Sandusky in the Off-Season

Sandusky in the off-season means merry-go-rounds, scones and more.

Two of the rare carousel animals at the “Wild” exhibit at Sandusky’s Merry-Go-Round Museum.

Sandusky’s summertime fun is hard to beat, but if you head that way before the season heats up, you can see the city’s quieter side — and take a ride on a merry-go-round that puts Cedar Point’s to shame.

My 3-year-old traveling companion and I pay a visit on a sunny afternoon and make our first stop at the Merry-Go-Round Museum, in a glorious old building downtown with a rounded facade that looks like it was made for the whimsy inside. Instead, it served as Sandusky’s main post office from 1927 till 1986, then sat abandoned.

In 1988, Cedar Point was chosen as the site to celebrate the release of the post office’s new carousel stamps. Anticipating throngs of visitors zipping by the rest of the city to get to the amusement park, Sandusky’s development officials began brainstorming ways to move those crowds downtown. They found an assortment of old carousel animals from private collections, brought them to the empty building and threw a party. They expected around 500 people. More than 2,000 showed up.

Two years later, the Merry-Go-Round Museum opened. It celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and, on March 6, will open its most important exhibit to date. “Wild” is a collection of several dozen rare carousel animals from around the country, many from private collections. Specimens include an armored horse, deer, camel, frog, ostrich, alligator, praying mantis, pig and sea monsters (which are part of the permanent collection).

A studio in the middle of the museum allows visitors to see artists at work. A typical carousel piece takes 300 to 400 hours to carve, says museum executive director Veronica Vandenbout, and would sell for up to $12,000.

Info to Go

The Merry-Go-Round Museum
301 Jackson St.

Joe Sundae’s
1119 W. Washington St.

City Bake Shop/Wendy Kromer Confections
137 E. Water St.

Maritime Museum
of Sandusky
125 Meigs St.

At the museum, my daughter and I board a ride and the music starts. She chooses a jeweled horse. The ride begins and picks up speed so quickly I have to brace myself. “This is how it was supposed to be,” laughs Vandenbout. The ride spins at a pace of 7 mph, compared to the 1 to 2 mph you’ll find at most amusement parks.

“Traditionally, this was a thrill ride,” Vandenbout explains when it ends. But over the years, merry-go-rounds were tamed and gained a reputation as the attraction for people too scared to board the real rides. Not here — Sandusky’s Merry-Go-Round Museum is one of the few places you can experience the carousel as it was meant to be.

It’s lunchtime now. We’re looking for something low-key and decide to try Joe Sundae’s, just down the street. The diner is packed with tourists in the summer, but at this time of the year it’s the domain of locals, a dark but cozy space with a fireplace in the back room. The long bar serves up Toft’s Ice Cream (made in Sandusky and sold throughout the region), food and coffee. A pulled-pork sandwich sets us back only $2.25.

Our next stop is City Bake Shop and Wendy Kromer Confections. Both are the work of Wendy Kromer, the co-author of Martha Stewart’s Wedding Cakes. Kromer, a Sandusky native, moved to New York, worked as a model, then got into the bakery business and hooked up with Stewart. Six years ago, she moved back home and opened her wedding cake shop. Last year she opened City Bake Shop.

Today, she takes a break from her baking to serve us. While she runs in the back to grab some coffee cake that just came out of the oven, we look around the cheery space. A giant photo of a white fondant cake with dogwood flowers catches my daughter’s eye. “Can I have that for my birthday cake?” she asks. “No, but I’ll get it for your wedding,” I tell her.

Kromer returns with the coffee cake, the smell of which permeates the store, two scones and rosemary lemon shortbread. Her wish for downtown, she tells us, is more artisanal businesses, as well as mom-and-pop stores. Still, she says she’s happy to be able to go home at night, sit on her screened-in porch and relax. “You can’t do that in New York,” she says.

The ice-cream counter at Joe Sundae’s

Back in the car, we sneak bites of the coffee cake. “Actually,” a tiny voice says from the back seat, “I want coffee cake for my wedding instead.”

If it were a weekend, we’d head over to the Maritime Museum of Sandusky to learn about boat building, ice harvesting, shipwrecks and more. My daughter would certainly enjoy building her own model boat. Until May, however, the museum is only open on weekends.

That’s OK. It’s just another reason to come back, stock up on scones and take another spin on the fastest merry-go-round in town.