Put-in-Bay “To Do” List
The Lake Erie Shores and Islands are ideally suited to small boats. Destinations are close together, so day-tripping means a short boat ride or, if the weather’s uncooperative, a short ferry ride while your boat stays snug on its trailer or in its slip. And boaters have outstanding access, from the numerous launch ramps and marina facilities, to the many protected waterways that allow you to go boating even if the wind and seas kick up from one direction.
Popular area day trips include Kelleys Island and Middle Bass Island. Kelleys is the largest of the Erie Islands. You can dock your trailerable or cruising boat at the family-owned Portside Marina, which recently reopened after extensive remodeling. The marina features 115 slips and can accommodate more than 120 boats. It offers hourly and overnight docking, shower facilities, golf cart and bike rentals, marina store, and a doggy swim ramp. And, thanks to the remodel, boaters now have two additional restrooms with showers. For more information, visit www.portsidemarinaki.com.
Middle Bass Island, easily visible from the Put-in-Bay waterfront, is another fun outing. Middle Bass Island State Park just opened a 190-slip marina with 70 seasonal, 110 transient and 10 personal-watercraft slips. The marina has dockside electric and limited showers and flush toilets. Day dockage is first-come, first-served basis, as are overnight reservations.
Middle Bass also is home to an historic district, wildlife refuge, Lonz Winery and JF Walleyes, a microbrewery and restaurant that incorporates The Blue Lagoon waterpark. The restaurant and waterpark are within easy reach of the marina. To learn more, visit www.jfwalleyes.com.
Cruising boaters who’d like to explore mainland attractions before, during or after a Put-in-Bay visit might consider reserving a transient slip at one of the region’s numerous marina facilities. One option is Lakeside Marina, which joined forces with NE Port Marina to develop a new, deep-water marina complex. Located on Catawba Island near Port Clinton, the marina has 120 floating docks and drive-up access. To learn more, contact Lakeside at 419-732-7160 or NE Port Marina at 419-797-4370.
Another great option is the Venetian Marina, located on 38,000-acre Sandusky Bay adjacent to Cedar Point, one of the world’s largest and most famous amusement parks. This full-service marina has slips for boats 25 to 50 feet in length; fuel pier with pump-out; and a recreational center with heated pool, jacuzzi spa, patio area, picnic deck and indoor community room. For information, visit www.hotymarine.com.
If you’re heading for the Erie Islands from Cleveland or farther east, consider docking at Sawmill Creek Resort’s 176-slip Mariner Village Marina at Huron, Ohio. It offers fully equipped slips from 30 to 50 feet; pump-out and ice at the gas dock; and the dockside Mariner’s Club restaurant and bar. Marina guests may enjoy all the resort’s amenities—including indoor and outdoor pools, golf, tennis, shops and entertainment—plus, Sandusky, Port Clinton and the islands are just a short boat ride away. For more, visit www.sawmillcreek.com.
Tips for Trailer-Boating
• Take a Miller Boat Line ferry to South Bass Island if conditions look iffy. Sit back and enjoy the ride; you, your family and your boat will be there before you know it. Make sure to arrive early, as vehicle lines can be long during high season. Take advantage of kid rates.
• Consider a midweek visit. Traffic is less, plus you won’t be hit with minimum-stay requirements. And in the case of the Put-in-Bay Resort & Conference Center, you’ll get free breakfast on weekday mornings.
• Ask your hotel/resort/inn if they have room for your trailer. They might not openly advertise trailer parking, but they may accommodate you if their parking areas aren’t crowded.
• Choose accommodations with “stuff to do.” Depending on your family, this might mean camping, with all the outdoor fun and adventure that entails. Or, it might mean a full-service resort with pool, bicycle and golf cart rentals, kids’ activities and special events.
• Consider reserving a transient slip at a local marina. Your boat will be ready to go at a moment’s notice, plus you’ll be able to enjoy all the facility’s amenities.
• Purchase an “Island Fun Pack,” which incorporates admission to South Bass Island’s main attractions at reduced rates. The Fun Pack is offered through the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Welcome Center and at the ferry landings.
• Research available discounts through the Welcome Center, the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center and the Miller Boat Line. All three organizations post coupons and special offers on their websites.
The Other Face of Put-in-Bay
Sometimes, things don't turn out exactly the way you plan. Sheets of rain swept the Miller Boat Line dock at Catawba Island, Ohio, where a smattering of soggy passengers awaited the 5:30 p.m. ferry to South Bass Island. Disheartened, I settled into the dockside waiting area. Originally, I’d planned to visit South Bass by trailerable boat with my family. Then my 13-month-old daughter got sick, and my photographer husband was called out on a job. OK, no problem; I’d do the story on my own.
Then the boat couldn’t come, either.
