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US Route 6 covers a big part of American history in the 400 miles of Northern Pennsylvania from Erie to Milford (near Scranton), offering great scenery along the way. One of America's most scenic drives, Route 6 has its own promotion department made up of dedicated natives and a growing number of outsiders who know a good thing when they see it. Its been a road since 1807, named Route 6 in 1925, and designated "The Grand Army of the Republic Highway" in 1937, honoring Union Army veterans.

It was a distinct pleasure driving for miles without seeing a billboard, on a free public highway at that. Better yet, west of Scranton the road was mine alone for miles on end. Rolling hills and cozy farmland scenes were dotted with welcoming villages, their houses banked with mounds of purple rhododendrons, downtowns bustling with self important businesses, and those rare honest-to-God, mom-and-pop places to eat.

Route 6 is a great drive in either direction, but I chose west to east. I started in Erie, the city and lake named for the Eriez Indians, who once lived here. Erie isn't on Route 6 exactly, but sits just a few miles off and makes a logical starting or ending point.

Erie Highlights

"We have met the enemy, and they are ours," are the famous words spoken by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after he defeated British warships in the Battle of Lake Erie. The battle was fought many miles west at Put-In Bay, Ohio, just south of Detroit, in 1813, but Perry used a ship built in Erie and his headquarters were on the lake's southeastern shore. At the Erie Maritime Musuem, you can visit and take a ride on the 1990 replica of Perry's ship, the US Brig Niagara (www.brigniagara.org; 150 East Front Street, Erie PA 16507). The museum has a good, short pictorial description of the war, the battle and the ship, as well as a 15-minute video on the Niagara's history, reconstruction and current sailing program. Moreover, The Niagara is the official flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Admission includes the ship when docked at the museum: $6 adults, senior $5, youth (ages 6 to 17) $3. When ship is not at the museum, admission is from $1 to $2 less.

The second Erie must-see is the massive Presque Isle State Park, a National Natural Landmark. Its 3200 acres protrude northeastward into the lake, right off the city itself. Locals and visitors enjoy water sports, fishing, picnicking, biking, hiking and nature watching. Bird watching is especially popular with over 325 species identified, including pitpits, warblers and brown creepers. There are seven miles of beaches with 11 guarded swimming areas.

Just outside the park is the recently opened Tom Ridge Environmental Center, named for the former Pennsylvania governor and first director of the old Office of Homeland Security. Displays explain the history of the park and its ever-changing and quite diverse ecosystem through interactive exhibits, a 15-minute film, and educational programs, including guided park tours. You'll learn, for instance, that Lake Erie is the "walleye fishing capital of the world," and "in the top ten of birding routes, a hot spot, in the USA." Throughout the center, you'll see marvelous origami birds created by artist Michael LaFosse, co-founder of the Origamido Studio (www.origamido.com) in 1996 with Richard L. Alexander, both of whom teach origami around the world. Admission to the center and its fascinating displays is free. You'll also find a splendid shop and a café.

The shop sells some neat local artwork including marvelous bowls and other wooden ware created by Bill Hess (tel. 814/899-8942; e-mail wildwood@velocity.net) from weather-damaged trees in Presque Isle State Park. The artist states "no trees were cut down for the purpose of making these vessels." His slogan, apropos the wood, is "turning the inside out."

There's also an IMAX-type big screen theater (four-stories high, 33 feet wide) which has up to three different films running daily, costing $7.50 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5.50 for kids 1 to 12.

Boat and Bayfront

The Lady Kate (tel. 800/988-5780 or 814/836-0201; www.piboattours.com) takes passengers from the Perry Monument about halfway down the peninsula. While aboard, they can enjoy the brisk, ocean-like breezes out on Lake Erie, observe the wildlife along the shore (not counting summer bathers there), or look at other ships. I was lucky enough to see the Niagara out on a test run, half its sails spread to the wind. Lady Kate's 14-mile, 90-minute voyage offers views of three historic lighthouses in its narrated "Adventure on the Great Inland Sea," as the 65-foot (max. 110 passengers) boat coasts along under the command of Captain Tony Macaluso (often accompanied by his wife Kate). Several times daily mid-June through Labor Day, weekends from mid-May to September 30; otherwise, closed rest of year.

