Put-in-Bay, Ohio, on South Bass Island in Lake Erie, is home to the nation’s third tallest monument, the world’s longest bar, and an adult spring-break-style party like no other. Visitors are pleasantly surprised by the number of attractions, restaurants, bars, and hotels jammed on this two-by-four-mile island just three miles off the Ohio mainland. Although weekend nightlife here is rampant, you don’t have to be a barfly to have fun. This Victorian era-inspired island packs a wide range of activities suitable for the whole family. During the high season from April through October, vacationers enjoy winery and cave tours, fishing, golfing, water sports, dining, go-karts, antique cars, museums, and historical sights. The island is accessible by airplane or boat and has only 400 year-round residents, yet over a million visitors come every season. At sunset, the downtown strip of bars on Delaware Avenue transforms into a music thumpin’, bead throwin’, Mardi Gras party atmosphere.
Put-in-Bay Airport (3W2) is on the southern portion of South Bass Island, 7 nautical miles northeast of Carl R. Keller Field (PCW) and 15 nm northwest of Griffing Sandusky Airport (SKY), which is just east of the city of Sandusky, Ohio. Pilots arriving from the south can minimize over-water distance by flying to Carl R. Keller Field, and then continuing about 4 nm north along adjacent Catawba Island, which juts out into Lake Erie. From the north end of Catawba Island, it is about 2.5 nm over water to South Bass Island. From the west, you’ll have to avoid the R-5502 restricted areas, 4.5 nm west of Put-in-Bay, that extend from the surface up to 23,000 feet msl. Since a detour to the north would take you far offshore, arrivals from the west are advised to navigate via Carl R. Keller Field as well.
From the east and southeast, you can navigate to the Sandusky VOR (SKY 109.2 MHz), then fly 13 nm northwest to the tip of Catawba Island before crossing over to South Bass Island. In the Cleveland Class B area, flight following is available from Cleveland Approach on 126.35 MHz or 125.35 MHz.
Direct routes from the northeast may entail long over-water distances and transition Canadian airspace. If you do not detour along the south shore of Lake Erie, be prepared for over-water flying. You will also have to be on an active VFR or IFR flight plan, squawking a discreet code, and be in contact with ATC when you cross the border, even if both your departure point and destination are in the United States.
Put-in-Bay’s paved Runway 3/21 is 2,870 by 75 feet. There is a 450-foot displaced threshold for Runway 3 due to 63-foot trees at the south end as well as for noise abatement. Pilots are advised to stay clear of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 352-foot column slightly right of runway centerline only 1 nm from the departure end of Runway 3. For noise abatement, use right traffic for Runway 3 and left traffic for Runway 21. Fuel is not available, but the small FBO at the south end of the field offers biplane and helicopter scenic flights, a pilot lounge, vending machines, golf cart rentals, and rest rooms, 8 a.m.–8 p.m. There are no runway lights, so the airport is open from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. Bring your own tie-down ropes and chocks. Parking may be scarce on summer weekends, so get there early, day parking: $11, overnight parking: $16.
Put-in-Bay is one in a group of about 20 islands at the western end of Lake Erie. (The island is actually named South Bass Island but is typically referred to as Put-in-Bay.) It served as an operation base for Oliver Hazard Perry who sailed from the harbor of Put-in-Bay to defeat the British fleet during the War of 1812. To commemorate the naval battle, a monument in the shape of a Greek Doric column stands tall in the downtown harbor area. The island, originally used for raising sheep, became known for winemaking in the 1850s, and wines from this area rivaled the best French wines. The town of Put-in-Bay was incorporated in 1876, and soon became known as a vacation getaway. The most famous island hotel of the time was the Hotel Victory; it had the first coed swimming pool and was thought of as one of the grandest hotels in the world. It burned to the ground in 1919 and the ruins are still visible. Today, the original village is the downtown area of the island.
There is a lot to do on this little island and it’s easy to get around. Golf carts, bikes, and taxis are always accessible and many attractions are within walking distance of each other. The main downtown harbor area, just over a mile from the airport, is lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels. Average highs during the tourist season are in the 80s with evening temperatures dipping to about 65° F.
