It’s that time of year. Loaded-up minivans head south for the wide-open beaches of the Carolinas and the fun of Florida. That makes sense in March, but at this time of year, one really ought to reconsider. Think Presque Isle and its miles of pristine beaches, Ontario and a sand scene so lively it draws folks from all over, cottages and flags fluttering in the wind, biking and hiking and camping. Think beach glass and birding. These are the things of a breezy Lake Erie summer. Why leave? After all …
We've Got Sand
Port Stanley Main Beach in Ontario
Photo by Laura Watilo Blake
Port Stanley this time of year feels like a movie — one of those fun summer flicks that strives for nothing more than a good time.
By day, the port town is packed with sun worshippers playing volleyball or lying on the sand. By night, live music wafts from the back deck of GT’s Beach Bar & Grill, which sits atop the sand. The beach’s energy makes it one of the finest spots on the coastline — as many Canadians and Americans have discovered.
“We spend most of our summer weekends here,” says Tony Bujanic of Fingal, Ontario, who’s watching his kids, 9-year-old Ruby and 7-year-old Isaac, in the water. “The beach draws people from all over.”
For more than a century, the fishing village of Port Stanley has been a magnet for vacationers. By the 1930s, Main Beach was the place to go. At the time, there were two dance halls: the Stanley Beach Casino and the Pavilion, which later became the Stork Club, where Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington and other big bands would play. The beach also boasted amusement rides, bathhouses and refreshment stands, including one operated by George Mackie, who served a mean orangeade that some say made Port Stanley famous.
The dance halls and amusement rides are long gone, but Mackie’s still serves its orange drink to thirsty vacationers at the east end of the beach. Drinking the concoction is a required rite of passage for first-time visitors.
I head over to the beckoning bright orange and blue building for lunch. In addition to the fizzy beverage, Mackie’s serves standard beach fare. I decide on a burger and a side of french fries to dip in Mackie’s own special condiment — a cross between ketchup and sweet-and-sour sauce. The picnic tables outside, painted in the restaurant’s signature orange hue, are a great spot for people-watching.
After lunch, it’s beach time. I wander up and down the shoreline. Kids building sand castles, seagulls dancing in the wind and sailboats coming in and out of the harbor catch my eye. So does the blue flag flying over the grass-covered sand dunes.
As it turns out, Port Stanley’s Main Beach became the first beach on Lake Erie to earn Blue Flag certification last year. The designation, presented by the international Foundation for Environmental Education, indicates that a beach has met stringent standards for water quality and safety.
It took several years for Main Beach to achieve Blue Flag status. Officials have made the beach wheelchair accessible, modernized restrooms and added more lifeguards. Ultimately, though, a Blue Flag means peace of mind for the parents of the children splashing in the water a few yards away.
I turn my attention to the beach volleyball courts behind GT’s Beach Bar and Grill, where a tournament is taking place. Spike’s (www.spikes.on.ca), a beach volleyball venue based in London, Ontario, has three summer coed tournaments at GT’s. I find a spot in the bar’s 400-seat beachfront patio and wish I could jump in and play.
Instead, I’ll be fine having dinner and dancing the night away under a canopy of stars to a live band providing the soundtrack for the ultimate summer beach day. Port Stanley Main Beach, 330 Edith Cavell Blvd., Port Stanley, Ontario; 519-631-4860, portstanley.ca
— Laura Watilo Blake
For more than beach fare, head to the Windjammer Inn, where chef Kim Saunders uses local produce to prepare such delights as Huevos Stanley (poached eggs on cornbread with a hollandaise made smoky by chipotle peppers) for breakfast, harvest- vegetable tart for lunch and bison tenderloin carpaccio for dinner. 324 Smith St., Port Stanley, Ontario; 519-782-4173, thewindjammerinn.com
You can’t get much closer to the water than by staying at the Port Stanley Beach Hotel, which has nine rooms just steps away from the sand. 128 William St., Port Stanley, Ontario; 519-266-4024, portstanleybeachhotel.com
On the last day of the summer season (Sept. 18 this year), GT’s Beach Bar & Grill throws a big party and discounts its food by 70 percent. Get there early, because when the food’s gone, it’s gone. 350 Edith Cavell Blvd., Port Stanley, Ontario; 519-782-4555, gtsportstanley.ca
Best River Beach
Beaver Island State Park in New York
You know what to expect when you go to the beach: waves rolling in then water receding back. That’s just the way it is.
Change that up, however, with water rippling along parallel to the shore, and suddenly everything feels a bit off — but in a good way.
This 950-acre state park at the southern tip of Grand Island mixes the Niagara River with an island full of trees, a half-mile-long sand beach, an 18-hole golf course and miles of biking and hiking trails.
