Escaping to the islands has such a romantic sound, and yet it’s such an easy and inexpensive thing to do for those in the Midwest and central Canada. The Lake Erie Islands, roughly half-way between Cleveland and Detroit/Windsor offer something for vacationers of every stripe.
To list all the attractions and activities available would require a book, which incidentally is available for free from Lake Erie Shores and Islands website. But, for the purposes of this article, we are going to focus on just one of the islands – South Bass Island, also commonly referred to as Put-in-Bay. Even focusing on just one of the nine islands, it will still be impossible to list everything there is to do in this one article, but we’ll hit some of the highlights.
A twenty minute ferry ride from Catawba Island, Ohio will get you there, via the Miller Ferry. A single adult fare is only $6.50 and you can take your own bike for $2 or your car for only $15. Miller Ferry has been transporting visitors and residents to the islands since the early 1900’s. You can go online and get island coupons or purchase Playcation packages from their website.
Once on the island, do as many locals do and rent a golf cart when you get off the boat. Two rental companies are immediately adjacent to the Miller dock when you land, and there are many more rentals located around the island. Last time I was there, I rented from E’s Golf Carts, just to the right as you leave the ferry. Rest assured you’ll get a great rate from this family-run business, whether you opt for a 2, 4, 6, or 8 seater.
If you drive your car and find a parking spot downtown, chances are you’ll want to leave it parked. In that case, look for the bright yellow Poe’s Pedicabs. These bicycle-powered versions of the rickshaw cruise around the downtown area, and are a great way to get around. The super comfy carriages can hold three passengers, and the drivers are well-versed with interesting info about the Put-in-Bay area. You’ll get unobstructed views and door-to-door service. If you’re lucky, you might even get local school superintendent Steve Poe as your driver. You can connect with Poe’s Pedicabs via Facebook or email.
Fascinated by lighthouses? Make a hard left as you leave the ferry and in a quarter mile you can see the South Bass Island Lighthouse. Operated from 1897 until 1962, the property is now owned by Ohio State University. Its giant fourth order Fresnel lens is now on display at the Lake Erie Historical Society Museum (definitely worth a visit.)
Even taller than the lighthouse is the iconic symbol of Put-in-Bay, the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. A Doric column, rising 352 feet above Lake Erie, it’s the first landmark you’ll notice approaching the island from any direction. Presently, the monument is cloaked with scaffolding at the uppermost elevation while it is being refurbished for the coming bi-centennial commemoration of the War of 1812. Inside and outside the visitor’s center, park rangers put on a wealth of interesting programs to help you grasp the role this area played during the war.
Looking for tons of good family fun? Head over to Perry’s Cave on Catawba Avenue. From the “War of 18 Holes” miniature golf, to the rock climbing wall to sifting for gems, there’s lots to do outdoors. Inside, be sure to see the Butterfly House with hundreds of lively beauties before descending into the fascinating Perry’s Cave. The cave is a whopping
208 feet long by 165 feet wide with an
underground lake. See their website
for money-saving package deals.
For more attractions like the world’s largest geode and a captivating wintertime display, continue reading into the wineries section (even if you are traveling with children.)
Two excellent winery tours offer something for everyone. Besides being able to sample some of the best Lake Erie wines, these two offer other attractions to interest the younger members of your family.
Right across the street from Perry’s Cave is the Heineman Winery & Crystal Cave. The Crystal Cave is just that – a descent into a cave with walls, ceiling and floor lined with beautiful blue crystals. It’s acknowledged as the world’s largest geode and was discovered in 1897. The crystals range from 8 to 18 inches in length.
Upstairs, Heineman’s Winery offers a tasting bar, a shaded wine garden, winery tour and a gift shop. The winery was founded in 1888 and today it’s run by third and fourth generation Heineman’s. During prohibition, Heineman’s survived, while 17 other wineries folded, by producing grape juice and by giving tours of their Crystal Cave. Today, they control 50 acres of grapes on South Bass Island and continue to produce an excellent selection of Lake Erie’s finest wines. Shipping only to addresses in Ohio, they still manage to crush, bottle and ship 40,000 gallons of their award-winning wines to people state-wide.
