A Nostalgia-Fueled Road Trip Down Lake Erie's Ohio Coast
The memory unfolds with warm and vivid clarity. My mom closes the picnic basket lid, careful not to crush the hot dog buns. My dad stows our luggage in the station wagon. I repack my beach bag, making sure my swimsuit and flip-flops match because even at age 10, it's fashion first. And off we head to Lake Erie for a weekend vacation. Our agenda seldom varies: a beachside lunch followed by a brisk dip in the lake; visits to lighthouses where my dad insists we learn each beacon's history … again; shopping at Cheesehaven for peanut butter fudge and exotic (to us) cheeses; and an exhilarating day at Cedar Point, racing from giant slide to fun house, hoping I'll be tall enough to ride the roller coasters next year.
Though we didn't really stray far from our home in northwest Ohio's farm country, those simple trips felt like adventures to a distant land. I wonder, does today's Lake Erie still hold the allure of my gauzy memories? To find out, I load my car with an overpacked suitcase (because it's still fashion first) and set out to chase the vacation of my youth.
Lake Erie's Ohio coast spans 312 miles, but it's a 50-or-so-mile stretch, roughly midway between Toledo and Cleveland, that has drawn families like mine for generations. The scenery toggles among quaint towns—Port Clinton, Sandusky, Huron, Vermilion—sandy beach, lighthouses, rocky breakwaters, farmland and marshy forests teeming with wildlife.
For me, it also flips between nostalgic haunts and fresh discoveries. Climate change has, sadly, eroded some of the shore, but I see many familiar slips of beach. (And in Huron, I stumble upon one I don't know: Nickel Plate Beach, a tucked-away delight.) Big Ed's Main Street Soda Grill still scoops ice cream in Vermilion's town square, a counterpoint to the refined French fare I find at Chez François just steps away. Lovers of lake perch and walleye continue to flock to Port Clinton's Jolly Roger's Seafood House, while Twin Oast Brewing on serene Catawba Island lures craft beer fans. Cedar Point in Sandusky remains roller coaster central (albeit with wilder rides these days), and its historic Hotel Breakers looks sharp following a recent revamp.
In Port Clinton, I find Cheesehaven in the same area it's been in since 1949, now catering to third and fourth generations of shoppers. "We have a lot of customers that we see every year," says owner Tom Geisheimer. "Fishermen, campers, boaters, people who have cottages up here. There's a real history." He's right. Even with all the new finds—and even if you let a couple of decades lapse between visits.
Eastern Towns: Vermilion and Huron
Closer to Cleveland, this side of the region has a quiet beach for paddling, hidden culinary delights and a quirky jailhouse inn.
What to Do
Stop by the Main Street Vermilion office to pick up a guide to The Postcard Project—15 outdoor vintage postcard murals perfect for selfies. Shop for nautical-themed totes and tees at Erie and Anchor and local art at Burning River Boutique. View Vermilion's New England-esque charms from the water with a narrated cruise aboard the Mystic Belle. At Main Street Beach, visit Vermilion Lighthouse, a replica of the 1877 original, or join a beach yoga class with Daily Downward Dog. At Nickel Plate Beach in Huron, you can rent inflatables, kayaks and other beachy gear from The Paddle Shack. Trek down the Huron Pier to view Art Deco-style Huron Lighthouse, operational since 1936. Downtown's Beagle Bay Knot Works sells bracelets and decor made from nautical rope tied with age-old mariners' knots. After a 35-year break, Farmer Jones Farm at the chef's garden reopened just south of Huron, selling fancy jams, dry goods and gourmet vegetables from The Chef's Garden, a locally famous farm that supplies high-end produce to restaurants.
Where to Eat
Chez François in Vermilion offers classic French cuisine, a refined wine list, impeccable service and marina views (and a strict dress code of jackets for men, no shorts or jeans). Touché next door is a less formal tavern-style option. Big Ed's Main Street Soda Grill has been dishing banana splits and phosphates for over 20 years, while Brewed Awakening is a newer stop downtown for bagels, panini and expertly crafted coffees. In Huron and Sandusky, Berardi's Restaurant serves Italian and American comfort food, including the famous Berardi family plank-style French fries, a thick-cut staple at Cedar Point from 1939 to 1978.
Where to Stay
Pack a taste for history—and the macabre—for your stay at The Old Vermilion Jailhouse Bed and Breakfast. Guests can book a night behind bars (plastic handcuffs included) in a four-cell stone jail with a prime downtown location. The property sleeps four and the entire building is yours for the night.
Western Towns: Sandusky and Port Clinton
Find thrills and chilled beer along the western stretch, closer to Toledo and home to Cedar Point amusement park.
What to Do
Redesigned in 2020, the waterfront Jackson Street Pier in downtown Sandusky is a prime spot for lake gazing from trellis-hung swings. At Sandusky's Merry-Go-Round Museum, marvel at antique carousel animals then take a whirl on a reconstructed 1939 merry-go-round. The sprawling Liberty Aviation Museum at the Erie-Ottawa International Airport explores Lake Erie's flight history. Waterworks Park is home to Port Clinton Lighthouse, a restored pyramidal structure built in 1896. Take a sandy stroll along Lakeview Park's long, narrow beach running adjacent to Port Clinton's main road. CheeseHaven has everything you'd want for your lake cottage or boat overnighter, including house-made fudge, Ohio wines and fixings for a charcuterie board.
Where to Eat
Sandusky has lots of dining options. Snag a spot on Crush Wine Bar's patio for a frozen wine slushie. At J Bistro, contemporary fine dining blends American, Italian- and French-inspired cuisine. Enjoy a burger and beer with a fantastic lake view at Dockside Cafe, a walk-up-window kitchen and bar at Paper District Marina. Newly opened Wake Up and Waffle in the Marketplace at the Cooke serves sweet and savory Liège waffles (made with brioche dough) in a sunlit space with a funky rummage-sale vibe. Over in Port Clinton, hugely popular Jolly Roger's Seafood House fries up Lake Erie yellow perch and walleye in platter or sandwich form. Raise a pint of Old Ohio blonde ale or Ship Burner porter at Twin Oast Brewing, a restaurant and brewery tucked away on Catawba Island in a breathtaking expanse of nature.
Where to Stay
A $50 million renovation in 2015 brought fresh polish to Cedar Point's Hotel Breakers, a 1905 resort with a towering domed rotunda. (Peering down from an upper floor is a stomach-dropper in its own right.) Rooms in the Sandusky hotel sport a cottage look with pops of red and aqua. Perks include three pools, several restaurants and bars, and a mile-long beach—an enticing amenity whether you've come for the coasters or not.