As all Great Lakes boaters know, the best-laid plans can easily go awry when you mix boats with spring-commissioning issues, temperamental waters and unpredictable weather. And as all journalists know, the original story concept and the real story often differ; when the bottom falls out, you need to get creative.
I was working on it, but frankly, I also was wet and cold. And I had a hunch the legendary port of Put-in-Bay on this chilly, gray, midweek day would not resemble the rollicking Mackinac Island-meets-Key West hotspot I remembered from my previous visit.
A cheerful shout roused me. I turned to see a young man embracing a female acquaintance; he was returning home from college, and their families clearly knew each other. I scanned the rest of my fellow passengers with more interest. A stout middle-aged woman asked a young lady in flip-flops if she needed help with one of her boxes, and a nearby man insisted that he carry her heavy case of bottled water.
An elderly gentleman stopped to greet a deckhand with a hearty clap on the back. And later, in the the passenger cabin, I listened to a twenty-something chirp about his upcoming summer employment to a burly-but-silent island paramedic.
Somewhere in this lay the real story. Perhaps there was more to this place than what I remembered.
Welcome to “The Bay”
Just a few miles off Ohio’s Catawba Island lies the largest archipelago on Lake Erie. For most boaters, the islands’ beating heart is the village, and anchorage, of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island. The name itself has become synonymous with lower-latitude-inspired waterfront revelry.
This authentic Victorian-era community, perched on a limestone island just 3.7 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, is one of the Great Lakes’ top destinations. Affectionately called “The Bay,” it draws roughly 2 million people each year, and many of them are boaters.
First mapped by French explorers, South Bass became an agricultural settlement in the early 1800s, but British soldiers drove off island residents and destroyed their crops in the prelude to the War of 1812. No one attempted another permanent settlement until the 1840s.
By the 1850s, however, South Bass was home to farmers, millers and wine-makers. In fact, the first steamboats began arriving during that decade, filled with city-dwellers hoping to escape the heat and frenetic pace of urban life—and sample the island wines. Tourism boomed.
Today, Put-in-Bay lays claim to, among other things, the world’s longest bar and the world’s largest swim-up bar. On busy summer weekends, its public docks overflow with rafted-up boats, and its streets teem with holidaymakers seeking the next musical performance, live act and drink special. I visited the island on a Friday evening in July, and I have to admit the whole thing seemed like a lot of fun.
But life and interests change. Yes, I wanted to investigate the options for visiting Put-in-Bay with a trailerable boat; but as a parent, I also wanted to see if South Bass Island could be a family-friendly destination—which I was determined to do, even minus the family and the boat.
So many options
When planning the Put-in-Bay trip, I assumed we’d run across to the island in our trailerable boat.
“Most people do run their own boats over,” said Tom Ervin of Skipper Bud’s Marina Del Isle in Lakeside/Marblehead. “If you have light winds and nice weather, it’s great.”
Double-check the marine forecast before departing, make sure your boat is equipped with up-to-date charts and the appropriate safety gear, and have a back-up plan in case the weather heads south. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the five Great Lakes, is notorious for her violent temper. Her west basin has an average depth of 25 to 30 feet, so she can throw steep, breaking waves skyward in a hurry.
If you’re uncomfortable with conditions, there’s a simple answer: Load your tow vehicle, trailer, boat and family onto a Miller Boat Line ferry at Catawba. In less than half an hour, you’ll be at South Bass.
The 105-year-old Miller Boat Line is an island tradition, a company that started out running harbor water taxis in summer and an ice-harvesting business in winter. Converted into a ferry business in the 1940s, the line has been in the hands of just two families—the Millers and the Markets.
The ferry crews are remarkably efficient. In minutes, they offloaded all vehicles and passengers at the island’s south-side ferry dock, welcomed aboard the return crowd and chuffed back to Catawba. I clambered into a pink flamingo-adorned North Coast Cab van, which took me to the downtown Put-in-Bay Resort & Conference Center for a scant $3.
Many trailer boaters will elect to stay in a local hotel, resort or inn and keep their boats on trailers at South Bass Island State Park, or, if they’re lucky, near their accommodations in town. South Bass Island has two public ramps—one at the state park and the other downtown, between Public Dock C and Fox’s Dock. The state park’s ramp is generally the best bet; it’s wider, has a more gradual slope and offers plenty of trailer parking.
Or, consider putting your boat in a transient slip at a local marina. That may seem extravagant, but just think: Your boat will be ready to go at a moment’s notice, an appealing convenience when children are involved—and given the number of fun day-trip destinations nearby.
Public options include Public Docks A and C, operated by the Village of Put-in-Bay; Public Dock B, operated by the DeRivera Park Trust; and Oak Point State Park on Peach Point, about a half-mile west of the village. Although not a trailer-boating option, cruisers also can opt for the public mooring buoys.
