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On Lake Erie, hop a boat ride to fun

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[Photo: Ohio Division of Travel & Tourism ]
Soaring 352 feet high, the Victory and International Peace Memorial commemorates Oliver Hazard Perry’s defeat of the British near Put-in-Bay, on South Bass Island.

By MARY L. SHERK

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000


Watersports, wine tastings, theme park rides and abundant wildlife make a lake visit a busy excursion.

Whitecaps stir the blue water of Lake Erie stretching to the horizon, mildly animating mid-summer lassitude. Here on the shore and the waters of the oldest and shallowest of the Great Lakes, lighthouses stand guard, ferries voyage to offshore islands, walleye lure fishermen, sailboats drift and cottage porches look out over tranquil views and century-old Chautauqua enriches minds.

All those choices might surprise non-residents who vaguely recall Lake Erie's disgraceful pollution. But the lake has recovered and is a recreational bonanza again. Ohio, with 262 miles of lake shoreline, is a prime launching spot.

From docks at Port Clinton and Sandusky, ferries head out for the Lake Erie Islands. Two-thousand-acre Kelleys Island is Erie's largest American island. (Across the lake lies Canada.)

Designated a National Historic District for its mix of history, architecture and archaeology, Kelleys Island dwells serenely in the past, with building styles, remnants of early wineries (one still decants samples), limestone quarries and cemetery grave markers.

Pictographs on Inscription Rock record early hunters. Paul Bunyan myths to the contrary, the island's noted glacial grooves mark tedious passage of the same ice field that gouged the Great Lakes. And there's a nice sandy beach nearby.

Kelleys, with just 100 year-round residents, is neither pretentious nor luxurious. From the wide front porches of frame houses, folks contemplate drifting sea gulls and the "V's" of Canada geese heading out in late afternoon.

This is a quiet place, but it's still a good idea when booking a bed-and-breakfast stay to ask if your slumber might be disturbed by "booze cruisers" over from Sandusky on Friday nights. Though cruisers don't stray far from ferry landings and return to the mainland about midnight, they are exuberant.

Many islanders turn their Victorian houses into B&Bs for three months. Though Marblehead Peninsula on the mainland lies on the horizon, residents say there are times in winter when they cannot get there. And they like it that way. Bikes and golf carts (rental rates seem a bit stiff) are summer vehicles of choice, though some residents do bring autos.

Well-attended Friday evenings at Kelleys Island Wine Co. let tasters digest deli selections along with local gossip. Meanwhile, menus at Kenny's Place (the building once belonged to a group of Dominican nuns) nearer the lakeshore are more gourmet.

Contrasting with Kelleys' pastoral air, Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island sports eateries, shops and pubs. Despite the bay's quiet exterior, Boating magazine has featured it in its "Party Cove" section.

Here, visitors leave the ferry at the dock to find bikes and golf carts to rent, or taxis and buses to ride. This is also where visitors board the Tour Train for a narrated one-hour trip of the island.

The sole sign of seriously turbulent history here is the 352-foot-tall Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial. The monument commemorates Oliver Hazard Perry's defeat of the British here during the War of 1812. After the 1813 naval battle, Perry wrote his famous line, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

Other Put-in-Bay options range from summer theater to Perry's Cave, from parasailing to visiting Stonehenge, a charming historic cottage in the woods. The Alaskan Birdhouse Wildlife Museum is filled with examples of North American wildlife.

Boat people bring their own accommodations, but options for Put-in-Bay stays include bed and breakfasts, rental cottages, motels/hotels and campgrounds.

To join the island-hopping crowd, board the Sonny S passenger ferry to Middle Bass Island, where Lonz Winery dates from the Civil War. The site is to become a state park. Further ferrying to Pelee Island crosses the border into Ontario. Quiet water, bird-watching and wine tasting (some excellent quality) grace days and nights ashore.

Back on Marblehead Peninsula at the community of Lakeside, Chautauqua on Lake Erie features historic homes, more waterfront activities and gardens to browse and welcoming faces.

For almost 130 years tourists have thrilled to amusement park/resort Cedar Point, with its beachfront Breakers hotel located on a swath of tan sand. Twelve roller coasters plus 44 other rides, live entertainment, a marine-life stadium and aquarium and a water park thrill thousands.

Captains of the charter boats have a good idea where to land walleye, perch and sheepshead.

Marblehead Lighthouse, built in 1821, stands guard at the peninsula's tip, attesting to times when cargo ships shuttled from Cleveland to Toledo.

Ohio's lake coast extends from Toledo to Pennsylvania. The Cleveland area's Sea World, smaller than the Orlando attraction, delivers exciting performing orcas and well-done science exhibits. Across a small lake from Sea World, Geauga Park Amusement Park has a water-theme park that's a nice size for family outings.

-- Mary L. Sherk is a freelance travel writer living in Broomfield, Colo.

If you go:

First, call (800) BUCKEYE (282-5393), the state tourism information number that can answer most of your questions. Next, try the Lake Erie Circle Tour, at (888) 327-5253; Web site is http://www.circle-erie.com. Then, contact the following:

Sandusky/Erie County Visitors & Convention Bureau, 231 W Washington Row, Sandusky, OH 44870; call (800) 255-ERIE (255-3743) or (419) 625-2984; fax (419) 625-5009. Lodging locator service: (800) 255-3743.

Kelleys Island Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 783, Kelleys Island, OH 43438; (419) 746-2360.

Lakeside Association, 236 Walnut Ave., Lakeside, OH 43440; (419) 798-4461; fax (419) 798-5033; Web site: http://www.lakesideohio.com

(South Bass Island) Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 250-BN, Put-in-Bay, OH 43456; (419) 285-2832; e-mail: island@infinet.com

Cedar Point: Open daily until Labor Day, plus weekends through Oct. 12; (419) 627-2350; Web site: http://www.cedarpoint.com

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