Put-In-Bay Island Adventure!
As intrepid reporters who really needed a day out of the office, when Mimi tasked us to write a piece about Put-in-Bay, we chimed, “When’s the next ferry over?”
It had been eons since either of us had visited this gem of the Lake Erie Shores, so we were pleasantly surprised to see how the vibrant two-by-four-mile island has evolved. PIB offers something for everyone—one of the country’s tallest memorial monuments, pristine beaches, quaint shops, restaurants and pubs, cave exploration and more.
Along our overnight excursion, we met a colorful collection of locals and proprietors who offered a glimpse into the true PIB experience and why the island is on the top of the summer getaway list for so many people.
Following an hour’s drive from Cleveland’s west side, we recalibrated our inner clocks to island time as we hopped aboard the Miller Ferry. A cheery bellow of the ship’s horn and seagull fly-by sent us on our way.
Sitting on the vessel’s sun-soaked upper deck, we studied the horizon to pick out the six islands neighboring Put-in-Bay. Fog rolling over the calm morning seas made the scene seem even more like an exotic getaway. During the 19-minute, three-mile voyage, we were chaperoned by colorful Lake Erie bass and perch splashing alongside us.
One of our fellow passengers was Katrina Reed, who manages communications for Miller Boat Line, which is a family-owned operation that dates back to 1905. She was full of fascinating PIB lore. For example, she mentioned a nationally syndicated story published last month that listed Perry’s Monument as “the perfect over-the-top location for a marriage proposal.”
She also noted that all of the island businesses and locals are gearing up for the Bicentennial Celebration of the Battle of Lake Erie (from August 29–September 10, 2013). Miller Ferry is the proud sponsor of the Flagship Niagara, on her visit to Put-in-Bay during the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial celebration. For the thousands of extra visitors to the island during the week, the ferry boats will be adding extra trips.
While each of the four ferries in the Boat Line holds about 500 people and up to 26 cars, we were traveling on a Monday, so our boat was at half capacity as we shared the trip with plenty of kids, cars, bikes and even a few pets. “We are known as the ultimate family-friendly and budget-friendly means of transport to Put-in-Bay,” says Katrina, noting that children five and under and pets ride for free. Overnight parking on the mainland is free. Head to MillerFerry.com for a list of departure times.
Keep on Rolling
Watching a group of teens disembark from the ferry on their bikes and pedal away, it looked like they were off to a fun day of adventure. We had planned to rent a golf cart to explore the island and had actually made a reservation at Island Bike & Cart Rental, but looking at the bikers gave us second thoughts.
We walked up to the top of the hill where this conveniently located rental storefront offers the island’s largest selection of golf carts and bicycles. You can even call from the boat dock to reserve your golf cart so it will be waiting for you when you disembark.
When we inquired about whether we should take the cart we reserved or switch to bikes, thoughts of the female bonding movie Thelma and Louise came to mind when we saw the tandem bikes lined up outside the store.
“I sometimes caution couples that if they want to stay together, don’t rent a tandem bike,” laughed company president Mike Steidl, who joked that a few couples have called for a replacement as soon as they make it to downtown.
Although two girlfriends probably would pedal more at the same pace, we ditched our last-minute impulse and decided to take the golf cart. Boasting the only all-electric golf cart fleet on the island, there were no fumes and the quiet ride was at a relaxing pace ideal for sightseeing.
Just a short, two-mile jaunt into downtown, we did not see a single car on the street, but did pass a dozen or so other carts on our way, most emblazoned with the “IBR” logo, which stands for “Island Bike Rental.” We also drove past two additional rental locations on the island at the Jet Express Dock and at the Bus & Tour Train Depot downtown.
Breakfast with a View
After strolling along the waterfront, we couldn’t stop basking in the view, but hunger was calling, so we popped into Pasquale’s Café at the corner of Delaware and Loraine streets.
This wholesome, family-friendly eatery has become an island fave for breakfast and brunch, with good reason.
The place was packed.
