland Botanical Garden, founded in 1930. The garden launched an ambitious campaign in 1994 that supports an enhanced program agenda and a renovated garden building designed by Graham Gund Architects. Opened to the public in 2003, the Glass House is the centerpiece of the $50 million expansion, an 18,000-square-foot home to plant and animal life from two separate biomes, the desert of Madagascar and the cloud forest of Costa Rica. They feature more than 350 species of plants and 50 species of animals, including hundreds of butterflies. 

I enjoyed the dry, spiny desert of the Madagascar area and lost myself in the clouds of Costa Rica. The desert section sprouted alien-looking Baobab trees, succulents and Sam — the free-roaming chameleon with his Lobster Boy hands and googly eyes. The rainforest is filled with lush greenery, including a colossal strangler fig, avocado, coffee and papaya trees. As instructed, I stood very still and soon a luminous blue butterfly landed square on top of my head.  This place is enchantment personified.

Outside, there are 10 acres of gardens, including Japanese, herb, rose and topiary, among several others. Kids helped design the outdoor Hershey Children’s Garden, perhaps explaining its booming popularity. There’s a treehouse, hidden paths winding through tall grasses and a spurting fountain that blows mist. Many of the plants in the area attract native caterpillars, butterflies and birds, so there’s a good chance for close encounters.

When you’re the city credited with coining the phrase “rock ’n’ roll,” it’s a given that you know cool music. Appropriately, Cleveland is home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a one-of-a-kind museum that showcases the largest collection of rock artifacts in the world. Located on the shores of Lake Erie, the museum archives the history of the best-known and most influential artists, producers, engineers and other notable figures who have had a major influence on the development of rock ’n’ roll. The Hall of Fame Foundation was established in 1983 by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun and has now expanded on its original concept to include artifacts from artists’ lives, performances and songwriting; also handwritten drafts of hit songs, instruments used in concert and, strangely enough, more than one rocker’s personalized pinball machine. The exhibition “Legends of Rock” runs the gamut of rock ’n’ roll history from Diana Ross and The Supremes to The Allman Brothers to Blondie. It covers the era’s idols in depth. For example, it boasts the largest artifact-based Beatles collection in the world, spanning John Lennon’s elementary school report cards to the drum kit Ringo Starr played at their last official concert.

But then, as the song says, “Cleveland Rocks.”

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