Many first-time visitors to Cincinnati see the Ohio River as merely a watery border between the Buckeye State and Kentucky, a landmark used by hotel valets and front-desk clerks to describe the location of sports and concert venues such as the Great American Ball Park (home of the Cincinnati Reds) and Riverbend Music Center. But the Queen City-area riverfront is more than just stadiums, arenas and pavilions. The banks are lined with attractions that allow everyone from gourmands to gamblers to enjoy the water while pursuing their passions. The following is a sampling of those options.Floating Fun
The most obvious way to experience the river, of course, is on a river cruise. BB Riverboats
(101 Riverboat Row, Newport, KY 41071, 800/261-8586, bbriverboats.com) offers a wide array of cruises aboard its three vessels, including the plush Victorian flagship Belle of Cincinnati
, a former casino boat that now reigns as the largest excursion boat on the Ohio River. Options run the gamut from lunch and dinner cruises to sightseeing excursions as far away as Pittsburgh and Louisville. Although the company’s main season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day, vice president of sales and marketing Ben Bernstein says cruises are scheduled year-round.
“Our most popular cruises are our dinner cruises,” he says. “We have a great view of the skyline, and people enjoy being on the river at night — it’s more of a celebration.”
Docked downriver is the Showboat Majestic
(435 E. Mehring Way, Cincinnati 45202, 513/241-6550, cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com
), an 86-year-old showboat — the last original functioning American showboat in existence — owned by the city of Cincinnati. The boat serves as a summer-stock venue from the first weekend in May through September. Productions such as “Crimes of the Heart” (Aug. 5–23) and “My Fair Lady” (Sept. 9–27) are performed on the original 26-by-21-foot stage in the 221-seat auditorium, where little has changed aside from the addition of air-conditioning.
“It’s old-timey,” executive artistic director Tim Perrino says. “When the boat rocks, you feel it.”Shoreline Attractions
Landlubbers can enjoy a number of activities on-shore while friends and relatives are out on the water. For amusement-park enthusiasts, there’s Coney Island
(6201 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati 45228, 513/232-8230, coneyislandpark.com
), an old-fashioned amusement park right on the Ohio River with 22 classic rides, pedal and bumper boats, canoes, miniature golf, live shows and the world’s largest recirculating swimming pool. President Vic Nolting says the park, named after the New York City original, has remained popular with young families, despite competition from local megaparks.
“Most parents feel very comfortable letting [their older children] roam the park,” he explains.
Across the river is Newport on the Levee
(1 Levee Way, Newport, KY 41071, 866/LEVEEKY, newportonthelevee.com
), a retail and entertainment center that counts a rock ’n’ roll sketch club, comedy club and 20-screen movie theater among its 40 tenants. General manager P. Ellen Prows says diners can enjoy river views at Bar Louie, Brothers Bar & Grill, Cameron Mitchell’s Fish Market, Claddaugh Irish Pub, and the restaurant at Jefferson Hall, a live music venue.
But arguably the complex’s biggest attraction is the Newport Aquarium
(One Aquarium Way, Newport, KY 41071, 859/261-7444, newportaquarium.com
), one of the biggest facilities of its kind in the Midwest. According to animal ambassador Ric Urban, new features include an interactive jellyfish exhibit that houses nearly 500 critters, a kid-friendly Frog Bog that boasts almost 30 species of frogs and three shark rays — among the very few in the United States. Visitors can purchase tickets for Ride the Ducks
), a modified World War II amphibious vehicle that travels the streets before taking to the Ohio River, in front of the aquarium.
“Everybody who gets on a Duck gets a duck-quacker, a kazoo-like thing that’s shaped like the bill of a duck,” Urban says. “Whenever you see another boat, the host on the Duck asks you all to ‘quack and wave’ to the people. It is a blast.” Gaming Action
Visitors willing to drive another 30 to 45 minutes can enjoy the fun and excitement of gambling on a trio of riverboat casinos in southeastern Indiana, all permanently docked by the bank so patrons can board and disembark at their leisure. The newest is the Hollywood Casino Lawrenceburg
(777 Argosy Pkwy., Lawrenceburg, IN 47025, 888/274-6797, hollywoodindiana.com
), formerly known as the Argosy Casino Hotel. According to general manager Tony Rodio, the $335 million vessel is the largest riverboat casino in the country, with two decks each wider than an aircraft carrier and almost as long as a football field.
A major attraction is the 41-table World Poker Tour-branded poker room. Billed as the largest card room in the Midwest, the space will host four new WPT tournaments on the Season VIII schedule, one of only eight venues to host a WPT event in the United States. But exploring features such as the 60-foot serpentine video wall at the entrance and Hollywood back-lot themes on the casino floor should be enough to entertain those who don’t gamble.
“If this property were to open on The Strip in Las Vegas, it would be as much of a must-see attraction as anything that currently exists,” Rodio assures. “It is technically still considered a riverboat
because of the engineering that went into it. But when you walk into the facility, you’re not going to realize that you’re on a boat at all — you’re going to think that you’re walking into a building.”
While the property’s 300-room hotel and four restaurants on shore are still in operation, Rodio stresses the current main draw is “the gaming experience.” Those looking to relax in a true resort environment after they’ve concluded play will want to check out Belterra Casino Resort & Spa
(777 Belterra Dr., Belterra, IN 47020, 888/BELTERRA, belterracasino. com
) and the Grand Victoria Casino & Resort
(600 Grand Victoria Dr., Rising Sun, IN 47040, 800/GRAND-11, grandvictoria.com
). The Belterra boasts a 608-room hotel, five restaurants, a heated outdoor pool with cabanas, full-service salon and spa, Tom Fazio-designed golf course and showroom with headliners such as The Doobie Brothers (Aug. 1). According to marketing manager Blair Bendel, the two-deck riverboat has “some of the most innovative, up-to-date slots on the market,” machines with themes such as “Wheel of Fortune,” “eBay” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
“They’re almost like playing a video game,” Bendel enthuses.
The Grand Victoria Casino & Resort has a 201-room hotel with an indoor swimming pool, health club, whirlpool and sauna; a land pavilion with five eateries; 18-hole Scottish-links-style golf course; and a theater that books national acts. The Grand Victoria II, a replica of a 19th-century Victorian sternwheeler, provides the look and feel of a more traditional riverboat gambling experience.
“The paddlewheel actually works,” says executive director of marketing John Sheldon of the 322-foot-long vessel, which houses 1,400 slot machines and 45 table games. “And our boat is docked on a floating mooring barge that rises and falls with the tide of the river.”Fireworks Spectacular
The most popular single-day Ohio River attraction in or near Cincinnati is undoubtedly Riverfest
on Sept. 6 (noon–11 p.m., Sawyer Point, E. Pete Rose Way, Cincinnati 45202, 513/352-4000), a signature Queen City blowout that culminates with a bang — one of largest fireworks displays in the Midwest. According to cincinnatiusa.com, nearly a half-million people gather on both sides of the river to watch the fireworks. Get there early to score a parking space and prime spot to view the pyrotechnics.