GENEVA, Ohio -- Nothing announces to the world that you're on vacation like a nice glass of chardonnay at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. When you love ice cream as much as I do, though, a midday sundae also can hit the spot when you're exploring a new city, which is how we ended up in Rees' Corner Store in this quaint Ohio town just a few miles from Lake Erie.
Hot on the trail of Ashtabula County's hottest tourist attraction -- the new West Liberty Bridge, which at 18 feet is the shortest covered bridge in the nation -- we'd been inching our way down the main drag when we caught sight of the former pharmacy on South Broadway. Charmed as much by the eclectic display of nautical tchotchkes, antiques and kids' toys in the front window as by the giant mural advertising 25-cent sodas on a side wall, my husband and I had ventured in, only to be energetically greeted by Pat Green at the soda fountain.
Jerks -- so named because of the way they had to "jerk" levers behind the counter to hand-pump soda and syrup into ice cream to make ice cream sodas -- have been quenching people's thirsts at this counter since at least 1938. But it's hard to imagine any doing it with as much gusto as Ms. Green, a Geneva native who loved the store so much as a child that nearly a half-century later, she came out of retirement to run it.
The Rees Rexall Drug Store, employer of three generations of Rees pharmacists, closed its doors to the public in 2000. With Ms. Green's help, it reopened as a gift shop/candy store/ice cream parlor six years later. Sundaes, coke floats, malts, various flavors of sodas -- they're all on the menu along with authentic phosphates, all made "exactly how they used to make 'em years ago," said Ms. Green. "It's like walking into the '50s!"
An even bigger blast from the past is the pharmaceutical museum at the rear of the store, which includes everything from Thomas "Doc" Rees' desk (when he died at age 100 in 1990, he was Ohio's oldest living practicing pharmacist ) to a collection of flavored cough syrups and other medicines, aspirin boxes and pill containers.
"The Rees family was always so good to the town, we wanted to honor them," she explained.
Ashtabula County has long been a popular destination for summer vacationers, thanks to 30 miles of shoreline along Lake Erie. Yet beaches (four) and marinas (nine) aren't the only attractions. As we can attest, history buffs also head to this corner of Ohio to explore its many covered bridges: 18 in all, now that students from Ashtabula County Joint Vocational School have completed construction of the West Liberty structure. The covered passages are so beloved the county each year throws a party in their honor. This year's 28th annual Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival (www.coveredbridgefestival.org) runs Oct. 8 and 9 at the county fairgrounds in Jefferson, and includes food and entertainment along with a scarecrow contest, quilt show, parade and antique car display.
The timing couldn't be more perfect, because early October is when the fall leaves are expected to be at their peak color (www.dnr.state.oh.us/tabid/9584/default.aspx), and many of its bridges -- several of which date from the 1860s -- are nestled prettily amid mature oaks and maples. Plan it just right (self-guided tour brochures are available at the fairgrounds and area lodging) and in one afternoon you'll be able to hit at least a half-dozen.
The Smolen-Gulf Bridge on State Road in Ashtabula Township, just a few miles south of the harbor town of Ashtabula on Route 11, has the honor of being the nation's longest covered bridge. Dedicated in 2008, it stretches a whopping 613 feet across the Ashtabula River, and walking across it is a thrill, especially if you're afraid of heights (it's 93 feet above the water).
We weren't as taken with the county's newest bridge, a passageway so humble that we drove by it at least three times without even realizing it. When my husband ran into the Unionville Post Office to ask for directions, the lady behind the counter looked at him as if he were crazy.
"Really?" she said, shaking her head in disbelief. "You'd go out of your way for that?"
A few minutes later, we were standing in front of a bridge that took just nine steps to cross. I've seen toll booths on the turnpike that were longer.
Still, you have to admire the back story. Designed by the same guy who drew the plans for the record-breaking Smolen-Gulf, it was built from locally grown (and donated) red oak, maple and poplar.
Our favorite was the Harpersfield covered bridge in Harpersfield Township. An artifact of a more simple time, it's a picturesque wooden structure built in 1868 that's listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It spans the Grand River, where fishermen angle for trout.
Rather get your thrills tasting your way through a selection of reds or whites? Autumn also is when Ashtabula County's grape harvest is in full swing at the vineyards along the shores of Lake Erie.
That's right: vineyards.
Many don't realize it, but wine has been cultivated in northeastern Ohio since the early 19th century, and today is one of the region's biggest draws. More than 60 percent of the state's grapes, in fact, are grown in the Grand River Valley in the state's northeast corner, where a unique micro-climate protects the fragile fruit in the spring and then helps it grow well into the fall. The Lake Erie "Vines and Wines Trail" (www.ohiowines.org, 1-800-227-6972) offers a taste of award-winning chardonnays, rieslings, merlots and cabernet sauvignons at 20 wineries, within 10 miles of terrain.
They range from the estate-like Ferrante Winery in Geneva ($6 for a tasting of six whites and five reds) to the waterfront Lakehouse Inn & Winery in Geneva-on-the-Lake, to countryside boutique operations such as Harpersfield Vineyard, also in Geneva, which boasts a 6-foot-tall wood-burning fireplace in its Olde World tasting room.
We tried all of the above during our 36-hour visit, plus a pair of Conneaut wineries: Buccia Vineyards, where samples cost 25 cents and an outdoor tasting room sits under a grape-covered arbor, and Markko Vineyard, founded in 1968 and one of the first Ohio wineries to seriously try its hand at European vinifera grapes. Given that pedigree, and the fact that all of its wines are estate bottled, the large stone pillars at Markko's entrance seem in keeping. Yet the winery itself is nestled unpretentiously in the woods, in a rustic wood building that seemed primed for a makeover. A litter of sleeping "Markko sheepdog" puppies greeted us at the door.
The Old Mill Winery in Geneva, conversely, doesn't feel like a winery at all, but instead like a really fun college bar, with dark lighting, plenty of noise and dozens of old license plates nailed to the walls. No wonder one of its most popular sellers is the Grindstone Pink, a sweet wine made from a blend of Catawba grapes that are best suited for sangria.
In other words, there's something for every taste in Ashtabula County.
We even found some pretty good shopping on Bridge Street in Ashtabula's historic harbor district: sea glass bracelets for our daughters at Sandpiper Studio, freshly roasted Java Jampit coffee beans at Harbor Perk, a silver bottle opener in the shape of a fat baby bird at Defina's.
Then, on our way out of town, we caught one of our best road-trip lunches ever at the roadside White Turkey Drive-In on Route 20 in Conneaut. Alas, it closed for the season on Labor Day and won't reopen until Mother's Day weekend 2012. Just one more reason to come back.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419.