If you do choose the public docks, bear in mind A Dock is traditionally less rowdy than B and C. The village operates a bathhouse for boaters and island visitors across from the downtown docks; tokens provide services.
You also might want to take a look at the island’s private marinas: The Boardwalk Dock, Fox’s Dock / Duggan’s Marina, Miller Marina and the Put-in-Bay Yacht Club, whose 124-foot pier is open to the public. You’ll likely have more peace if you want to relax on board.
“We’re only one block from downtown, but it’s quiet by 10 p.m.,” said Julene Market, whose parents bought the Miller Boat Line in 1978. The Markets also own the Miller Marina. Chuckling, she added, “Not everyone wants to be up until the wee hours!”
At Miller Marina, guests will enjoy amenities such as an outdoor pavilion, grilling area, new gift shop, full-facility restrooms and WiFi.
“We just built a small patio on the bay so you can sit and eat lunch,” Market said. “There’s a pool nearby at the Crew’s Nest, too, and you can buy a day membership during the week.”
Visiting Put-in-Bay during the week certainly does have its advantages, from the Crew’s Nest day memberships to no minimum-stay requirements at island hotels. The Put-in-Bay Resort & Conference Center, my home base for the two-day visit, even offers free breakfast to midweek guests.
“We encourage people to come during the week,” Market said. “Put-in-Bay really does have two sides.”
Island flavor, color and history
Whether your boat’s on its trailer or in a marina, the best way to explore South Bass Island is by bicycle or golf cart. I chose the latter. With the sun finally showing its face after the previous evening’s deluge, I spent some quality time figuring out how to put the silly thing in gear and then tootled off down Catawba Avenue to find my first attraction.
German immigrant Gustav Heineman founded Heineman’s Winery in 1888, and today it is the oldest family-owned winery in Ohio.
Gustav’s great-grandson, Ed Heineman, was busy in the bottling area when I arrived. He greeted me warmly and introduced me to Joe, the young guide that would take me through the winery itself and into the cave.
Crystal Cave is the world’s largest geode; it bristles with blue-white celestite crystals formed during the last ice age. As we descended 35 feet below the surface, Joe explained workers found the cave in 1897 while drilling a well. Initially, they didn’t know what to do with it.
“Then, during Prohibition, they gave tours for a nickel a person,” he said. “That saved us when all the other wineries closed.”
Today Heineman’s cultivates 45 acres of grapes on South Bass Island and 300 additional acres on North Bass; it buys additional grapes from the mainland if necessary. Some grapes—Concord, Catawba, Delaware, Ives and Niagara—are native to the islands. Joe explained that the winery also cross-pollinates to create hybrids and grafts new vines onto existing root systems for additional varieties.
Heineman’s produces 35,000 gallons of award-winning wines each year.
“Pink Catawba is the most popular,” Joe told me. “Really, the bulk of what we sell comes from our five native grapes.”
To better understand the fuss, I sampled Pink Catawba. Its sweet freshness and fruity, almost tropical undertones were perfect for a hot summer day. It was, literally, the flavor of the island.
From there, I motored across the street to Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center, which is so much more than South Bass Island’s second “show cave.” Here, families can test their navigation skills and speed at Fort aMAZE’n, play a few rounds of mini-golf, tour an antique car museum, mine for gemstones, scale a climbing wall and have a picnic.
And they can visit The Butterfly House. Opened in 2004, this 4,000-square-foot aviary houses exotic butterflies from around the world. Guests can stroll through tropical foliage, relax next to a bubbling water pump and splashing waterfall, and listen to soothing music as they enjoy their fluttering, delicate companions—who definitely aren’t shy about landing on visitors.
“Right now, we have more than 1,000 butterflies and maybe 70 different varieties,” said Chuck, an elderly guide who volunteers at The Butterfly House with his wife, Carol. “Each week, we bring in 300 to 350 Central and South American pupas from Costa Rica, and every other week, 160 to 180 from Southeast Asia and Australia.”
The pump and waterfall provide much-needed humidity, and automatic windows in the roof open and close to help regulate temperature. As I wandered through the aviary with Carol at my side, I became 10 years old again. My grin grew wider with each butterfly that landed on my bright orange fleece, and I couldn’t help the occasional, unabashed giggle.
Islander Charles “Skip” Duggan was behind this enormously successful complex. A former Miller Boat Line captain and commercial fisherman, Duggan founded Island Bike Rental and Island Transportation, purchased Parker Boat Line and started the Jet Express passenger ferry line. In 2000, he purchased Perry’s Cave.
“Given Put-in-Bay’s reputation, Skip wanted to make someplace for families,” Chuck said. Carol nodded and added, “He wanted to make a learning place.”
Duggan passed away in January 2007. His daughter runs the operation today.
After the butterflies, I descended 50 feet into Perry’s Cave. While the island is riddled with 28 caves, only Crystal and Perry’s are open to the public.
