June 2007 Issue
Enjoy refreshing lake breezes and a wide variety of summer diversions at these Lake Erie hot spots.
Imagine your family vacation. Now imagine the kids in the backseat of the minivan, looking up from their video games to whine, "Are we there yet?"
Here's what might be the best part of a trip to the Lake Erie Islands: Getting there (and back) isn't a chore. In fact, it's half the fun. If you haven't caught a ferry ride from Ohio's north coast to one of the gorgeous island getaways just a few miles from shore, you've missed a great experience. From Catawba, Sandusky, Port Clinton or Marblehead, as seagulls soar past, you line up dockside with your fellow passengers to await the horn blast announcing the next boat. A sense of giddy anticipation runs through the crowd, an awareness that the fun is about to start.
Once on board, you settle into a clean, bright cabin or take your place on deck and settle in for the ride. Our last jaunt was on the Jet Express, one of a handful of efficient, affordable services that ferry to the islands, and which bills its large hydrojet catamarans as "the fastest way to Put-in-Bay." And while you're always happy to arrive at the pretty, festive village, for my money I'd enjoy more time on the surf. The sleek double-hulled boat moves at a brisk clip, skipping lightly over waves that glitter in the sunshine, lighting your way to a weekend's pleasure.
The kids will not ask if you're there yet.
Put-in-Bay, with its lively array of shops, bars, restaurants and attractions, might be what first comes to mind when most folks think of the Lake Erie Islands — but even people who live and play there will tell you there's much more to see and do in this region that blends history, scenery, nature, family fun, aquatic adventure and entertainment. Now that you've stepped off that ferry, it's time to explore.
Lake Erie's western-basin archipelago consists of about two dozen islands, most of them small and largely uninhabitable, though possessing such memorable names as Ballast Island, Starve Island, Rattlesnake Island, Mouse and West Sister. The ones to visit are Kelleys Island and the three Bass Islands — North, Middle and South. Kelleys is the largest, North the most remote, South Bass the most touristy. Each provides visitors with its own sort of experience.
The star of the show on South Bass is the village of Put-in-Bay, which advertises itself as Lake Erie's version of Key West — though there is also more low-key, family fun to be had than that title suggests.
Not that the place is without its hot spots. Most summer-season weekends, the village's taverns and eateries are packed with partygoers, many of them young and, unsurprisingly, clad for warm weather. The fun extends into the harbor adjacent to the village center, which is jammed with sleek pleasure craft and resounds with music, laughter and all sorts of grown-up merrymaking. Boats come and go; as some folks lounge happily beneath the trees of the harborfront village square, others stroll and shop, and lots of others cruise the island's byways in rented golf carts, which are available from numerous vendors and provide the favorite way of getting around for villagers and visitors alike. Just remember: Traffic laws apply.
Dining is a favorite pastime in Put-in-Bay. You'd be cheating yourself not to try the seafood (especially the famous lobster bisque) at the
HOW TO GET THERE, WHERE TO STAY
Kelleys Island is about four miles offshore, Put-in-Bay about 12. Put-in-Bay has a small airport, and all the islands have marina facilities. Check www.lake-erie.com
South Bass and Kelleys islands have dozens of cottages, small inns and bed-and-breakfasts. Put-in-Bay has several hotels, ranging from the homey Victorian Park Hotel right downtown to the new, opulent Put-in-Bay Resort and Conference Center. Check out www.putinbay.com
to get started.
The state parks on the islands and the mainland are managed through Lake Erie Islands State Park.
Catawba Island, 4049 E. Moores Dock Rd., Port Clinton, OH 43452, 866/644-6727 or www.ohiostateparks.org
for camping and rental reservations.
Catawba Island, 419/797-4530; Kelleys Island, 419/746-2546 (seasonally); Middle Bass Island, 419/285-0311 (seasonally); South Bass Island and Oak Point parks, 419/285-2112 (seasonally).
Boardwalk Restaurant on the water's edge, along with its festive atmosphere, broad outdoor decks and terrific harbor view. Later in the day, consider a stop by the jolly Boathouse Bar and Grill right off the main square, especially if TV sports is what you're craving. That evening, visit Mossback's for an excellent dinner.
Of course, it's not all party-hearty in Put-in-Bay. Getting around the island is easy and fun by foot, rental bike or sightseeing tram (the Island Tour Train starts downtown and gets you everywhere for a single rate). Or those golf carts will carry you and the kids to plenty of family-fun spots all over the island. Perry's Cave is one of two caves on the island, a gorgeous natural niche carved more than 50 feet into the limestone beneath the island, including an underground lake. It's located in a complex that shares the Put-in-Bay Butterfly House and a miniature-golf course. The other cavern is the Crystal Cave across the street at Heineman Winery. Crystal Cave is billed as the world's largest geode. The winery folks will also happily show off how their tasty wares are made by hand.