To orient yourself, you can start with a ride on the Put-in-Bay tour train, a narrated historical “choo-choo ride” that stops at most island attractions. Hop on the yellow train at the downtown depot located behind the chamber of commerce for a relaxing one-hour tour of most of the island, tours run daily (summer only) 10:15 a.m.–5:15 p.m., adults $10, children $4, 419-285-4855.
A beautiful wooded drive down Langram Road leads you to the 1855 Stonehenge Estate, which is representative of the family wine growing farms that prospered on the island. Stonehenge is now a family preservation project open to visitors from Memorial Day through Labor Day. A 20-minute self-guided audio tour takes tourists through historical highlights of the estate including a farmhouse built of dolomite and grout and a wine press cottage with a hand dug solid rock wine cellar. Both are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While on the tour, you will walk a portion of the seven acres of landscaped grounds, passing by rows of wine barrels and vineyards. After your tour, browse the gift shop for unique gifts like handmade jewelry, kaleidoscopes, and aviation memorabilia. You may also want to take some extra time to talk with owners Ken and Catherine, or daughter Lisa about their involvement with their EAA chapter and its Ford Tri-Motor restoration project. Shuttles from the airport can be arranged, open 11 a.m.–5 p.m., adults $7, children $3, 808 Langram Rd., 419-285-6134.
One block from Stonehenge, put your wine growing knowledge to work at Heineman’s Winery and Crystal Cave, the oldest family-owned winery in Ohio. The Crystal Cave is a large deposit of celestite crystals forming the world’s largest known geode, or cavity, lined with crystals. It was discovered in 1897 while workers were digging a well for the winery. After taking a tour of the cave, enjoy a complimentary glass of wine or grape juice in the tasting room or on the outdoor wine garden patio. More than 15 wines and grape juices, including their best seller, the Pink Catawba, are available, open Apr–Oct, 11 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun 12–5 p.m., tours run 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (May 5–Sep 25), adults $7, children $3, 978 Catawba St., 419-285-2811.
Across the street from Heineman’s Winery, you’ll find activities galore at Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. The 4,000-square-foot Butterfly House is a popular attraction, featuring 50 different species from around the world. Enter the gift shop filled with colorful souvenirs such as bird feeders, wind chimes, nature gifts, and handcrafted souvenirs, and then visit the indoor garden room to walk among hundreds of exotic butterflies, fountains, fishponds, and flowers. An expert educates visitors about the exhibit. Miniature golf, mazes, and a rock-climbing wall are also available.
Known as the deepest, darkest secret on the island, Perry’s Cave is a natural limestone cave 52 feet below the surface. It was discovered in 1813 by Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie, and tours began in 1870. This Ohio natural landmark, with an underground lake, remains a cool 50 degrees. A guided tour lasts about 20 minutes, adults $8, children $4.50. Youngsters and those young at heart can try their luck at gemstone mining. Purchase a bag of rough mix at the shop ($6–$10) and pan for real gems at the outdoor mining sluice. Look for minerals like emeralds, quartz, blue calcite, and moon stone, and even fossils, Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center is open 10 a.m.–6 p.m. (May–Oct), 979 Catawba Ave., 419-285-CAVE.
Once you make your way to the downtown harbor area, get a grand view of the island at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. Built between 1912 and 1915, it honors those who fought in the War of 1812 and celebrates peace between Canada and the United States. From the 317-foot observation deck, visitors can see the site of the Battle of Lake Erie, as well as Canada and Cleveland on clear days. The visitor’s center has historical models, educational displays, and a free 20-minute presentation on “The Battle of Lake Erie” that covers the history of the monument. There is a charge to take the elevator to the observation deck (after climbing 37 stairs to reach the elevator), open daily 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (May–Oct), ages 16 and over $3, children free, Bay View Ave., 419-285-2184.
