PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — The party starts early en route to Lake Erie’s South Bass Island.
Minutes after the drive-on/drive-off ferry pulls away from the dock on Catawba Island a few miles west of Sandusky, Ohio, T-shirt-clad passengers on the lower deck start popping beer cans. Their grins are as broad as the sprawling green lake churning behind them.
It doesn’t matter that the 3-mile journey to this tiny, picturesque island takes a mere 20 minutes. Or that it’s 10:30 in the morning. Something about Put-in-Bay village immediately puts people in a festive mood.
“It’s wild,” a friend warned when she learned of my husband’s and my plans to weekend there.
“Get ready to drink,” counseled another. “Like, a lot.”
My son Jack, who’d been there a week before with his girlfriend’s family, was more utilitarian. “Good luck finding a room,” he said, a sage to the folly of trying to arrange a last-minute trip to the 4-mile-long island that draws 750,000 visitors a year. South Bass Island was settled in 1811.
Boy, did the kid know something his folks didn’t: In Put-in-Bay, it’s near impossible during the summer season to find lodging on a weekend less than two weeks out unless you’re willing to pitch a tent at one of two camp sites. It was only through calling Put in Bay Reservations (1-888-742-7829) in hopes of snagging a cancellation that we accidentally found a bed. The guy who answered the phone happened to have a sister who’d recently opened up a holistic B&B called Freshwater Retreat who might have a room.
We were in luck, and the 1880s Victorian home was so charming ($110 weekdays and $195 weekends), we didn’t much mind the fact it was across the street from the airport.
Thus another important lesson of Put-in-Bay: Relax and go with the flow.
Upon disembarking the ferry at Lime Kiln Dock, there was a mad rush to the various shops renting golf carts. This being a Saturday, and the fact that the two-, four- and six-seat buggies are the preferred method of transportation here, you were pretty much outta luck if, like us, you hadn’t thought to make a reservation.
We had, though, remembered to bring our bikes. So after strapping our gym bags onto our backs, we simply peddled a mile up the road to our B&B.
Knowing our afternoon would likely include cocktails, we opted to catch one of the buses ($2.50) that make continual loops from the ferry into town. We hadn’t been waiting more than a few minutes when, without even sticking out our thumbs, we were picked up by Howard and Elaine, a friendly older couple in a golf cart who were putt-putting their way to the post office. Long-time summer residents, they told us to make sure to grab a bowl of lobster bisque at The Boardwalk and pointed out the best place to stay next time we were in town: The Bayshore Resort, the island’s only waterfront hotel.
Put-in-Bay is billed as family-friendly, but I’d steer clear of bringing kids on the weekends when partying millennials fill the streets. Watching the crowd from our sidewalk table at Put-in-Bay Brewing Co., a charming open-air brewpub on Catawba Avenue, we noticed many start their buzz in early afternoon. And the revelry continues late into the wee hours, thanks to a profusion of bars and clubs fueled by surprisingly good live music. Our waitress pointed to a second-floor nightclub across the street as an example. “They really work up a sweat dancing there at night,” she said.
Bachelorette parties, in particular, seem to be a Big Thing here — We saw scores of girls wearing crowns and accompanying “I’m the Bride” sashes followed by giggling, tipsy entourages.
The party atmosphere is far from a new thing. A framed yellowed article hanging in the Heineman Winery, the oldest of two wineries on the island, notes the life of summer residents is “a different island altogether from that seen by tourists who arrive at the main dock for carnival times in the public parks and beaches within sight of the great Perry memorial shaft.”
But first things first. Traveling makes you hungry.
You can’t do PIB justice without sampling the catch its fishing grounds are famous for: fresh walleye or perch from Lake Erie. We had fried versions of both (plus some excellent house brews) at the brewery. Then we ambled down to the busy harbor past beachy boutiques and souvenir shops, a thatched-roof tiki bar and DeRivera Park, founded in 1866 to maintain green space along the water.
Bayview Drive, the main drag, was alive with golf carts. Many were parked in front of Put-in-Bay Winery. Of course we had to have a look-see and soon were enjoying a glass of Commodore Perry Chardonnay on the pretty Italianate front porch of the Doller House Estate, where the winery set up shop five years ago.
Not wanting to play favorites, we managed a visit the next day to Heineman Winery. Established in 1888, it’s now in its fifth generation of family winemakers — six if you count a baby that’s just been born — making it the oldest family-run winery in Ohio. It presses about 40,000 gallons of wine a year from grapes grown on 40 island acres, some from vines that are 100 years old.
Limestone-based soil and a longer growing season made possible by the warming of shallow Lake Erie help grapes do well here: In 1900 there were 17 wineries on the island. But as our guide noted while pointing out the winery’s 100-year-old wood barrels, Prohibition put most out of business in 1919.
The samples, served in plastic cups and enjoyed at a picnic table in the sunny wine garden, were tasty enough. But what really made the trip a hoot was a visit 42 steps down beneath the winery to Crystal Cave. Billed as the largest geode in the world, the cave was discovered in 1897 when workers were digging a well. Many of the celestite crystals comprising the tiny cave (it holds about five people) were sold years ago for fireworks, but what remains is awesome. They range in size from golf balls to basketballs.
Equally awesome in a totally different way was The Roundhouse. After scoring a seat at its circular bar, we spent a long and happy Saturday evening there listening to a great party band from Philadelphia. Opened as a restaurant famous for its ice cream and cottage cheese in 1873, it’s one of the island’s most popular (and boisterous) watering holes. People are said to wait all winter for the neon whiskey sign in the window to blink on each spring and not just because you can buy a bucket of 12 or 13 beers for just $37.50. It’s just so cool inside with its red, white and blue canopy ceiling.
We also made a pit stop at Beer Barrel Saloon just down the block. At 405 feet, it’s said to have the longest bar in the world, with 160 bar stools and 56 beer taps. On a busy night, it can hold 1,200 people, requiring 20 bartenders. It’s a crazy place.
Sunday’s pleasures included a splash in one of the island’s many pool bars and a wonderful dinner at the highly recommended Goat Soup & Whiskey. The walleye tacos were outstanding.
Not looking to get soused? The island has a quieter side, which we discovered during several bike rides. Looking for a patch of sand in which to run our toes (for an island, PIB is weirdly absent of beaches), we pedaled out to Sheeff East Point Nature Preserve, a 9-acre preserve at the eastern end of the island with walking trails. Unaware of the recent algae bloom that made water undrinkable in Toledo, I waded into Lake Erie while my husband skipped rocks. It was lovely. We then took the short ferry ride to Middle Bass Island, which someone told us was less touristy than PIB. It was too quiet. So after a beer and swim at JF Walleye’s, we headed right back.
We also took a ranger-led tour to the top of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. Built between 1912-15 to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, it rises 352 feet. It’s taller even than the Statue of Liberty and the view from the top is nothing short of gorgeous.
Then it was back into the craziness.