On the city's waterfront is the Erie Bayfront, a landscaped walkway that runs right to the Erie Maritime Museum and the Brig Niagara. There's a 200-foot tall Bicentennial Tower there, too, from which you allegedly can see Canada on a clear day.

South of Erie

At the southeastern edge of Erie County, on Route 6, is Corry, a historic town with its own museum displaying artifacts from pioneer days, the discovery of oil, early railroads and manufacturing. Two railroad companies once crossed lines here. Phone 814/664-4749. If you are a covered-bridge fan, you can see three in Erie County in less than two hours. Phone 800/524-3743 for more details.

South of Corry on Route 8 is the Oil Creek & Titusville Railroad (tel. 814/676-1733; www.octrr.org; e-mail ocandt@uschoice.net; 409 S. Perry Street, Titusville PA 16354) which departs the latter city for a 2 ½ hour ride through the Oil Creek State Park, around Titusville, where the first commercial oil well was drilled back in 1859. You can mail a postcard from the trains' Postal Car, which they say is the only operating rail postal car in the USA, or even take a Murder Mystery Ride with them with dinner and theater included at $49 per person. (There are five dates in the period July 29 through September 23, 2006.) Train ride only admission $12 adults, $11 seniors, $8 kids (3 to 12), family special $35 (2 adults, 3 kids, good only June 10 to September 30). October is the peak month, thanks to autumn foliage. Operates only June 10 through October 22, 2006.

Close by is the John Brown Museum & Tannery Site (tel. 814/967-2099; 17620 John Brown Road, Guys Mils PA 16327). The latter is on the National Register of Historic Places. This is where the famous pre Civil War abolitionist lived and worked from 1826 to 1835. It's on John Brown Road south of State 77 in the village of New Richmond.

Fishing

Just northeast of Erie, in a town called North East (www.nechamber.org), fathers and mothers claim Lake Erie offers "the best fishing in North America," citing numerous steelheads, walleyes, small-mouth bass and yellow perch, on "miles of untrammeled streams." In addition to their wineries (see below), North East boasts a rail museum and a downtown that is a National Register Historic District.

Culture

The Erie Philharmonic is the nation's third-oldest symphony. Other groups provide performing arts entertainment, including the Lake Erie Ballet Company and the Dafmark Dance Theater, the Erie Opera Theater and the Erie Playhouse. Check with your hotel front desk for performance venues, dates and times. The Erie Art Museum, based in an 1839 Greek Revival bank and on the National Register of Historic Places, is worth a visit too. For interactive fun, look for several bars or dance clubs featuring live music in the Erie Visitors Guide booklet or local newspapers.

Shopping

In addition to looking for crafts at the Tom Ridge Center, consider visiting the Millcreek Mall, with over 2000 stores, and no sales tax on clothing.

Kids

Although children may enjoy the Maritime Museum and Presque Isle State Park, they may want other options. The Erie Zoo features over 500 animals including tigers, bears and birds. Waldemeer Park & Waterworld (tel. 814/838-3591; www.waldameer.com) has rides, slides and other attractions. Also consider the Marx Toy Museum (tel. 814/825-6500; www.themarxtoymuseum.org; 50 Bloomfield Parkway) with 50 years of the company's manufactures on display.

Finally, there's expERIEnce (that's the way they spell it) Children's Museum, with lots of hands-on things to do, an overhead train display and a puppet show (look, ma, no strings!).

Wineries

The southern shore of Lake Erie boasts several wineries, five are said to be a 30-minute drive from downtown Erie, and each offers free tours and tasting. This is reportedly the largest Concord grape growing region in the world, the third-largest grape-growing region in the country, and the largest acreage of grape vineyards east of the Mississippi. The climate and shallow Lake Eerie are great conditions for wine growing, similar to the those of Niagara, Ontario, also a big wine-growing location. The Concord is supposedly the first native American grape, and took over 150 years to perfect.

