A canopy of tall trees shades many of the waterfront bike paths along the miles of clean, white-beige sandy beaches at Presque Isle State Park, where Lake Erie is a lovely old-fashioned, pre-industrial version of itself. On a warm, breezy late summer weekend, the park's combination of trails and waterfront seemed like a miracle.
To find so much public access to so much beach-seven miles worth-just a two-hour drive from Buffalo made me wish there was a way to create a parallel set-up for our own lake shore, obscured, for now, by highway and defunct industry.
On a drive around and throughout Erie, with about 300,000 in its metropolitan area, it is easy to see the city's own tough economic history. Signs of bleak times are there in boarded up gas stations and storefronts.
Yet, with its lush, beachy- and free-state park just outside of the city center, there's plenty still thriving to fill up a weekend holiday. And, unlike so many summer destinations, this place does not shut down on Labor Day.
The park is open year-round and summer sidelines, such as a funky bike rental place, boat tours and an old-fashioned diner, stay open into September.
To get there, we left Buffalo at about 4 in the afternoon and arrived by 6. That was enough time to check into the motel and head to the park for a ride before sunset.
Presque Isle, which means "almost island" in French, is a skinny spit of land that makes a curving line along the shore, like a fishhook. A 14-mile trail wraps around its edges.
Most every stretch has tall trees, lake views, patches of blooming wildflowers, or a combination of all three. I eyed some lovely, large pink bell-like blooms on a stalk that I'd never seen before. As the sky turned its own shade of pale pink and the sun set over the lake, I wanted to stay longer, but we had to get dinner.
This weekend adventure unfolded on short notice. When my plans for an Adirondack trip fell through, my kind-hearted parents invited me to tag along as an early birthday present. My folks, who are fond of weekend getaways, discovered this place a few years ago and made it a regular destination. They already had favorite spots. I just had to slip into their routine.
Their first-choice motel, the Glass House Inn (3202 West 26th St., www.glasshouseinn.com ) was booked. They say they love it for its 1950s-style, cute pool and homey breakfast room. Several other retro motels are clustered in its Erie neighborhood. An hour's worth of online research, and customer review reading, led to the next best thing: A newly renovated Red Roof Inn, at about $100 a night, outside the city center (7865 Perry Highway; 814-868-5246). Cheery red and blue decor and wood floors made even the tiny bathrooms seem nice. Every so often the roar of highway traffic by the parking lot made me think of the sound of surf.
Downtown was a few minutes away. We drove slowly down State Street looking for a place for dinner. Blocks with boarded up storefronts still had bars and restaurants that seemed thriving. An Italian restaurant, Calamari's Squid Row (1317 State St.; www.calamarissquidrow.com ) had a crowded patio wedged between two buildings, and looked inviting. We opted for another restaurant with a stone facade and a hipster look. It was close to 9 p. m. on Friday when we walked into 1201 Kitchen ( www.1201restaurant.com ; 814-464-8989) at the corner of 12th and State streets. It was packed, with one open table in the loft with views of people dining below and the windows. Starving, I ordered edamame beans with spicy soy dipping sauce straight away. It's nice when it's hard to stop eating something so healthy. The rest of the Asian-fusion-with-twists menu, in the $9 to $28 range, was just as elegant. Salmon sashimi with mozzarella and three-vinegar syrup was good and subtle. The best was the rich, savory duck enchiladas with rice and beans.
>Take or rent a bike
Dinner fortified. The next morning I was psyched to bike. While we spotted a rental place just outside the park, we went for the Yellow Bike Rental Company inside. It stays open on weekends through most of September, if weather suits, according to a staffer who answered the phone (814-835-8900). It is a happy, old fashioned place. There are tandem bikes for two, "surreys" with benches for families, and bells to warn walkers.
I chose a bicycle built for one, about $30 for most of the day. The old-fangled contraption- no gears, pedal brakes- surprised me with its smooth ride and speed that let me breeze past folks chugging along on more high-falutin' equipment.
As I pedaled around the crescent-shaped almost-island park, I passed runners, parents pushing strollers and a Mennonite clan with women cycling in skirts.
