Chances are that when you think of a trip to the islands you imagine the sound of steel drums, the taste of tropical fruit, and the smell of salt air. But did you know the islands are closer than you imagine?
Just off shore in Lake Erie is South Bass Island, which is home to the small village of Put-in-Bay. Put-in-Bay has the amenities of a tourist town and the proximity of a home grown destination. Accessible most of the year by ferry or private boat, Ohio’s island offers an affordable getaway.
Research the Trip
Before our trip I did a little research online. We’d been before, but these are COVID times and I wanted to make sure that we were prepared and that the islands were prepared for us. There were no concerns. It seemed all of the businesses, from the ferry to the local businesses had taken precautions to provide visitors with a safe experience. Masks were required, social distancing encouraged, and additional cleaning steps were taken.
While browsing online, I looked up the ferry schedule. We used Miller Ferry out of Port Clinton and the schedule changes seasonally, so it’s always best to check before you drive. The current schedule has the ferry leaving the mainland every hour and running from 7:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Again, be sure to check before you go.
I also found a fantastic deal while online. Miller Ferry partnered with E’s golf cart rental for a combination deal. In addition to getting a great package, we were able to enter our driver’s license and insurance information which made for a quick check in on our travel day. Special note: you can take your car, motorcycle, or bicycle across to the island. We choose to leave ours on the mainland because cruising around on golf carts is all part of the fun.
The Islands are Closer than You Imagine
Being that our trip to island was just a one day visit, we arrived early at the ferry dock. Though the ferry line offers several free parking lots, we paid $5 to park at a nearby grass lot. Since we had paid for our tickets up front, ticketing was quick and we were able to get on the next ferry.
Being out on the water, riding the ferry across is one of my favorite parts of a trip to the island. There’s a nice breeze on the 20 minute ride and a sense of hopefulness that you’re going to have a great day.
On this particular trip we’ve brought two of our girls and their boyfriends. We rented three golf carts as part of our package at E’s so we can stay together or explore the island alone. As it turns out, we do a little of both.
We break off from each other right away. Hubby and I decide to explore the island. I enjoy reading a little of the history of places I plan to visit and had read a bit about the remains of the Hotel Victory.
The hotel was first opened for guests in 1892, although work was not completed until 1896. By most accounts the hotel was one of the grandest in the country at the time, with a construction cost over $1 million (approximately $30 million in today’s dollars).
The hotel struggled from the beginning, barely surviving market fluctuations, smallpox outbreaks, the death of a manager and more. Then finally, one August night in 1919, the Hotel Victory burned to the ground. According to accounts, the flames rose to 75 feet in the air and were visible as far away as Sandusky and Detroit. Within an hour the hotel was lost.
The South Bass Island State Park campground is on the site of the old Hotel Victory. After some searching, and a little guidance from a helpful park worker, we were able to find the remnants of the swimming pool and of the Victory Monument, a sculpture near the hotel’s entrance.
The campgrounds were beautiful. As you would expect with any state of Ohio campground, the property was clean and immaculately kept. In addition to the wooded campsites you would expect at any state park, there were some sites with beautiful views of Lake Erie.
War of 18 Holes
Meanwhile, the kids had discovered the War of 18 Holes mini-golf at Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. It’s a nice clean course with waterfalls and bridges, like you might find at any other tourist destination.
In addition to the golf course, you can tour Perry’s Cave. Though we didn’t add it to our visit on this day, we’ve been before. The temperature in the cave is a year round 50 degrees and tours are offered daily. Packages are available that include cave tours, mini-golf and some of the other on site attractions, such as gemstone mining, a butterfly house, an adventure force, rock climbing wall, antique car museum, and more. You can check the Perry’s Cave website ahead of your visit for information and prices.
Locking Down the One You Love
As the kids were finishing up their round of mini-golf, we had discovered the smallest park on the island: Captain Alfred Parker Park. It’s a quiet park with a small fenced area overlooking Lake Erie. The park is a great place to take in a view of the famous Benson Ford Shiphouse, which is basically a house made out of a an old ship. It’s something to see, but I didn’t include a picture here because I believe it to be a private residence.
