May 2005 Issue
When warm breezes start to blow over western Lake Erie, vacationers head to the islands for relaxation and fun.
Everybody has his or her own idea of the dream vacation. For some, it's reclining by the pool with a frosty tropical drink or relaxing with a loved one at a cozy bed-and-breakfast. For others, it's stretching out in a sleeping bag under the stars or exploring a new destination with the kids.
The Lake Erie islands are endowed with a diverse array of activities, facilities and accommodations that can make the dream a reality. The following are four getaways for four different kinds of vacationers: outdoor enthusiasts, families, couples and singles.
Jet Express: Offers daily passenger service aboard hydrojet catamarans from downtown Port Clinton to downtown Put-in-Bay, South Bass Island. For more information, log on to www.jet-express.com or call 800/245-1538.
Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line: Offers daily ferry service for both passengers and vehicles from Marblehead to Kelleys Island. For more information, log on to www.kelleysislandferry.com or call 419/798-9763.
Miller Boat Line: Offers daily ferry service for both passengers and vehicles from Catawba Point to the southern tip of South Bass Island and Middle Bass Island. Reservations required for vehicles on trips to Middle Bass Island. For more information, log on to www.millerferry.com or call 800/500-2421.
Goodtime Island Cruises: Offers once-daily island-hopping cruises from downtown Sandusky to South Bass and Kelleys islands and evening cruises to Kelleys Island on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Cruises begin Memorial Day weekend. For more information, log on to www.goodtimeboat.com or call 800/446-3140.
Pelee Island Transportation Co.: Offers daily ferry service for both passengers and vehicles from Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario, to Pelee Island, as well as Friday and Sunday service from Sandusky. Daily service from Sandusky begins in late June. Reservations required for vehicles. For more information, log on to www.bmts.com/~northland/pelee/ or call 800/661-2220.
When it comes to planning a warm-weather getaway in the great outdoors, the Lake Erie islands are hard to beat. The lake, of course, has long been a haven for boaters and fishermen. The travel guides are riddled with ads for full-service marinas offering permanent and transient dockage and fishing charters catering to anglers anxious to reel in walleye and perch. And the islands have plenty of places to bike, hike, swim and camp after they've come ashore. The area, located at the junction of two migratory flyways, is a paradise for bird-watchers in the spring and fall. Ottawa County alone boasts more bald eagle nests than any other spot in the state.
Two of the loveliest Ohio State Parks are in Lake Erie. South Bass Island State Park, located a mile from downtown Put-in-Bay in the southwest corner of the island, has a launch ramp, fishing pier, small stone beach, and campground with electric and nonelectric sites, flush restrooms and showers, a limited number of full-service hookups, and a rustic cottage. The most popular spot to rough it, however, is in one of four cabents, octagonal wood-sided structures with canvas tops that offer comforts such as kitchenettes, bathrooms with showers, even real furniture.
Similar accommodations can be found at Kelleys Island State Park in the form of two lakeside "island yurts" - round, wood-framed canvas structures with spacious decks that overlook a sandy beach. The 676-acre park, situated on the island's northern end, also has a campground with electric and nonelectric sites, flush restrooms and showers, trails through a reclaimed quarry, picnic areas, launch ramps and a sandy swimming beach. Located
within the park are the North Pond Nature Preserve, a 30-acre marsh that offers some of the best birding opportunities on the island, and the North Shore Nature Preserve. The latter is home to Ohio's most intact alvar, a rare horizontal expanse of nearly barren limestone or dolomite exposed by a glacier that passed over the area during
prehistoric times. The park's most famous feature, however, are the glacial grooves left in the soft island limestone - the largest grooves of their kind in the world.
One of the newest places to pitch a tent is on Middle Bass Island, where the state has added 20 primitive campsites to the 123.5-acre Middle Bass Island State Park, better known to many visitors as the former Lonz Winery. The campsites, each equipped with a picnic table and fire ring (visitors must bring their own drinking water and use a vault latrine), are located in a wooded area on the island's western shore. Other park facilities consist of a marina with 50 slips (24 with electrical hookups) and wall dockage for approximately 20 boats, a playground and nine-hole miniature golf course. Natural attractions include wetlands and glacial grooves, located just south of the marina. The Kuehnle Wildlife Area, a 20-acre pond managed by the Ohio Division of Wildlife that harbors a variety of plants, birds and other animal life (including the rare Lake Erie water snake), is a favorite spot for fishermen, bird-watchers and other nature-lovers.
