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By Dan Schlossberg

Now, all of a sudden, the same city that was once the poster child for urban blight has placed a surprising second in the Places Rated Almanac ranking of recreational options in 354 metropolitan areas.

If Cleveland is the nation's second-best spot for recreation, its long-standing "Mistake on the Lake" tag will be forced to follow the buffalo nickel, steam locomotive, and rotary telephone into the dustbin of history.

Things have obviously changed in Cleveland. Dramatically.

Even the Cleveland Indians, once poster children for bad ballclubs, have not only reached respectability but won a reputation for playing in a stadium many consider the gem of the American League. Even the surrounding city has vaulted from pit to pinnacle.

Before the town cleaned up its act, Cleveland took more hits than Mike Tyson. Jay Leno, David Letterman, and other titans of late-night television made the city the butt of their jokes and several sad-sack sports teams added fuel to the fire.

What Leno, Letterman, and friends did to Cleveland � their favorite urban patsy � made the W.C. Fields depiction of Philadelphia pale in comparison.

Though memories of the city's old malaise may linger, the reality is refreshingly different � especially during the warm-weather months.

Summer is party time in Greater Cleveland. Bikini tops replace layers of sweatshirts and locals cavort in and around area waterways. It helps that Cleveland has more lakeshore miles than any metropolitan area on the planet.

The minute the weather warms, people-watching starts. Parks, beaches, and yacht clubs come alive with swimmers, boaters, fishermen, and even para-sailers, jet-skiers, and scuba divers.

A polluted channel that once caught fire is now an active waterway alive with tour and pleasure boats. The Indians sell out most games at sparkling Jacobs Field, while the crumbling behemoth called Municipal Stadium has become a reef in Lake Erie. And the giants of the music industry can't wait to come to town for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

It wasn't always that way. Convincing a free-agent ballplayer to sign with the Indians used to be more difficult than getting Richard Simmons to eat red meat. But that was before the image of the city, the stadium, and the ballclub did simultaneous 180-degree pirouettes.

Jacobs Field opened in 1994, the Rock and Roll museum drew a million visitors during its first year in 1995, and the Great Lakes Science Center and the Waterfront Line light-rail system both began in 1996 � just in time for the city's Bicentennial celebration.

Also new that year was Settlers Landing Park, the spot on the east bank of the Cuyahoga where army surveyor Moses Cleaveland (the "a" was later dropped because of newspaper space requirements) picked the town site in 1796.

That park is part of The Flats, a one-time port and seedy industrial area that now draws seven million patrons per year to its 60 nightclubs, blues bars, bistros, breweries, and restaurants. One of the city's best seafood restaurants, the Watermark, serves patrons at riverside tables with views of the cross-river nightclubs and boat traffic in between.

One of those boats is the Nautica Queen, a floating restaurant that gave its name to the Nautica Entertainment Complex. The 28-acre area, across the river from the Watermark, includes an amphitheater, a riverfront boardwalk, and a restaurant called The Taste of Cleveland, featuring specialties from 50 area restaurants (the steak from the Hyde Park Grill is widely considered Cleveland's best).

Elsewhere on the west bank of the river, a public party place called The Powerhouse hosted the giant All-Star Gala for baseball officials, guest celebrities, and media covering the 1997 All-Star Game.

Though the smokestacks on the old power plant now stand like silent sentinels, there's plenty of action below, where building interiors have been transformed to house shops, bistros, restaurants, comedy clubs, and nightspots of varying descriptions. The riverfront balconies provide fine views of the city's skyline.

Not far away, but on the east side of the Cuyahoga, is the historic Warehouse District, Cleveland's first neighborhood and downtown's oldest commercial area. Like the Flats, it has undergone a stunning transformation from blight to beauty. Its restaurants, galleries, specialty shops, and nightspots are jammed on weekend nights, with the sounds of blues and jazz wafting into the night air. Locals consider the Bop Stop the hot spot for blues.

The entire city is a hot spot for sports: new arenas have helped but so has television coverage of the NBA All-Star Game, two World Series in the last seven years and the 1999 reincarnation of the NFL's Cleveland Browns after a three-year hiatus.

