The Lake Erie Islands

25 ways to make the most out of summer on South Bass, Kelleys, Middle Bass and Pelee islands.
1. Fly back in time. For years, the islands were serviced by Island Airlines, which used 1920s-era Ford Tri-Motors and called itself the shortest airline in the world. Its descendant today is Griffing Flying Service, available at the Erie-Ottawa Airport in Port Clinton, Ohio. 419-734-5400,

2. Don’t give up the ship. Put-in-Bay is famous for being the site of the Battle of Lake Erie, a decisive American victory in the War of 1812. And remnants of the war, along with other pieces of local history, can be seen at the Lake Erie Islands Historical Museum on South Bass Island in Ohio. 419-285-2804,

3. Learn about the Civil War, too. Ohio’s Johnson’s Island — accessible via a toll causeway ($2) from the Marblehead Peninsula — was home to a Confederate Prisoner of War camp, and, although the island is private, the Confederate cemetery is open to the public.

4. Get in the groove. The Great Lakes were formed from the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier, which left enormous grooves on what is now the north side of Kelleys Island in Ohio. The Glacial Grooves, 400 feet long, 35 feet wide and up to 10 feet deep, are a National Natural Landmark — and easily accessible.

5. Visit the old quarries. The Marblehead Peninsula and Lake Erie Islands are famed for limestone deposits and are home to multiple quarries. One old quarry, on Kelleys Island, has become the Horseshoe Lake, with hiking paths and the opportunity to see lots of wildlife.

6. Bisque at the Boardwalk. The two-story complex offers a little bit of something for everyone, but the waterfront restaurant at Put-in-Bay is celebrated for its lobster bisque, which was off-limits to LeBron James as punishment for leaving Cleveland and then used to entice him to return (at least, that’s what the sign out front said). 419-285-3695,

7. Have a beer. Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island are both home to microbreweries that offer a variety of tastes for your palate. (Kelleys Island Brewery, formerly an ice cream stand, will make you a root beer float as well.) 419-746-2314,

8. Have an island drink — with island rum. There’s nothing like a mojito next to the water to make you feel like Ernest Hemingway. At Put-in-Bay Brewery and Distillery, you can get one of those — with rum made on site (they also make vodka, if you’d rather have a Moscow mule). 419-285-4677,

9. Have some wine. The Lake Erie Islands once were called the wine islands for their production, and there are still plenty of wineries to choose from, no matter which island you’re on. Put-in-Bay has two, Kelleys Island has one, and the Pelee Island Winery makes wine that’s sold throughout the province of Ontario.

10. Go spelunking. In 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie, discovered a cave with an underground lake below South Bass Island. Today, tours are available of the cave itself at the Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center, a complex that includes a putt-putt course, car museum, gemstone mining, a butterfly house, rock wall climbing and more. 419-285-2283, 

11. Visit Gibraltar Island. Jay Cooke, who helped finance the Union war effort during the Civil War, originally owned the island. Today, both the island and Cooke Castle, the home he built, are part of The Ohio State University and are used for research. Science and history tours of the island are held each Wednesday, June 24 through Aug. 12, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A tour fee of $10 ($5 for children ages 6 through 12) supports student scholarships. (To get to Gibraltar, meet at the Boardwalk Restaurant Harbor Taxi Landing on South Bass Island by 10:45 a.m. to catch a water taxi for $6 round-trip.)

12. Watch the birds. The wetlands and nature preserves on the mainland and the parks throughout the islands offer a welcome habitat for birds, especially during the spring and fall migrations. Enjoy guided bird walks at the Kelleys Island’s Feather and Foliage Festival on Sept. 26. 419-746-2258,

13. Teach your child to fish. The Aquatic Visitors Center on South Bass Island, operated by Ohio Sea Grant and owned by ODNR’s Division of Wildlife, offers displays on fish found in the lakes and rivers of Ohio. Kids under 16 can borrow fishing gear, snag some bait and learn how to fish. Often, they reel in bluegill, pumpkinseed, bass or yellow perch. 419-285-1800,

14. Visit in the fall. It’s a common misconception that the season’s over after Labor Day, but many of the locations remain open (and the ferries remain running) through October. “For most of the people who live around here, fall’s their favorite time to be around the lake,” said Larry Fletcher of Lake Erie Shores and Islands. 

15. See a ship on dry land. For more than 55 years, the Benson Ford was used by the Ford Motor Co. to transport ore. After its decommissioning, the forecastle/living quarters area was put on a cliff on South Bass Island. It’s been featured on the Travel Channel, HGTV and MTV’s “Cribs.” 419-502-5101,

16. See the light. Pelee Island is home to the Lighthouse Point Provincial Nature Reserve, which features a lighthouse built at the point in 1833 and restored and rededicated in 2000. The reserve offers a great chance to spot wildlife, including blue racer snakes, eastern spiny soft-shelled turtles, herons and egrets.

17. Rent a bike from the mayor. Rick Masse, elected last year to his third term as mayor of Pelee Island, runs Comfortech Bike Rentals and Retail Store. Rentals include beach cruisers, tandems and children’s carts and bikes. The store carries beach toys, clothes and games, as well as an exclusive line of post cards of photos taken by a local photographer. 519-724-2828,

18. Rent a golf cart. You can take a car with you to most of the islands, but why, when you can feel the wind in your hair as you tool around on the rural back roads of South Bass and Kelleys islands. If you’re on Put-in-Bay, swing by the Chocolate Café and Museum for a sweet treat. 419-285-2268,

19. Bring your golf clubs. Saunders Cottages on Put-in-Bay features a nine-hole, par 30 golf course with views of the lake. But be prepared to walk; the golf course is the only area on Put-in-Bay where golf carts aren’t allowed. 419-285-3917,

20. Determine the future of the old Lonz Winery. The winery, on Middle Bass Island, closed in 2000. The property is now owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and they’re soliciting suggestions on what to do with it.

21. Enjoy the view. Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial on Put-in-Bay honors those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie and celebrates the lasting peace between the United States, Canada and Britain. On a clear day, you can see Toledo and Cleveland. 419-285-2184,

22. Have a beer at the longest bar in the world. The Guinness Book of World Records said it, so it’s got to be true. The bar at the Beer Barrel Saloon in Put-in-Bay is 405 feet long. If it stood on its side, it would be more than 50 feet taller than Perry’s Monument. 419-285-2337,

23. Eat a Big Lebowski. Conorlee’s Bakery and Delicatessen on Pelee Island has coffee, sandwiches and pizza. But it’s best known for its desserts, and the most legendary is the one named for the Dude, a pastry with cream cheese and sugar — and lots of it. 519-724-2321,

24. Read a book. Bob Adamov grew up in Wooster, Ohio, but the Lake Erie Islands have never been far from his heart — or his imagination. Adamov’s tales — many involving heroic investigative reporter Emerson Moore — take place in and around the islands, with a splash of local color and history.

25. Relax. Things really do move at a different pace on the islands. People are friendly, and waving is encouraged. “The only thing you really have to be on time for is the ferry back to the mainland,” says Gordon Orr, CEO of Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island.