Saturday, Jul 23, 2016
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Islands: Nature, history, relaxed atmosphere keep Lake Erie hot spots teeming with activity

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Participants in a 2005 regatta head into the Put-in-Bay Yacht Club after a week of racing.


OK, so Lake Erie isn t the Caribbean.

And palm trees don t grow naturally on the Bass islands.

But the Lake Erie archipelago does offer escape for people who want to be surrounded by water without traveling great distances. Island attractions include fishing, bird-watching, kayaking, and boating, along with charters for fishing or pleasure, state parks galore, parasailing, cave tours, military re-enactments, shopping, and just plain loafing.

Mention to someone that you re going to spend a weekend on the islands, and most people think of South Bass or Kelleys Island.

Michael Gora, a Middle Bass Island historian and editor of a book about island lore, notes on his Web site,, that Lake Erie has about three dozen islands, but only 14 core islands in western Lake Erie s Bass island chain in Ottawa and Erie counties support much activity.

Only three of those islands appear on most people s maps when planning a getaway.

South Bass Island, anchored by the village of Put-in-Bay, is considered the Key West of the North. The annual Bartender Olympics, sponsored by the Roundhouse Bar, set for Aug. 15 on Delaware Avenue, complete with a 7 p.m. parade and lighting of the Olympic torch, helps uphold that appellation.

Kelleys Island enjoys a quiet reputation as a family-oriented resort, without the loud bar scene but rich in natural history.

Middle Bass Island, anchored by a growing state park, has even fewer people and amenities. Middle Bass is 10 times more laid back, says Mr. Gora, speaking from his home in Hayesville, N.C., where he lives when he s not spending the summer on Middle Bass.

Ferries and planes connect the larger islands with the mainland. Regular air service is offered by Griffing Flying Service of Sandusky, which flies to Middle Bass from Sandusky and Port Clinton. Service is also available to Pelee Island. Call 419-626-5161.

Charter flights are available from Dairy Air of Put-in-Bay, which flies from Fremont and Grosse Ile, Mich., to islands including South Bass, North Bass, Middle Bass, and Kelleys. Call 419-285-5057 or 800-647-0837 for more details

South Bass Island s most visible landmark is the Perry Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 352-foot monument to Oliver Hazard Perry, whose naval victory over the British on Lake Erie in 1813 assured a young United States that the Bass island chain would forever belong to Ohio.

The monument, operated by the National Park Service, is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with later hours in summer.

From 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, park rangers in War of 1812 uniforms present interpretive talks, followed by musket-firing demonstrations.

In 2002, the National Park Service opened a $2.4 million visitor center. The center offers a 15-minute movie about the War of 1812 and the Battle of Lake Erie. The centerpiece is the 1860 statue of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, on permanent loan from the city of Perrysburg.

For the sailboat set, June 9-10 is the Mills Cup Trophy Race that starts at the Toledo Yacht Club and goes to Put-in-Bay. Other regattas are scheduled throughout the summer.

From June 13 through Aug. 15, South Bass Island Lighthouse tours begin near the Miller Lime Kiln Dock from 10 a.m. to noon. Tours also are offered at Gilbraltar Island/Stone Laboratory. Gilbraltar Island is a 6.5-acre rocky island in the Put-in-Bay harbor reachable by ferry. The laboratory campus is owned by Ohio State University. Tours leave from the Put-In-Bay boardwalk.

Because of limited space on the car ferry, most South Bass Island visitors leave their vehicles on the mainland. If touring the island beyond the village is a goal, consider renting a gas-powered golf cart or a bicycle at one of several outlets near the docks.

A half-mile from downtown on Catawba Street is Perry s Cave, reportedly discovered by the great seafarer himself. It s 52 feet below the surface and 208 feet long, with calcium carbonate deposits clinging to its ceiling.

For adults who like their caves with liquid refreshments, there s the Crystal Cave, the world s largest geode, on the property of Heineman Winery, also on Catawba Street. The winery s garden is a popular spot to sample the fruit of the vine and contemplate returning on Oct. 7 for the Island Wine Festival in DeRivera Park in downtown Put-in-Bay.

Organizers boast the event will feature more than 200 domestic and imported wines for sampling and purchase. No word yet on a designated boater program, but South Bass Island has plenty of hotels, bed-and-breakfast establishments, home rentals, and camping in the state park for overnight stays.