While you're in the neighborhood, check out the Antique Car Museum, one of several intriguing history-based sites on an island noted for its eventful past. The Lake Erie Islands Historical Museum is downtown next to the Town Hall, and is a nice place to get a feel for the whole region and its color. Like many of the attractions on South Bass, it's open daily during the main tourist season of mid-May through mid-October.
Speaking of things past, anybody who ever sat through a basic Ohio history class in grade school knows a bit about the most important event in the island's life. The Battle of Lake Erie, one of the key engagements in U.S. naval history, was fought in the waters northwest of South Bass on September 10, 1813. That's the day that Oliver Hazard Perry ran his scrappy little flotilla up against a stiff British fleet and seized control of the lake for the Americans during the War of 1812.
The legendary victory looms over the place to this day in the form of the Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 350-foot high granite column that can be seen from anywhere on the island, not to mention far out into the lake. Built in 1936 to mark the battle, it was redesignated an official peace memorial in 1972, celebrating the longlasting relationship between the United States, Britain and Canada. A National Park Service visitor's center explains the battle, and an elevator takes you to the top of the monument, which draws more than 150,000 people a year. If there's a more stunning view anywhere in Ohio, we haven't found it.
In fact, from that lofty vantage point you can see the other islands, and how close they are to one another. If you want to enjoy island atmosphere and scenery without all the crowds you might encounter on South Bass, head toward Kelleys. There is limited access to North Bass Island (although the Ohio Departments of Natural Resources has proposed a low-impact recreational area for the island), and Middle Bass is less developed than South Bass or Kelleys. The state is gradually making room for more campers at the Middle Bass State Park, and the lightly populated island makes a quiet, distant getaway.
Things are a bit livelier on Kelleys Island, but compared to South Bass, it, too, runs at a less hectic pace. While there are shops, restaurants and attractions to be enjoyed, nature and history are what rule on the 2,800-acre island.
Don't forget that your stay can include some time in the picturesque coastal communities of Marblehead, Catawba Island, Oak Harbor, Lakeside, Sandusky and Port Clinton, which are packed with shopping, dining and entertainment. They're your entry point to an islands getaway, so get to know them, too. For events, lodging and other information, visit www.lake-erie.com or call 800/441-1271. The Web site features lots of things to do and trip-planning tips. It's constantly updated.
Most visitors want to see the famed Glacial Grooves at Kelleys Island State Park, left over from the glaciers that tore and scarred the rock and formed the Great Lakes. They're right next to the park's campground, which has 45 nonelectric and 82 electric sites, along with showers and flush toilets.
Six miles of hiking trails will help you get your fill of the scenic wonders in this unique bit of Ohio, including two nature preserves. And if, as you wander those trails, you wonder what the prehistoric visitors of the past may have thought of these same lovely islands, Kelleys Island provides a clue. At Inscription Rock on the island's south shore, Native Americans left mysterious artwork on the stone face more than 500 years ago.
They, too, had to take a boat over from the mainland, though they didn't get to relax during the trip and enjoy the air conditioning. Count your blessings.
The following is just a sampling of the fun planned for the islands region. For more details, visit www.lake-erie.com.
Through September: Antique Car Parades at Put-in-Bay, every Sunday at 2 p.m. downtown. www.put-in-bay.com.
June 23–Aug. 19: South Bass Island Lighthouse Tours at Put-In-Bay. Daily (except Tuesdays), 11 a.m.–4 p.m. Tours are $4 for adults, $2 for children ages 6-11, children 6 and under are free. 419/285-2341.
Civil War Encampment at East Harbor State Park in Marblehead. The area has a bona-fide Civil War historical site: what's left of the notorious Johnson's Island POW Depot, located near Marblehead. For information on the prison site, visit www.johnsonsisland.org
. For details on the encampment, call 419/734-4424, extension 2.
July 4: Fourth of July at Put-In-Bay features fireworks at dusk over the downtown harbor.
July 27–30: Put-In-Bay. Put-In-Bay welcomes the I-LYA Sail Boat Regatta. www.put-in-bay.com.
Aug. 10–12: First Kelleys Island Outdoor Film Festival. A 40-foot inflatable movie screen will be at the Kelleys Island Ball Field or Pavilion. Activities start at 7 p.m. and the movies begin at dusk, featuring films for the entire family. Admission is free. Contact www.kelleysislandchamber.com for more information.
Aug. 25: Perch Festival at Marblehead's James Park, 10 a.m.– 5 p.m. Parade at 10 a.m. 419/798-9777 or www.marbleheadpeninsula.com.