It was Memorial Day weekend, and K and I drove north. Exploring our new state was the goal, and we decided to start with Lake Erie, the second smallest and shallowest of the five Great Lakes. Having never seen a Great Lake before, nor any part of this region except for the Target down the street, some parts of Ohio, and, like, three restaurants in Downtown Pittsburgh, it sounded like the perfect, low-key, hassle-free weekend away.
Erie, PA is two hours directly north of us, and is named after the lake we wanted to see, so we starting there. We found a hotel on the water that promised the “number one rated Sheraton Hotel Restaurant in North America” so figured that was a good start. We booked on Wednesday and were in vacation mode by Friday. This is my favorite way to travel.
Looking for a relaxing weekend full of beautiful views and leisurely days, we didn’t plan much (this shouldn’t surprise you if you know me or have been reading this blog for more than 2 days). We knew of a state park nearby, a zoo (which we didn’t actually go to, but has a polar bear! So that’s worth noting), and what people around here call “wine country.” With a rough itinerary and a full tank of gas, we were off.
We arrived midday Friday and stopped at a local spot for lunch where we ate Great Lakes perch and catfish that tasted like they had been caught that morning. And, judging by the amount of fishermen and bait shops nearby, they probably had. Then we checked into the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel, settled in to our deluxe room with a lakeside view, then piled back into the car to start exploring.
Our first stop was Presque Isle State Park which is not an island, but a peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie. The bay side of the peninsula is what our hotel looked out to, so in order to really see a Great Lake, we had to find the beaches.
Presque Isle has served many important roles in our history, most notably serving as the military base of Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet during the War of 1812, a fact you cannot ignore long if you are in the city of Erie. They like this Perry fellow.
We ambled around the 4-mile park, stopping when something looked interesting or a beach looked particularly beautiful. When we stopped, we strolled along the beaches and marveled at the immense size of the fresh water lake we were looking at. It looks just exactly like an ocean; when I was certain I could see the shore on the other side, K remarked “Well I can’t see to the other side of New Jersey, so I’m sure that’s not the shore.” He was right; the two are about the same width. How crazy is that?
While the weather was pretty far from beach-perfect, the sandy shores and the sound of the waves were just as enjoyable bundled up. I’m sure that when the weather turns warm they’re crowded with people, but for that crisp, gray Friday, it was just us.
We took note of the dunes, the lighthouses, and the driftwood. I’ll tell you, I feel most myself when I am surrounded by the sound of waves. An interesting thought considering I grew up in the middle of West Texas, where the closest shore was 8 hours away.
Our stomachs started rumbling and my feet, which were clad in very stylish but very weather-inappropriate strappy sandals, continued to freeze. We got back into the car and headed back to our hotel. After dressing for the evening we enjoyed happy hour in the lounge then sat down for a leisurely–and delicious–dinner at the Bayfront Grille (you know, the Number One Sheraton Hotel Restaurant in North America).
The next morning we woke to sun and decided to explore the town of Erie. We drove a couple of blocks inland and found ourselves in the middle of a downtown that, for as far as we could see, was completely shut down. We parked to find out what was going on and discovered the entire town of Erie out in force to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Perry’s victory (remember him? Told you they love him).
We stopped for lunch, walked the downtown streets, then decided to see what else the town had to offer. Next to our hotel was a Great Lakes Maritime Museum, and because it’s not a vacation unless you learn something (right?), we went.
We learned all about the Great Lakes role in the War of 1812 and its history going forward. I learned a lot about a time and a region that was previously unknown to me.
After feeling like the history of the Great Lakes, in its entirety, was ours, we got back in the car and drove North along the coast of Lake Erie. About five miles outside of Erie, we started seeing vines and a sign that said “Welcome to the Lake Erie Wine Trail.” So, we win.
We stopped at the first Vineyard we found, a place called Penn Shore Winery. We went, we tasted, we bought. The wine varied from your typical grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to the more regional specialities like Concord Grape wine and the sweet Ice Wine.
We continued along the wine trial and stopped when we saw a winery that looked good. We tasted some really good wines, some really interesting wines, and a wine that I’m pretty positive was just red Nyquil that had been poured and corked into a wine bottle. Seriously.
On our way back to Erie we turned onto a road that promised a beach. We continued along the gravel road that went through pine trees and brush and parked close to what we thought was the beach. As we walked closer, we found a breathtaking view and a 30 foot drop. The beach was actually a cliff.
We soaked up the fresh air and cerulean lake views for as long as we could. We were 75% sure that this road was public, but considering there was a hand written sign and only one house on it, it also could have just been a driveway. Either way, we got back into the car and drove back to the hotel.
We enjoyed a casual dinner at a bar down the street then had a nightcap at the hotel lounge and called it a day. We had a day full of beauty and felt relaxed and rejuvenated.
The next morning we went to brunch by the water, then climbed to the top of the Bi-Centennial Tower which is both the highest point in Erie but also right next door to our hotel. It was really high up. The view offered an incredible panorama of the city of Erie, as well as an incredible view of the bay and the lake beyond Presque Isle. Yes, we were so high we could see to the other side of the peninsula. My stomach was doing flip flops, for sure.
After a beautiful, relaxing, lovely weekend, we loaded up the car and began our trip back home to Pittsburgh. After stopping for a couple of hours at an outlet mall (obviously) we arrived home to a cat who immediately scratched the couch out of spite from being left alone. Home sweet home.
I can’t recommend a trip to any Great Lake highly enough. The possibilities are endless; you could visit a huge city like Chicago or a little town surrounded by nature and vineyards like Erie. Whatever you choose, it’s worth the trip. Enjoy the fresh water views, they’re pretty spectacular.