Like the Indians, the basketball Cavaliers play in the $425 million Gateway Complex. They liked the 21,000-seat Gund Arena so much that they became the first major sports franchise to return downtown after previously fleeing for the suburbs.

Getting around town is almost as easy as watching a sporting event. The city is divided into eight districts: the Gateway, home of the sports complex on the south side of the city; the entertainment-oriented Warehouse District and the Flats, on the west side; Tower City, the office-and-shopping area southeast of the Flats but north of the Gateway; the Civic Center, home of city hall, the courthouse, and the convention center; the nearby North Coast, featuring the rock music and science center; the Theater District, northeast of the sports complex; and the Quadrangle, where Cleveland's compact Chinatown rests on the eastern edge of town (Cleveland also has a Little Italy, near University Circle).

The Waterfront Line � a sleek streetcar system utilizing light-rail vehicles � links Tower City with the Warehouse District, the Flats, the Civic Center, and the thriving attractions of the North Coast District. Several other rapid-transit lines, including one that links downtown with the airport, also originate underneath Tower City.

Visitors seeking to make maximum mileage from limited time can cover considerable ground without aggravation via Trolley Tours of Cleveland, based at the Powerhouse. There's no limit on the number of stops passengers make; they can always catch the next vehicle (actually a small bus designed to resemble a trolley).

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a popular place to jump off for a few hours. Like Jacobs Field � The Jake to locals � the glittering museum may be the only place in town where the decibel level occasionally approaches deafening levels.

Cleveland beat out several other cities � including New York and Memphis � to land the music museum because it is the place where disc jockey Alan Freed coined the term "rock and roll" in 1952.

With a distinctive glass "tent" and 150,000 square feet of exhibit space, the museum was a tourist magnet from the start. It drew a million visitors in 1995, its first year, and produced such rave word-of-mouth reviews that subsequent weekend and holiday crowds sometimes created sardine-can conditions. Seeing all six floors may take longer during peak periods but it's definitely worth the effort. Vintage films, photos, and artifacts, recordings of old radio shows, and the hallowed Hall of Fame gallery itself recalls the era from Elvis to the Beatles and beyond.

Next door, the Great Lakes Science Center has 350 interactive exhibits, an Omnimax theater, and pleasant patios fronting Lake Erie.

The 1925 steamship William G. Mather, the first museum at North Coast Harbor, was a 618-foot ore carrier that once plied Lake Erie waters as the flagship of the Cleveland Cliffs fleet.

Cleveland's Lakefront State Park, with 575 acres of shoreline, has miles of paved bicycle paths, nature walks, fitness trails, fishing piers, beaches, playgrounds, and picnic areas.

Because it has higher nutrient levels and warmer temperatures than the other Great Lakes, Lake Erie has a widest variety of fish and the best walleye fishing in the world. It is also known for perch, smallmouth, white bakss, channel catfish, and freshwater drum. Many charter boats are available for avid fishermen.

Cleveland Metroparks � one of the nation's largest metropolitan park systems � cover 19,000 acres, 82 miles of unpaved bridle trails, 60 miles of paved all-purpose trails, and 11 major fishing areas in 13 distinct reserves. Because it stretches for 100 miles, the park network is known around town as "the Emerald Necklace."

The 3,300 animals at Metroparks Zoo like the label; they thrive on wooded green hills of the 165-acre complex, located five miles south of town. Wolf Wilderness, the zoo's latest addition, allows a pack of Great Plains wolves to roam among beavers, bald eagles, and other animal and plant life from their native northern habitat.

Tropical animals are also represented: more than 600 species live amid the lush vegetation along the jungle path of the zoo's rainforest, which includes a biosphere complete with 25-foot water curtain, two-story wall of hydroponic plants, and real thunderstorms.

Unlike the zoo, which is open all year, Sea World operates seasonally. The 90-acre marine entertainment park, 30 miles southeast in the town of Aurora, operates approximately from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Another seasonal enterprise, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, runs 90-minute excursions along 26 miles of track 20 minutes from downtown.

