A few years ago, Rick Steves–the travel mogul of PBS and of “Rick Steves’ Europe” tour book fame–offered a competition on his public radio show for listeners to write a travel guide for their hometowns, in fewer than 1000 words. Readers of the Eclectic know that this author is hard pressed to get his pieces down to 1500 words of serviceable copy. I mused about what I could say about my formative hometown–a modest harbor on Lake Erie and to my amazement I did get to 1000 words. What follows is a bit of the original concept.
Summertime has arrived in America! The roads are filled with moms, pops and tots heading off to the Great American Summer Vacation. At least, that is the vision–dad in a fedora captaining the Winnebago, kiddos in ‘coonskin caps and beanies, and mom passing out the PB&J sandwiches and Mr. Pibb from the picnic basket. That era–of the roadtrip vacation–has been consumed by video games, reality television and luxury tourism to exotic locales. Some areas still boast to be the home of Summer, but they have been overrun by the masses seeking an OBX sticker for the bumper and the facebook selfie.
However, the old-fashioned slow get-away thrives in an unlikely corner of America, preserving that Rockwellian Americana for the 21st century. The Ohio Vacationland developed along Lake Erie in the 1930’s and 40’s with the light rail system shuttling Clevelanders to the lakeside for weekend getaways. The automobile drove people farther out along Lake Erie from the urban core, as city folk sought out secluded spots and private clubs along the lake. The post-World War II boom brought middle class prosperity, and the summer beach house became more accessible to the Everyman. Each Lake Erie town clings to the shoreline, withstanding the temperamental Lake Erie weather of clear skies followed by thunderheads. The region’s inlets and bays stretch for 40 miles, forming the Midwest’s answer to the Italian Cinque Terre. Not quite a Riviera; the region’s charm is in its simplicity. Trailer parks can still be found dotted along the lakeshore Route 6, juxtaposed with large estates. Ice cream shops serve up soft serve and are in walking distance of sandy beaches. Luxury seems slightly out of place here, but the occasional yacht reminds visitors that Ohio’s north shore has economic vitality.
The first of the recreational harbors, 35 miles outside of Cleveland, Vermilion has remained a small boating town. Settled by displaced New Englanders after the War of 1812, Vermilion grew to be the home of boat captains. Most of the cottages in the historic Harbourtown district date to the Antebellum period. While the town, like many rust-belt communities, struggles to find a year-long economy, the summer boating and tourism season in its downtown core provides a scenic backdrop to a sleepy summer day—with ice cream socials and the community band playing on the town green. Huron offers similar seclusion as Vermilion, with a major redevelopment of its once-industrial harbor. Huron’s waterfront offers a lakeside estuary where egrets and eagles roost, leading up to Huron’s sentinel lighthouse. Both communities offer recreational boaters some of the largest harbors in the region to store their catamarans and Sea-Doo’s.
The county seat of the region—Sandusky—is home to the world-famous Cedar Point amusement park. The park is a pantheon of roller coaster gods and their history, housing the tallest, fastest, and steepest scream machines on Earth.
Downtown Sandusky offers the Merry-Go Round Museum of vintage carousel horses, housed in the impressive temple-like old post office. An artist on-site can custom make a stallion-on-a-stick for your foyer. And at the nearby Toft’s Dairy Farm—Ohio’s oldest–ice cream aficionado’s can devour some of the largest cones in the nation—my favorite being the “Moose Tracks” that could easily rival any creation by Ben or Jerry.
Marblehead retains its status as the landmark and seascape beauty of the region, with its iconic lighthouse keeping watch over the shallow basin. Visitors can pick up ferry boats for the off-shore excursion into the heart of Vacationland—the Lake Erie Islands. The 28-island archipelago makes up some of the largest freshwater islands in the world. Two of the islands, Pelee and Middle Islands, are Canadian. The rest are in American waters, which I will explain further in a moment.
Rattlesnake Island, off of Gibraltar Island, Lake Erie
Some of the islands are large enough to house secluded private estates—such as Rattlesnake Island—research labs and entire communities. Gibralter Island houses a satellite school of Ohio State University’s maritime program in its Stone Laboratory center. South Bass Island is home to the libertine Put-In-Bay, the North’s answer to Key West. The downtown core hugs DeRivera Park with numerous bars, including the world’s longest bar at The Beer Barrel. Liberal drinking laws and an anything goes atmosphere keep the sun worshipers and Bacchae satiated from May until September.
History buffs venture over to the National Park Service-operated Perry’s Victory Monument. The monument celebrates the decisive Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812—the only naval battle fought on the Great Lakes. The battle decided where British America (Canada) would end and the United States would begin. Lake Erie, and many of her islands, were won for the US in that sea battle. The monument stands to represent the modern-day peaceful and open border between the Canadian and American people. The largest Doric Column in the world, the 352-ft monument is also the fourth largest monument in America. On less hazy days, you can see Canada from atop the observation deck. Put-in-Bay in the off season takes on more of a Nantucket quality, when the island diminishes to 130 residents, the bars turn into general stores, and kids are shuttled on bi-planes to the only school in the archipelago. The school has one to two graduates a year, where the whole town gathers to wish the sole graduate onward and upward.
Kelleys Island, the tranquil big brother to South Bass, offers vineyards in lieu of pubs, a significant state park highlighting the power of glacial ice and examples of petroglyphs left behind by the first nations who called the islands home. Both Kelleys and South Bass Island have modest wineries, where the islands’ micro-climate made for longer growing seasons into the fall. Those vineyards include Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island (now operated by Firelands Winery), Kelleys Island Wine Company and Heineman’s Winery on South Bass Island.
Watching the sun set over the Lake Erie basin, a glass of island Concord or Catawba wine in hand, you needn’t wonder why the denizens of Ohio keep their Vacationland a secret, albeit an open one. Here, time slows down, and the working guy can reclaim lost days, even years in the restorative rhythm alongside one of the world’s great freshwater lakes.
Getting to the region. By air, the region is nestled between Detroit International Airport or Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Most tourists will come by car, taking Interstate 90 that runs off and on along the southern shore of Lake Erie. However, the old state road—Route 6—takes you in and out of the Vacationland communities, with many of the attractions located on the main drag. In addition, Route 6 weaves past plenty of vistas and public spaces—beaches, bays and lighthouses ready for the shutterfly. The most relaxing way of seeing the region is by boat. Boat docking fees are modest, and give you pedestrian access to most ports of call.