The 20-somethings can have downtown Put-in-Bay, with its tiki bars and pool party bacchanalia. Families can claim the rest of South Bass Island as an idyllic summer adventure.
The most populated of Ohio’s Lake Erie Islands, South Bass is a sundae of Americana, with a cherry on top.
We’re talking three generations sharing a golf cart. Ice cream cones melting faster than kids can lick. Taped-together boxes of board games on the cottage porch and bikes everywhere.
When I was a kid, my family traveled to Put-in-Bay for a few weekends. Last week, I made my first pleasure trip to Put-in-Bay in nearly two decades, with my 5- and 7-year-old in tow. The town was bigger. But I was surprised by the island’s innocence, given its boozy reputation. Both my kids and I were smitten.
We also spent a day at Kelleys Island. The kids preferred South Bass “because there’s more fun things to do.”
Know this: Put-in-Bay is not a beach town. There’s no real good beach; even the state park beach is a swath of big stones.
But water, and nostalgia imbues the air on the island. You can rent kayaks, stand-up paddleboards or jet skis. You can camp in the state park, drink at the wineries, tour caves, fish, hike or just watch the boats in the harbor. The pace is relaxed, maybe because everyone putters around on bikes or in golf carts. How can you hurry anywhere in a golf cart?
So take your kids to Put-in-Bay. Stay, if you can, at a cottage far from the downtown bar scene. And go early in the season. After July 4, tourists overrun the island, especially for Christmas in July.
A look at our trip, what to do and where to go on your Lake Erie island vacation.
How to get to Put-in-Bay
You have two choices — Miller Ferry or the Jet Express.
Miller: The cheapest trip to the islands, at $15 roundtrip for adults, $3 for kids 6-11 and free for kids 5 and younger. Plus, free parking! Also, the only option with ferries every half hour, and the only way to take your car. The ferry, which leaves from Catawba, docks at the southwest tip of the island, where you can rent bikes or a golf cart, or take a bus the 2.5 miles to downtown Put-in-Bay. For our trip, we chose Miller. The boat was right on time, and the staff was friendly.
Jet Express: The fastest ferry to the islands and the only option if you want to take a late-night trip. The trip costs $34 roundtrip for adults, $15 for youth 12-16, $6 for kids 6-11 and free for kids 5 and younger. You can leave from Port Clinton or Sandusky. And you dock right downtown. During high season, the company also offers rides between and Put-in-Bay and Kelleys.
What to do
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial: The 317-foot monument, 12 feet taller than the statue of liberty, is a testament to the lasting peace among the United States, Great Britain and Canada. The view of surrounding islands is incredible.
The National Park Service site also includes a visitor center and small museum. My kids were mesmerized by the 15-minute video on the Battle of Lake Erie, and after making peace bracelets, my daughter was sworn in as a junior ranger. Thrilling.
Perry’s Cave: The cave — at a family fun center that also includes a butterfly aviary, gemstone mining, maze and mini golf — played a role in the Battle of Lake Erie. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s men were suffering from dysentery from drinking lake water, the story goes. A Native American told him of the cave, with its underwater lake, and the pristine water nursed them back to health.
The cave, which is 52 degrees year-round, has been a tourist attraction since 1870. A pipe used to pump water to the Hotel Victory spa.
Now my kids liked looking at the stalactites and stalagmites (many of which were cut down as souvenirs a century ago).
DeRivera Park: The downtown park, surrounded by bars and restaurants, has a fantastic view of the harbor, and plenty of fun playground equipment.
Kimberly’s Carousel: For $3, you can ride a wooden fish, rooster or dog. An original Allen Herschel Carousel, built in North Tonawanda, NY, the carousel is one of 100 wooden animal carousels left in the United States.
Golf carts: Rent one for about $60 a day and cruise around the island, checking out the South Bass Island State Park, the lighthouse and whatever road looks appealing to you. My kids took turns sitting in the front, a treat they never get in a car.
Where to eat
Pasquale’s Cafe: Much recommended, Pasquale’s downtown serves up classic breakfasts, plus burgers, sandwiches and pizza.
The Boardwalk: A classic Put-in-Bay establishment on the water, the Boardwalk has you different meals at different counters, then pick them up when your name is called. So I bought my kids’ hot dogs ($4.50) and fries ($3.50) at one stand, and my clam strips ($12.99) at another. The food is serviceable, and the view is great.
Chocolate Café: Oh my goodness, this is a must on a trip to Put-in-Bay. The coffee, chocolate and ice cream shop shares a space with the Goat and Biergarten, so parents can sip steins while kids play games and cover their faces in sticky goodness. The $2.50 kids cones are huge. And the flavors are great. My sea salt was delicious, and the kids loved their blue Lake Erie Monster.
I loved that at the Biergarten, I saw a dad drinking a beer with a toddler asleep on his shoulder. #vacationnap
Goat Soup & Whiskey: Whatever you do on Put-in-Bay, eat here. No, there’s no view of the lake. But the patio is delightful, surrounded by flowers and strung with lights. The kids menu is large, and the perch tacos ($5.95 a la carte) are fantastic.