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Your Island Guide to the 15 Best Things to Do at Put-In-Bay Ohio
When I first heard of Put In Bay on South Bass Island, I pictured tropical beaches and ships of every shape and size. I was correct in imagining the vessels of all shapes and sizes “putting in” in this cozy little bay on South Bass Island. But I was slightly off in my image of a tropical getaway. Though I found beautiful beaches and delightful natural areas, they are not tropical but Midwestern. This supposed “flyover country” in the United States has many fun surprises.
One step onto this picturesque little community in the Ohio Shores and Islands area, and you’ll know you’ve found the next best thing to a tropical oasis! Named for the little bay where boats can “put in” in an area protected from the wind and waves on South Bass Island, Put-In-Bay is the perfect addition to your bucket list. Here are only fifteen of the many experiences you must have on this small island near Port Clinton, Ohio!
1 – Take a Mini Cruise on the Miller Ferry
Miller Ferry launches from the tip of Catawba Island and offers an 18-minute ride to South Bass Island. From the ticket window to the walk onto the ferry, you’ll find cheerful employees and riders. Most passengers are ready to enjoy their time on the island. I didn’t bring my car, but it was fun to see all the visitors who did drive them right onto the boat. They line them right up like chocolates in a heart-shaped box!
As we approached, my friends and I were seated up front, watching the island grow bigger the closer we got! We peeked down at the main level and saw drivers stepping out of their vehicles and onto the deck for fresh air. The seagulls traveled with us, and on the ride back at the end of the day, they bickered mid-air over snacks from a couple of young boys who had a great time throwing popcorn for them to catch mid-flight.
Miller Ferry is the premier provider of transportation to the Island. Anything that needs to get to the island, including mail, garbage trucks, grocery supplies, and the like, are transported by Miller Ferry.
2 – Let the Wind Whip Through Your Hair on a Golf Cart!
Once you’ve made your way onto the Island, you’ll need a way to get around. Put In Bay is on the North side of South Bass Island. According to Britannica.com, “South Bass Island is 3.5 miles long by 1.5 miles (5.6 km by 2.4 km) wide and shaped like a pudding bag, the name of which is commonly believed to have been corrupted to the village’s place-name, Put-In-Bay.”
But I digress. Once you’re on the Island, you will quickly realize that you will need a way to get around. If you don’t bring your car or a bike, you’ll want to consider a Golf Cart Rental, which is the best way to get around the island! Who doesn’t want to drive around an island on a golf cart for the day!? Beware – road rules apply, so you’ll need an active driver’s license. Drive safely!
Several options are available on the island, but we used E’s Golf Carts. They make it super easy to reserve in advance, or if you’re less organized or maybe more of a spur-of-the-moment traveler, you can always walk up to the little reservation hut and rent one on the spot. The price is reasonable, and the rental process is quick and painless. Just a few short questions and you’re on your way.
Don’t worry if you aren’t into zipping around freely in your little open-air golf cart. Island Club Taxi is the only taxi service on the Island, but they can take you anywhere you want to go for just $3 per person per ride.
3 – Relive a Historic Battle at Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial
You will not want to miss Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial! This giant tower was erected in 1915, and standing at 352 feet tall, it is the third tallest structure in the United States. You will pick up your timed tickets from the nearby museum and gift shop, then take a picturesque little walk down a grass-lined sidewalk to the Memorial. You then hop on an elevator and ride to the top, where you will get the view of a lifetime!
Don’t worry if you’re nervous about heights. The top of the Memorial is sturdy, and the observation deck has armpit-high cement walls to keep you from falling off and plummeting to your death. Comforting, right? In fact, one of the stringent rules is that you do not place any items on the wall, including a camera lens cap (ask me how I know). Park Rangers patrol the Memorial and love to answer all of your questions. These folks are great at their job and love sharing information about the place. So ask away!
You may wonder what this big old Memorial is doing in an off-the-beaten-path area of Ohio. In a nutshell, the Memorial commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie and the War of 1812. Oliver Hazard Perry was a crucial figure in the Battle of Lake Erie, hence the name.