The park and its trails felt full of people, but not over full. There was room for riding and stretches where there was no one but me. I spied a cluster of wild turkeys in one clearing. Minutes later two spotted fawns dashed into the trees.
There was a lot to see. At the tip of the trail, there is a monument to War of 1812 Commodore Oliver Perry and a collection of detailed historical placards that include the story of the young captain's valor.
Nearby is the booth for sightseeing boat rides ( www.piboattours.com ), that continue through the end of September. For a $16 ticket, a narrated, 90- minute tour takes you 14 miles along the lake. It includes an old story about how the park was formed-a god stretching his arm out to protect the Eriez Indians from a storm. There are so many beaches, it was nice to think I could work up a sweat and pull over for a swim whenever I wanted. The first day I picked a beach where a man had set up kites and wind socks-striped cones, a pirate flag and a seagull kite with legs fluttered in the breeze.
The water was clear, cool-but- warm and shallow. It was easy to swim and stop, stand, take a break and carry on. There were kids everywhere building sand castles and scooting along the shore on skin boards. People on the beach sunbathed and sat under umbrellas with books. To think it was only Saturday and we had another day of this made me happy.
The only disappointment was trying to satisfy hunger at the concession stands. They are scattered throughout the park and have slim menus that include hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and nachos with cheese sauce. We found a far better feast in a retro 1950s style hamburger stand with red picnic tables, just outside the park.
Sarah's&Sally's (find coupons at www.sarasandsallys.com ), stays open through September and had a perfect combination of interesting, summer-beach food: The theme is local and homemade. The condiment bar had a pile of deep green lettuce leaves along with tomato, onions, pickles and relish. I piled a bit of everything on my $4 fried fish sandwich. The drink cooler had cans of soda and glass bottles of Coke, which I didn't resist. This also seemed to be the place for a summer cone dose of chocolate-vanilla soft ice cream. "Baby" size was giant enough.
After the beach ride, we raced back to the hotel to change for an elegant dinner at the Stonehouse Inn (4755 West Lake Road; 814-838-9296), another one of my parents' finds.
It is surrounded by tall trees and looks nestled in the woods with an inviting lantern over the front door. Built in 1934 as a private home, with stone recycled from train trestles, the dining room has a view of the packed built-in bookcase by the bar and was once the front porch.
No paper menus here. A chalkboard lists first courses -- $8 to $13 -- and about 10 entrees -- $ 18 to $30.
Chef James Baldauf uses the "whim of my imagination" to make decisions about what to make and comes to the table to elaborate. We tried an unusual salad of goat cheese, raspberries and cashews, a rich beef Wellington, spicy Asian short ribs and chorizo crusted scallops. Dessert of warm berry bread pudding with vanilla sauce was light and rich and perfect.
Breakfast for the last day in the park was an unexpected find after leafing through the phone book. Downtown, near the Gannon University campus, the Sidewalk Cafe at faces a park (26 N. Park Row; 814-455-0002, www.sidewalkcafeerie.com ). The menu was so intriguing, I tried two things. A single, giant spiced sweet potato pancake-$2-was delicious, like pumpkin pie, and an eclectically good $4 half order of "Cajun" egg was served on top of hot, seasoned home fries mixed with cheddar, mushrooms and onions. When we stopped Sunday for one last swim, a congregation distracted me with its cheers for adult baptism water dunks.
Once I got in myself, I dallied, floating on my back.
I stared at the sky thinking how lovely it felt to pack in most all of my favorite summer ingredients into one weekend: Sandy beach novel reading, a melting ice cream twist, a soda in a glass bottle, lake swimming, biking until it got dark, a dress-up summer dinner and a happy longing for more as soon as I can get it.
>If you go:
From Buffalo, take the Thruway (Interstate 90) west to Erie. To get to the park, take exit 18, toward Sterrettania/Presque Isle. Keep right at the fork to go on PA-832 North. That becomes Peninsula Drive, which leads in to the park ( www.dcnr.state.pa.us ). Just outside the park at 301 Peninsula Drive, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center ( www.trecpi.org ) has free exhibits, a lookout tower, cafe and big-screen nature movies for $7.50. The center is open every day, 10 a. m. to 6 p. m.