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The Midwest: Hub-and-spoke tours

Warren County’s Kings Island, courtesy Warren Co. CVB

It can be easy to focus on the metropolises of the Midwest, but travelers shouldn’t forget smaller hub-and-spoke destinations that offer both easy access to their larger neighbors and some impressive attractions of their own.

Groups on hub-and-spoke tours of the Midwest can visit the nation’s largest rail yard, explore caves that served as a speakeasy and gangster hangout, or a walk through a massive estate filled with an unrivaled collection of antique mechanical music machines.

Warren County, Ohio
Warren County, Ohio, sits between Cincinnati and Dayton, but the county is also just a half-hour drive to Columbus, Ohio, and only two hours to Lexington or Louisville, Kentucky.

Warren County is also “smack dab in the middle of the U.S.” — maybe not geographically but in terms of convenience, said Bridget Kochersperger, communications manager for the Warren County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have a unique advantage because we are within a day’s drive of 65 percent of the U.S.,” she said.

Warren County’s 40 hotels offer more than 4,000 guest rooms and make it an ideal base for groups visiting the area.

“We have a lot going on in Warren County and a lot going on around us,” Kochersperger said.
One of the county’s largest attractions is Kings Island amusement park in Mason, Ohio, about 25 miles north of Cincinnati. The 365-acre park has 14 roller coasters, classic family rides, a kids’ area, live stage shows and Soak City Waterpark.

As part of the YMCA Camp Kern, Ozone Zipline Adventures takes thrill-seekers into the forest canopy of the Little Miami River Valley. The Traditional Tour lasts about two and a half hours and includes seven zip lines and seven sky bridges; the Ultimate Tour takes five hours and features 11 zips — including two new lines that cross the Little Miami River — nine skybridges and a bag lunch.

Groups can also get on the river for a two-hour or two-day canoe trip, or follow a scenic bike path along the river’s banks to Waynesville and Lebanon, which are known for antique shops.

Many travelers to Warren County head into Cincinnati for a Reds game or to visit the nation’s second-oldest zoo. Alternately, they may go in the opposite direction to check out the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton.

McHenry County, Illinois
McHenry County, Illinois, is about an hour northwest of Chicago and about 90 minutes southwest of Milwaukee, but you wouldn’t know it by the area’s rural feel and small-town friendliness.

“You have that country experience only an hour away from the city,” said Laura Witlox, manager of group sales for the McHenry County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

McHenry County offers a wide range of agritourism opportunities, from shearing sheep to picking apples, raspberries and pumpkins. Prairie Orchard Farm and Winery in Union, Illinois, is next to the 49-acre Paddock Hills Equestrian Center. Because John and Jan Cederlund own both venues, groups can take in a horse show followed by dinner in the vineyards, or do a wine-tasting and a hay ride, Witlox said.

“The best time to come is August through the end of October, primarily for the agritourism aspect of our area; we have farm after farm of anything you want to do,” she said.

But the county’s “piece de resistance” is Sanfilippo Estate, which is only open for guided group tours of 40 to 100 people, she said.

Known as Place de la Musique, the estate in Barrington Hills boasts 44,000 square feet filled with restored antique music machines, from small coin pianos and music boxes to the world’s largest restored theater pipe organ and a European carousel.

A docent leads the three-and-a-half-hour tour and plays the music machines as well as a recording of the theater organ for guests.