General Manager Ty Winchester sat down with us for a friendly chat. “We’re the perfect place to get away from all the noise of the docks and the island, yet still enjoy a spectacular view stretching from Perry’s monument to the Boardwalk, which makes for great people-watching,” he noted.
Our breakfasts soon arrived and we were lulled into a food coma. Laura dug into The Hot Mess, which features a steaming stack of hash browns, scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage gravy all smothered with cheddar and Monterey jack cheese. Patti’s fluffy omelet was stuffed with fresh tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms and bacon. To keep up with the lines out the door, breakfast is served seven days a week from 7 a.m. till noon.
Ty noted that specialty ingredients—like the sweet lobster meat in Lobster Eggs Benedict and the habanero candied smoked bacon in the Dream Cakes—take breakfast specials up a notch.
The whimsical trompe l’oeil mural of an Italian street scene painted by a local artist is the perfect backdrop in the eclectic eatery, which also offers casual island dining for lunch and dinner featuring pizzas, pastas, sandwiches and entrées.
Pasquale’s is owned by the McCann family, which also operates other PIB institutions including the Chicken Patio, Round House and the Park Hotel.
After the filling meal, we decided to walk off the well-worth-it calories and headed north on the main street. Along our trek we heard the enchanting chords of a pipe organ and came upon Kimberly’s Carousel. Located next to the Carriage House Gift Shop, it is one of only a hundred carousels with wooden horses remaining in the U.S. While there are couple of dozen horses you can ride, there are also other animals including a zebra, dog, rooster and the most unique—Pete the Perch, complete with a worm hidden in his mouth. Specially commissioned, this one-of-a-kind character blends in with the original artwork adorning the merry-go-round’s roof depicting the lake and historic island scenes.
On our way to check out Perry’s Monument, we were beckoned by the lilting melodies of Jimmy Buffet coming from down the street and walked further to discover the Sand Bar and Adventure Bay tucked a block behind the main street.
Whereas so much of PIB is mired in history—this gorgeous new resort-like facility hosts a pool complex for relaxing or splashing about. The freeform pool is shaped with undulating waves perfect for social time needed by moms and dads, who can also enjoy a summer libation at the swim-up bar while still keeping an eye on the little ones.
From the thatched roof rotunda bar that connects the pool to the championship sand volleyball court, we found ourselves slipping into a trance-like state from watching the swaying palm trees (that’s right, live palm trees) while wiggling our toes in the sand, or it could have been caused by the fruit-infused pina coladas we slurped out of souvenir coconut glasses.
When in Rome, right?
Owners Miyo and Maria Hristovski welcomed us warmly to their secluded oasis. They bring in DJs, bands and, of course, tons and tons of sand for a real beach experience. “We get so many boaters here who like to get away from the downtown scene and enjoy a fun atmosphere where their kids are safe and enjoying themselves,” said Miyo.
For privacy and upscale service, you can even rent a cabana for the day, kick back and enjoy dedicated bottle service. (Dom Perignon anyone?)
The Sand Bar is part of Adventure Bay, which includes go-cart racing, water balloon launching and an arcade with video games, pool tables, bull rides, virtual bowling and batting cages.
After hours in the sun, it was time to cool down and look for some shade. And where better than Perry’s Cave, a masterpiece of natural limestone, stalactites, stalagmites and cave pearls, plunging 52 feet below the surface where the temperature is always 50 degrees.
Walking down the steep steps and c r o u c h i n g a r o u n d seemed adventurous to us, until our tour guide Leah said there are also after-hours tours for groups of four or more who are looking for an adrenaline rush as they view the cave’s nooks and chambers using only a hand-held lantern.
“While Perry’s Cave has been attracting families for generations, there is so much more for kids to do now,” says Mike, whose family also runs the Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center.
Since purchasing the cave in 2000, they have added a Butterfly House, miniature golf course, rock climbing wall, race maze, laser tag, antique car museum and picnic area. With so much to do, we could have spent the entire day here shaded under large trees.
