Rattlesnake Island Revealed

It’s the Lake Erie island that is off limits to everyone except members. So when Laura Watilo Blake got her chance to visit the private retreat, she grabbed her camera and set out to discover what makes it so special.
I’ve been in the company of Japan’s emperor, trekked on Mount Everest and gone on safari in Kenya. Closer to home, I’ve visited nearly every port town, beach and historical site around Lake Erie. But I have never set foot on Rattlesnake Island. 

The 85-acre Ohio island is the summer getaway for about 65 Rattlesnake Island Club members, a handful of whom have summer homes there. Few people, other than their guests, ever get the chance to set foot on the island.

So, it takes me by complete surprise when I open an e-newsletter from the private Cleveland club to which I belong and see this subject line: “Rattlesnake Island Club Overnight Boat Outing.” I am intrigued. 

After poring through the details, I pick up the phone and book a spot immediately. There is just one small problem: I don’t own a boat. 

Rattlesnake Island Club manager David Gresh tells me I can fly to the island by private or chartered plane from Erie-Ottawa International Airport in Port Clinton, Ohio. Since that isn’t an option for me, either, Gresh arranges to have someone from the club pick me up at the marina next to The Boardwalk on South Bass Island, Rattlesnake’s closest neighbor. I half expect a fancy yacht, like the one on which I’ve seen the Kardashians partying, but it is slightly — and by that I mean much — smaller. 

In fact, the entire overnight visit turns out to be very low-key, even though there are a few surprises in store.

When I arrive, I am shuttled by golf cart across the landing strip, which doubles as a golf course, and along a tree-lined, pea-gravel road. Along the way, I catch a glimpse of some of the members’ vacation homes through the dense foliage.

When we come to a stop, I discover a rustic, secluded compound at the northern end of the island with a cluster of log buildings, many of which date back to the late 1920s, when Toledo industrialist Hubert D. Bennett built his summer retreat on the island. Subsequent owners added tennis, racquetball and bocce courts, plus putt-putt, a golf course and a swimming pool with a deck that extends over the rocky shoreline.

It’s the middle of the week, and I see very few people around, although a couple of women are lounging by the pool in one of the few patches of sunlight at the otherwise tree-shaded retreat. 

Gresh shows me my home for the night in one of six no-frills, side-by-side gazebo rooms at the water’s edge, each with its own screened-in porch for kicking back and watching the waves lap against the limestone cliffs. While my room is comfortable, the dark wood paneling, dropped ceilings and bright green artificial turf on the porch floor are straight out of the 1950s. This is the least-expensive accommodation for club members or their guests. Other options include a penthouse above the pool bar, a Tower Suite overlooking the lighthouse marina, and two lodges, including the much more distinctive four-bedroom North Lodge.

I settle in and then make my way to the scheduled poolside lunch with the other folks signed up for the club excursion. After a round of introductions and a round of drinks, we order sandwiches and eat al fresco on the deck between the pool and the shimmering lake just over the railing. If this were Put-in-Bay, this prime lakefront location would be packed with revelers, but it feels like we have the entire island all to ourselves.
It isn’t until dinner that we truly discover the big secret that the very private Rattlesnake Island Club has been hiding from the rest of the world: five-star dining in one of the most remote settings in Ohio. 

At The Golden Pheasant Inn, named for the birds that were brought to the island during Bennett’s time here, chef Jesse Spears prepares exquisite dishes from a postage stamp-sized kitchen in one of the oldest lodges on the property. The food might be haute, but the atmosphere is warm and inviting, except perhaps for the stuffed rattlesnake ready to strike from its perch on the mantel above the central stone fireplace.

Steak, seared ahi tuna and lobster and shrimp ravioli are among the dishes delivered to our table, and they are perfectly prepared to order. The decadent desserts that follow, including ice cream, are made in-house. Even if something’s not on the menu, chances are Spears can make whatever strikes a member’s fancy.

“It’s like I’m a personal chef for 65 people,” Spears says. “Every one of them wants something different. If I know there’s a family that really likes swordfish, I'll order it that week if I know they are coming.” 

Growing herbs and vegetables on the island, unfortunately, didn’t work. “There are six adult peacocks and four new babies on the island,” says Spears. “They get into everything.”

So, for now, vegetables, meat and seafood, both local and imported, are shipped in on the Miller Ferry on Wednesdays and stored in the walk-in coolers. Two huge back-up generators keep them running in the event the power goes out during a storm. 

In fact, there’s one brewing right outside as we finish up dinner. Before the rain kicks in, I work off my decadent meal by taking a stroll down to the water’s edge, where the lighthouse casts an eerie glow over the water. Nearby, the waves are crashing over “the rattles” — two rocky islets just offshore. It’s been said the island got its name from the Ottawa Indians, who thought the two outcroppings, along with the serpentine shape of the larger landmass, resembled a rattlesnake with its rattles half submerged. Another theory is that the place was once infested with rattlesnakes, like the one at the Golden Pheasant Inn. 

That’s where, the next morning, Spears has one final trick up his sleeve. “Ooooh, their famous doughnuts!” says one of my dining companions as we are presented with our cinnamon- and sugar-dusted breakfast treats. They are definitely a crowd-pleaser, Gresh confirms when he stops over at the table to see if we’re enjoying our meal and our stay. 

The answer is a resounding yes, but everyday life awaits beyond this hidden Lake Erie gem. It would be nice if I had a personal chef waiting there, too. I would have the surprise of my life if my husband decided to cook, but, instead of holding my breath, I’ll be waiting for my invitation back to Rattlesnake Island.