The Miller Boat Line s Put-in-Bay ferry ( from Catawba docks at the Lime Kiln dock on the south side of the island and carries vehicles. The adult one-way fare is $6. The Jet Express ( a catamaran, leaves Port Clinton and Sandusky and docks downtown. It does not carry vehicles. For an adult leaving Port Clinton, a round trip costs $24; from Sandusky, the round trip costs $32. Island hopping to Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island from Port Clinton is $32, and from Sandusky to those two islands, it costs $36.

If a remote island getaway with fewer amenities and even less traffic is your goal, Middle Bass Island may be your destination. It has a general store and J.F. Walleyes Brewery and Pub, the island s only year-round restaurant.

St. Hazards resort and restaurant and microbrewery boasts a Caribbean atmosphere, with tiki torches to light the night.

Primitive camping is available at the state park as well as 50 slips for boats.

There s not much in the way of transportation there, according to Mr. Gora, who says the island has four golf carts but lots of bicycles to rent.

In 2001, Ohio bought 124 acres on the island as well as nearly a mile of lakeshore land. The purchase included the former Lonz Winery and its marina.

The Miller Boat Line carries vehicles and passengers from Catawba on the mainland to Middle Bass Island. One-way adult passage is $8.50. The Sonny-S ( also plies the waters between South Bass and Middle Bass islands. It departs from downtown Put-in-Bay and carries only passengers.

North Bass, Ohio s northern-most island, is largely undeveloped and mostly owned by the state, which announced its purchase in late 2003 from Paramount Distillers. The island was known for its vineyards, which today constitute a small portion of its more than 600 acres.

Located 18 miles from the Ohio mainland, it has about two dozen year-round residents, a church, and a dozen privately owned properties.

When the state announced the purchase, it said it intended to preserve the natural setting by offering primitive camping sites, hiking trails, and opportunities for hunting, fishing, swimming, and nature study. There is no scheduled ferry service to North Bass.


Glacial Grooves State Memorial is the top natural history attraction on Kelleys Island. The 400-foot by 35-foot-wide glacial grooves were carved into the limestone bedrock by the advancement of a glacier 30,000 years ago.


The largest island on the American side is Kelleys, a four-square mile island that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Glacial Grooves State Memorial is the top natural history attraction. The 400-foot by 35-foot-wide glacial grooves were carved into the limestone bedrock by the advancement of a glacier 30,000 years ago.

The local chamber of commerce lists fishing and bird-watching among the island s top activities. Fishing and sailing charters are also found there.

The island has grocery stores, shops, restaurants, a winery, and a brew pub. It lacks full-service hotels, but has cottages, condos, beds and breakfasts, and efficiencies to rent.

The Kelleys Island Ferry ( runs to and from Marblehead April through December for vehicles and passengers. Its frequency of service increases during the summer season. Adult roundtrip fare is $13.

For a getaway that gives visitors a taste of two islands, the Goodtime Island Cruises ( sails from Sandusky to Kelleys and South Bass for its daily island-hopping cruise.

The Goodtime leaves at 9:30 a.m. daily, passing Cedar Point, Johnson s Island, the lighthouses at Marblehead, and South Bass and many other islands in Lake Erie.

Every Friday at 7:30 p.m., the Goodtime I departs the Jackson Street Pier in downtown Sandusky for an all-night party on Kelleys Island.

Lake Erie s largest island happens to be in Canada. Its slow pace of living is exemplified by a population of about 180 residents, along with a handful of places to eat or drink, and a single, seasonal grocery store. A pair of inns are supplemented by cottages and beds and breakfasts.

During the fall, Pelee Island is a favorite for annual pheasant hunts.

Limited ferry service is offered between the island and the U.S. mainland. The Pelee Island Transportation Co. (800-661-2220) operates one ferry a day each way. More frequent service is available between the island and Ontario mainland.

Among the island attractions are the Pelee Island Lighthouse, Ice Age glacial grooves, and the Pelee Island Wine Pavilion, which offers tours and tastings.

In Sandusky Bay, close to Lake Erie, lies Johnson s Island, which is connected to Marblehead by a toll bridge.

During the Civil War, the island served as a prison for Confederate soldiers. Those who died while held prisoner are buried in the Confederate cemetery.

A new museum features exhibits containing artifacts and information about the Confederate generals imprisoned on the island and displays dealing with POW currency and mail systems.

Private homes fill much of the island.

Contact: Jim Sielicki at: or 419-724-6078.

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