Our first instinct is to plop down our beach towel and enjoy the view of sand-meets-river-meets-trees. Teenage boys play football on the beach, and a group of girls watches them. People on kayaks and boats enjoy a sunny Saturday morning on the river as they make their way from the dock. We even witness a baptism. Finally, my friend and I dip in ourselves, the calm rapids and warm water enticing us to stay awhile.
Later, we stop by the park’s nature center, where we learn that the Niagara River is on the migration path of tundra swans and great blue herons.
Our last stop is the River Lea House and Museum, which is home to the Grand Island Historical Society. It was built by William Cleveland Allen, cousin to President Grover Cleveland, who is said to have been a frequent visitor to the park. Outside the house, there’s a small dock that looks out to the lake. From it, we can see the shorelines of both Canada and Buffalo. It’s breathtaking — and the perfect end to the day. Beaver Island State Park, 2136 W. Oakfield Road, Grand Island, N.Y.; 716-773-3271, nysparks.state.ny.us/parks. There is a $7 vehicle entrance fee.
— Marissa Rosenbaum
The River Grill, two miles from the park, has live music every night and outdoor dining in the summer. Begin with the calamari steak, and then dive into the Niagara chicken to switch things up. 70 Aqua Lane, Tonawanda, N.Y.; 716-873-2553, rivergrilltonawanda.com
The only island hotel is the Holiday Inn Grand Island, which is about 15 minutes from both Niagara Falls and Buffalo. 100 Whitehaven Road, Grand Island, N.Y.; 716-773-1111, holidayinn.com
Visit in April or October to see migrating birds, including tundra swans, ducks and many species of songbirds. There is no park entrance fee from October through the beginning of May.
Best Beach Glass
Mentor Headlands State Park in Ohio
I found it. Right there. That smooth white pebble with a hint of shimmer. Yep, that has to be beach glass. I squeal, grab it and rush to show my find to my companion Lorie Dalrymple, beach glass artist and co-owner of Beaches Jewelry Studio & Gallery in Ashtabula, Ohio.
“That’s a rock,” she says. Again. That’s pretty much all I’ve heard for the past 15 minutes.
It’s my first outing to search for Lake Erie beach glass. We’re at Mentor Headlands State Park, where the beach offers a mile of potential finds. It’s a sunny, windy morning, too chilly for beach-goers but ideal for beach-glass hunters.
We’re one of a few groups today searching for these treasured chunks of lake-smoothed glass. Our compatriots are noticeable by their slow, shuffling steps and hunched posture, eyes trained to the shoreline.
I might not be off to a good start, but I’m heartened by the promise Dalrymple offered when we scheduled this expedition. “You won’t go away empty-handed,” she told me.
I heed the advice she offers: Stay focused on the pebbly edge of the shoreline, where the waves continually unearth new treasures. Walk in both directions to catch the sun glinting off glass from different angles. When possible, search the morning after a storm, which churns up new glass. Train your eye to recognize wet and dry glass.
“The wet ones are the easy picks, but up here,” says Dalrymple, gesturing to the dry band of rocks between sand and shore, “there’s a ton of glass that people miss.”
Not all beach glass is created equal. White is the most common color, clouded from its original clear state. There’s a hierarchy of color rarity, starting with the common browns and greens through blues and aquas to oranges and reds, the rarest. It takes 10 to 15 years in the water for the sharp edges of glass to smooth. By the time its surface clouds into a soft patina, the glass has likely been adrift for 20 to 30 years.
Beach glass is tougher to find than it once was. There’s the rise of plastic bottles and aluminum cans, plus the largely successful efforts to discourage littering. Yet as a hobby, searching for beach glass is as popular as ever, requiring little more than sharp eyesight and a plastic baggie.
These beach-glass hunters are a congenial group. On this day, one woman skitters over to show us the rare red fleck her husband scored. She drove more than an hour to get to Mentor Headlands, her favorite glass-hunting beach. Why? “It’s like a treasure hunt,” she says, cheeks flushed with excitement.
Sure enough, after staring at the shoreline as if it were an M.C. Escher painting, my eyes begin to see beach glass standing out from the pebble-laden tableau. I find a piece, a real one this time, and many after that — plenty of whites and browns, but also a few greens and even two periwinkle blues.