The most undeveloped of the Lake Erie islands is also the largest: Pelee Island, part of the Canadian province of Ontario. Here nature-lovers will find quiet roads that wind through miles of flat, undeveloped land - the perfect spot for a long bicycle ride - and sandy beaches that have yet to be discovered by anyone but the locals. Pelee Island is a particular favorite with bird-watchers during the first three weeks of May, when the Pelee Island Heritage Center offers daily birding tours, and from late August through September, when the monarch butterfly passes through during its annual migration to Mexico. Like Kelleys and Middle Bass islands, Pelee has its own set of glacial grooves at Mill Point.
The family-friendly side of South Bass Island shows itself to visitors the minute they step off the ferry in downtown Put-in-Bay, the island's only village. The lakefront park is surrounded by rows of Victorian buildings housing those establishments of which childhood vacation memories are made: T-shirt and souvenir shops, ice-cream and candy stores, burger joints and pizza parlors. For grown-ups, there are boutiques, galleries and restaurants that serve specialties such as The Boardwalk's famous lobster bisque. Many people leave their cars behind and see the island by rented bicycle or golf cart - a good way to avoid the long lines of cars, trucks and campers that queue up at the ferry docks during the summer. The Chocolate Cafe & Museum, 820 Catawba Ave., advertises a truly sweet deal: a free pound of chocolate with each golf cart rented for the day from there. Those who prefer to leave the driving to someone else while they attend to the little ones can board the Island Tour Train, which allows passengers to disembark and reboard at several stops during its narrated tours.
The first thing most pint-sized visitors want to do is take an elevator ride to the top of Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 352-foot column of pink granite rising from the island's isthmus that commemorates Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's defeat of the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The observation deck provides way-cool views of the lake and other islands, and the Welcome Center features a video theater, interactive displays and the oldest known statue of Perry himself. Another must-see is Kimberly's Carousel (Delaware and Hartford avenues), a rare 1917 Allen Herschell merry-go-round that features menagerie animals as well as horses.
Budding geologists will want to check out Crystal Cave, a huge geode (some say the world's largest) of bluish-white celestite crystals located underneath the Heineman Winery, 978 Catawba Ave. (A glass of grape juice for small fry, wine for adults, is included in the winery-and-cave tour.) Across the street is Perry's Cave, a natural limestone cave where Commodore Perry found a crystal-clear underground lake to supply drinking water for his men. Also on site is a mining sluice, where kids of all ages can pan for real gems, minerals and fossils; "War of 18 Holes," a miniature golf course with a War of 1812 theme; the Butterfly House, a fully enclosed garden that houses butterflies from all over the world ; and an antique car museum. The Aquatic Visitors Center, a former fish-hatchery-turned-educational-center on Peach Orchard Point operated by the Ohio Division of Wildlife, provides rods and free bait to children so they can try their hand at fishing on the docks.
Families looking to extend their stay on the island at somewhere other than a campground will find a number of cottages and condos available for rent. One of the latest additions to the list of local hotels is the BayShore Inn (419/285-1700, www.bayshoreresortpib.com), which bills itself as Put-in-Bay's only lakefront hotel. The nautical-themed property, located within walking distance of downtown Put-in-Bay, has 60 rooms, each with a private patio or screened-in balcony overlooking the lake; a 30-person hot tub, "conversation pool" and regular swimming pool; lakefront bar/lunch counter that serves burgers, subs and salads; and on-site paddleboat, kayak and golf-cart rentals.
South Bass Island has a long-and-storied reputation as a place to party. On summer weekends ferries arrive loaded with visitors eager to eat, drink and enjoy live music provided by local favorites such as Pat Dailey in Put-in-Bay's restaurants and bars. A few watering holes - The Beer Barrel Saloon, once billed as "the world's longest bar," and The Roundhouse - have become legends in their own time.
