Most people, even residents of the Midwest, are incredulous when they hear there are islands in Ohio, I was born and raised in Chicago and I’m embarrassed to admit I knew nothing of their existence. I had to look at a map for proof, but it wasn’t until I actually visited the area that my doubts were dispelled.
Known as the Lake Erie Islands, these bodies of land are clustered together in the lake’s western basin, north of Ohio’s mainland. Easily accessible from the metropolitan centers of Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, they’re regarded as the Jersey Shores of the state and are a prime vacation destination for those in the region. There are over two dozen islands, a few of which are Canadian, but only five are inhabited and only three have ferry service.
I began my adventure with an exhilarating trip on the Jet Express, heading from Sandusky to South Bass Island. The boat is a high-speed passenger ferry that makes additional stops at Kelleys Island and Cedar Point. The latter is a famous amusement park, rated tops in the U.S., boasting over 150 rides, shows and attractions, including eighteen adrenaline-pumping roller coasters. From aboard the Jet Express, the place looks like a tangled web of dramatic, high-flying rides. I gazed at the Steel Vengeance, the tallest, fastest and longest hyper-hybrid roller coaster in the world–and felt sheer terror coursing through my veins and vertigo symptoms on the rise. Thankfully, I didn’t have to get any closer to that behemoth!
Put-in-Bay is an idyllic village on South Bass Island. There are two possible explanations for the origin of the town’s unusual name. Historians believe it refers to the bay’s use, as in the late 1700s, the schooners sailing on Lake Erie would shelter in the inlet to wait out bad weather. Some, however, think it derived from the harbor’s shape, which, according to an 1879 journal entry, was described as a “pudding bag with a soft bottom.”
Visitors have been coming to Put-in-Bay since the 1850s, when Jose DeRivera, a Spanish merchant, bought several of the islands, for $44,000 and began developing them. He was responsible for getting the grape-growing and wine-making industry started in the area, a business that still thrives today. The population grew as farmers came to the island to plant vineyards while others became involved in the resort business. Put-in-Bay became known as a place for vacationers to escape the city and “get away from it all.”
The park downtown is named for DeRivera to honor his contributions to the island; there is a statue of him in the center of the park. Nearby is a memorial erected from cannonballs. After the Battle of Lake Erie, officials buried three American officers and three British officers here together, as a symbol of unity. Their bodies were later exhumed and moved to Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial when it was built. The cannonballs mark the original grave-site.
Put-in-Bay is a year-round community of approximately 350 residents that explodes to a cast of thousands in the summer, due to its resort-style popularity. The majority of visitors and locals get around the island via golf cart or bicycle. Golf carts are in abundance and are available to rent from a variety of shops in town. They’re an easy and practical method of transportation to explore the miles of roads, parks, preserves and trails. It’s quite a sight to see these carts lined up and parked all along the streets. Though cars are permitted, they tend to look out of place on the island.
With its mix of Victorian, early industrial, mid-century modern and nautically themed buildings, Put-in-Bay charms visitors. But this little village is more than a pretty face. History was made here during the War of 1812 in the Battle of Lake Erie, which marked the only time a British fleet had been defeated. You might recall the famed saying, “Don’t give up the ship,” a command written on the battle flag of the Niagara, the relief ship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. On September 10, 1813, nine small American ships, including the Niagara, defeated a British squadron of six vessels under Commodore Robert Heriot Barclay. Perry’s original flagship, the Lawrence, was completely disabled, with most of her crew wounded or killed. Perry then transferred by boat to the undamaged Niagara and hoisted the battle flag. He proceeded to break the British battle line, forcing Barclay to surrender. In the aftermath, Perry wrote in his report to General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” another memorable slogan that has made its way through the ages.
You’ll learn all about this pivotal battle and how it led to regaining Detroit, which was lost at the war’s outset, when you tour the U.S. Brig Niagara. The ship is a reconstruction of the original, a two-masted, square-rigged sailing vessel, which plies the Great Lakes preserving and interpreting the story of the Battle of Lake Erie. Put-in-Bay is the ship’s second home (the Erie Maritime Museum is its homeport) and she can often be seen docked at the island during the summer months.
