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Presque Isle State Park one of Erie's many attractions

| Monday, Aug. 16, 2010

Face it, Pittsburgh, we just don't have beaches. We have plenty of charming, scenic rivers on which to boat, swim, fish and frolic. But no, Sandcastle Waterpark and those sad little sandy-dirt patches on Lake Arthur don't count as beaches.

Luckily, the creators of Pennsylvania seem to have thought this through. To the north, the Commonwealth has this odd little pull-tab shaped bit that sticks out and touches Lake Erie. Inside it is the city of Erie, a nice mid-sized port city. A long, thin peninsula reaches out deep into Lake Erie, curling like a claw to protect the city's main waterfront.

This is Presque Isle State Park, where you will find Pennsylvania's only real beaches. It's only a two-and-a-half hour drive from Pittsburgh.

These are really nice beaches, too -- vast white-sand dunes, surprisingly clear water, plenty of colorful crowds and quiet, secluded spots, too.

Of course, it's not good to spend all day out in the sun. Luckily, there are plenty of other things to do in the Erie area. Unlike a lot of vacation spots, Erie is particularly fun with the tykes in tow. So on this Great Date, feel free to bring the kids.

10 a.m.

You should probably get on the road early, to get some rays at Presque Isle before everything really starts to cook. The beaches designated for swimming (with lifeguards) are numbered, but you can walk along the beachfront for much of the park's 14-mile length.

All the swimming beaches are slightly different, with the higher-numbered beaches taking longer to get to on the long, looping road through the park. Beach 11, for instance, has particularly shallow water, and is a favorite of families with very small children.

Beach 7 is ADA wheelchair accessible, with a ramp that goes to the water's edge. Beach 6 has volleyball courts. Beach 10 (Budny Beach) tends to be a little less crowded, since it's farther into the park, and is next to the kite-flying beach.

There's a walking/biking/rollerblading trail that goes throughout the park, connecting the beaches and other attractions. The interior of the park also is quite interesting -- there are all kinds of swamps, lagoons, ponds and other unique habitats, teeming with wildlife. The park is a regular stop for migrating birds, and there are more rare, endangered and threatened species than in any comparable-sized place in Pennsylvania.

There are regular pontoon boat rides through the park's navigable interior. Canoes, kayaks and small motorboats are available for rental at the ominously named Graveyard Pond, across from Misery Bay. (Clearly, Presque Isle was a little less pleasant during the War of 1812.)

Presque Isle State Park, Peninsula Drive, Erie. Hours:10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily (Memorial Day to Labor Day). Free. Details: 814-833-7424.

1 p.m.

By now, you'll probably want some ice cream. Luckily, Sara's is right at the entrance to the park.

Sara's is the place to go for beach food -- hot dogs, hamburgers, onion rings and especially ice cream. Getting an orange sherbet and vanilla swirl cone is pretty much required after a trip to the beach.

Sara's has an over-the-top faux-'50s diner look, heavy on the pink, neon and '57 Chevy accoutrements. Out back is the real thing, though -- Sally's, a classic 1957 gleaming-silver diner, with all the greasy goodness that entails.

Sara's serves Smith's hot dogs, a made-in-Erie product with a following that reaches well into Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Sara's and Sally's 25 Peninsula Dr., Erie. Hours:10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Details: 814-833-1957.

2:30 p.m.

Right at the entrance to the peninsula is the Tom Ridge Environmental Center.

The building is unmistakable, with a four-story glass tower rising above it, allowing visitors to see all over the peninsula. Clouds and storm fronts roll in with startling rapidity, and on a very clear day it seems like you can see all the way to Canada.

Inside, there are always several rotating exhibits on display, ranging from explorations of Presque Isle's diverse, interlocking ecosystems, to dinosaur bones from Mercyhurst College's collection, to remembrances of a famous UFO incident on Presque Isle. There's also the "Big Green Screen," a four-story movie screen showing films like "Mysteries of the Great Lakes" and "Dinosaurs Alive!"

Tom Ridge Environmental Center, 301 Peninsula Dr., Erie. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Free. 814-833-7424.

4 p.m.

Oddly enough, Pennsylvania played a role in one of the great naval campaigns in American history.

In the War of 1812, the Niagara beat the British at their own game, wrenching the Great Lakes from British control, and giving the untested, fledgling U.S. Navy a shocking, unexpected victory.

Erie is home to the current Flagship Niagara, a detailed reconstruction that actually uses some of the wood from the original. It's one of only two functioning tall ships in the country that represent this time period. The ship sails between Great Lakes ports every summer, but is usually available for public tours whenever it's in Erie.

Nearby, the Erie Maritime Museum tells the story of the battle, including a "Live Fire Exhibit," which demonstrates exactly what happens when early 19th-century carronades pummel a wooden-hulled ship.

The Flagship Niagara/Erie Maritime Museum, 150 Front Street, Erie. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission: $8; $7 for ages 65 and older; $5 for ages 3 to 11; free for children 3 and younger. Details: 814-452-2744.

6 p.m.

Erie's Splash Lagoon is massive indoor waterpark, connected to a complex of hotels. It's a fun place to spend the night, if you want another day at the beach.

The main attractions are the waterslides like "The Shark Attack" and "The Python Plunge," which twist and turn and sometimes protrude outside the building. The "swirling tube coasters" spin you around in a giant bowl at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.

Much of Splash Lagoon is geared toward children, but there's a full-service bar and lounge for adults, several restaurants, a Lazer Tag arena and a giant videogame arcade for teenagers.

Splash Lagoon, 8091 Peach St., Erie. Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays to Fridays; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. All day admission: $34.95, or $24.95 for those shorter than 48 inches tall. After 4 p.m.: $26.95 and $19.95. Details: 814-217-1111.

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