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by Deborah Williams
Erie may be Pennsylvania’s only port on the Great Lakes but it certainly has it all — one of the world’s best-protected harbors, history, wonderful family attractions, and a leisurely pace that makes it an ideal weekend getaway.
For years, I passed Erie by on the way south. Last summer, I finally decided to learn what Erie was all about and it proved to be a good decision. There is no doubt that I will return.
Erie’s premier warm weather attraction is surely Presque Isle State Park, a 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that arches into Lake Erie. (The park is open year-round and there is cross-country skiing, hiking and fishing in the winter.) Beachcombers have their choice of more than 11 perfect sandy beaches—some of the best along Lake Erie. During the warm months there is also biking, hiking, boating, and bird watching.
The neck of the peninsula is attached to the mainland four miles west of downtown Erie. The park creates Presque Isle Bay, a wide and deep harbor for the city. There are water taxis during the summer with stops along the waterfront.
Erie is an important Great Lakes shipping port and the bay attracts many pleasure boats and worldwide freighters.
Presque Isle is a National Natural Landmark and is a major recreational destination for about four million visitors each year. Admission is free and there are even three free pontoon boat rides a day during the summer. These fill up fast, so sign up as soon as you arrive.
The best place to begin your tour is at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center just outside the park boundaries. This 65,000-square-foot, green-designed facility, which opened in 2006, encourages visitors to experience the unique history and ever-changing diverse ecosystems of Presque Isle State Park.
The orientation theater provides a multimedia experience that takes visitors through 12,000 years of history, year-round activities, and the many spectacular sunsets of Presque Isle. The 75-foot, glass-enclosed observation tower affords spectacular views of Lake Erie.
Interactive and educational exhibits allow visitors to simulate the forces of wind and water, illustrating their effects on the peninsula through time. The exhibits showcase Presque Isle’s history, ecosystems, wildlife, plants, unique sand formations, top bird migration stops and more.
The Big Green Screen, a four-story-high, 45-foot-wide, large format theater, offers the best in science and entertainment films.
My day at Presque Isle included a tour aboard the 110-passenger Motor Vessel Lady Kate that offers 14-mile, 90-minute tours onto the open waters of Lake Erie. The narrated tour included splendid views of Presque Isle’s shores, Erie’s skyline, lighthouses, ships, beaches, Gull Point Nature Preserve, wildlife, and the sparkling waters.
I was also able to snare a ride with the free one-hour Lagoons by Pontoon boat tour led by volunteers. The calm lagoons are full of surprises and we saw many of them including sun-basking turtles, wading great blue herons, beaver lodges, and osprey diving into the water to catch fish.
Close to the Lady Kate dock is Perry’s Monument, built in 1926 to commemorate Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s triumph over the British, then the mightiest naval power on earth in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. The War of 1812 battle was at Put-In-Bay, near Sandusky, Ohio.
Perry’s first flagship, the Lawrence, was heavily damaged during the battle, requiring him to transfer his flag to the brig Niagara. He then re-engaged and defeated the British fleet using the Niagara as his flagship. It was then that Perry made his now famous statement: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
After the battle, Perry and his men returned to Presque Isle Bay to repair their fleet and seek medical treatment for the wounded. The hull of the Lawrence and the Niagara were sunk in the bay to preserve and protect them from the weather. The Niagara was raised in 1912 and rebuilt using some of the original wood for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1913.
Today, the current Niagara is the third reconstruction of the original vessel and was launched in 1988, the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. The two-masted, square-rigged sailing vessel departs from its dock at the Erie Maritime Museum.
When it is in port, public sails are offered. During the summer sailing season the Niagara also visits other Great Lakes ports as an ambassador for Erie. The Niagara will be in Buffalo this summer. Check the Maritime Museum website for the sailing schedule.
“We are just finalizing the summer sailing schedule,” explained Walter Rybka, administrator of the museum and senior captain for the Niagara. “There will be public sails this summer in Erie which are always very popular.”
The museum is very much a Lake Erie museum with an emphasis on the lake’s history. When the Niagara is in homeport, the ship is a major exhibit. The museum tells the story of Erie’s role in Great Lakes history, focusing on the dramatic events of the Battle of Lake Erie. Historical artifacts, interactive exhibits, and videos bring the battle and the age of fighting sail to life.
Other exhibits tell the stories of the USS Michigan/Wolverine (the Navy’s first iron-hulled ship), Erie’s three lighthouses, fishing, and other maritime industries.
Lake Erie is still home to one of the largest commercial freshwater fisheries in the world. Sport fishing is big in Erie and there are a number of charter and party boats that offer perch fishing. It is ideal for children because the trips usually last three or four hours and there is usually plenty of action. Area restaurants feature fresh perch sandwiches and perch dinners.
A few blocks from the waterfront is expERIEnce Children’s Museum. Some of the most popular exhibits include the Bubble Machine, the Water Table, Bedrock Cave, and Kid’s Corner Store.
Another fun exhibit is History, Mystery, and Magic of Magnets. There are six interactive stations allowing children to see how magnets work and explore various uses for them. Children can learn basic properties of magnetism to find out what magnets attract and what they repel. Other stations show how magnets are used in everyday life.
A most popular year-round Erie attraction is Splash Lagoon, an indoor water park resort. It has it all: three connecting hotels and motels and shuttles to four nearby motels, restaurants, and an amazing array of water activities, as well as a video arcade, Tree Tops ropes course, Lazer Tag Arena and Arcade, and the Surf Shop gift store. There is something for everyone here.
For many visitors shopping is a popular activity since there is no sales tax on clothing.
There is a wide array of accommodations in the area. My base was the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel, the area’s first waterfront hotel. The hotel offers sweeping views of Presque Isle Bay and an indoor pool with more views of the lake and the bay.
Travel Tip of the Month: For information on Erie visit www.VisitErie.com or call 814-454-1000 or 800- 524-ERIE (3743). For Splash Lagoon visit SplashLagoon.com or call 1-866-3-SPLASH. For the Maritime Museum and the Brig Niagara visit www.flagshipniagara.org or call 814-452-2744. For the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel visit www.starwoodhotels.com or call 814-454-2005.
Deborah Williams is a veteran travel writer whose work has appeared in national and international publications. She is also the author of “The Erie Canal: Exploring New York’s Great Canals.” Learn more at www.deborahwilliams.com.