Thrill Coast

Marblehead Lighthouse draws visitors from all over

Rising up out of the Lake Erie coastline, the Marblehead Lighthouse beckons tourists and boaters alike.

Operating since 1822, it is the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes. From its perch on the tip of the rocky shores of the Marblehead Peninsula, it has been faithfully guiding boaters along dangerous, shallow waters and offering safe passage into Sandusky Bay for nearly two centuries.

It is ironic, perhaps, that Marblehead Lighthouse has become a siren luring more than a million tourists every year to this slice of land on Ohio’s northwest shore. This 19th century lighthouse is the most photographed site in Ohio.

“It is a real lighthouse you can touch and climb,” says Diane Rozak, a naturalist at the lighthouse. “You cannot do that at too many lighthouses. It’s beautiful, it’s romantic and it’s stunning. It’s a great place to reflect, walk, do what you want.”

East Harbor naturalists and volunteers run tours at the park, open from May 28 to August 30. From June to August, park tours are noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 4-6 p.m. Sundays. The lighthouse itself is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. the second Saturday of each month, from June though October.

The Marblehead Lighthouse Festival is all day October 12.

On a clear day, visitors can see to Avon Point — about 30 miles across the lake — as well as the islands of Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island.

Afterward, tourists can picnic as they enjoy stunning views of Lake Erie’s white-capped waters. A nearby formation of rocks jutting into the lake offers a particularly suitable spot to bask in the lake breeze, a welcome respite from the heat of a summer day.

The U.S. Coast Guard operates the lighthouse and maintains the beacon, but the Ohio Department of Natural Resources actually owns and maintains the Marblehead Lighthouse tower.
And while the lighthouse is now automated, a keeper’s house stands ever vigilant next door.

In a nod to history, visitors should venture to the original Keeper’s House at 9999 E. Bayshore Road. It’s just a few miles away and well worth the drive. Built in 1822 as the personal home of the first appointed lighthouse keeper, Benajah Wolcott, and his wife, the Keeper’s House maintains all the glory of its storied history.

The first three keepers of the Marblehead Lighthouse lived at the home until 1841. They kept constant watch over the ever-changing waters of Lake Erie, where thick fog can quickly shroud the cluster of small islands near the bay.

Today, the original Keeper’s House is operated as a historic museum. For hours call 419-798-9339 or 419-798-5832. — M.T.

Wine Trail

Firelands Winery
917 Bardshar Rd., Sandusky
800-548-WINE
www.firelandswinery.com

Heineman’s Winery
978 Catawba St., Put-in-Bay
419-285-2811
www.heinemanswinery.com

Hermes Vineyards & Winery
6413 Hayes Ave., Sandusky
419-626-8500
www.hermesvineyards.com

D&D Smith Winery
401 W. Main St., Norwalk
419-577-0242
www.ddsmithwinery.com

Mon Ami Restaurant & Historic Winery
3845 E. Wine Cellar Rd., Port Clinton
419-960-4065
www.monamiwinery.com

Paper Moon Vineyards
2008 State Rd., Vermilion
440-967-2500
www.papermoonvineyards.com

Quarry Hill Winery & Orchard
8403 Mason Rd., Berlin Heights
419-588-3179
www.quarryhillwinery.org

Resources

Thrill Coast

by Melissa Topey
Sandusky, Ohio and its surrounding island communities offer inescapable joys and excitement for visitors around every twist and turn.

Nestled into Sandusky Bay, on Lake Erie’s southern coast, lies the gem of the Great Lakes: Sandusky, Ohio. 

The city and its host county, Erie, home to 77,000, have long been destinations for tourists and thrill-seekers of every sort, in every season.   

With a whole host of entertainment and recreational offerings — the world’s best amusement park, a plethora of indoor water parks, tourist islands, and an abundance of wineries — the Sandusky region is a lure not just for Buckeye State natives, but tourists from surrounding states and beyond.  

It’s become an international tourist destination.

The city itself is home to Cedar Fair and its flagship park, Cedar Point, continuously rated the best amusement park in the world. The company’s CEO has been known to help riders board Cedar Point roller coasters on occasion, an act illustrative of the genuine charm and good nature of this city’s residents and leaders.  

And while this is best known as the “Thrill Coast,” the area holds so much more, surprises that delight visitors of all ages and walks of life.  

On summer nights, the lake’s cool breeze carries inland the shouts and laughter from a peppering of nearby islands, where boaters and families revel in dining and delights.       

The islands and coastal cities are steeped in history, too, with museums and sights commemorating ties to the Underground Railroad, Civil War, War of 1812 and other pivotal events in American history.    

