It’s like a combo of Midwestern work ethic and laid back island attitude.”
When Chad invited me to Put-in-Bay, Ohio I had no idea what this place was nor had I ever even heard of it. Was it a theme park? A resort?
They say it’s the “Key West of the Midwest”…so I had to come check it out for myself.
In the middle of Lake Erie (one of the Great Lakes), nearly to the Canadian border sits a cluster of islands. Put-in-Bay is on South Bass Island and has only about 150 residents year round. But that number sky rockets in the summertime when families and college kids are on vacation and the island’s dozen or so bars fill to the brim with party-goers, “spring-break” style.
Let’s just say I was happy to be here in the fall, as crowds were thinning and it was a bit quieter. Just one month later, around Columbus Day, nearly everything closes up for winter and a good chunk of the workforce heads back to mainland Ohio or even further afield to spots like Key West and Keystone, Colorado. In fact, a couple of businesses in town have locations in both places, like the Goat Soup and Whiskey. This popular spot is known for their great mojitos and seriously tasty perch tacos. Their original location is in Keystone.
Most people get around either by bike or golf cart although you can take the Miller Ferry car ferry to the island which runs every half hour all summer long. But you might want to just leave the car back on the mainland and hop on the ferry without it. It’s pretty cool to ride out, just 30 minutes and be in this sort-of vacation paradise. I kept saying “this is so random,” because I never expected such a place in Ohio.
People come here to get away and simply hang out, eat and drink. There are resort pools and swim-up bars and restaurants all over town.
“It’s mostly a place people come to just drink, eat, and relax,” says Chad Whaley, a Sandusky native who’s worked here on and off for nine years as a bartender. Everywhere we went, Chad was saying ‘hi’ to old friends and locals who all knew each other.
As I sat on the front porch of my room at the Lodge at Harriet’s House, I couldn’t even place where I was. Was this Cape Cod or Door County or just a small town in the Midwest somewhere? Put-in-Bay is a unique place, that’s for sure. Oh, and the name? There are a couple of theories. One being it was simply named for the natural harbor and where you “put in” your boat. The other says it’s from the term “pudding bay”, which, in reality, had no meaning, but was simply a slang phonetic variant of “Put-in-Bay.”
“It was a mess,” says Marc Wright co-owner of the Old Forge Café and Creperie, perhaps my favorite place I ate, not just because of the tasty crepes, but because of all the attention to detail in the design. Marc and his partners tore down a 100-year old blacksmith shop to the studs and built a brand new restaurant with a rustic, modern vibe with tin ceilings, recycled wood walls, and a metal-topped outdoor bar that would be right at home in Chicago. Not only did they have a ton of work renovating, the previous business located here was a gift shop full of trinkets and tchothkes owned by somewhat of a hoarder. Marc bought it all as is, and is also now, not only running a restaurant full time, but also selling off huge containers full of Hummels, Precious Moments figurines, and other *crap on eBay in his spare time.
*in the eye of the beholder
Looking for more than just a party? South Bass Island is home to Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. This 352-foot Doric column pays tribute to Commodore Perry and his crew for their victory against the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, which eventually attributed to American control of the Great Lakes. It also celebrates the long-lasting peace between Britain, Canada and the U.S. From the top of this national landmark you can look out over the western basin of Lake Erie and on a clear day even see the Canada.
You might not know that there are vineyards in Ohio. Lake Erie and its temperate climate provide the ideal conditions for making wine. Heineman’s Winery has been making wine for over 125 years and offers up a tour and tastings. Plus the former Lonz Winery (on the National Register of Historic Places), just a short boat ride over to Middle Bass Island, will soon be redeveloped by Ohio Parks.
Hotels are fairly basic (this isn’t exactly a luxury resort) and the whole place has a laid-back Midwest vibe, mixed with a little bit of fake palm tree, island charm. The Bayshore Resort is a bit of a larger place with a pool in back. I enjoyed my stay at Harriet’s House Guest House & Suites with its “cottagey” vibe on a quiet side street. Sitting outside, it did bring back memories as a kid, just hanging out for the summer in a lake community-type place. I almost felt like getting up to catch fireflies.
Tooling around the island on a motor boat and kicking back in the sand with a mojito, and you might just think you’re in Florida. But it’s just Ohio. Perhaps a closer and more affordable version.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Miller Ferry and Lake Erie Shores and Islands. As always, all writing is my own.