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When an opportunity arose to take a short trip to Erie last week, I was a bit clueless. I knew very little about the northwestern Pennsylvania city that ranks just below Allentown, Reading and Philadelphia in population, but I was eager to explore.

After some research and a few helpful hints from others, I learned that no trip to Erie is complete without a visit to Presque Isle, the Warner Theater, at least one area winery and the Maritime Museum.

Biking, fishing, birdwatching and more on Presque Isle

Presque Isle State Park, located on a peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie, draws nearly four million tourists per year. With seven miles of sandy, fresh water beaches, visitors flock there to swim, picnic, sunbathe and wind surf. Hiking and biking are favorite pastimes for locals during the brisk fall months.

Fishing is also extremely popular on Presque Isle, which earned a Field & Stream Magazine ranking as one of the "top 20 family fishing spots in the nation," with annual catches of about 1.5 million a year. Known as the Walleye capital of the world, Erie also lays claim to the best small mouth bass, steelhead trout and salmon fishing in the state.

With 324 species of birds recorded, Presque Isle is a haven for birdwatchers and has been named one of the top 10 birding locations, according to BirdWatching Magazine.

For those who want to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, Presque Island Touring Company offers Segway tours on weekends through October (weather permitting).

Tour a Timeless Treasure

Located on the National Register of Historic Places, the Warner Theatre is home to the Lake Erie Ballet, the Erie BROADWAY Series and the Erie Philharmonic, which celebrates its 102nd season this year.

The art deco and French-Renaissance-styled theatre was built in 1929 by the acclaimed Warner Brothers during a difficult time in our nation's history.

Elizabeth D'Aurora, Coordinator of Communications and Client Relations for Erie events, said she is often asked why the Warner Brothers chose Erie and why they spent so much money at the height of the Depression. "I explain that Erie was a stop in between New York and Chicago and the Warner Brothers wanted this to be a place to get out and enjoy something beautiful and ornate."

The 2,250-seat theatre, designed by Rapp & Rapp Company of Chicago, raised eyebrows with a price tag of $1.5 million—a small fortune at the time. Today the ornate theatre, furnished in the art deco motif and complemented by gold and silver leaf, crushed velour and gold-backed French mirrors, is commonly rented for weddings and receptions.

Visit a Historical Wine Cellar

Erie County is the third-largest grape growing area in the United States and a short drive to the town of North East will take you to South Shore Wine Company where you'll view Erie's first commercial winery. Established approximately 150 years ago, the underground cavern, located beneath the former South Shore Inn, is one of only a few in the U.S. fashioned after French wine caverns.

"You can almost hear the echoes of past winemakers as they prepared their samples for the 1867 Paris World's fair," touts its website.

An insider tip for those who enjoy dry reds—the Lemberger, with its cherry and pepper aromas is distinctively different from the rest and was my favorite selection on the wine-tasting tour.

For those seeking a sweeter choice, a ruby style port called the Forte of Chambourcin was a revelation. Even though I'm not a fan of port, I ended up taking home a bottle.

To get a glimpse of what it's like to visit the historic wine cellar, watch the South Shore Wine Company's website video at ss.mazzawines.com.

Learn about Maritime History

The Sheraton Erie Bayfront is a great place to stay while in Erie and is convenient to most attractions, including the Maritime Museum, which is within walking distance.

Jim Cheney, author of UncoveringPA.com, said, "If you love history, there is no better destination in Erie than the Erie Maritime Museum. Set along the shores of Lake Erie, the maritime museum tells the story of the War of 1812 on the lake. The focus is on the Battle of Lake Erie and the flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the Brig Niagara. If you are lucky enough to visit when the ship is in port, tours are available of this reconstructed ship. Even if the ship isn't in port, however, the museum still offers a chance to learn about an interesting piece of little-known American history."

The Brig Niagara is indeed a highlight for many visitors. The only ship of her type which is still in existence from the War of 1812, it is the tallest "tall ship" on the Great Lakes and is just one of six original warships made with native Pennsylvania materials.

To learn about this and other exhibits, visit the Erie Maritime Museum website at flagshipniagara.org.

These are but a few suggestions on what to do and see in the Erie region. For families, the 102,000 square-foot indoor water park called Splash Lagoon is always a hit, as is the Erie zoo situated on more than 15 acres and featuring 300 animals in their natural habitats.

Fall is a beautiful time to travel in Pennsylvania. As the leaves burst forth in an abundance of colors and the air turns brisk, it might also be a perfect time to indulge in a road trip — and you won't even have to leave the state.

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