As part of a recent eastern state swing, we discovered abundant clusters of wineries and wine trails all along the southern and eastern boundary of Lake Erie, from Ohio to New York. Along the way, a small area of Pennsylvania awaits, offering the wine traveler a chance to visit some of the Keystone State’s most prominent wineries. This area is part of the Chautauqua Lake Erie Wine Trail, one of 11 wine trails encompassing Pennsylvania wineries.
Like most states in this general geographic area, Pennsylvania has a long history of grape growing and wine making. At present, the state ranks fourth nationally in grape growing and eighth for overall wine production. As you might expect, there are plenty of Pennsylvania wineries to explore, with the state’s varied topography offering many distinct types of grapes and wines.
Erie: Pennsylvania’s Great Lake Port City
Fresh off a highly enjoyable stay in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, we hopped on I-90 for the short 90 mile drive over the border to Erie, Pennsylvania’s only Great Lake port city.
We’d last been to Erie in the late 1980’s, and the change is dramatic and readily evident. The harborfront, at one time home to railyards and heavy industry, is now a welcoming destination, blending nicely with the diverse and eclectic downtown area.
Erie has become a destination for several reasons. This small city, population just over 100,000, is located at the intersection of two major interstates. Almost directly between Buffalo and Cleveland, Erie offers the amenities of a big city with the ease of navigation of a smaller town.
And of course, there’s the harbor and the tempering effects of Lake Erie, a Great Lake that has sprung back to life in recent decades. The very scenic Presque Isle State Park juts out from downtown Erie into the lake, protecting the harbor and serving as a naturalist’s paradise. With many items on our sightseeing agenda, we settled into the aptly named Erie Lighthouse Inn for a three night stay.
Arriving at lunch time, the waterfront beckoned. We opted for lunch at the Sloppy Duck Saloon, on Bayfront Parkway with the perfect view of Erie Bay and Presque Isle. Two plates of steamed mussels, the sauteed calamari, and a lake perch sandwich put us in the right frame of mind to explore nearby Presque Isle State Park.
Presque Isle State Park, a French term meaning “almost” an island, extends almost 7 miles into Lake Erie. We opted for a 90 minute boat cruise, allowing us to encompass the park and enjoy Lake Erie and Erie Bay from the water. If you’re a swimmer or sunbather, you’ve got 13 beaches to choose from and a recommendation from Conde Nast Traveler magazine for good measure. Hiking, canoeing, picnicking, and bird watching are other readily available options. Designated a National Natural Landmark, Presque Isle welcomes more than 4 million visitors a year. Top it off with a visit to the top of the waterfront Bicentennial Tower, affording 360 degree views of Lake Erie, Presque Isle, and downtown Erie. Do make a point to visit here!
Approaching late afternoon, it was time to get reaquainted with the city of Erie. First stop = Erie Brewing Company, a local microbrewer offering tastings Fridays and Saturdays 3-6 p.m. You can find their beers in several states surrounding Pennsylvania. We recommend their flagship brew, Railbender Ale, along with the summery Sunshine Wit and the hoppy and citrusy Misery Bay Pale Ale.
What a pleasant surprise to rediscover downtown Erie! Not only has the harborfront area been revitalized, but the adjacent downtown district now offers all kinds of shops, restaurants, and performance venues. Downtown Erie is reasonably compact and very walkable, and parking is a breeze. Roughly 14 blocks in length and 4 blocks wide, downtown Erie hosts frequent block parties and is the center of area entertainment options.
Erie’s State Street is the main downtown thoroughfare, bisecting the downtown from the bayfront south. Most of the shops, taverns, restaurants, and coffee houses are on or near State Street. Stroll the area as we did, and pop in wherever strikes your fancy.
Our first night’s dinner was at the highly enjoyable Plymouth Tavern, a downtown mainstay for 35 years. Conveniently located at 11th and State, this friendly local place serves up some of the best chicken wings we’ve tasted. Their impressive beer list will have you pondering what to try next, but don’t overlook the food menu. There are food and drink specials every night, and plenty to choose from. When in doubt, opt for any of the deli sandwiches or our favorite, the Chicken Philly, stuffed with grilled chicken, sauteed onions, and melted provolone.
After a few more stops throughout the evening, it was time to get refreshed for our next day’s agenda, filled with Erie area attractions and winery visits.
The next morning after breakfast, we opted for a few hours at the Erie Zoo and Botanical Gardens. This combination of zoo and gardens is a great idea, and something more cities should consider. Wander around this 15 acre park and view over 400 animals and thousands of plants. If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with one of the zoo’s many educational programs designed to let visitors get up close and personal with the animals. Check their website for more details. oregon wine tours