Perry’s Cave has welcomed tourists for 140 years. Sue, my guide, pointed out the black smudges on the cave ceiling from long-ago lanterns. I also was fascinated to see the underground lake, so crystal-clear that its 4-foot depth looked like 4 inches. Somewhere deep in the limestone bedrock, this lake is connected to Erie.
“When the lake kicks up,” Sue said, “it takes about three to four hours; but then the water level changes here.”
Next I drove out to South Bass Island State Park, former site of the elegant Hotel Victory, which burned in 1919. Here, outdoorsy visitors can camp at either non-electric sites or full-service sites with electric, water and sewer hook-ups. Pet camping is allowed in designated areas. Cabents, which look a little like yurts, are available for weekly rentals.
The park also has flush toilets, showers and a dump station, as well as a picnic area, playground and snack shop. There are nice spots for swimming and fishing.
When I returned to town, DeRivera Park rang with children’s laughter—the improving weather had attracted day-trippers, and the waterfront park’s playground was bursting. Golf carts buzzed along the main thoroughfare, and shoppers carried full bags out of the Carriage House and nibbled treats from the delightful Candy Bar.
After a mouth-watering Pompeii chicken sandwich at Cafe Pasquale’s, I made my way to the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial Visitor’s Center. Unfortunately, the granite tower—the world’s most massive Doric column and the country’s third-tallest monument at 352 feet—was closed. The U.S. Park Service hopes to have repairs to the observation deck, abacus, upper and lower penthouse roof and lantern complete in time for the 200th anniversary of Perry’s victory in 2013.
It was from this harbor that Oliver Hazard Perry sailed to defeat the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie, a key victory during the War of 1812. The memorial commemorates that victory, but it also celebrates peace; the nearly 4,000-mile U.S.-Canadian border is the longest unguarded international border in the world.
After examining the visitor’s center’s excellent displays, I walked out to the tower. History felt alive here. It wasn’t hard to imagine the U.S. and British soldiers, the gallant Age of Sail warships—or the escaped slaves, for whom this area was a last Underground Railroad stop en route to Canada and freedom.
Behind the curtain
As night fell, I found myself on an unexpected quest. Downtown was so dark, I looked up and down the streets in search of parked cars, that tell-tale sign of an open restaurant or pub. I remembered with jolt that this was still the offseason, with Memorial Day weekend more than two weeks away.
Then I spotted the neon lights at Mr. Ed’s, shining like a beacon in the night. And it seemed that everyone on the island who needed a hot meal, a cold beer and companions for watching the Cavaliers-Celtics game had congregated here. The bartender seemed amused that I bussed my own table to be helpful, and when he affably called me sweetheart, I didn’t mind.
I finished my Chubby Burger and decided to work some of it off in DeRivera Park. Two cars passed each other in the street; the drivers stopped, rolled down their windows and commenced what we Midwesterners call “visiting.” After I’d walked through the park, along the waterfront and back through town, they were still there.
Once again, I was getting a peek behind the curtain.
Put-in-Bay and South Bass Island, as it turns out, are perfect for families. You can go swimming, boating and parasailing, and you can rent kayaks and Jet-Skis. You can camp, hike and bike. At Adventure Bay, enjoy batting cages, go-carts, an arcade, swimming pool and beach volleyball; at the Aquatic Visitors Center, kids can try fishing; and at the Lake Erie Islands Nature & Wildlife Center, explore the nature trail and play at the new frog pond.
Learn more about island history at the 19th century Stonehenge Estate and at the 1897 Doller House, home to the Museum of Island Life. If you want to do some wine-tasting, kids can try locally made grape juices. Don’t miss the Chocolate Cafe and Chocolate Museum, and the historic 1917 Kimberly’s Carousel, next to the Carriage House, also is worth a stop.
Then there are the events. Sunday antique car parades, outdoor music performances, art festivals, wine festivals, the Mayfly Festival, Historical Weekend, Put-in-Bay Pirate Fest, Old Island Day, Queen Victoria Weekend, the Fourth of July, Christmas in July…the list goes on and on. So does the roster of fun day trips, from amusement, water and wildlife parks on the mainland, to the neighboring islands of Middle Bass and Kelleys (see sidebar).
If you’re hoping for a low-key day, however, South Bass Island is decorated with beautiful public spaces and plenty of playgrounds. Visit the Island General Store or the Picnic Basket for provisions and carry-out items, and take your family on a memorable picnic.
And to go even more low-key, definitely visit the island mid-week, especially during the shoulder seasons. You’ll see the real island community, the one that tends to fade into the background when “The Bay” gears up for its summerlong party. If you take your time—and stop to visit—you’ll see the island’s softer side. The other face of Put-in-Bay.
In this case, despite the best laid plans, things turned out better than I possibly could have imagined.