Travel: Islands of the Great Lakes
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The Lake Erie islands are perhaps best known for Put-in-Bay, a “Key West of the North,” on South Bass Island, where Jimmy Buffett blasts from speakers all summer long and the conga lines march into the morning. But there’s more to South Bass and the surrounding islands than Hawaiian shirts and margaritas in drinking vessels shaped like didgeridoos, particularly for birdwatchers who don’t count Parrotheads among rare avian sightings.
The islands of western Lake Erie (Kelleys, South, Middle, North Bass, and Pelee) act as a bird bridge across the lake. As a result, this is one of the best spots to observe spring songbird migration. The nearby shores of northern Ohio even host “The Biggest Week in American Birding” May 4-13.
LEFT: A signpost showing distances from Put-in-Bay, on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island. RIGHT: A sailboat off Kelleys Island.
In this, the bicentennial year of the War of 1812, visitors should note that South Bass Island was the location of Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval squadron, which fought off the British in the Battle of Lake Erie and allowed the Americans to recover Detroit.
Winemaking used to be a major industry here, with nearly half of South Bass Island covered in grapevines, but tourism is the main draw now. The Lake Erie Shores and Islands, as the region is often called, attracts more than 10 million visits annually, which translates to a wide range of activities for everyone from single 20-somethings to families with young children. If all else fails, Cedar Point Amusement Park is just on the other side of Sandusky Bay.
Boating, dancing, fishing, wine tasting, swimming, bird-watching, golfing, hiking, biking, camping, historical and geological attractions, shopping, and amusement parks.
Miller Boat Line (millerferry.com) offers car and passenger ferries that depart from the tip of Catawba Island (actually a peninsula, not an island) to Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass Island. The drive to the dock from Detroit takes about two hours.
Jet Express (jet-express.com) offers passenger-only ferry service from Port Clinton to Put-In-Bay and Kelleys Island.
The Pelee Island Transportation Co. offers car and passenger ferries that leave from Leamington and Kingsville, Ontario. Information: peleeisland.com.
LEFT: The boardwalk.RIGHT: Bikes parked on Kelleys Island.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Lake Erie Shores and Islands offer a wide range of accommodations, from campsites and motels to indoor-waterpark resorts and everything in between. For details: shoresandislands.com.
You can see Detroit from the top of the 352-foot-tall Perry Peace Memorial on South Bass Island. The monument, among America’s tallest, was built in the early 20th century to honor Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a hero of the War of 1812.
Inland on South Bass, visitors can taste wine at Heineman’s Winery before viewing the world’s largest geode at Crystal Cave, owned and operated by the winery. If the foot-long crystals lining the walls of the cave pique underground curiosity, nearby Perry’s Cave boasts a lake 52 feet below ground.
Kelleys Island offers a much slower pace than Put-in-Bay, and remains much as it was 50 years ago. Visitors spend their days hiking the North Shore Loop, watching for birds along the boardwalk, and marveling at the massive Glacial Grooves on the north side of the island, or making a day trip to Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes.
LEFT: Palm trees on Put-in-Bay, sometimes called the “Key West of the North.” RIGHT: A ferry on its way to Put-in-Bay.
Golf carts, bicycles, and mopeds are the main forms of transportation on South Bass. Rentals are available at most docks.
Other Lake Erie Islands:
Pelee Island, Ontario
For a quieter experience that features western Lake Erie’s unique natural charm without the party atmosphere, Canada’s Pelee Island is a nearby alternative. Long known as an escape for American tourists, including some high-profile titans of industry who belonged to the Pelee Club in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the 9-by-3 mile island is easily navigated by bike.