Lake Erie islands suit all vacation styles

by Laura Bednar

Lake Erie is home to upwards of 26 islands, but only three are open for public visits. Shores & Islands Ohio Public Relations Manager, Jill Bauer, outlined the attractions for South Bass, Middle Bass and Kelley’s Island that provide night life fun and connections with nature.

South Bass Island

South Bass Island, which encompasses the village of Put-in-Bay, is the most densely populated. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, “In the 1850s, the grape-growing and wine-making industries began to flourish, which helped establish the island as a popular vacation destination.”

In addition to restaurants, bars, a winery and 12 hotels, the island is home to Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, commemorating the U.S. victory in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. Bauer said visitors can take an elevator ride to the monument’s observation deck for a bird’s eye view of the lake.

The island is also home to two caves: Perry’s Cave and Crystal Cave. Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center offers cave visits, mini-golf and The Butterfly House. Crystal Cave is the world’s largest geode, according to Bauer and small groups can venture inside. There is also greenspace within the South Bass Island State Park where guests can rent a jet ski or kayak or just visit the beach.

Bauer said the island is family-friendly with the Lake Erie Islands Nature & Wildlife Center and a kid’s storybook trail. Though family-friendly, Put-in-Bay is nightlife oriented with multiple bars. Bauer said younger crowds, especially those celebrating bachelor or bachelorette parties, tend to visit for the weekend.

For first-time visitors, Bauer recommended the island tram tour, which offers a history and lay of the land. It runs in continuous loops and lasts about one hour. Housing accommodations include hotels and both house and condominium rentals.

Transportation: There are two ferry options to get to the island: the Miller Ferry, which can handle cars, RVs and boats, and the Jet Express, a passenger-only ferry. Miller leaves from the mainland of Catawba and drops passengers about a mile from Put-In-Bay. Guests can walk, rent a golf cart, or take the bus to get downtown. Cars can be left in free or paid parking lots overnight if staying on the mainland. The Jet Express leaves from Sandusky and Port Clinton. The Sandusky route includes stops along the way and will go between Put-In-Bay and Kelley’s Island.

Middle Bass

Middle Bass is the most remote of the islands with the only lodging options being condominium rental, house rental or camping. “It’s more about nature, to get away from it all,” said Bauer.

There are three restaurants, a general store and a state park on the land as well as several wildlife areas. The island is home to the former Lonz Winery, which now stands as only the front façade and a large outdoor patio behind it, which is utilized for concerts, wedding receptions and other events. The wine cellar museum below is open during events, according to Bauer. Behind the patio is a coffee shop.

St. Hazard’s lodging and restaurant is also an option for live music, and there is a small beach behind it. Seasonally, the island hosts a music festival in the summer. Golf carts are available for rent around the island.

Transportation: The Miller Ferry is the only ferry that goes to Middle Bass. Guests can take a ferry from Middle Bass to Put-in-Bay for a night out.

Kelley’s Island

Bauer described Kelley’s Island as the happy medium among the islands. “It’s larger in area than Put-In-Bay but not as remote as Middle Bass,” she said.

Kelley’s Island offers shops, restaurants, mini-golf and gem-stone mining in the downtown area. The rural side of the island includes observation platforms overlooking rock with glacial grooves, which Bauer said is “the largest example of scoring from the Ice Age.” This is adjacent to the state park, where guests can camp, visit the beach and rent a paddleboard or kayak. Small groups can take eco-tours of the island and even one via kayak.

Kelley’s Island features three wineries and seasonal festivals including a summer fest and movie fest.

There is only one hotel on the island, but there are also bed and breakfast spots as well as condominium rentals. RV spots are open in the state park. Bauer said while there is some live entertainment at the restaurants, it is a more “laid back” island that sees more families and older visitors.

Transportation: Guests can take the Jet Express ferry only from Sandusky mainland. The Kelley’s Island Ferry leaves from Marblehead and can handle cars, boats and RVs. It drops guests about half a mile from town, but golf carts are available for rent.

Know before you go

There are marinas at the islands for those who drive their own boats. Near the harbor at Put-in-Bay is DeRivera Park, which offers restrooms, a shower house, playground and picnic areas. If the marinas are full, mooring buoys are available in the lake to anchor the boat, and guests can take a water taxi to the island.

Bauer said the attractions on the islands fully open in May and reduced hours go into effect after Labor Day. For those who haven’t visited any of the islands, Bauer suggested taking a cruise out of Sandusky on the “Goodtime” ship, which offers a day tour of both Kelley’s Island and South Bass. “People can enjoy the sites and hear a narrated tour,” she said.

Shores & Islands Ohio has two visitor centers, one on Route 53 in Port Clinton and another on Water Street in Sandusky. Bauer said people can stop in to learn about transportation and receive help in planning their day. For more information, guests can also visit ∞