My son and I took a family vacation this spring in the Lake Erie Shores region of Ohio. It was my second visit to the area and his first. We started our Lake Erie travel series with a great experience at the Biggest Week bird watching conference in Port Clinton. After the bird watching it was time start the island hopping leg of the trip. Yes, island hopping in Ohio. There are several inhabited islands on Lake Erie and you can catch a ferry to get to them. On this trip we explored South Bass Island and Kelleys Islands, the two largest of the Lake Erie islands. This post will focus on South Bass Island and quaint town of Put-In-Bay. I’ll cover Kelley’s Island in the next installment of the Lake Erie travel series.
Special thanks to Lake Erie Shores and Islands for sponsoring us on this trip. Park Hotel many thanks to you for providing our complimentary accommodations. Full Disclosure
We took the Jet Express ferry from Port Clinton, Ohio which is about an hour and a half from Cleveland. My son and I received such a warm welcome from Nicole and her staff. She even left us a welcome basket in our hotel room filled with local goodies from the Dollar Estate Winery on South Bass Island as well as a sampling of Great Lakes Popcorn Co.
Let’s take a mini foodie time-out to talk about this popcorn. We had the Island Mix which was caramel and white chocolate. I know that sounds like a strange combo but it works really well together. She also brought us the wackiest flavor I’ve ever had in my life…Wild Walleye. Walleye is a local fish. I didn’t know fish popcorn was a thing. It tasted a bit like old bay seasoning — not a fan favorite. Jill from Shores and Islands also welcomed us with popcorn. We had the jelly bean which is all of their fruit flavors and the vanilla butternut which was divine. I really tried to make it last until we returned home but it didn’t make it until the end of the trip. Luckily I can order it online from their website and you can too. You’ll thank me for it.
I digress. So we boarded the Jet Express ferry that morning, which also happened to be Mother’s Day. I didn’t even realize that when I planned the trip dates but what better way to spend it than exploring with my son. It was an extremely comfortable and smooth ride. There was an abundance of cushioned seats and tables inside. You can slide back the windows if you want a bit of fresh air or feel the wind on your face. You can also sit outside but it was a bit nippy in the air at that time of morning.
Leaving from Port Clinton you arrive in about 25 minutes. The ferry docks on the north side of the island right in the heart of Put In Bay. You are welcomed by South Bass Island’s most notorious and visible landmark, the 352 foot high Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial.
You can walk right from the docks to find something to eat or sip. We walked over to our abode for our overnight stay, the Park Hotel. This Victorian era hotel has an amazing history. It’s just spooky enough to probably be haunted but it’s also cute and quaint. You feel like you have stepped into a scene from history. If you spend some time in the lobby you should look through the old photos of the hotel from its original days. Phillip, the on site innkeeper can tell you so much neat information about the hotel’s past.
Unlike the other Victorian era hotel we stayed in, this hotel doesn’t fuse modern with new. There’s no air conditioning and no televisions in the room. There is WI-FI and there is a television downstairs in the lobby. However, the room was bright and clean with a great view of the main strip and the harbor. It was also extremely comfortable.
The other feature that is atypical of modern hotels is the community bathrooms, one for men and one for women. They were just down the hall. It was kinda like being in a college dorm again, except that the water was nice and hot and it was clean. Normally I might have been a little apprehensive about that kind of set up, but we were actually the only guests in the hotel on that night! You know what that means right? Ghost hunting!! My son and I planned to wake up in the middle of the night and see if we observed any paranormal activity but we slept like babies.
I’m sure you’re curious. How did my teenager, the product of the social media and digital age, react to not having modern conveniences like a television or bathroom in the room? He actually did not have a melt down. It was all part of the adventure of it all to him. He thought he was just getting a taste of the “old days.” We really didn’t even spent much time in the hotel. The beauty of staying in an older hotel like this is that it forces you to relearn what it truly means to spend quality time together as a family. I didn’t have to persuade him to turn off the video game or turn off the television. He was ready to go, if for no other reason just to get out of being in the room.
Another great feature offered by the Park Hotel, is the ability to rent a golf cart during your stay. Traveling via golf cart is one of the most popular ways to see the island. We were provided a golf cart for our use the entire day. (Please note that driver’s must have a driver’s license so no allowing the kiddos to drive the cart.) We used the golf cart to navigate our way around the whole island with ease.
Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center
Our first stop of the morning was Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. Is it touristy? Yes. Is it a bit cheesy? Absolutely. Did we have a great time? Heck yes! Listen, sometimes touristy and cheesy aren’t necessarily bad. Or maybe my son and I are just a little bit corny and that’s ok too. They offer gem mining, a maze, mini golf, an underground cave tour, and a butterfly house.
I was excited to visit the butterfly house, although my son initially wasn’t looking forward to it. His life’s ambition is to play every mini golf course humanly possible. All of them. Every single one. He’s 15, he has real golf clubs and he can play real golf, yet when he sees a mini golf course he turns into a 6-year-old all over again. So, of course I use it as a bargaining tool. Go see the butterflies with your mommy and then we can play mini golf.
They have so many butterflies! They are literally everywhere. We were trying to identify them by the signage about what kind were present. He even had a butterfly take a liking to his ear. Just be careful where you step. We saw a few casualties cemented to the floor. Also expect it to be very hot and humid inside. You can only stay in there for so long before the heat gets to be a bit much.
After the butterflies, it was time for our cave tour. The cave was discovered in 1813 by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, of the Battle of Lake Erie. It’s 52 feet underground and 50 degrees F year round. There are stalactites and stalagmites as well as an underground lake.
They also have a couple of interesting rock formations. There is one that resembles the United States. We’ve visited other caves before but the underground lake was a first for us. It was the most intriguing part of the tour for me. It’s crystal clear but no longer drinkable because one of the past owners of the cave allowed it to be used as a wishing well at one point so the pennies made the water undrinkable and the copper gives it an eerie greenish tint.
After the cave tour, I fulfilled my promise of mini golf. There’s actually a “FUNducational” surprise at each hole. There’s a plaque giving facts about the Battle of Lake Erie. We learned a few interesting historical nuggets that we didn’t know, like the fact that 25% of General Perry’s professional seaman in the battle of Lake Erie were black.
For the record, mom won the mini golf game!
Our next adventure was the Doller Estate Put-In-Bay Winery tour. It’s a gorgeous old home with a lot of history overlooking the lake marina.
I sampled wines created from local grapes as I navigated through each part of the tour. There was some very interesting island history, like the relics left from ice racing on the lake or the old ice house where they harvested ice.
Since my son was with me, they gave him sparkling grape juice instead of wine which was a very nice touch. My favorite wine of the day was the blackberry wine. I also enjoyed the Pink Catawba; it was an awesome welcome gift in my Jet Express welcome basket.
Most people come to Put In Bay to have a good time, eat, drink and be merry. It’s not called the “Key West of the North” for nothing. However it has more to offer than just the bars, restaurants, and shops. We explored the state park and went on a nature hike through a preserved area. South Bass Island State Park is located on the western side of the island and there is no entrance fee to explore. It’s such a scenic park!
I would love to stay in one of the raised treehouse style cabins on a visit. There is also a pebble beach. It’s the perfect place for skipping rocks! It was relaxing to just sit and watch the other families and watch the families of geese and watch the ducks go by. It was an overcast day so we couldn’t see the sunset, but I’m sure the sunset views are amazing from that vantage point. We would have stayed longer if it hadn’t begun to rain.
A bit later we decided to head over and explore the opposite far side of the island. We had an impromptu photo shoot at the towering Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. Unfortunately they weren’t open yet for the season so we weren’t able to make the trip up to the top to see the amazing views. Foiled again! On my last visit to the island they closed before I had a chance to visit. I WILL get to the top of this monument one day! Mark my words.
We headed over to the eastern most point of the island to visit the Scheef East Point Nature Preserve. Here we followed the trail that led us all the way to the eastern most shore of the island. We saw rabbits and wild tulips and other wild flowers. It’s a nice easy going nature walk.
After a full day of island exploration and great meal at The Boathouse, it was time to get some rest. The following morning we would be catching the Miller Boatline Ferry back over to the mainland. (Travel Tip: Time your return trip at sunset for a spectacular sunset over the lake)
Island Hopping in the Great Lakes was a very unique family travel adventure. As small towns go, this has quickly become one of my favorites. What’s not to like? There is history, nature, wine, food, and water activities (most of those hadn’t opened yet for the summer season on our visit). To learn more information on planning your next family vacation visiting the Ohio Islands, visit Lake Erie Shores and Islands website to help you get started with your travel plans.
Make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss the next installment in our Lake Erie Love travels where I recap our day trip to Kelleys Island.
Other Ohio Vacation Posts:
Lauren G. , Outdoorsy Diva™
“Adventure Is a Lifestyle!“