An hour later, I understand the woman’s giddiness. I’m starting to feel it, too. The treasure hunt is on, and I’m its newest fanatic. Mentor Headlands State Park, 9601 Headlands Road, Mentor, Ohio; 216-881-8141, ohiostateparks.org
— Jennifer Keirn
There’s no better way to end a day at the beach than with Lake Erie perch or walleye at the maritime-themed Brennan’s Fish House, located in a 160-year- old building on the Grand River. 102 River St., Grand River, Ohio; 440-354-9785, brennansfishhouse.com
Fitzgerald’s Irish Bed & Breakfast is located in a restored 16-room Tudor mansion just three miles from Headlands. 47 Mentor Ave., Painesville, Ohio; 440-639-0845, fitzgeraldsbnb.com
Indulge nearly any outdoor fancy — hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking — at Mentor Lagoons, Ohio’s newest nature preserve, located just south of Headlands Beach. 8365 Harbor Drive, Mentor, Ohio; 440-205-3625, cityofmentor.com
Presque Isle in Pennsylvania
It’s like a pub crawl. Only instead of staggering from bar to bar downing beers, we’ll be biking from beach to beach sipping lemonade. Our goal? To hit all 11 of Presque Isle’s beaches in one day.
Form a claw with your left hand and hook your arm around toward your right shoulder. That’s what the isle looks like. Only the “arm” is about two miles long extending out from Erie, Pa., and the hand represents 3,000 glorious, sandy acres of dappled sun and driftwood.
We wake up on a Monday and make the two-hour drive from Cleveland. Once we pull into the park, it’s about two miles to the Yellow Bike Co. It has tandems, trikes and surreys, but it’s just me and my two daughters, ages 4 and 6, so our only real option is a bike with a tag-a-long trailer ($27 for the first two hours and $5 for every hour after that).
By 11 a.m. we’re off, cruising along the southern edge of the isle on the 14.5-mile asphalt trail that loops around the park. For the first few miles, there are no beaches. Still, we can see the bay, the crickets are chirping, and the breeze is blowing. Soon enough, we hit our first beach: No. 11. Tucked in a natural harbor, it’s ideal for little ones. Children wade in the calm water while their parents relax on the shore. My girls make sand angels, splash in the water and resort to building a sand castle with flip-flops and a water bottle (there’s not a lot of cargo room when traveling on two wheels).
After an hour of sun, we brush off the sand as best we can and pedal on. From here, the beaches come fast. At No. 10, we sit on a picnic table overlooking the beach and drink our first lemonades of the day.
Our next stop, Sunset Point, has no concessions or restrooms and marks the beginning of a secluded beachfront that stretches a half mile or so. Here we see two teenagers strolling hand in hand for a day on what will amount to their own private beach. If you’re willing to sacrifice convenient restrooms, it’s easy to be alone here — at least during the week.
The next two beaches — Mill Road and No. 8 — are the windiest and have the biggest waves. Even a mouthful of sand doesn’t squelch the fun. A sip of lemonade and my 4-year-old is body surfing again.
We’re back on the bike. No. 7 is handicap accessible, thanks to the wooden boardwalk that extends to the water’s edge. We swing by two more beaches as we prepare for our last stop, No. 6, which we’ve heard is a favorite of local teens and 20-somethings, who gather for volleyball and socializing.
My 4-year-old, though, is asleep in the bike trailer, so we cruise past it and back to our car. We’re sandy and sun-drenched and have had more than our share of lemonade. Our beach crawl ends exactly six hours and 10 beaches after it began. Presque Isle State Park, 301 Peninsula Drive, Erie, Pa.; 814-833-7424, dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks
— Colleen Smitek
Sara’s, at the entrance to the park, is a local institution, and for good reason. The parking lot smells like onion rings, and inside, despite dozens of diners, food is ready in a snap. Begin with the steak sandwich, and finish off the meal with the restaurant’s trademark orange sherbet-vanilla twist. 25 Peninsula Drive, Erie, Pa.; 814-833-1957, sarasandsallys.com
There are no places to stay in the park. But the Sheraton Erie Bayfront is located across the bay from Presque Isle, which you’ll have a view of while you dine al fresco at the hotel restaurant. 55 W. Bay Drive, Erie, Pa.; 814-454-2005, sheraton.com/erie
Take cash. Beach concession stands are the only place to eat in the park, and they don’t accept credit cards. And you won’t be able to find a good map at the park. Either print one before you leave (dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks) or stop by the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, down the road from the park’s entrance. The center, with loads of exhibits and movies on the Big Green Screen, is worth a stop either way. 301 Peninsula Drive, Erie, Pa.; 814-833-7424, trecpi.org
East Harbor State Park in Ohio
Camping is different from any other type of vacation. It’s a working holiday. Once the tent is mastered and pitched, there’s firewood to gather, marshmallow sticks to sharpen, dinner to organize, trips to the camp store for forgotten necessities, trips to the community bathroom for inevitable necessities.
But sit awhile and the transcendence of the camping experience slowly emerges. Plopped into my fold-up tailgate chair, staring into our burgeoning fire at East Harbor State Park, I can see and hear the sounds of camp life all around me. Kids on scooters zoom past, oblivious to parental supervision. Campsites blossom with all manner of festive paraphernalia: Christmas lights, Ohio State University and Cleveland Browns flags, mini tents and baby tents and dog tents, picnic tents and privacy tents and palatial estates of tents. Campers crack open beers, mingle on walkways and play cards on picnic tables. The tempo is electric with self-propelled energy. Here are people making do without benefit of Internet, TV or microwave, and nobody seems to be missing a minute of fun.