The fence has become a sort of interactive installment in its own right. Families and couples have attached padlocks to the fence after scratching on their names and/or the date of their visit. It’s a cute way of locking your commitment to each other and perhaps to this place.
The locks are sold at a hardware store downtown. Later I mention it to one of my daughters and her boyfriend because it’s just the kind of thing they would like. Before we left the island, they brought us back over to the park to show us their lock.
Having explored the outlying areas of the island, we decided to cruise downtown. The downtown area is centered around DeRivera Park. It’s a lovely little park with a fountain and play area, facing the lake and marina on one side and surrounded on the other three sides by restaurants, bars, and little shops.
If you’ve packed your lunch or gotten take out from one of the local restaurants, this park is the perfect place for a little picnic. There’s plenty of people watching. If you have little ones they can run off some energy on the play equipment. There’s plenty of shade and the breeze coming off the lake makes even the hottest day tolerable.
The traffic downtown is mostly golf carts and they line the on street parking on both sides of the street. Depending on the day and time, you’ll likely hear performers from the many bars intermingled with the sounds of the carousel.
There are shops that sell candy, souvenirs, clothing and more. If you’re in the market for a merchandise that says “Don’t give up the ship” you’ve come to the right place. The island remembers its history and its role in the War of 1812.
We met the kids for an early dinner at The Boardwalk. The Boardwalk, which is actually a family of restaurants, is right downtown Put-in-Bay and sits in an ideal spot on the water. It usually seems pretty busy with a lively crowd and often offers live music. The Main Deck offers a variety of counter service experiences. But we are all tired and want a quiet place to share the details of our day.
The atmosphere is busy, but not crazy, and our table is semi-private with an amazing view of the lake. I order the lobster bisque. They’re famous for it and I can see why. It’s stuffed full of lobster and just delicious. One of the boys ordered the same in a bread bowl. I was a little jealous, it looked fabulous.
Everyone was happy with their meals, from mahi mahi to a divine macaroni and cheese to a juicy burger. Our waitress was friendly and quick with refills. It made for a really nice time to just sit and reflect on our day.
After dinner we had a few things left to do on the island and parted ways. It wasn’t long before we met up with one of the other couples at Perry’s Monument, a tower and International Peace Memorial. At 352 feet tall, the monument is visible from most of the island. We were all able to find a seat in the shade as men in period uniforms gave a musket firing demonstration. Though we would have liked to ride the elevator to the top of the monument, as we had done in years past, it was closed due to COVID precautions.
We walked over to the Visitor Center for a quick look around. In addition to the displays, the center offered a short movie about the Battle of Lake Erie. Though I’d visited the island many times, I hadn’t yet seen the movie so we decided to give it a go. It was interesting and informative and gave a quick history of the Battle of Lake Erie and its importance in assuring that both Ohio and Michigan would remain territory of the United States.
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry commanded the fleet and had scrawled the now famous phrase “Don’t give up the ship” on the flag as his fleet prepared for battle. Part of his message to General William Henry Harrison following the battle has become famous as well: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
The monument and Visitor Center are managed by the National Park Service. A complete history and virtual visit is available on that website.
The Islands are Closer than You Imagine
One last buzz through town and we were all headed back to the ferry terminal. We turned in our cart at E’s, which was a quick and painless process. We walked the last hundred yards or so to the dock.
Once aboard and under way, we watched as South Bass got smaller and smaller in the distance. Soon we’d be back at the car and, just like when they were little, they would all be asleep within minutes. It was a fun, but exhausting day.
Remember, the islands are closer than you imagine. If you’re looking for more island adventures in Ohio, check out our visit to neighboring Kelleys Island. It’s close by, but has a different vibe than Put-in-Bay. Visit both to find your favorite Ohio island!