This Is Erie: A Weekend Road Trip to the Gem City

By: Brandon Sousa

“THIS IS ERIE,” I shouted from the top of the Bicentennial Tower overlooking the city and the lake, my voice echoing across the water to the boaters below. No one bothered to look up, instead consumed with their blissful lifestyle; and honestly, I can’t blame them!

Erie, Pennsylvania is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Toronto sitting right on the shore of Lake Erie. The Gem City, the nickname for Erie, was given because of the sparkling waters of its coastline on Lake Erie. The short distance makes it the perfect location for a weekend (or long weekend) getaway.

With the summer weather bringing some of the best temperatures we’ve seen in a while, my friends at MINI Canada made sure I took the road trip in style with the 2019 MINI Cooper S Convertible. The MINI’s British heritage was the perfect fit for Erie, which has a rich history from the War of 1812 when the British Royal Navy took on the United States Navy in the Battle of Lake Erie. Storming the shores of Lake Erie in my MINI Cooper luckily did not bring up any hard feelings with local residents.

Road tripping in a MINI Cooper works well for the conscious packer, but with 160L of trunk space, there’s more room than you’ll need for a weekend getaway. The real fun is hiding under the hood with a 4 cylinder, 189hp Twin Scroll Turbo Technology, making this car responsive when you really need it. For me, it’s the little details that win me over, like the Union Jack design in the rear lights; an ode to the car’s British heritage.

I pulled into Presque Isle Bay in the Marina District early afternoon on a Friday, ready to check into the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel. The hotel boasts both waterfront and marina views and is perfectly situated a walk away from restaurants, nightlife and local attractions. My traveller’s tip is to enhance your stay by upgrading to the Sheraton Club. With extra amenities such as Club Lounge access, daily breakfast, evening hors d’oeuvres and a business centre, your stay is easily elevated to the VIP treatment. A simple but amazing amenity is the hotel’s adult-only swim time in the late evening. It really is the perfect way to unwind in the pool and hot tub, whether you’re staying in town for business or pleasure.

A walk away from the hotel is the Bicentennial Tower, standing a towering 187 feet tall, built in 1996 to commemorate the city’s bicentennial year. Depending on the time of year, be sure to check the hours of operation as this attraction is weather permitting. It’s $4 per adult, $2 per child aged 7-12 and free for children 6 and under; however, the first Sunday of every month is free, so mark your calendars if you’re travelling with a large group.

A few more steps away, approximately 600 steps (yes, I counted just for fun), is the Erie Maritime Museum, home of the USS Niagara, a recreated tall-ship that fought in the Battle of Lake Erie. The museum outlines the rich and deep maritime history of the region with some in-depth information on the War of 1812. Its main exhibit, the USS Niagara, sits outside visible from the building’s bay side window, provided it’s not off sailing.

With all this nauti-talk, it was time to get out on the water. That’s when I boarded Scallywags Pirate Adventures. The experience is separated into two options, the Pirate Experience for all ages and the Wobbly Pirate for the 21+ crowd looking to shout out on the water “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum!” I definitely recommend the Wobbly Pirate, particularly their 8:15 p.m. departure, to catch one of Erie’s famous sunsets. After the safety chat, the pirate-themed staff opened the bar and turned up the tunes with their onboard DJ, while the captain navigated the waters of Presque Isle Bay.

If, like me and pirates, you enjoy libations, Erie and the surrounding area has you covered. About 30 minutes before you drive into the city is Mazza Vineyards. Since 1973, the Mazza family has been producing great wines out of Lake Erie’s Wine Country. At the start of their operation, Bob and Frank Mazza were producing 25,000 gallons of the good stuff, growing production to over 300,000 gallons per year. For me, their award-winning Sparkling Riesling won over my heart and taste buds, but their premium selection of wines provides enough quality options for everyone to pick a favourite.

As the business grew, so did the family, with Bob’s son Mario taking more of a lead in the operations. I met with Mario and his wife Mel who took me on a tour, sharing stories about family holidays and the experience of navigating the family in a successful family business. Mario has helped expand the Mazza brand with adding Five & 20 Spirits and Brewing to their roster.

