When it comes to vacation destinations, the Lake Erie Islands may be the most misunderstood spot in Ohio. Some people don’t even know they exist, let alone that they’re part of the Buckeye State. And those who are up on their geography can harbor a decidedly outdated view of them. Some believe the only overnight accommodations available are weekly cottage rentals, the only places to eat are bars that serve booze and burgers, and the only way to pass the time is by engaging in outdoor pursuits such as boating, fishing and swimming, or by bellying up to the nearest bar.
It is true that the islands have managed to retain their bucolic charm, making them a haven for outdoorsmen, nature-lovers and anyone looking for a little peace. And those looking for a party will certainly find one in any number of watering holes. But in recent years a number of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants and attractions have opened that rival anything travelers might find in more cosmopolitan areas — a slow-but-steady development travelers are starting to notice. Even relatively quiet Kelleys Island is seeing an increase in tourist traffic, according to Patti Muranyi, who owns The Kelleys Island Brewery with husband Doug.
“Last summer, we just were so amazed at how many people were first-time visitors,” she marvels. “They’re just discovering it.”Lakeside Lodging
The greatest concentration of accommodations is on South Bass Island, the most developed of the Lake Erie archipelago. And the most interesting place to check into is arguably The Islander (225 Erie St., Put-in-Bay 43456, 877/500-7829, www.islanderinnpib.com
), a 110-room hotel in the village of Put-in-Bay with a Caribbean theme authentic enough to make you believe you’re there — at least after a couple of margaritas. The courtyard has a swim-up bar, swimming pool, 100-person conversation pool and 40-person hot tub, all situated amid tropical landscaping. Next door is the 50-room Grand Islander (432 Catawba Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-5555, www.grandislanderpib.com
), which now houses the Isola Day Spa and Level 2, a Las Vegas-style nightclub. The Isola (419/285-4060, www.isoladayspa.com
) offers massages, facials, manicures and pedicures, while the 5,000-square-foot Level 2 has an elevated dance floor, two VIP rooms and a disc jockey spinning dance tracks every night.
“It is a huge hit,” proprietor Tim Niese says of the latter. “At night, we literally have lines of people waiting to get in. It’s obviously more geared to the younger set. But we get people of all ages in there.”
Despite the amenities offered by these sister hotels, their proximity to two of the island’s largest and most imaginative drinking establishments — Splash, a 98-seat swim-up bar, and The Flaming Skull, a full-scale pirate ship with 65-foot masts and full sails surrounded by a moat — may make them a less-than-ideal choice for those desiring a quieter vacation. An alternative is the BayShore Resort (328 Toledo Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 866/422-9746, www.bayshoreresortpib.com
), the island’s only waterfront hotel. The nautical-themed property is just a two-minute walk from downtown Put-in-Bay — close to restaurants and bars lining the village’s charming Victorian square, but far enough away from the throngs that crowd them on a Saturday evening — and boasts 60 lake-view rooms with private patios or balconies, a 30-person whirlpool spa, two swimming pools, a poolside bar, restaurant, and golf carts, paddle boats and kayaks for rent.
Bed-and-breakfast aficionados will be happy to know that a number of such properties cater exclusively to guest who prefer, as one ad puts it, “the quiet side of the island.” Among them is the Arbor Inn (511 Trenton Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-2306, www.arborinnpib.com
), a Cape Cod on a three-acre wooded lot overlooking the vineyards of Heineman’s Winery (978 Catawba Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-2811, www.heinemanswinery.com
). The house was built specifically as a B&B — all four king-bedded guest rooms have in-suite baths.
“I first got interested in bed-and-breakfasts after traveling in England and Ireland,” owner Mike Byrnes says. “The one thing that I didn’t care for was the bathroom down at the end of the hall. I started from scratch rather than going into an older home and trying to remodel and rework it.”
On Kelleys Island, the biggest development for tourists is last August’s opening of the Kelleys Island Venture Resort (441 W. Lakeshore Dr., Kelleys Island 43438, 419/746-2900, www.kiventureresort.com
), an all-suite property with a swimming pool, hot tub, and 1,600-square-foot conference room that is the island’s first modern hotel of any appreciable size. Each of the 30 traditionally furnished units has a patio or balcony with a lake view and a kitchenette with an under-counter refrigerator, microwave oven and coffeemaker. The second floor units also have a loft with two queen beds in addition to a separate sleeping area below — the perfect arrangement for families.
“There are a lot of bed-and-breakfasts on the island that do not allow children,” general manager Lindsay Bouman says. “But we like kids.”
Visitors who prefer a B&B will want to try A Water’s Edge Retreat (827 E. Lakeshore Dr., Kelleys Island 43438, 800/884-5143, www.watersedgeretreat.com
), a luxury establishment modeled after a Victorian farmhouse near Cape May, New Jersey. Like the Arbor Inn, all six antique-filled guest rooms have in-suite baths. Additional amenities include a private lakeside deck out front, a hot tub in back, a third-floor treatment room where licensed personnel schedule massages, and a 35-foot sailboat available for charter. The property is offering a new two-night-minimum package for repeat customers that includes a gourmet dinner in the dining room or wrap-around veranda as well as the daily breakfast buffet. According to co-owner Elizabeth Hermes, guests choose in advance from three different entrees, things like beef Wellington, stuffed pork tenderloin in a Marsala mushroom sauce and grilled teriyaki-glazed salmon. Hermes, however, selects the sides and desserts.
