About Us

"Key West of the Great Lakes"

By Kit Kiefer, The New York Times
Published: November 7, 2008

MORE than 70 years ago Ernie Pyle, in his itinerant-travel-writer phase, traveled to Ohio's Lake Erie shore and wrote about a village on South Bass Island called Put-in-Bay. Caribbean-style cruise ships plied the Great Lakes then, and Put-in-Bay was a favored, and lively, stop.

"Put-in-Bay is the capital, you might say, of the Lake Erie islands," Pyle wrote before adding, "Put-in-Bay lives off wine and summer excursionists." Save for a few details, Pyle got it right - then and now.

These days Put-in-Bay has the rowdy, tank-top informality of Key West, Fla., with golf carts, and includes energetic game fishing, striking over-the-water sunsets - and mixed drinks in place of the wine noted by Pyle. Local residents largely steer clear of the village, and repair to cool inland cottages and lakeside retreats where stick-built, three-room affairs rub architectural elbows with mini-mansions of more recent vintage.

"It's kind of a slice that's frozen in time," said Charles Lowe, 79, who drove a 1930 Model-A Ford from Fairport, N.Y., to Put-in-Bay to spend the summer. "You genuinely feel like you're in a different place." Mr. Lowe has been visiting the region since the 1940s, and says he has already booked his rental for next summer.

Put-in-Bay's island neighbors include Kelleys, Middle Bass and North Bass, which deliver their own brands of escapism, but with less night life, less frequent ferry service, more solitude and slightly lower property values.

For those not enamored of island life, the nearby Ohio shore also features second-home living. Oak Harbor sits on a broad river that leads to Lake Erie, and overflows with gingerbread porches and roadside fruit stands. Port Clinton, home to the Jet Express high-speed ferry, features century-old lakefront homes with long front lawns. It also offers charming inland Victorians; a drawbridge; a high concentration of condos, Super-8 motels and McDonald's for island-hopping day-trippers; and an August festival that celebrates polkas, perch, peaches and pirogi.

Marblehead, about 11 miles east of Port Clinton, has the area's most famous lighthouse and extensive second-home and condo developments. Three miles west is Lakeside, a 135-year-old Chautauqua community where about 900 mostly older Victorians and saltboxes are crammed into one square mile on lots that originally held tents.

The Scene

The village of Put-in-Bay can be a party town. Sybarites pour off the Jet Express ferry early, whoop it up in the village, then pour themselves back on a late boat.

Cars are neither encouraged nor useful in Put-in-Bay. So on weekends the village can take on the giddy tone of a Victorian-faced midway ride, with golf cart drivers careering from T-shirt shop to ice-cream parlor to watering hole, sometimes narrowly missing pedestrians and other cart drivers. Meanwhile, the cool breezes sough, sailboats nod in the harbor and, indoors, jukeboxes roar out like thunder.

"When you get on that ferry, a pressure valve goes off," said Corky McIlrath-Flint, whose family has had a second home on South Bass Island since the 1960s, when her father bought a lot with a hunting shack that evolved into a cottage.

Ms. McIlrath-Flint, who is a local real estate agent, added that the place has two distinct cultures. "You can choose to partake in the camaraderie on Main Street," she said, "but there are so many other things to do." That includes boating, swimming and fishing for walleye, lake perch and smallmouth bass.

Solitude and inhabitability are best found together in fall. The lake is shallow, and the water holds the summer's heat. Many local residents say September and October are the best months on the lake, and the weather often stays mild through Halloween.

"Winter is a lot of fun here," Ms. McIlrath-Flint added. "If the ice comes in good, we have ice-fishing parties. Sometimes we drive to the mainland on a trail marked with Christmas trees."

Properties that are on their eighth generation of owners give the area continuity, residents say, and create a sense of safety, especially for children.

Outside of the village of Put-in-Bay, solitude is the great appeal. Even so, Cleveland, Toledo and the Cedar Point amusement park aren't so far away.

"Island Hopping, Enjoy your days in the sun on Ohio's shores and islands."

by Sharon Doddroe, Ohio Magazine
Published: June 2010

Island time

To some, the phrase is synonymous with slowing down. For others, it signifies having the freedom to go full throttle. Either way, "island time" means doing whatever you want, whenever you want. And never before have there been so many choices in the Lake Erie Islands region.

Water Crossings

Gone are the days of typecasting Kelleys Island as "family-only" and limiting South Bass Island to a party persona. The key to enjoying the island region is to rediscover it with an open mind and a few extra ferry tickets for transport between the islands and surrounding mainland.

Whether visiting for a day or staying on Kelleys Island (kelleysislandchamber.com) for a full week, you can easily check out South Bass, home to Put-in-Bay. The Jet Express's inter-island schedule (jet-express.com) allows plenty of time for diving into PIB's historic past or The Boardwalk's famous lobster bisque (341 Bayview Ave., Put-in-Bay 43456, 419/285-3695, the-boardwalk.com).

