Of all the places that hug Ohio’s share of the Lake Erie shoreline, Vermilion rises to the top thanks to its small-town atmosphere and distinctive style reminiscent of a New England port town, just without the salty air.
The nautical history of Vermilion remains a strong presence here, even if shipbuilding and commercial fishing have diminished over the last century. Instead, you’ll find recreational boaters and fishing charters plying the lake and Vermilion River. On land, the home-grown boutique shopping and world-class dining lure day trippers and beach vacationers from nearby Cleveland and beyond.
“Other towns may have a bigger beach and a bigger harbor, but we have an actual downtown, lots of parks and beaches and a great sense of community,” Phil Laurien tells us when my family and I are checking into our suite at the Captain Bell House Bed and Breakfast for a much-needed escape following months of pandemic seclusion. We’re literally and figuratively dipping our toes in the water during this trip to Vermilion, 40 minutes west of our home in Cleveland.
Unlike other bed-and-breakfasts, there’s no communal breakfast each morning. Instead, Laurien gives his guests gift certificates to eat at Granny Joe’s, a breakfast and lunch joint and ice cream parlor only a couple of blocks away. While the restaurant does a mean omelet and specialty pancakes loaded with a choice of cinnamon chips, pecans, blueberries or M&Ms, we end up spending the certificates on ice cream not long after arrival. The front porch of the yellow house-turned-eatery makes a great vantage point for observing small-town life in action.
While my daughter, Kinley, savors a scoop of Unicorn Dreams, a pink-hued ice cream laden with white cake and rainbow sprinkles, we watch as the hanging baskets along Liberty Avenue get a refreshing bath from a watering truck. Vermilion’s downtown and waterfront are embellished with more than 3,000 colorful flowers every season — a source of pride for the many resident volunteers who help with the beautification program overseen by the community nonprofit Main Street Vermilion. The organization also is responsible for a variety of events around town, plus a new public art program that debuted this summer featuring 15 mural-sized paintings of vintage postcards depicting nostalgic scenes from past vacations in Vermilion. A map of the locations can be found at mainstreetvermilion.org.
When the last of the ice cream is blotted from our lips, we aim for the “Greetings from Vermilion” sign — the first mural to go on display — on the side of Tiffany’s Flowers facing the railroad tracks to the south. On the way there, we’re sidetracked by tempting window displays in the locally owned downtown shops, such as Crystal’s Treasure Box, The Olive Scene, Erie and Anchor (see sidebar) and Swan Creek Candle Co.
It’s Brummer’s animatronic characters dressed in rain gear that capture Kinley’s attention, and the smell of freshly poured chocolate entices us through the door. We head to the back of the store to watch the staff make homemade peanut butter cups on the other side of an observation window. It doesn’t matter that we’ve just had ice cream; we eventually emerge from the store loaded up with our next sugar fix.
There aren’t enough meals in the day for all the great dining options in Vermilion. Restaurants range from casual eats at the old-timey Main Street Soda Fountain to fine dining worthy of a special occasion. In particular, Chez Francois — with a reputation that extends far beyond Ohio’s borders — serves butter-laden French cuisine in an elegant setting. Jackets for men are required in the main dining room, but more casual seating is available in the restaurant’s bar or outside on the riverfront patio, where you can watch boats drift by. Some of the largest power boats you’ve ever seen are parked in the restaurant’s three private slips.
Since we’re on a family trip, we skip Chez on this visit. Instead, we spend the evening at the Coal & Ice Station, the newest eatery in town, which serves gourmet hot dogs and ice cream treats from a walk-up window in a tiny historic building relocated to a once-empty corner lot on Liberty Avenue. Now, the outdoor space is filled with bright-red picnic tables, spaced 6 feet apart. Lawn games and a gemstone mining sluice provide entertainment for kids.
Local entrepreneur and artist Dan Roth has a knack for preserving history by repurposing it. A boat float that makes an annual appearance at the Festival of the Fish became additional seating toward which the kids scramble. Meanwhile, standing watch from a crow’s nest overhead is Captain Eddie, a locally recognizable cartoon figure salvaged from the well-known dock-and-dine restaurant McGarvey’s, which enjoyed a legendary run from 1939 to 1989. Quaker Steak & Lube now occupies that spot on the east bank of the Vermilion River.
Before we head home the next day, we glide past McGarvey’s Landing while exploring the mouth of the river by kayak. We put in our vessel at the West River Road municipal boat ramp’s dedicated kayak launch dock for a $3 fee. Meanwhile, friends who join us for a paddle rent theirs from West River Kayak. The hardest part is deciding which direction to go first — head toward the lake or explore upstream.
Ultimately, we started in the direction of towering shale cliffs to the south. Along the way, we stop to watch a mother duck cross in front of us with her little ones all in a row, pause to admire herons swooping down to the riverbank, carefully maneuver past kids swimming in the river and witness a mom snapping a photo of her son’s first fish catch.
Glimpsing life on the river and its banks gives me a new perspective of Vermilion that I had missed on my many previous visits. Perhaps it’s the reality of the post-COVID world talking, but I dare say I have a greater appreciation for the small things in life.
I wouldn’t mind owning a bigger boat, though.
Best New Shop — Erie & Anchor
The airy space stocks all kinds of apparel, home decor, souvenirs and gifts, many by regional makers and designers. Among others, she stocks apparel from Coastal Cleveland, driftwood sailboats from Shabby Shore, coasters and key chains from William and James Leather Co. and natural soaps from Kelleys Island Soap Co. erieandanchor.com
Best Secret Beach — The Beach with No Name
That’s right, this small pebble beach is so secret that it has no name. But it’s within walking distance of downtown, and you’ll find it by the new set of wooden stairs at the west end of Huron Road.
Best Way to Get on the Lake — Erie Shores Wave Runners
No boat? No problem. Unground yourself with a ride on a personal watercraft rental from Erie Shores Wave Runners. You’re free to range up to 5 miles on Lake Erie for $140/hour. erieshorewaverunners.com
Best Scenic Tour — Mystic Belle
Get a primer on Vermilion history with an hour-long narrated tour of the Vermilion River on the Mystic Belle — a small paddlewheeler that can accommodate up to 23 passengers. donparsonsmarina.com
Best Live Music Venue — Old Prague Restaurant & Bar
Old Prague’s patio is the place for live music all summer long. It’s best served with a side of Czech specialties, such as the schnitzel or paprikash.
Best Beachfront Cottage Stay — Cottages at the Water’s Edge
The Cottages at the Water’s Edge have been a popular getaway ever since the first cottage was built in the 1930s to accommodate travelers arriving at Stop #141 of the Lake Shore Electric Railway. The vintage units hug the shoreline on a hill above 400 feet of private beach. The Beach House, the newest addition, even has a private gazebo overlooking the water. watersedgeonline.com
Best Pizza — Jim’s Pizza Box
Jim’s Pizza Box got its start in Milan in 1978, before expanding to Huron in 1998 and Vermilion in 2019. The extensive menu includes wings, subs and salads, but the Italian-American specialties are the heart and soul of the operation. The pizzas come in a variety of unique combinations all served on a flaky crisp crust with a soft doughy interior. jimspizzaboxvermilion.com