Of course, one needs a place to bed down during a weekend of revelry. There are a number of hotels and B&Bs within walking distance of downtown Put-in-Bay. But the most exotic is the Islander Inn (877/500-STAY, www.islanderinnpib.com), a Caribbean-themed resort on a relatively quiet side street off Put-in-Bay's village square. The 106-room property is within easy walking distance of bars and restaurants, yet is well-run enough that guests actually get a good night's sleep. Indeed, the proprietor points out that the weekday crowd is mostly made up of families.
The main attraction is the complex of pools around which the two- and three-story hotel is built. In addition to the free-form pool, 30-person whirlpool and kiddie pool, there's a swim-up bar decorated with tropical wooden birds and the license plates of Caribbean nations, and a "waterfall bar" housed in a mono-lithic fake-stone structure with an interior painted to resemble an aquarium. A stream cascades past the service window of the latter into a neighboring "conversation pool" with a chaise-studded cement island accessed by an arched bridge. Live music replaces Jimmy Buffett songs on the sound system on Friday and Saturday afternoons, and food is delivered poolside by waiters in golf carts from the neighboring Blue Iguana Bar & Grill.
Those in the mood for a sit-down meal can walk across the parking lot to the Caribbean-themed restaurant, located in the Grand Islander Hotel. The menu includes such items as conch fritters, Jamaican jerk chicken, "Cheeseburgers in Paradise" (an item undoubtedly inspired by the Jimmy Buffett song of the same name), Key Lime pie, and frozen margaritas, pina coladas, rumrunners and strawberry daquiris. Those who can't get a room at the Islander can try checking into the Grand Islander, the Islander's sister property. Although the hotel sports a colonial instead of tropical decor, its guests do have access to the pool complex.
Looking to rekindle that spark in your relationship? Then pack your bags, grab your spouse, and check into one of the charming bed-and-breakfasts on South Bass and Kelleys islands. Maybe it's the fresh island air. Maybe it's the fact that you can't even think about leaving until the first scheduled ferry run in the morning. But there's something about these islands that inspires couples to walk hand-in-hand, cuddle in golf carts, and trade licks on an ice cream cone. A number of B&Bs have king- and queen-sized beds, private baths, secluded porches, hot tubs and access to a refrigerator for chilling a bottle of wine or champagne. Some rent exclusively to couples, which means guests aren't disturbed by the pitter-patter of little feet or the hollers of twentysomethings returning from a night in the local bars.
One of the most romantic establishments in the islands is A Water's Edge Retreat (827 E. Lakeshore Dr., 419/746-2455, www.watersedgeretreat.com), a 10-year-old Victorian farmhouse complete with wraparound front porch situated on Kelleys Island's southern shore. Amenities include six antique-filled rooms with adjoining private baths, a gazebo and lakeside deck out front (the preferred spots for enjoying the wine and hors d'oeuvres served every afternoon), bicycles for borrowing and golf carts for renting. Licensed personnel schedule massages, facials, body wraps and yoga instruction in a third-floor treatment room for an additional fee, and the owners offer two-hour cruises on their 35-foot sailboat in some package deals. Book the honeymoon suite, and you can slip into your own private whirlpool-for-two instead of heading to the backyard hot tub, and enjoy breakfast served on the suite's sun porch instead of making an appearance in the dining room for the gourmet buffet. Even the honeymoon suite, however, is missing a television, telephone and alarm clock â€” good news for anyone who's ever spent a vacation watching their one-and-only stare at a succession of soap operas or sporting events.
Of course, no romantic rendezvous is complete without the romantic dinner for two. The Island House (131 Division St., 419/746-2805) serves steaks, lobster, lamb, fish and pastas in a contemporary-yet-cozy setting. (One islander points out that while the restaurant is known for its selection of martinis, it doesn't have a bar that draws the drinking crowds.) Also recommended is the Kelleys Island Wine Co. (418 Woodford Rd., 419/746-2678), which offers a menu of steaks, prime rib, pork chops and salmon. Top off the evening with a moonlit drive back to the B&B, and you have a weekend you won't soon forget.