Ashtabula County, Ohio, is perfect for an easy fall getaway


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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.

If you go
Ashtabula

Getting there: Ashtabula County is along Lake Erie and the Pennsylvania border in northeastern Ohio. It's about a 21/2-hour drive from Pittsburgh (Interstate 76 West toward Youngstown, then Interstate 11 North toward Ashtabula). Communities worth visiting include Geneva, Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ashtabula/Ashtabula Harbor and Conneaut.

Where to stay: Among the county's loveliest properties is the waterfront Lakehouse Inn & Winery in Geneva-on-the-Lake (www.thelakehouseinn.com, 1-440-466-8668). Nestled on two acres, with several terraces and a tasting room overlooking Lake Erie, it features an eight-room bed-and-breakfast and four cottages; fall rates start at $125 midweek/$135 weekends. Also worth a visit is the pet-friendly Lodge & Conference Center at GOTL ($99 and up, thelodgeatgeneva.com, 1-800-801-9982) and the Polly Harper Inn in Geneva, an intimate B&B nestled in a vineyard ($110 and up, www.pollyharperinn.com, 1-440-466-6183).

Other options include chain hotels, cottages, mom-and-pop motels and campgrounds. Ashtabula County also boasts a variety of bed-and-breakfasts. Herb Garden School of Cooking and B&B in Jefferson caters to would-be cooks with culinary classes on select Thursdays evenings ($30) in its renovated 1848 farmhouse (www.hgschoolofcooking.com, 1-440-294-2555). Buccia Vineyards and B&B in Conneaut is a blast from the past, with a six-person hot tub in each of its four rooms (www.bucciavineyard.com, 1-440-593-5976).

Where to dine: Some of the best eats are plated at local wineries: the Lake Erie perch and grilled steak at Crosswinds Grille at the Lakehouse Inn in GOTL; the Italian specialties at Ferrante Winery & Restaurant in Geneva; the Cheddar Swiss fondue, served in a bread bowl with apple slices, at Grand River Cellars, also in Geneva. Terrific pizza and subs can be found at Covered Bridge Pizza Parlor (three locations). For pub fare, try Old Mill Winery in Geneva; the burgers are made with wine marinade.

What to do: The county's main attraction -- and subject of an annual fall festival -- is its 18 covered bridges, which include both the nation's shortest (West Liberty) and its longest (Smolen-Gulf). The area's developing wine scene is another big draw. The Grand River Valley growing region (located in portions of Lake, Ashtabula and Geauga counties) accounts for 60 percent of all grapes grown in Ohio; you can visit more than 20 wineries and vineyards.

This year's 49th annual Grape Jamboree runs Sept. 24-25 in downtown Geneva, with parades, wine tasting, a pie-eating contest and grape stomping (sign up at grapejamboree.com).

For those who'd rather not drink and drive, The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake offers a wine shuttle to four local wineries/vineyards on weekends ($15/person). Another option is the Wine Taxi (www.ohiovinetours.com); prices start at $37/person or $49 with lunch.

With 30 miles of shoreline, Ashtabula County also is a wonderful jumping off point for exploring Lake Erie. September marks the beginning of the famed steelhead (a strain of rainbow trout) season, so anglers may want to squeeze in a full- or half-day fishing trip through a local fishing charter or marina; walleye and perch also are plentiful in Lake Erie's temperate waters. A one-day fishing license costs $11 (ohiodnr.com), and if you remember to bring a cooler, you can carry your catch home.

There's also biking and hiking on the Western Reserve Greenway, a paved, mostly rural rail-trail that cuts a north-south course from Ashtabula to Warren, Ohio. Or take a ride through farm country on the AC&J Scenic Train Line (www.familytrainrides.com, 1-440-576-6346). The Kids Pumpkin Train departs from the village of Jefferson at 1 and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in October, and includes popcorn and a visit to a pumpkin patch. Adults $13, seniors $11, children 3 to 12 $10; no reservations necessary.

If history's more your thing, stop by Olin's Museum of Covered Bridges in Ashtabula (1 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays and weekends through October, www.coveredbridgemuseum.com; 1-440-998-0025) or the Ashtabula Maritime Museum (noon to 5 p.m. weekends through Sept., 1-440-964-6847). The offbeat "One and Only" Presidential Museum in Williamsfield (11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thurs.-Sun, 1-440-344-0523) bills itself as the only museum to display artifacts from "all 52 presidents," including the eight who preceded George Washington. Or so argues founder/curator Nick Pahys.

More info: www.visitashtabulacounty.com or 1-800-337-6746.

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.

Wine tastings

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: gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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