The view from the top allows you to see the Lake Erie Islands and even get a peek at the U.S./Canada border. Be sure to read the informational plaques stationed in each deck corner. Take your time once you’re up there. If you are lucky enough to get gorgeous weather as we did, you won’t be in any hurry to head back down.
4 – Fill Your Belly at the Goat Soup n Whiskey
You will find plenty of delicious options for all your meals while visiting the island! My favorite is the Goat, Soup, and Whiskey. I loved it so much the first time I was there that I went back when I returned a week later for a second visit. The menu is impressive and filled with unique choices, the staff is friendly and efficient, and the cocktails are unique and refreshing! The taxidermized goat in the corner is just a bonus, and he makes a perfect photo opportunity!
For some other fabulous food finds on the Island, check out some of these other delicious Put-In-Bay Restaurants:
Begin your day at Pasquale’s Café. They are known for their delicious breakfast menu with pancakes, eggs, and omelets served to everyone’s taste! If you visit during the peak summer season on the weekend, be ready to wait in line. You won’t be sorry. The food is worth the wait at this homestyle café.
The Keys Restaurant is the perfect place for some waterfront seafood at lunchtime. Choose a seat outside for a fantastic view of the Perry Monument and the marina. The menu has delicious seafood dishes, American cuisine, and Caribbean options.
If you’re looking for something more upscale and hankering for some clam chowder or lobster bisque, head for The Boardwalk. Pack your wallet because this delicious restaurant on the waterfront carries a heftier price tag than most downtown options.
Want some ghostly company while dining? Swing over to T & J’s Smokehouse on the main drag through town. Legend says that T.B. Alexander, a famous stage actor, came to Put-In-Bay and became mayor. More than one islander told us his ghost is present in this historic barroom. In addition, T & J’s is the only country-western-themed bar on the Island, so come on out for some good, old-fashioned food-stomping fun and live music, too!
Hankering for pizza? You can pick up a slice at the Swipe Right food truck, Frosty Bar, which serves a mean slice of pizza with an ice-cold beer, or Cameo Pizza, located inside Mr. Ed’s Bar and Grille.
And to finish it all off, you’ll want to wash down all these delicious foods with some ice cream. Put-In-Bay won’t let you down, with several ice cream shops easily accessible. Try DJ’s Ice Cream downtown, the Dairy Isle on Bayview Avenue, or the Village Bakery and Café, which also serves pastries, cakes, and pies. Look out, sweet tooth!
5 – Have an Adventure at Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center
You’ve probably heard of Perry’s Cave, even if you haven’t been on the Island or anywhere in the Shores and Islands area. Billed as a family fun center, you’ll want to make time for a visit! Perry Cave is about a mile from downtown. When you’re there, pick up combo tickets to enjoy climbing a rock wall, playing miniature golf, mining for gems, and visiting a cool butterfly house, all for one reasonable price.
But the most compelling reason to stop into Perry’s Cave is the cave itself! Head down to the underground area, 52 feet below the surface, and look at the underground lake where Commodore Perry’s troops sipped the clear water during the Battle of Lake Erie. The cave is a balmy 50 degrees throughout the season, so the cool air is welcome on a hot summer day. Be prepared for slippery conditions and wear good shoes for your trip down.
6 – Take a Selfie at the Put in Bay Sign
I’m always looking for a great place to grab a cool selfie to share on social media, and Put-In-Bay doesn’t disappoint! In the summer of 2022, the local Chamber of Commerce installed a fantastic sign at the Island’s South Bass Island State Park. The sign is perfectly placed, so the background is a picturesque view of Lake Erie – and it’s big enough to fit a crowd in your photo if you’re traveling with the entire family or a group of friends.
Snap a selfie. Or two. Or three while you’re there! If you want to dazzle your friends, plan to snap that selfie just as the sun sets behind you.
7 – Sip Some Wine at Heineman’s Winery
As I’ve grown into my middle years, I have begun to enjoy wine tasting. So, of course, I had to check out Heineman’s Winery. Founded in 1888 by Gustav Heineman of Baden, Germany, this Put-In-Bay Winery has deep historical roots on the Island. Not only can you taste some of their highly-rated wines, but you can also take a tour of the winery and learn about the process of producing fine wines.