If you're setting up home base on South Bass (visitputinbay.com), head to Kelleys Island to see why Health magazine ranked it in their top 10 list of "America's Healthiest Beach and Lake Getaways" last year. Bicycle or golf cart rentals provide hours of exploration on the 2,800-acre island, best known for its glacial grooves and outstanding natural areas. We've heard that some make the trip solely for The Village Pump's Brandy Alexander (103 Lakeshore Dr., Kelleys Island 43438, 419/746-2281, villagepump.com).

Perhaps the least known of the public islands in the Western Basin is Middle Bass Island. Don't let lack of information keep you from exploring this quiet oasis (middlebass.org), which includes the Kuehnle Wildlife Area and Middle Bass Island State Park. Middle Bass does have a secluded island feel with fewer than 1,000 summer inhabitants, but there are rental cottages, restaurants and two microbreweries featuring live entertainment. To get to Middle Bass, board the Miller Ferry from the Catawba mainland (millerferry.com). For travel between PIB and Middle Bass, there's the Sonny-S water taxi, which also accommodates late-night passengers (sonny-s.com).

Those with limited schedules can also get in on the island-hopping action by boarding Lake Erie's very own cruise ship, the Goodtime I (800/446-3140, goodtimeboat.com). It departs from Sandusky Tuesday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m., complete with an enthusiastic sightseeing narrative during the hour-long trip to Kelleys Island. Guests have until noon to explore the "big island" before heading to Put-in-Bay for a full three and a half hours of island time.

Exploring By Boat

Ironically, many people who visit the islands each year never actually make it into the water. It's understandable, considering there are enough activities to keep visitors busy for a month, including shopping, sightseeing, hiking and visiting the array of museums, wineries, restaurants and tourist attractions. But a visit to the Lake Erie islands just isn't complete if you don't get your feet wet.

"Kayaking is a great way to explore the natural environment of the islands," suggests John Dodge, who kayaks regularly during the summer months. The Put-in-Bay resident enjoys the exercise and relaxation, but is most enthralled by what he is able to see while kayaking.

"Since you are going slower and quieter than you would in another boat, the wildlife [don't] seem to fear you," explains Dodge, an avid birdwatcher. Kayaks, along with paddleboats, Jet Skis, WaveRunners and small powerboats for fishing and sightseeing, are available for rent at Put-In-Bay

Watercraft Rentals in South Bass Island State Park (419/285-2628, pibjetski.com). It's the only place on the islands that rents motorized boats and personal watercraft, but kayaks and paddle boats are also available at its sister site in Kelleys Island State Park. Prices range from $10 per hour for a single kayak to $100 an hour for 19-foot boats that seat six.

Whatever mode you choose, owner Bob Gatewood and his staff will help you navigate the safety rules and give you hands-on training before you hit the waves.

For guided kayak tours around the islands, check the schedule at Kayak the Bay (419/967-0796, kayakthebay.com). Guide Mike Logsdon leads groups to Middle Bass and Gibraltar Islands, along with several interesting sites along Put-in-Bay. Water bike and kayak rentals are also available from the business, located on the PIB waterfront off Bay View Avenue.

Be forewarned: Once on the water, you may get the sudden urge to also try water skiing, windsurfing or kite boarding. To participate in these sports, you'll have to bring your own equipment or make new friends.

Dropping a Line

It's no secret Lake Erie offers world-class fishing, and the best way to experience it is by boat. Walk-on head boats, like Shore-Nuf Charters, depart four times daily (247 Lakeshore Dr., Port Clinton 43452, 419/734-9999, shore-nuf.com). Private charters are also abundant in the area.

Captain Al Maier will have you hooked up with walleye or perch in time for dinner from Just One More Fishing Charters out of Marblehead (330/414-7125, justonemorefish.com). To leave from Kelleys Island or Put-in-Bay, try Char-Tom Charters (614/419-8265, chartomcharters.com). Most private charters accommodate up to six people and include everything you need to fish except for an Ohio fishing license, which can be purchased at most marinas.

Flying High

Viewing the lake from the top of Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial on Put-in-Bay won't be an option this year due to restoration of the monument, but there are still opportunities to see Lake Erie from above.

Tom Becker, from Marion, takes in the view by parasailing over the lake several times each summer. The 78-year-old got the bug about eight years ago after watching his daughter take to the skies. He now drives a convertible with "PARASAIL" on its plates and counts the days until his next sail. You just may see him in action. He'll be the one parasailing in dress pants, a formal shirt and tie.

While Becker may be a parasailing veteran, Jason Hall, owner of Put-in-Bay Parasail, says most of his customers are first-timers. His 10- to 15-minute rides depart from the dock at The Boardwalk (419/285-3703, putinbayparasail.com).

Griffing Flying Service is another way to see the sights from above. The airline offers 20-minute scenic tours in addition to transportation to and from the islands. Groups of five fly in a Piper Saratoga and groups of three fly in a Piper Archer taking off from either Sandusky or Port Clinton. Cost for the group flight runs about $175. (419/626-5161, griffingflyingservice.com)