The U.S. Brig Niagara is a Sailing School Vessel, with a crew of professionals and trainees that actively practice the skills of square-rig seamanship. From mid-May to mid-September, members of the general public (teens and adults) can live and sail aboard the ship as trainees. As you tour the ship, the crew provides information about the various stations and equipment, as well as shares their experiences of life on the vessel.
History enthusiasts will also enjoy Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, which commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie and Perry’s victory, as well as honors the subsequent peace that has existed between America, Great Britain and Canada. Managed by the National Park Service, the 352-feet, Greek Doric monument is made of 2,340 blocks of pink granite. The observation deck is accessed via a set of stairs, followed by an elevator ride to the top, where you’ll be rewarded by picturesque views of the lake and surrounding islands. The site also includes a visitor’s center with exhibits and artifacts, as well as a series of interpretive programs with park rangers. During my visit, ranger Jeff Ashley, who was dressed as a U.S. Infantry soldier in a late war uniform, gave a black powder firing demonstration with a flintlock musket.
If you’re looking for outdoor adventure, Put-in-Bay has a multitude of options. You can rent a charter boat to fish, go parasailing, jet skiing, paddle boarding or kayaking on the lake. There are also beaches for swimming and numerous hiking trails. And then there’s golf, mini golf, an antique car museum, Butterfly House and even caves to explore.
The island is home to the world’s largest celestite geode, known as Crystal Cave. Discovered by workers in 1897 while digging a well for Heineman’s Winery, the cave is known for its translucent blue celestite crystals. Another subterranean attraction is Perry’s Cave, a natural limestone cave steeped in historical tradition. Registered as an Ohio Natural Landmark, the cave’s discovery in 1813 is credited to Commodore Perry. Once inside, you can view stalactites, stalagmites and cave pearls that have been created by encrusted calcium carbonate deposits from centuries of water dripping from the ceiling.
Shoppers will enjoy the eclectic stores and galleries dotting the town center. And when it comes to food, you’ll find two dozen restaurants to choose from, with offerings that include fresh seafood, BBQ, steaks and chops, Italian specialties, Shepherd’s Pie, Caribbean and south-of-the-border favorites and, of course, the proverbial cheeseburger in paradise. Dining al fresco enhances the island vibe, and many establishments have decks and patios with views of the water or the colorful street scene.
At night, the area is a live entertainment district. Stop in at one of the numerous watering holes for a libation and enjoy the variety of musicians and acts performing everything from country to classic rock, folk and comedy. For brews made locally, head to Put-in-Bay Brewing Company, the island’s first and only brewery (and now a distillery, too), where you’ll find unique flavors on tap like Watermelon Wheat, Ol’ Cotton Top Irish Red and Summer Brew. And if you want to sample some island wines, take a tour of Put-in-Bay Winery or Heineman’s Winery. The latter was founded in 1888 and has the distinction of being the oldest, family-owned and operated winery in Ohio.
Lodging options include hotels, B&Bs, inns, condos and vacation homes to rent. Or, if you prefer to camp, sites are available at South Bass Island State Park. For rooms with a view, Bayshore Resort is the only lakefront hotel, and its convenient location means you’ll be just minutes away from all the downtown action.
If you’re looking to take the casual and laid-back pace down a notch further, hop back on the Jet Express and get off at Kelleys Island, Ohio’s largest island. Commonly known as Lake Erie’s Emerald Isle, Kelleys is a peaceful mecca for nature enthusiasts. There are hiking trails, rocky shorelines, a pristine beach, lush forests and quarries, with 600 acres of state park lands that include a lakefront campground and a National Natural Landmark.
The Glacial Grooves are a must-see treasure. A National Natural Landmark, they are the largest known glacial striations in the world. The grooves were scoured into solid limestone bedrock eighteen thousand years ago by the great ice sheet which covered part of North America. From a walkway, footbridge and stairs, you can look down in awe on the immense grooves, measuring 400 feet long, 35 feet wide and up to 15 feet deep. They represent the powerful force and beauty of nature, while providing a record of our earth’s history.
Another site of interest on the island is Inscription Rock Petroglyphs. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the rock has Native American symbols carved into it, albeit faintly, that were believed to have been created sometime between A.D. 1200 and 1600. Rediscovered partly buried in the shoreline in 1833, the rock is now entirely exposed and protected by a roof and viewing platform.