Here are just three wineries, in alphabetical order:

Nearby the town of North East (yes, it's in northwestern Pennsylvania, but it's the Northeast portion of the state that sticks up, hitting Lake Erie) is Arrowhead Wine Cellars, (tel. 814/725-5509; www.arrowheadwine.com; 12073 East Main Road, North East PA 16428) open daily except in winter. Opened in 1998, its 200 shore-front acres are owned by Nick and Kathy Mobilia. They've won at least nine state awards since 2001 for their pink Catawba, Niagara and Chardonnay offerings.

Not far is Mazza Vineyards (tel. 814/725-8695; www.mazzawines.com; 11815 East Lake Road, North East PA 16428) specializing in Niagara, Vidal Blanc, Country Red and Country Blush, as well as Cream Sherry. They say they are "Pennsylvania's premier winery." Open daily, hours vary, year round.

South of Route 6 is the Wilhelm Winery (tel. 724/253-3700l; www.wilhelmwinery.com; 500 Georgetown Road, Hadley PA 16130), located in a 100-year-old barn on the headwaters of Lake Wilhelm, which offers free tastings, discounts, a wine-making museum, and homemade wine-making supplies, as well as fruit and grape wines. Open noon to 6, Wed.-Sun.

Lodgings

Although there are many hotel rooms in Erie itself, get out on Route 6 as soon as possible, and spend the night in a cozy Bed & Breakfast. Just six miles west of Corry in the borough of Elgin is the historic Three Gables Inn (tel. 888/640-5487 or 814/664-8538; www.threegablesinn.net; e-mail threegalbesinn@mailstation.com; 18323 South Main Street, Corry/Elgin PA 16407) a Sears & Roebuck prefab house dating back to 1895. There are three comfortable rooms, each with private bath, phone, TV, air-conditioning, on the second floor. Below are a splendid parlor, a cheerful dining room and a huge kitchen, where the owner, Peggy Paul, a well-traveled retired school teacher, makes a marvelous morning meal, with perhaps grilled grapefruit, sausage, a French-toast styled croissant, or ham and cheese crepes and freshly-squeezed orange juice. She's been in business since 1994, with rooms ranging from $78 to $85.

Want to sleep in a caboose? The Caboose Motel (tel. 800/827-0690), next door to the Oil City & Titusville Railroad station, has 21 cars, each self-contained with its own heat and A/C units, as well as deck chairs. One block from downtown Titusville (where all the oil madness started) and five minutes from the Drake Well Museum, your choice of king beds with a cupola or full-size beds and bay windows. Open only May 1 through October 29, 2006. $79.97 per night.

Dining Out

Think beverages first, try local brews such as Presque Isle Pilsner Pale Ale, Mad Anthony Ale or the Railbender. And don't forget wonderful local wines. One colorful place to eat in Erie is the lakefront Smuggler's Wharf (tel. 814/459-4273; www.smugglerswharfinc.com/; 3 State Street, Erie) below the Bicentennial Tower, with nice views and friendly service. I had a pasta dish with shrimp at about $12.95. You can dine in or out.

Convenient if visiting the Presque Isle State Park is Joe Root's Grill (tel. 814/836-7668; www.joerootsgrill.com; 2826 W. 8th St., Erie) named for a famous 19th century vagabond who used to hang in the area that's now the park. Italian and American cuisine, clam chowder cup for $2.09, egg plant parmigiana $6.99 for lunch, dinner sea scallops $12.69.

Contacts

For more information on Erie, check out www.visiteriepa.com or phone 800/524-ERIE.

More on Route 6 at 87-PAROUTE 6 (toll free) or 814/435-7706, www.paroute6.com.

This is the first of three articles covering the entire Route 6 across northern Pennsylvania.

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