“I don’t like to haveeverything planned,” she explains. “I’m a spur-of-the-moment kind of gal.”Adventures in Nature
Thrill-seekers will want to try parasailing. Put-in-Bay Parasail (The Boardwalk dock, 341 Bayview Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-3703, 239/272-0231, www.putinbayparasail.com
) offers 10- to 15-minute rides in what owner Jason Hall describes as “a vented canopy pulled by a boat.” He says he’s had passengers as young as 3 (accompanied by parents, of course) and as old as 89.
“You take off and land from the back of the boat,” he reassures. “There’s no flyer input or experience needed, and you don’t get wet if you don’t want to. You just sit in the harness. It’s very slow and gentle — it’s not a roller-coaster ride.”
History buffs and wildlife enthusiasts will want to check out the Lake Erie Islands Nature and Wildlife Center, formerly known as the Alaskan Wildlife Museum (corner of Meechen and Put-in-Bay roads, Put-in-Bay Township 43456, 419/285-2804, www.leihs.org
). The facility, which houses a couple hundred mounts of birds, fish and animals (including a grizzly bear and a cougar), was acquired by the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum last year, and features a new nature trail this year.
The historical society museum (25 Town Hall Place, Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-2804, leihs.org
) documents the islands’ history from Native American occupation to the mid-20th century with photographs, videos and artifacts such as a piece of hull from the U.S.S. Niagara
, which was involved in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812; china, silver and furniture used in the Hotel Victory — the largest hotel in the United States when it was built in 1892 — before it was destroyed by fire in 1919; and the Fresnel lens from the South Bass Island lighthouse.
“People will actually come just for that,” director Susie Cooper says of the lens.
The most colorful array of live specimen is at The Butterfly House (979 Catawba Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-2446, www.perryscave.com
), a 4,000-square-foot greenhouse on the grounds of the Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center filled with tropical plants and butterflies from Central America and Malaysia. Among the 800 exotic residents fluttering around at any one time are blue morphos, paper kites and queen owls.
“The queen owls are actually our largest butterflies,” co-owner Dianne Duggan says. “When their wings are open, the coloring on them looks like the face of an owl. It scares all of their predators away.”
Also on the property is a display of antique cars, an 18-hole miniature-golf course, a rock-climbing wall and a “mining sluice” where children can pan for real gems, minerals and fossils. But the original attraction is the center’s namesake, a limestone cave with an underground lake used by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s men during the war of 1812 as a shelter and source of water.
The addition of Jet Express ferry service between Kelleys and South Bass (800/245-1JET, www.jet-express.com) has made it easy for visitors to enjoy attractions on both islands. Repeat visitors who have already seen Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, the glacial grooves and Inscription Rock or had their fill of swimming, sunning, boating, fishing, hiking and biking, still have plenty to discover.Island Fare
When it comes to food, visitors will find a surprising array of options. For example, a new prime-rib sandwich topped with grilled onions, mushrooms and mozzarella cheese is quickly becoming a signature item at The Kelleys Island Brewery (504 W. Lakeshore Dr., Kelleys Island 43438, 419/746-2314, www.kelleysislandbrewpub.com
). But the brewpub also offers meatless alternatives such as roasted red pepper hummus and a vegetarian spring roll that looks more like a dumpling. An annual Oktoberfest buffet includes wiener schnitzel, handmade sauerkraut balls and halushka, a Polish dish that consists of red cabbage on bratwurst and egg noodles.
On South Bass Island, a takeout institution known as The Boardwalk (341 Bayview Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-3695, www.the-boardwalk.com
) is famous for its lobster bisque. A couple of years ago, father-and-son owners Marv and Eric Booker added the enclosed Upper Deck on top of the original building so diners can enjoy their live Maine lobster, Alaskan king crab and Lake Erie perch and walleye in a more refined environment. “We don’t have white tablecloths,” Eric Booker says. “But we do china and glassware up there. It’s a beautiful, elegant setting.” This month the Bookers plan to open a yet-to-be-named Irish pub at 421 Catawba Ave. that offers traditional fare, such as fish and chips and shepherd’s pie.
Across the harbor from The Boardwalk is Axel & Harry’s Waterfront Grille (227 Bayview Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-2572, www.axelandharrys.com
), an upscale lakefront eatery with windows framing views of Perry’s monument and a menu heavy on prime beef and seafood. According to owner Bill Blumensaadt, the chef grills scallops, crab cakes and lollipop lamb chops, as well as steak, shrimp and chicken skewers, all for sale by the piece on the patio shared with the High Tide Waterfront Bar from mid-afternoon to sundown. It’s the last stop before catching a ferry back to the mainland for many visitors. And as they sit down to dinner in the restaurant or bar, Blumensaadt hears the same comment over and over again: “I can’t believe that this is Ohio!”