Without our kids in tow today, we decided to visit the Butterfly House. One of the island’s best-kept secrets, the 4,000-square-foot aviary is home to hundreds of species of exotic butterflies imported from Costa Rica and Malaysia every week. As we moved though the Butterfly House and walked among these majestic marvels, the butterflies gracefully flitted about and landed on Laura’s shoulder and one perched on her hand seemingly wanting to come home with her.
After interacting with these colorful beauties in their natural environment, we finally got to do some shopping in the adjacent gift shop that is so much more than a souvenir shop. You could find anything you can imagine with butterflies— including garden wind chimes, Blue Luster CZ jewelry, eco-friendly clay-died shirts, gourmet dips and cocktail mixes, and novels written by legendary PIB author Bob Adamov.
After making several one-of-a-kind acquisitions, thoughts changed quickly from shopping to eating, so we asked the kind cashier at the counter where all the locals eat. Without hesitation, she directed us to Frosty’s Bar & Family Pizza.
Getting Our Frost On
As soon as we walked into Frosty’s located in the center of town, Laura fondly (albeit fuzzily) remembered a trip to this infamous eatery 20 years ago where she watched patrons do a “dill thrill,” which is a rapid-fire succession of hot sauce, a shot of tequila followed by a pickle slice.
While our amiable bartender Cody said he still gets a few requests for this unique tradition, he reported that the most popular drink nowadays is Fireball cinnamon whisky— and, of course, anything on tap, which not only includes draft beer, but also rum punch, margaritas and other tropical favorites.
Known for its beer served in frosty mugs (hence the name), Frosty’s has been an island staple for more than 60 years. Owned by the same family for three generations, the place is now managed by Kim Stoiber and her brother Ryan.
“We have 28 beers on tap including many from local breweries,” said Kim. “We encourage our patrons to ‘drink local’ and try better beers brewed in our state.”
While we came here on a Monday, the bartender told us that on weekends there is live music in the afternoons and a DJ providing entertainment under the stars in the evening on the outdoor patio.
Added just three years ago, the backyard patio at Frosty’s features a curved bar, which is faced with river stones contained in a mesh screen and plenty of colorful Adirondack chairs that give it a modern, beachy feel. It feels like an actual backyard and is arguably the best outdoor dining/imbibing spot on the island.
One thing that has not changed over the years at Frosty’s is the pizza. We enjoyed several slices of this cheesy, saucy recipe, which Kim said has been passed down for generations. “We don’t even have a button on our register for extra cheese because our regular pizza comes with so much cheese you can’t order extra,” Kim said.
Like most everything else on the island, the focus nowadays is on the family. So Frosty’s offers family meal deals, which include a 12-inch, one-topping pizza, cheesy bread, salad and four sodas; or eight tacos, chips and salsa and four sodas at the Big Man’s Burrito Stand on the patio. And for the adults, happy hour Monday through Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. features specially priced frozen drinks, 24-ounce Coronas in souvenir koozies, and nachos.
Bidding Good Night
As they say, even the sun sets in paradise. When our day neared its end, we headed to the 140-year-old landmark Park Hotel.
This three-story Victorian building took us a step back in time, with red velvet furniture, gas lamps, antiques and painted wood floors. We put our feet up in the front parlor and were regaled with a few ghost stories from the current manager, Phillip Boyles.
After the day’s activities and exploring much of the island, it was nice to relax and enjoy our quiet, peaceful room without modern distractions such as televisions and phones.
Our conversation turned to when we’d come back to this enchanting island and bring the husbands and kids. We made plans for the upcoming Bicentennial Celebration of the Battle of Lake Erie of 1813. Two hundred years later, the island is celebrating Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British fleet, our nation’s sovereignty and the enduring peace between nations. There will be special events all summer, culminating on Labor Day weekend with the Tall Ships Festival, a parade of boats and the Battle of Lake Erie re-enactment, making this summer the best time in a century to visit South Bass Island and the historic village of Put-in Bay.
For more information on these events and much more, head to the PIB Chamber of Commerce website at VisitPutInBay.com.