The tour is about 15-20 minutes long, and bottles of wine are reasonably priced, so you can bring some home to remember your visit! If you’re not a wine drinker, grab a bottle of their non-alcoholic grape juice, which some say is even better than the wine! I’ll leave that to your tastebuds to decide.
As with many family businesses, the Heineman Winery has been passed down through the generations and is currently run by fourth and fifth-generation family members. The winery consists of 50 acres of grapes on the island and is ripe with photo opportunities (see what I did there?).
8 – Step Inside a Geode at Crystal Cave
Situated on the same property owned by the Heineman Winery, Crystal Cave is a delightful and unique stop on your island tour! Be sure to take the tour deep down into the underground, where you can stand right inside the world’s largest Geode.
I loved how our tour guide warned us in advance that the trip down into the cave is 42 steps down and 42 steps back up. Fortunately, he was patient and did not rush us on the way back up because this Hip Grandma took her time. It was worth the extra exercise because the cave tour was excellent!
While we toured the small underground cavern, our Kelsey Grammar look-a-like guide took the opportunity to terrorize me by poking at a small bat hanging from one of the crystals. No worries – we made it out safely and had a few laughs. Well, some of us did anyway.
Once my heartbeat returned to normal after the bat incident, I found the history of the cave interesting. Science lovers will discover the facts about the crystals compelling. This tour is the perfect length, not too long, and packed with interesting details. Be sure and snag your photo moment while down there. Where else can you stand inside a real, live geode!?
9 – Take to the skies for an Aerial View of South Bass Island
If you have extra time and want a view from above, make time for a plane or helicopter ride from the Put-In-Bay airport! The airport is on the southern end of the island, away from the downtown area, and offers tours by biplane or helicopter. Enjoy a view of Perry’s Monument, the Islands in the area, and the Lake Erie coastline, all from above.
Experts pilot both biplane and helicopter tours, and they love to share their knowledge of the region. If you opt for a biplane tour, your pilot will guarantee you a good time in a genuine and fully restored World War II Biplane. It’s clear the pilots love their job, and if you ask, they may even take you on a loop or roll while in flight or let you operate the controls for a bit. No worries. If you’re not a thrill-seeker, your pilot will keep the hijinks to a minimum.
10 – Pitch a Tent in the State Park
The South Bass Island State Park is the perfect place to pitch a tent, but if you’re not into roughing it, you can also bring your RV over and enjoy full hookup. If tent camping is your thing, you’ll be right at home here, where modernized showers and restrooms are available.
I was most intrigued by the “ca-bents” sitting on the edge of a forested area in the park. These cabin/tent combos are available for rent. What a unique and fun way to spend a night in the park. Reserve your spot through the Ohio Parks Service, but reserve well in advance, as these lots and rentals fill quickly.
11 – See a Boat Emerging from a Cliff at the Benson Ford House
Put-in-Bay has one of the most unique houses I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something because I’ve seen many houses. The Benson Ford Ship House is four stories tall and sailed the Great Lakes hauling iron ore at one time. The ship, originally built for Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company, has been converted into a vacation home and juts out from the cliffside overlooking Lake Erie.
Privately owned by Bryan Kasper and his family, The Benson Ford House is occasionally open for in-person tours at specific times throughout the years. I couldn’t tour it while visiting, but this tour is definitely on my bucket list!
12 – Walk a Nature Trail – or Many!
One thing that is abundantly clear when you make your way around the island is how important nature is on Island. There are parks and nature trails everywhere. I could write for days about the many options for exploring, but part of the fun is discovering your favorite, so I’ll highlight two of my favorites here and let you look for yours when you visit.
You must check out the Love Locks (not to be confused with Locks of Love) at Alfred Parker Park. Swing your golf cart into a parking spot and walk a short distance to a chain-lined fence overlooking Lake Erie, where you’ll see hundreds of locks of every shape, size, and color decorating the fence. Bring your own lock when you visit if you’d like to leave your mark on the island!
