Flying into Erie, Pa. during an early November weekend, I was struck by three things: the size of the city, the amount of industry in the city, and the blazing fall foliage. This was, of course, after the awe I felt soaring over the Great Lakes. Being from the southwest, I had never seen lakes that seemed like oceans to me with such ripples and waves.
After landing at the small Erie International Airport (it only has one baggage claim, nice!), I took an Uber to Erie's newest hotel, the Courtyard Marriot. It had opened only six months earlier and still carried the smell of fresh paint and new carpet. I stayed in a magnificent corner suite on the fourth floor, with glass walls overlooking the bay and the distant curve of Presque Isle. The service staff there are very gracious and accommodating.
The hotel is connected to the Bayfront Convention Center, which is also linked to the nearby Sheraton. You can walk from one hotel to the other without stepping foot outside. I walked around the lakefront, observing the maritime-themed convention center design and three simultaneous events inside the expansive space, including a wedding.
THINGS TO DO
We started off the morning visiting Presque Isle State Park, which has been named USA Today Readers’ Choice for the best freshwater beach in the country. Around four million visitors a year come to swim, boat, fish, hike, bike, skate and hunt here. Although a great source of recreation, the 3,200-acre sandy peninsula is also maintained and conserved to preserve its natural habitats and species, and no overnight camping is allowed. It has been designated a National Natural Landmark. Additionally, the bay it creates is an important shipping port and figures significantly into the history of the area.
During the war of 1812, Little Bay held a fleet of ships under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and six were built in the protection of the shore. The men defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie then returned to the isle to repair damaged ships and treat the wounded.
Many died during the harsh conditions and were buried in the nearby Graveyard Pond. In remembrance of the men's sacrifices to their country, Little Bay was renamed Misery Bay. The hull of the Niagara, which was the brig in which Perry won the battle, was sunk in the bay for protection and later raised and rebuilt for the 100th anniversary of the battle, and a replica of the ship now sails from the dock of the Erie Maritime Museum, located along the waterfront of Erie. Perry Monument on Crystal Point was built in 1926 to recognize the importance of winning the Battle of Lake Erie. There is also a lighthouse.
The Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC) is the gateway to Presque Isle State Park. It is named after local son Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. The 65,000-square foot facility was designed to be environmentally friendly and was the first building in the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks to earn a LEED silver certification rating. Built to symbolize the peninsula, the center uses interactive and educational exhibits, theaters, classrooms, laboratories, and an observation tower to allow visitors to experience the history and unique ecosystems of the park. It houses the offices of a number of agencies and groups and includes a cafe and cute little gift shop. trecpi.org
The tower offers spectacular views of the landscape and the lake, while also looking over Waldameer Water World, a seasonal water and amusement park that is only open from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Soaring over the park is the Ravine Flyer II, a rollercoaster ranked 5th best wooden coaster in the world. The family-owned park is 110 years old and is the oldest in the country.
There is also an indoor water park called Splash Lagoon in Erie that is open year round and contains a rope course and an arcade with 100 different games. It also received a USA Today Readers’ Choice award for being among the 10 best indoor water parks in the country. Adjacent to the park is a state-of-the-art lazer tag arena and bowling alley.
Director John Vance gave us a tour of the Erie Art Museum, the first gold LEED-certified building in the city. Completed in 2010, it ties together five historically significant buildings, including Erie’s Old Customs House. The museum welcomes 18 to 20 visiting exhibits a year. Among the permanent exhibits are Eternal Vigilance, a bronze sculpture at the foot of the museum’s marble steps, and The Avalon Restaurant, which recreates a former downtown diner. erieartmuseum.org
Fancy a horse race or a place at the roulette table? Presque Isle Downs and Casino is the place for you! There are three dining options on the ground floor along with table games, card games and slot machines. Upstairs, overlooking the horse race track, is The Brew Brothers restaurant. Unwind with a drink at the bar as you admire the eclectic décor. They serve a huge variety of beer, supporting local brew crafters by serving their products. With the motto, “Music is our soul,” live entertainment is provided several evenings a week. presqueisledowns.com
Located on West Main Street in North East – yes, that is the name of the town – is the full-service Bella Salon & Day Spa. As you enter, their boutique is filled with the latest in fashion accessories and salon products. From hair and nails to massages and skin treatments (and everything in between), the many ladies who work here can meet your every whim in semi-private or private rooms. Packages range from the Sweet 16 (two-and-a-half hours) to the Don't Stress (four hours). bellasalonanddayspa.net
WHERE TO DINE
My first meal in Erie was at the Marriot's Shoreline Bar and Grille, and was ordered off the limited menu that focuses on local sourcing. I had crusted walleye plucked from the lake I sat gazing at while listening to Canadian Geese honking on the grass nearby. It was delicious, as was the perch, also from Lake Erie, at the nearby Sheraton's Bayfront Grille. Their restaurant is ranked #1 in the world for all Sheraton properties.
