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Not Just a Theme Park Town: Off-Season Sandusky is its Own Destination

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Not Just a Theme Park Town: Off-Season Sandusky is its Own DestinationDinner at Firelands.
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I’m about to sell you on a trip to Sandusky, Ohio. Believe it or not, the place is pretty cool, and it’s not just because it has an enormous amusement park called Cedar Point. Off-season has its own mixed bag of wonders to show you, too.

Downtown revitalization efforts over the last two or three years have started to take advantage of the natural destination Sandusky already is: a coastal town with local fervor. Two developers are investing big in downtown Sandusky, and the city’s seen an influx of new dining, lodging and shopping options.

Two years ago, Hotel Kilbourne opened its doors, giving overnighters the only place to stay while visiting downtown Sandusky. Owned by local developers Nikki Lloyd and Ryan Whaley, the boutique inn offers nine rooms, two bars, including one on the rooftop, and easy access to OH Taco, another Lloyd & Whaley operation that opened last October.

Down the street, the two also opened the town’s one and only speakeasy, Volstead Bar. Its front door is discrete, sporting a tiny sign simply saying, “bar,” and five additional bulbs that, when all lit up in green, indicate five or more seats are open. One lit bulb means there’s one seat left, and red lights mean, “Come back later.”

Rick and Meghan Hogrefe, another developing duo, have poured $10 million into the area. More than half of that is going to rehab The Cooke Building, a former theatre and ballroom the Hogrefes purchased. From the time it was built in the mid-1800s to the 1940s, The Cooke Building saw a number of concerts, theatrical performances and dances. According to the Sandusky Register, it’ll be back at it by July of 2019.

“Sandusky has about anything a town could want: history, a waterfront, a huge local draw,” Rick Hogrefe told the Register. “We also saw a wonderful opportunity to help rebuild Sandusky. The Cooke Building is a project very dear to our hearts. We can’t wait to restore the theater and ballroom. I am a firm believer these are the right moves. The city is ready to transform. We want to be a part of it.”

A truly surprisingly fun way to get to know where Sandusky has been — and where it’s going — is through a segway tour. I know how dorky it both looks and sounds to take a segway tour (and before my trip to Sandusky, I’d successfully avoided the activity), but it’s honestly the easiest way to see the most stuff. And, if you’re lucky enough to snag Sandusky Segwave owner Jim Ervin as your guide, his enthusiasm will overpower your hesitation.

There’s plenty to do downtown, but it’s not the only area that’s seen an uptick in activity. The terrain of northwestern Ohio has provided for a couple dozen wineries to sprout up across the region, many of which being just a hop and a skip away from downtown Sandusky.

If there’s time, a trip including several stops along the wine trail is the way to go, preferably using transportation similar to a party bus. It encourages indulgence, which every adventure needs. There are several you can knock out in a day, and each has its own personality.

Within 10 minutes of the main attractions on Water Street downtown is Firelands Winery, which offers an extensive wine list and their Osteria Gusto exposition kitchen, allowing guests to observe via TVs as the chef cooks up the night’s fare.

The show at Firelands is run by owner and winemaker Claudio Salvador. He likes to have his guests compare his wines to similar competing wines.

Firelands owner and winemaker Claudio Salvador.

There’s a level of snobbiness in wine appreciation that’s left Ohio wine off the shelves — even in Ohio. But, a blind showdown between an Italian wine and one of Claudio’s had Firelands as reigning champ. His confidence shows, too, as he stocks the cellar with 200 competing wines alongside his own. Firelands has enough varietals to try — roughly 108 — including a killer Dolcetto.

For those on the artsy side, it’s worth a visit to Vermillion’s Papermoon Vineyards, the latest in a long line of businesses run by the Cawrse family. As far back as 1946, the Cawrses have owned and operated several businesses, the first of which being Eastside Dairy, later known as Cloverdale Creamery. In 1972, Cloverdale turned into Clovervale and diversified, becoming an international food service corporation.

Twelve years ago, Adam Cawrse and his father Richard sold Clovervale and opened Papermoon.

Along with winemaking, Papermoon is known for its art classes and musical events, a blend of each family member’s passions. Adam Cawrse, who also has a musical education degree, seriously may serenade you, and it’ll be both surprising and enjoyable.

For outdoorsy types, Quarry Hill Winery is a good spot to hit. They specialize in tree fruit, including apples, peaches, cherries, plums and pears, which guests can pick themselves. They also offer wagon rides to hiking trails and around their vineyards and orchards.

Vermillion Valley Vineyards, located neither in Vermillion nor in a valley, is the prime location for anyone looking for sustainable wines. High school sweethearts and partners in business, Joe and Kristi Juniper, employ green farming practices that both save money and prepare for a future of extreme climate.

The pond on the Vermillion Valley property is used as a “ground source” of heating and cooling during winter and high summer. And although Joe Juniper said they can’t get by completely without traditional pesticides, the winery does lean on integrated pest management as well, which uses naturally occurring organisms to eliminate vine-damaging pests.

These wineries merely scratch the surface of all there are to discover up around Ohio’s northwestern shores. A visit to the Lake Erie Shores and Islands website reveals a list topping 24 wineries and vineyards just in that region of the state.

If you’re not sure when to plan a visit to Ohio’s northwestern corner, the ongoing bicentennial celebration may lend a perfect excuse. The town is celebrating 200 years with a year of arts and cultural events and street festivals.

For more information on the bicentennial and related events, visit sandusky2018.com.

For more information on activities in and around Sandusky, visit shoresandislands.com

For more information on Ohio wineries, visit findohiowines.com

Disclaimer / Editor’s Note: Columbus Underground was invited to participate in the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Wine Trail in the northwest Ohio area in March 2018, and utilized the opportunity to send staff writer Lauren Sega on a two-day experience to hone her skills as a writer. Food and lodging was provided to her free of charge as a part of the media tour event.

All photos by Lauren Sega.

Quarry Hill vineyard.

Vineyard dog.

Vermillion Valley Vineyards.

A wine with a view, Vermillion Valley Vineyards.

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