Sheltered coves and hidden beaches along island and coastal shores prove ideal for anchoring in calm waters, if only to enjoy afternoons of sunbathing and perch fishing, or unfettered explorations into ecosystems teeming with water fowl and wildlife. For restless visitors looking to test their mettle, the glass-like waters of Sandusky Bay make for the perfect opportunity to enjoy personal watercraft at thrill-seeking speed.

Long-term vacationers and adrenaline junkies alike can find ample opportunities to satiate their palates in this region, which each year is visited by seven million people. 

Top-rated amusement 

Like all good things, Cedar Point started with a beach. 

There’s truly something special in Cedar Point, where memories are just waiting to be made. To this day it’s a perfect destination for anyone, especially boaters whose first views of the park from the water are stunning.

In 1870, Louis Zistel took up a Sandusky newspaper’s challenge to develop the waterfront. He envisioned the creation of a getaway where folks from Midwest cities like Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh could escape the oppressive rush of daily living, restoring themselves with the fresh air and fresh waters of Sandusky Bay. The area’s first public beach began with a bathhouse, a beer garden and a dance floor.

If the people of generations past were to visit today, they’d certainly recognize the beach, preserved in all its grandeur. 

The area has exploded with growth over the years, however, with upscale lakefront residences on the Chaussee and ample housing and rentals throughout.       

To this day, boaters from Chicago, Wisconsin and Michigan can follow in the wake of the ferries from 100 years ago, gliding right up to Cedar Point’s beach at Castaway Bay Marina or Cedar Point Marina, one of the largest on the Great Lakes. 

And, of course, all routes lead to the motherlode: Cedar Point. 

“Tell me another port of call with as much to do right off the dock,” says Bryan Edwards, Cedar Point’s spokesperson. “Within 20 yards, you are in one of the biggest parks.” 

There are about 900 slips at Cedar Point’s marinas, with 130 available for overnight rental.

History-minded visitors can venture onto the same mile-long stretch of beach where, 100 years ago, legendary football figure Knute Rockne perfected the forward pass. Rockne was a lifeguard at the beach in 1913.

This summer, guests drawn inside Cedar Point’s gates will first be greeted by the newest ride: The record-breaking winged coaster, GateKeeper. GateKeeper is designed to suspend riders in such a way that they can’t see the track in front of or beneath them, creating a sensation of flight. The $30 million coaster will break five world records, including fastest non-launched wing roller coaster, longest drop and most inversions.

Other mainstays promise to loom as large as ever, including the 420-foot Top Thrill Dragster and the Millennium Force, guaranteed to elicit screams from riders experiencing a 300-foot drop at 93 miles per hour.   

With 16 thrill rides, Cedar Point is a coaster lover’s dream. 

Many of the park’s attractions are also designed with children and parents in mind, such as the Dinosaur’s Alive exhibit, where nearly 50 life-like dinosaurs roar at guests who dare to walk the paths on Adventure Island. 

On the midway, rumbling bellies can find appeasement in favorite foods based on local recipes: The legendary thick cut twice-cooked french fries and the many-flavored treats of Toft’s Ice Cream, headquartered just down the road. There’s sit-down dining, too, at Famous Dave’s Legendary Bar B Que restaurant, and fine-dining at Bay Harbor. 

“Cedar Point is the perfect destination spot for families. You can be young and on the midway or 92 and sitting remembering memories of your time on the beach. There is something for all ages,” Edwards said.

For those who venture beyond the amusement park, another world awaits.

Wet and wild 

Sandusky and Erie County are home to water-soaked, slip-sliding adventures all year round.

The African-themed Kalahari Resort, just minutes south of Cedar Point, transports visitors to an other-world savanna where the corkscrewed water rides are second to none. Kalahari is the largest indoor water park in the United States and is open 12 months a year. The resort boasts 173,000 square feet of indoor recreation and 77,000 square feet outdoors. 

Cedar Point is also in on the indoor water park game, as it led the way with Castaway Bay, just north of Cedar Point proper.   

Castaway’s adventures are parent-approved and kid-loved, with a setting based on a tropical-island paradise. The centerpiece is a natural display of palm trees and huts surrounding a watery play-land.

Tucked about halfway between Kalahari and Cedar Point is Great Wolf Lodge, always chockfull of youngsters and their parents and grandparents. If you’re a kid, it doesn’t get much better than indoor water rides, an outdoor pool and the new Scooops Kid Spa.

A stone’s throw from this is cozy Maui Sands Resort, which recently re-opened its water park. The lush hotel was also re-opened this past year, and its Hawaiian-themed water park promises to envelope you in the Aloha Spirit, where friendship is the norm.  

History on the water

Venturers who head west of Cedar Point and north of the commercial district and restaurants and resorts on U.S. 250 will find themselves in Sandusky’s historic downtown.  

The downtown waterfront, established in 1818 as the central business district, is today experiencing nothing less than a culinary and cultural Renaissance.  