Travel to the furthest point on the Northeast end of the Island to visit Scheeff East Point Nature Preserve. This short little trail can be hiked in about 30 minutes and has some of the most untouched natural areas with views of the lake that you can find.
When you’re done hiking the trails, check out the graffiti blocks at the end of the road overlooking Lake Erie. These cement blocks are constantly changing as islanders regularly repaint them over and over to suit the look of the moment. We had fun snapping some selfies while there.
13 – Take in the Historic South Bass Island Lighthouse
A visit to Put-In-Bay is not complete without a trip out to see the South Bass Island Lighthouse. This historic beauty sits on a gorgeous patch of grass where you can wander and take in stunning views of Lake Erie. Situated at the southern tip of South Bass Island, the Lighthouse grounds include a barn, an oil house, the original lighthouse home, and the current steel lighthouse tower, placed adjacent to the house when the original light was deactivated in 1962.
The South Bass Island Lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and there’s no wonder why. The stories behind her are interesting and sometimes tragic. She is also beautiful to photograph, so if lighthouses are your thing, you’ve come to the right place! This beauty, built in 1897, is over 125 years old and still stands as a beautiful welcome to ships passing by.
14 – Seek Adventure on the Water
Adventure seekers will lack for nothing on their visit to South Bass Island. Like any island surrounded by water, this island invites all kinds of adventures! I’ve done my best to touch on some of the best adventure activities and water sports when you’re on the island!
Rent a paddleboard from Bay Paddleboard. If you’re new to paddleboarding, no worries. The excellent staff will give instructions for water safety and a summary of the rules for paddleboarding around the island. They also offer instruction and help a beginner get their sea legs under them for this fun adventure.
Soar above the water and get amazing views from up high when you try parasailing on Lake Erie. Purchase your ticket from the ticket stand on the dock at the Boardwalk restaurant in downtown Put-In-Bay.
A great way to experience the Island from the water is by kayak. Grab a kayak rental from Kayak the Bay, Ltd. And begin your exploration. Trust me when I tell you I’m no expert, but I have recently learned to kayak; if I can do it, anyone can! Take your time and paddle peacefully around the island, where you can get a unique view of the Benson Ford House, a look at the nearby Gibraltar Island, and all of the cliffs and coves surrounding the island. Nervous about trying it out alone? Ask about a guided tour.
Charter Fishing or Jet Skis
Lastly, for the adventure-seeker, check out a jet ski rental or consider a charter fishing trip where you can reel in some Perch, Walleye, and various species of Bass, and Trout. Be sure to bring a cooler to get your haul home.
15 – Get in Touch with Wildlife by Spotting a Unique Bird or Butterfly
Finally, no article about Put-In-Bay would be complete without touching on the birds and butterflies that are a considerable part of the island experience.
Put in Bay is known for its excellent bird-watching opportunities. OhioMagazine.com has listed the Scheeff East Point Nature Preserve as one of the top 8 Great Ohio Birding Spots. That being said, you can find gorgeous birds everywhere on your Island adventure. Bring your binoculars and your camera. You’ll have plenty to capture.
Each September, the Monarchs stop at Put-In-Bay on their migration South. South Bass Island is an official Way Station for the Monarchs, and the Island celebrates this by hosting a capture, tag, and release event before the butterflies continue on their journey to Mexico for the winter. My favorite part? You can “adopt a Monarch” that you catch and tag, then follow him on his journey. For updated information annually, follow the Lake Erie Islands Nature and Wildlife Center on Facebook or subscribe to updates at the Nature Center’s website. Maybe I’ll see you there. Look for the Hip Grandma with pink hair!
Wrapping it all up
Seriously – I spent two days on the Island over two visits a week apart. I could not enjoy all of the Put-In-Bay attractions on my wish list in a day trip or two. I will be visiting again and again until my to-do list is complete – that’s for sure! With so many options, you will want to consider spending the night on the island. I didn’t even cover all the options for that, but if you’re not into roughing it on a campground site, know that there are beautiful resorts, bed and breakfasts, and hotels peppered around the Island for overnight visitors. Plan ahead as these lodging options fill quickly.
One thing I learned in my short visits is that Island life might be the life for me!
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