Some of the summer fun heats up after the sun goes down.

The most-recorded orchestra on the planet, the Cleveland Symphony plays at Severance Hall from September-May and at the open-air Blossom Music Center, in the country setting of nearby Cuyahoga Falls (near Akron), from July to mid-September. Its pavilion and lawn seating can accommodate 15,000 music lovers.

The sound of music seems to be everywhere: concerts are offered regularly at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Music School Settlement, and the Cleveland Institute of Music (free performances on Wednesday nights), while the Cleveland Ballet, Dance Cleveland, and Cleveland Opera maintain regular schedules. The Lyric Opera Cleveland is featured on the summer schedule at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

Cleveland's oldest cultural institution, the Western Reserve Historical Society, is also the nation's largest private organization of its type. Founded in 1867, its displays include manuscripts, period rooms, farming tools, and other artifacts tracing the development of the Western Reserve of colonial times into the 20th century. The collection also includes 200 antique, vintage, and classic aircraft and automobiles (including rare models made in Cleveland).

The Cleveland Museum of Art also has a venerable past: in 1916, it purchased Rodin's "Thinker" directly from the artist.

Both museums, along with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a one-of-a-kind Health Museum, are located within the square-mile radius of University Circle, four miles east of downtown. Together, they form the country's largest concentration of cultural arts and educational institutions.

One of them, the 86-year-old Cleveland Play House, is the oldest regional theater in the United States. Dramas, comedies, and musicals are staged at the three-theater complex, while Broadway shows, opera, ballet, and other stage productions are featured at the four theaters of Playhouse Square Center, Cleveland's original theater district (circa 1921-22).

Other indoor pursuits include shopping at The Avenue at Tower City Center, a $400 million maze of handsome shops, theaters, and restaurants in the heart of town, or the Galleria at Erieview, a glass-enclosed lakeside merchandise mecca featuring the Cleveland Indians Gift Shop. Rumor has it that the team tried to purchase a quality pitcher there.

For civilians, Cleveland's shopping experience also includes three retail arcades, one of them the nation's first enclosed shopping center when it opened in 1890. That four-level structure, an architectural masterpiece called The Arcade, assumed a new identity this year as a Hyatt Regency Hotel. Shops remain on the first two floors of the concourse.

Like so many things in Cleveland, the Hyatt is a mixed bag, a clever blend of historic style with 21st century substance. The whole city, in fact, is unsure whether it belongs to the East Coast or Midwest, operating on Eastern Time but containing considerable midwestern charm.

Because of its location on the southern shore of Lake Erie, on central Ohio's north coast, Cleveland is within a day's drive or a few hours' flight from more than half the country.

Some 680 flights arrive and depart daily from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, where Continental's hub provides service to 96 different cities. The airport is 10 miles southwest f downtown.

Amtrak's Manhattan Limited Line provides overnight service to New York and Philadelphia, three-hour runs to Pittsburgh, or two-hour rides to Toledo.

Many Cleveland visitors come by car. The city lies 249 miles from Cincinnati, 348 miles from Chicago, 360 miles from Washington, 471 miles from New York, and 728 miles from Atlanta.

Finding a place to stay is getting easier. There are 20,000 hotel rooms, more than a thousand of them in eight hotel properties that opened within the last two years.

Wise visitors should consider acquiring a Cleveland Card, providing $700 in discounts for hotels, restaurants, attractions, tours, and stores.

To obtain a card, along with a free 2002 Official Visitors Guide and a calendar of events, call 800-321-1004. For additional information, see www.travelcleveland.com or contact the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland, 3100 Terminal Tower, 50 Public Square, Cleveland, OH 44113-2290 (Tel. 216-621-4110, Fax 216-621-5967).

Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ is president of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), sports travel columnist for Legends Sports Memorabilia, and contributing editor of the "Travel With Kal" radio show, heard over two Connecticut stations. He is also the author of 22 books, including The Baseball Almanac (Triumph Books, Chicago, 2002).

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