Live performances at the historic Sandusky State Theatre are best complemented by fine dining at any one of several downtown restaurants: J Bistro; Zinc Brasserie; Pier 684; Crush Winebar; Water Street Bar & Grille. Eateries abound, too, including local favorites like Hot Dog Tony’s, Mr. Smith’s Coffee House and The Lunch Box. 

Afterward, a quiet walk along the waterfront and surrounding areas afford views of beautiful, historic homes, many on the National Registry of Historic Places. The entire waterfront can serve as a history lesson for the eagle-eyed visitor, as homes and churches speak to guests by way of placards and signs announcing a location’s role in the Underground Railroad. Sandusky history is rich with stories of sympathetic locals who guided runaway slaves to the piers and onto boats headed to Canada. 

The Sandusky Maritime Museum, also downtown, showcases exhibits on histories of the Great Lakes and the boats that once sailed here, including tall ships and vessels that played a role in the Underground Railroad.

History lessons aren’t the only family-friendly events. The Merry-Go-Round Museum, just a short walk from the waterfront, houses a gorgeous, working carousel that guests can ride. The museum also has displays and programs on the art of making carousel horses. 

And don’t forget to purchase a must-have Sandusky souvenir: A figurine of “The Boy and The Boot,” modeled after the fountain near the Merry-Go-Round Museum.     

Easy living

The islands of Lake Erie — Put-in-Bay, Kelleys Island and Middle Bass — are among the most unique on the Great Lakes. From the mainland, they can be accessed by airplane, boat or ferry, such as the Jet Express or Miller Ferry.

Anglers have long known these waters and bays make for a rewarding year-round sport, as long as winter ice is thick enough. Any one of several area charter boat captains are eager to share knowledge on the best places to catch walleye, perch, bass and trout, but even those going it alone are sure to find success. 

Off the water, islands visitors are presented with a smorgasbord of entertainment and dining. Families can walk, bike or kayak the 17 miles of pristine Kelleys Island coastline, and there’s also 600 acres of state park lands to explore. The deep glacial grooves and wide varieties of ancient fossils make for a blissful day of geological wonders.

Step back into the Victorian Era on Put-In-Bay, where a rented golf cart, scooter or bicycle prove useful in visiting wineries, shops and bars. 

History buffs won’t want to miss Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, especially this year, as Put-In-Bay hosts a year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Lake Erie. 

More than a dozen tall ships, such as the U.S. Brig Niagara, will again be sailing across the water as they reenact Commodore Oliver Perry’s victory over the British fleet. Tours, sails and musical events make this Labor Day weekend a great time to visit.

Gibraltar Island is one of Lake Erie’s little-known treasures. It’s home to Stone Laboratory, where for 30 years families have worked alongside scientists. The lab’s Aquatic Science Field Trip program gives school children the chance to join scientists on boating expeditions, becoming eager explorers as they peer through microscopes and dissect fish. The lab also offers tours of the glacial grooves, as well as Cooke Castle and Perry’s Lookout.

Sophisticated tastes  

A visit to Sandusky and the islands is only complete with a trip down the wine trail. Thanks to the unique climate and the waters of Lake Erie, the area is famous for its award-winning wines. With dozens of wineries, this region is known with great pride as the Lake Erie Grape Belt.

“Most of the gold medals won in Ohio go to wineries along Lake Erie,” says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

Of the dozens of area wineries, one has made a business of raking in the awards: The iconic Firelands Winery, owned since 2002 by Claudio Salvador. Vintners have been making wine at this site since 1880.

Another must-visit is the 125-year-old Heineman’s Winery, where six generations of workers have been plying their trade to create delicious blends. A tour of the winery and the Crystal Cave below is best before settling into the beautiful wine garden with a cheese plate and a bottle of one of the special offerings.

The waters around the islands provide a great advantage for the vineyards here; it creates a longer growing season for the grapes and it insulates the grapevines from disease, Winchell says. 

The cool climate lets growers tend a greater variety of grapes, from the incredible Pink Catawba to sophisticated Cabernet, Pinot Grigio and Gewurztraminer. The dessert wines are on par with offerings a discerning tongue will find in any region.  

“That’s an exciting thing for a boater,” Winchell says. “They can come into the area and whatever their pallet, we have something to satisfy them.”

By the thousands, beer lovers flock to the bars on the islands, including Put-In-Bay’s Beer Barrel Saloon and The Boathouse, where some cold drinks and raucous fun are overwhelmed only by the lively bands enticing even wallflowers out onto the dance floor.

A new era

Record-setting roller coasters. Adult night life. Family-friendly fun. Unique histories. Five Star-dining. 

In 1842, Charles Dickens described Sandusky in “American Notes” as “sluggish and uninteresting enough — something like the back of an English watering place, out of the season.”

My, how things have changed, Mr. Dickens. 

Come walk in his footsteps and see for yourself.