The campground at East Harbor is Ohio’s largest state-owned park, with almost 600 sites. It wraps around a beach of the same name, situated on the eastern bank of the Marblehead Peninsula, on the southwest shore of Lake Erie. Although camping on the beach isn’t permitted, the water is close by, easily accessible by bike or a split-second car ride. Walking is a bit of a hike, but definitely doable.
We stroll from our campsite to Lake Erie on the asphalt bike path that slices through a set of lagoons (the remains of Ohio’s Great Black Swamp) before emerging at the wide expanse of Lake Erie shoreline. Kelleys Island is clearly visible across the water, and Put-in-Bay’s Perry’s Monument also makes its appearance.
East Harbor’s beach is a must during the summer — wide and sandy, with plenty of space to spread out. The shallow water reigns all the way out to the rocky breakers, so it’s perfect for the little ones. Down the shore in one direction, an inflatable water slide entertains a small group of boys the whole time we’re there. Vending machines are the only food options at the beach, but walk in the opposite direction, and you’ll discover picnic spots away from the crowds, miniature private islands of calm to while away an afternoon.
East Harbor is all about proximity — Lakeside, Catawba and Marblehead are close by, and Sandusky is just a short drive down the highway. But if you feel like staying close to home, the campground offers plenty of activities, from nighttime hikes on its extensive trail system to fishing excursions, crafts and movie nights. There’s even a disc golf course, and you can purchase discs at the camp store. East Harbor State Park, 1169 Buck Road, Lakeside-Marblehead, Ohio; 419-734-4424, eastharborstatepark.org
— Amber Matheson
You’re at the lake, so eat on the water. Crabby Joe’s Dockside offers standard bar fare and an easy, kid-friendly atmosphere. Two stories of patios overlook the lake. The Crow’s Nest, a little more upscale, lies just a few hundred feet away and features a more extensive menu, as well as a fire pit. Crabby Joe’s Dockside, 5927 E. Saylor St., Marblehead, Ohio; 419-734-0559. Crow’s Nest, 2170 N. Buck Road, Marblehead, Ohio; 419-734-1742
East Harbor State Park features two camper cabins for rental, so even the slickest of the city dwellers can give camping a try. April through October, sites start at $21 per night; the cabins run $55 per night.
Rudder’s Café is a little difficult to find (it’s not on the lake, but on nearby Catawba Road), but it’s worth the effort. This picturesque one-stop shop offers fresh sandwiches, great coffee and beloved cinnamon buns. 3260 NE Catawba Road, Marblehead, Ohio; 419-797-3260, rudderscafe.com
More on the Shore
The gated resort community of Lakeside, Ohio, hosts the National Shuffleboard Tournament each year, but it’s usually kids and families you see playing on the 26 courts in the park overlooking the lake. 866-952-5374, lakesideohio.com
Get great cardio with a view better than any gym by running the 60 stairs that lead down to the beach at Huntington Reservation in Bay Village, Ohio. After about a half hour, you’ll have burned enough calories for another Best — an ice cream cone at the beach’s Honey Hut Ice Cream Shoppe. 216-351-6300, clemetparks.com
Long Point, Ontario, is a sand spit jutting out about 25 miles into Lake Erie that’s a favorite spot of both vacationers and migrating birds. More than 300 species pass through this spot on the Atlantic Flyway, including great blue herons and tundra swans. 519-586-2133, ontarioparks.com
Best Step Back In Time
Flags flutter off front porches, and all cottage-and-tree-lined roads lead to either the beach or the church in Linwood Park, a summer resort so steeped in simpler times that its newsletter refers to residents by first names only. Jim and Zak grilled at the last cookout, the quilt is coming along, and Sunday school was canceled — that’s all you need to know here. 440-967-4237, linwoodpark.org
The historic Lakeview Park Rose Garden in Lorain, Ohio, boasts 2,500 perfect blight- and bug-free blooms. Stay for lunch overlooking the beach at the Rose Café. 440-245-1193, metroparks.cc/lakeview-park.php
Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, is blessed with a natural white sand beach — and it’s kept meticulous. In the winter, the sand is moved into piles to prevent erosion. In the summer, tractors are used to rake the beach and keep the sand smooth. The only downside? You have to be a park or marina guest to use the beach. 419-627-2350, cedarpoint.com
Sand Hill Park in Port Burwell, Ontario, has some of the most spectacular vertical beaches on Lake Erie, with the tallest dune rising 350 feet above Lake Erie. $6 admission, children under 12 are free. 519-586-3891, sandhillpark.com