The Cork 1794 just down the street from Bella Salon & Day Spa is a delightful place for lunch. On this particular day, school was out and the owner’s adorable daughters helped wait on us. The restaurant also has an extensive bar and is located in a refurbished bank, complete with vault and original 1,800-pound door that had to be built on site. The vault has room for one long table and is available for private parties. This local neighborhood hangout is a place to catch the game or enjoy fine and progressive dining. I had a cup of rich French onion soup and a spinach salad large enough to feed four, I kid you not. cork1794.com
Such a neat concept, The Brewerie at Union Station is a brewpub and restaurant located in Erie’s historical, downtown train depot. They serve good food and handcrafted ales; I tried the El Cubano which was huge and crispy and not too salty as I find many other Cuban sandwiches to be. The original benches are still used by diners and scattered throughout the station are antique travel trunks and carts that add authenticity to the ambience. The Brewerie offers live entertainment and haunted history tours amongst other events. brewerie.com
WHERE TO DRINK
Among thousands of acres of grapevines, Mazza Vineyards, the area’s largest vineyard, is nestled outside of North East. This area of the country is second only to Napa Valley as far as the number of vineyards (23, at last count). Robert Mazza heads up a family who has made their presence in the local wine community well known for decades. Besides growing their own grapes, Mazza also works with other select growers to produce fine wine with modern technology. Here I had my first taste of “ice wine.” Sweeter than normal white wine, ice wine is made of white grapes left on the vine to freeze after all others are harvested. They are hand-picked by volunteers early in the morning of the first freeze. mazzawines.com
Next stop is Five & 20 in Westfield, New York. It is the state’s very first combination winery, distillery and craft brewery and is owned by the Mazza family. In addition to selling their own wine, they offer handcrafted aged and unaged whiskeys, liqueurs (try the limoncello), one-of-a-kind, small-batch distilled products, and craft-brewed beer. There are tastings and tours of the impressive stillroom and observation room year-round, and the scenic courtyard overlooking a pond where birds flock has a pop-up kitchen in the summer. They even grow some of the grain from which they brew on the spot.
Arrowhead Wine Cellars, also in North East, not only sells wine made of grapes, but also fruit and berry wines, hard cider and juice. It’s a family-friendly place that holds juice tastings for children. Most of the grapes and fruit they use for their wine are grown right there on their 250-acre farm. Co-owner Kathy Mobilia has carefully chosen all things related to wine to stock the cozy boutique. Adjacent to the cellars is Mobilia’s Fruit Market, offering “pick your own,” already picked, and frozen fruit and juices. arrowheadwine.com
South Shore Wine Company is also owned by the Mazza family and run by matriarch Kathy Mazza. It’s a historic wine cellar, banquet hall and seasonal patio cafe with a tasting room in the awe-inspiring stone cavern and cellar of a one-time inn. The company was originally established in 1864 as the first commercial winery in Erie County and was resurrected by the Mazzas in 2007. While there we encountered a bus full of senior citizens who were taking a wine tour through the area and were warmly welcomed for a tasting by Mazza.
Besides vineyards, breweries are a significant part of Erie’s history, with the first one opening more than 200 years ago. With the resurgence of craft beer, there are plenty of places to try a brew and have a bite. Visit them all by following the Lake Erie Ale Trail. lakeeriealetrail.com
WHERE TO SHOP
Fuhrman’s is a cider mill, bakery and general store, and, as they say, “so much more.” From September to December you can see them press fresh apple cider on their 100-year-old apple presses. Erie’s local farmers, artisans and businesses are featured throughout the old-time atmosphere of the store with products such as apple butter, maple syrup, homemade fudge and Amish butter. The bakery serves up breads, Danishes, donuts and a local favorite, pepperoni balls. fuhrmanscidermill.com
Relish is a really cool shop that sells jewelry, gifts and home décor made of beach glass. “Tumbled by waves and transformed by sand,” owner Jennifer Reed prides herself on not altering the pieces in size and polish. She uses sterling silver and 14k gold to create beautiful, unique treasures. Relish also sells locally made soaps, note cards and driftwood art. The store is also a sponsor of the Great Lakes Beach Glass and Coastal Arts Festival held yearly in the spring at the convention center. relishinc.com
Mason Farms Country Market is huge! The market carries local goods such as jams and jellies as well as farm-fresh produce. The store holds seasonal events such as Pumpkintown in the fall and the Christmas Shop in the expansive greenhouse. The store also specializes in unique gift baskets such as Fruit and Goodies, Garden Lover, Pure Maple and Home Sweet Home. The market on Peninsula Drive in Erie is the largest but there are also a couple of satellite locations. masonfarms.com
For information on all that Erie has to offer, check out visiterie.com.