Five & 20 is just across the Pennsylvania state line in New York State, situated perfectly for the road tripper coming into or out of Erie. This small batch distillery, headed by distiller Joe Nelson, is focused on master blending and barreling for a more complete and complex final product. Blending across the grain bills, cooperages and barrel sizes, along with Nelson’s technique of barreling down different proofs per barrel size and adjusting his still cuts accordingly, allows the rest of the team blend in more complexity for a relative young spirit. Their award-winning Rye Whiskey is a fan favourite, but my taste preference landed right with their Bourbon; either way, you can’t go wrong. Their craft brewery rounds out Mazza’s portfolio of beverages with a quality line-up of suds from ales to wits to stouts.

Back in downtown Erie, the city is filled with several craft breweries, all with different vibes and flavours. Voodoo Brewery has an incredible atmosphere and industrial space with plenty of seating both inside and out; the perfect spot to bring a large group together for an afternoon of drinks. Lavery Brewing, about a 10-minute walk from Voodoo, brews small batches of innovative flavours that will hit the spot for beer aficionados. Their tap-room sets the tone of your favourite neighbourhood watering hole with a curated menu of pub food. My personal favourite is Erie Ale Works, an unassuming space in a commercial garage that lets the beer do the talking. In the hot heat, their Forbidden Fröot, a Berliner Weisse, is light and tart with a refreshing grapefruit taste. While on the other end of the spectrum but equally as tasty, Death Over Decaf is a coffee stout brewed with locally-roasted Ember+Forge coffee that will make you wonder if it’s socially acceptable to have a breakfast beer before 11 a.m.

The Brewerie at Union Station is that perfect combination of restaurant, brewery, wedding venue, bocce court and patio. It opened in 2016 in the city’s Union Station. The former train station was build in 1927, constructed by the New York Central Railroad in a traditional Art Deco style. The breathtaking Rotunda also doubles as a wedding venue when it’s not home to diners of the restaurant. I ordered the Pepper Jack Chicken Mac (& Cheese) along with the Atlantic Sampler, but with a menu as diverse as theirs, you’ll have to come back to taste it all. My favourite is their Trackside Beer Garden where you can enjoy a pint as the trains go barreling by. It’s a beautiful location that has a fantastic menu and great beers that pair well.

When it comes to dining, there’s one spot that is a must-visit in Erie. The Lawrence Park Dinor is an icon of the city. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Silk City Diner was manufactured in 1948 and has been in operation since. The ownership has changed over the years, but the iconic structure has remained a staple in the community. Their infamous “Greek Sauce” is a combination of spices and ground beef served as a topping for fries and hot dogs.

After a day (and night) of tasting all of Erie’s best wines, beers and spirits, the next morning called for a good cup of coffee. Thankfully, my stop at Erie Ale Works pointed me to Ember+Forge (the coffee in their Death Over Decaf). Located at the corner of E 4th St and State next door to the Erie Art Museum, this local coffee shop encourages customers to embrace the space as a place to connect with the community. The building’s history as a chandlery, a place where candles were made and sold, forms the ember in the shop’s name, while the city’s history in manufacturing forms the forge.

Still feeling a bit tired, I figured there’s no better place to relax than on a beach. Presque Isle State Park is home to 13 beaches on their 3,112-acres of land. I found myself a spot on Beach 11, which in the summer heat turned Erie, PA into Buenos Eries. A few dips into the refreshing Lake Erie cooled me off as I worked on my tan on the sandy beach. From the looks of it, Beach 11 was popular with families, couples, teens and boaters alike.

The weekend was coming to an end and it was time to check-out of my room at the Sheraton Erie Bayfront; a place that in such a short time started to feel like home. Driving back to Toronto, my friends at Five & 20 left me with a little tip for lunch before crossing north of the border.

Chef Michael Karle and Chef Dan Kern own Noosa, a contemporary and casual restaurant at North East Marina in Lake Erie Wine Country. Their menu is simple, seasonal and handmade with some delicious options. Chef Dan recommend I sample the Crispy Fried Tater Tots served with braised short rib, chimichurri, pickled red onion and fresh cheese, paired with the Noose Burger, an all-natural short rib burger topped with white American cheese, fresh dill pickles, white onion and dijonaise. There was something familiar about this burger that I couldn’t put my finger on, until Chef Dan mentioned that it’s loosely inspired by the Big Mac. I highly recommend a stop at Noose to round off your road trip to Erie.

There is so much to do, eat, drink and explore in Erie that you’ll likely need to plan multiple weekend trips or a full week just to see it all. Before you pack up your car and drive south, check out VisitErie.com to plan out the perfect itinerary so that you can make the most out of your vacation.