Back in the downtown area, you’ll want to devote a couple hours to take the Doller Estate and Put-in-Bay Winery tour. The historic DollerHouse is a victorian, Italianate mansion built on a beautiful estate overlooking the lake and Gibraltar island. On the first floor, you’ll find Put-in- Bay Winery. Whether you choose to sample your wines on the front lawn or in the wonderful garden out back, you’re sure to enjoy your time there. The winery has only been open since 2009, but they feature a rich, warm and inviting tasting room along with wine- themed gifts for sale.
A tour of the DollerHouse also includes a tour of the superbly done Island Life Museum. You’ll be able to actually go inside the last remaining ice house on the island and see how ice could be cut from Lake Erie in winter, and actually stored inside for up to two years. Amazing. Their winter life section also includes an original ice-sail boat that would whisk across Lake Erie’s smooth ice at speeds over 100 m.p.h. That’s insane; but, truth-be-told, I’d have loved to try it.
DollerHouse is also the site of a great many catered corporate and private parties.
Stopping to eat
All those fresh air activities are sure to work up an appetite. Luckily, if there’s anything Put-in-Bay is lacking, it’s not great restaurants. If you drive to Put-in-Bay, you’re sure to see the billboards advertising The Boardwalk and their “Ohio’s best” lobster bisque. Not just marketing hype, this is a signature dish of hearty bisque with full size pieces of lobster meat. If the weather is pleasant, sit outside on the picnic benches and enjoy all the action of the marina.
For a quieter meal, just down Delaware Street, you’ll find Pasquale’s Café. Stop here for a great breakfast, lunch or dinner from their large menu. I’d recommend their tomato, spinach & bacon omelette for breakfast. Yummy!
If you are mid-island, around Heineman’s or Perry’s Cave, proceed just a little further and try Goat Soup and Whiskey. Their claim to fame is “home of the original perch taco.” Whether for lunch or dinner, if you like Lake Erie Perch, you’ve got to try these. You can order the perch either fried or grilled and the special “pali-wali secret sauce” makes this a gourmet treat. Downstairs you’ll find the Chocolate Cafe & Museum for coffees, ice cream, gelato, and oh yeah, chocolate candies.
Accommodations for the night
By now you should be well-fed, well- tired and ready for a place to spend the night. Hope you planned early. Accommodations can fill up months in advance, so it never hurts to think ahead. Your opportunities run the gamut on Put-in-Bay from a state run campground, to B&B’s, motels, resorts and private homes.
If you’ve got a group coming together for a reunion or possibly a corporate retreat, you seriously should consider renting a home for a week. Many wonderful homes and cottages are available at more than competitive rates.
I had the opportunity to stay at Casual Cape & Guest House on Mikes Drive in the East Point section of the island. A welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the downtown area, this beautifully decorated home is in a quiet and private neighborhood setting. Here, the only singing you’ll hear will be from the birds who call Put-in-Bay home. A quick, under 10 minute bike or golf cart ride and you can be back downtown.
Casual Cape is an unusual home with two master bedrooms upstairs, each with its own private bath. Downstairs are another two bedrooms and another bath. Two screened porches complement the nautical themed kitchen and living room. The place is fully air-conditioned and comes complete with a well-equipped kitchen as well as a handy washer and dryer. The entire 1,800 sq.ft. home, which sleeps 12, is located on an acre of well-maintained lawn with off-street parking available .
Reading through their Guest Book, it’s evident that this has been the site of many wonderful family get-togethers as well as many quiet getaways. Owner’s David and Jill Warga, take great pride in this property and if you have a need for a large, comfortable home, this would be a wonderful choice. Click here for a photo tour of the home and the guest house.
Need more ideas or assistance?
For help locating accommodations, attractions or events, check out ShoresAndIslands.com or stop by one of the two Lake Erie Shores and Islands Welcome Centers. The two centers are located at 4424 Milan Rd., Suite A (US 250), Sandusky, OH 44870 (phone 800-255-3743) and 770 SE Catawba Rd. (SR 53), Port Clinton, OH 43452 (phone 800-441-1271.)