For an active adventure or just to cool off, Kayak the Bay Ltd. rents single and double kayaks, and offers both sit-on-top and sit-in models. Kayak among the boats in the downtown bay area or island hop to nearby Middle Bass Island, just over a mile away. During your excursion, get up close to the rugged rock shoreline and view the lush island greenery. For good fun and great exercise, try the newest addition to the watercraft fleet, the hydro bike, or relax on a float. Floats and ski tubes are $10–$25 for a half day; kayak rates for up to two hours are $20 single, $40 double, 10 a.m.–dark weather permitting (Jun–Oct), Bay View Ave. next to Oak Point State Park, 419-967-0796.
Often called “Key West of the north,” Put-in-Bay has an active bar scene and a tradition of live musical entertainment. With over 20 bars and taverns to choose from, you won’t have any trouble finding a nightcap. You’ll be amazed at the selection of genres, entertainment, and atmospheres to choose from. In the spirit of Mardi Gras, visitors are often greeted to the bar scene with brightly colored beads tossed around their necks or thrown at their feet while others base their "party boy" status on how many sets of beads they can earn. This tradition has long been associated with good times and celebrations, and those that take part in this island bar scene certainly know how to celebrate! Of course, you must be able to say that you visited the home of the world’s longest bar, all 405 feet of it, at the Beer Barrel Saloon, which has live music all day and night during high season, noon–1 a.m. (May–Oct), 324 Delaware Ave., 419-285-BEER.
The Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce has more information on activities, dining, and lodging, 9 a.m.–6 p.m., 148 Delaware Ave., 419-285-2832.
Lodging options include bed and breakfasts, hotels, cottages, rooms, and suites, as well as more than 15 private homes and condos available for rent.
Less than a half-mile from Delaware Avenue is the Getaway Inn at Cooper's Woods, a peaceful lodge-style bed-and-breakfast situated just moments away from the shops and restaurants of Put-in-Bay’s main street. The inn’s original log cabin structure dates back to 1830 and is believed to be the island’s oldest building, but don’t worry, it’s been tended to since, with the most recent suite added in 2012. Today the inn comprises eight individually decorated guestrooms, including three suites that can accommodate small groups, and is perfect for romantic getaways or weekend retreats. The rooms take their names from the “pleasures of nature.” For instance, the four-person Sycamore Suite was inspired by the 1928 jazz song “In the Sing-Song Sycamore Tree” and is appointed with two cottage-style queen beds and a color palate consisting of subtle earth tones representing Sycamore bark. Children are welcome during the week, rooms $89–$119, suites $100–$210, 210 Concord Ave., 419-285-9012.
If you’d rather rough it in the great outdoors, then go camping at South Bass Island State Park. Once the site of the famous Hotel Victory, this 32-acre state park is an ideal setting for families, and is the most affordable lodging on the island. Live on the edge and choose a cliff-side tent site. Available year round, the park has 120 non-electric wooded campsites and modern restrooms with showers and toilets, as well as picnic areas, a fishing pier, a small stone beach, and watercraft rentals (www.pibjetski.com). Four cabents, a cross between a cabin and a tent, and one rustic cottage are available on a first-come, first-served basis, May–Sep. The two-bedroom octagon cabents are wood-sided with a canvas roof complete with shower, bath, kitchenette, and living area and sleep six people; the structures underwent complete interior renovations this June. They even have a toaster, television, pots, pans, and dishes. The cottage has one bedroom and sleeps up to six people. It also has a kitchen and full bath, and features a screened in porch and sundeck. Cabents and the cottage are popular, so make reservations early, cabents $500 per week, cottage $625 per week, campsites $25–$27 for two adults, $5 per additional person, two night minimum on weekends, 1523 Catawba Ave., 419-285-2112.
If you plan to partake in the weekend party scene, you may prefer an accommodation like the Put-in-Bay Resort, within stumbling distance from the bars. This resort hotel, new in 2005, has 72 spacious rooms including luxury suites, balcony pool view, and deluxe rooms. Amenities include upscale touches like granite countertops and high-end fixtures. In true island style, guests of the resort can lounge at the Caribbean-themed pool while sipping tropical drinks at the swim-up bar and listening to the poolside DJ. The outdoor Jacuzzi is billed as the “world’s largest” and is a great way to relax those muscles after a day filled with sightseeing. All rooms have refrigerators, televisions, high speed Internet, and private baths. Don’t expect peace and quiet if you are staying at any of the downtown hotels on weekends. If silence is your priority, you’ll prefer a weekday stay or accommodations farther from town, open Apr–Oct, $115–$425, two-night minimum on weekends, 439 Lorain Ave., 419-351-5166 or 888-742-7829.
For waterfront dining, head to town for the great seafood selection at The Boardwalk. The restaurant offers indoor seating and outdoor deck dining, or you can head upstairs to the Upper Deck, featuring casual dining and upscale entertainment. For over 25 seasons, this family restaurant has served secret seafood recipes like their lobster sandwich and lobster bisque. The sandwich is made with all lobster meat, a bit of mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, and a few secrets you’ll have to experience for yourself. The Boardwalk’s famous bisque is also made with all real lobster meat and a few family secrets; it comes served in a bread bowl. The Boardwalk is open Memorial Day–Labor Day, entrées $7–$15, 11 a.m.–10 p.m., late night menu 10 p.m.–2 a.m. on the Upper Deck, pier at the end of Catawba Ave., 419-285-3695.
How about fast food dining without the processed meat? The Chicken Patio on the main strip on Delaware Avenue is famous for its wine-basted BBQ chicken, an island tradition for over 60 years. The chicken is cooked all day on a 21-ft. charcoal grill. For only $11.50, you get a mouth watering half-chicken, sweet corn, potato salad, and a roll. Enjoy it on the patio or to go. Most sit-down restaurants close by 10 p.m., so the Chicken Patio is also a great late-night dining alternative to pizza and subs, Sun–Thu 11 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m.–1 a.m., 60 Delaware Ave., 419-285-4595.
Another popular option is Goat Soup & Whiskey, located on Catawba Avenue about a mile up the road from South Bass Island State Park. The Goat is a favorite among locals who appreciate the kitchen’s use of fresh ingredients, along with their selection of craft beers, homemade soups, and sauces made to order. And then there are the perch tacos. By far the most requested item on the menu, the tacos are made from locally caught yellow perch, lightly breaded and “fried to perfection,” then wrapped in a soft flour tortilla with cabbage, tomato, green onion, and cheese, before being topped off with The Goat’s Pali Wali sauce. The casual restaurant is only open from mid-May through September (after which, operations shift to the sister location in Summit County, Colo.), so it’s not uncommon to see diners opt for patio seating next to one of The Goat’s three herb and vegetable gardens, entrées $6–$10, open daily at 11 a.m., 820 Catawba Ave., 419-285-4628.
Golf carts, bicycles, and taxis are plentiful on the island and many establishments offer bicycle or golf cart rentals. Erie Island Carts has the lowest rental prices on the island, with the added advantage of having carts available at the airport terminal building. Four- and six-passenger carts can be rented by the hour, for the day, or overnight, $12–$16 per hour or $40–$100 per day/overnight, 419-285-KART. Delaware Cart Rentals is another popular overnight cart rental company; four- to eight-passenger golf carts are available by the hour, day, and overnight, $12–$22 per hour or $50–$100 per day. Moped rentals run $15 per hour and up to $60 per day, at the Edgewater Hotel, 266 Delaware Ave., 419-285-2724. Taxi fare is a $3 per person flat fee to any point on the island. Two popular companies are North Coast Cab, 419-285-3585, or Put-in-Bay Taxi, 419-285-TAXI.
Visit this small gem of an island for a grand time. See for yourself how Put-in-Bay packs in so much action around the clock. The extreme variety of activities and establishments make Put-in-Bay a fun-filled vacation whether you are a nature lover, history buff, party animal, or a kid at heart. So pack your bags; you’ll be sure to take out memories and maybe some beads to boot.
From the archives of Pilot Getaways magazine. Details such as frequencies and prices have been recently updated to reflect current information.