Growing up in Michigan, we head south. A lot. Sometimes it’s a sunny trip to Florida with a family vacation to Disney World. Other times “going south” involves an amusement park much closer to home, Cedar Point, located in Sandusky, Ohio. To Michiganders this is a typical travel destination and an obvious choice when visiting the Buckeye State. When I took a trip to the area for a family wedding I decided it was the perfect opportunity for an expansion installment of Small Town America (STA)! Part of the motivation behind STA was to discover and share what is in the shadows of the already popular destinations while promoting travel opportunities for the budget-minded.
Many more record breaking roller coasters have been added since my last experience and I am always down for a rush of adrenaline BUT in the spirit of STA, and after getting a great recommendation from my barber, Michelle, I decided to take a look at what was hiding in the shadows nearby.
When I decide to take a Small Town Adventure, I usually begin it by word of mouth. As I was getting my head shaved and beard sculpted I was informed of an eventful island, Put-In-Bay, Ohio. I was warned it can be a bit of a party place (oh no) It was a blast and there is so much to do on this small village island. Before stepping onto the ferry I witnessed people returning from their rowdy weekend on “Pudding Bay” and I could tell by the group of friends that plenty of partying had indeed ensued. As they nursed their hangovers, I was looking forward to the calmer Sunday environment. But, before I made it to the island getaway, I had a weekend of exploration ahead of me thanks in part to a fun scavenger hunting app.
I recently started geocaching and found my first geocache (and I left a pen behind from my mom’s favorite quilt shop) in Milan, Ohio, one of the many cute towns surrounding Sandusky. Being the birthplace to Thomas Edison there is a reminder of history at every turn. My experience wasn’t extensive but it is definitely worth checking out for you history buffs and random explorers, like myself – not so much the history buff, but a random explorer, YES!
A Drinky at The Dinky
The wedding took place at the beautiful St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in Norwalk, Oh. Self proclaimed “The best little city in Ohio,” Norwalk is known for its national drag race competitions. Centrally located this small town shines just south of Sandusky and Lake Erie. My limited time here took me to family owned Berry’s Restaurant, twice, located on Main Street, just down the road from the church.
Oh and they have a bar called, ‘The Dinky,’ which was added in 2004 to serve liquor, beer, and wine – good idea ;). For you local craft-beer connoisseurs: Great Lakes Brewing, from Cleveland, is in the house. The menu was nothing super special especially after being out of a few things I wanted to try. So, I went with some crab cakes and slow roasted prime rib; ordered medium rare it still came out tasting like roast beef. I wasn’t completely turned off as I came back the next day to try a bloody mary (one of my side goals is to find the best bloody mary around, unfortunately, this was not it) with a Hummus Quesadilla. First of its kind I have ever had and it totally erased any bad “taste” I had in my mouth about the place. The hummus quesadilla paired with a perfect local craft beer is worth the stop!
How often do you think the tourists to Cedar Point take time to visit the foundation to on which it lays? I am guessing not too often. Like many other “hot spots,” the surrounding area is forgotten by the typical traveler and media. This is why I am here! Historic Sandusky is worth mentioning because it reminds me why it is nice to get off the freeway and drive through small towns on the back roads. Even if I do not plan on stopping, the scenery is soothing in a historic small town.
With a population of just under 26,000 and metropolitan area of just over 77,000 this isn’t exactly a typical location I have in mind for “Small Town America” but it really is beautiful and worth noting that in 2011 was the top rated “Best Place To Live Cheaply” in the United States by Forbes.com and like my hometown of Portland, MI it has been designated as a Tree City USA. Doing some random research I found that Sandusky was also known as Portland at one time – pretty neat.
I was on my way to Port Clinton to get on the Jet Express, “The fastest way to Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island.” Well, the fastest isn’t always the best. Or cheapest. Another part of my small town adventures is to discover how to travel with a budget. Now there is always a little give and take but if you head to Catawba Island you will find a friendly ferry at Miller Boat Line and they go roundtrip for what it costs to ride Jet Express one way. The different ferries take you to different parts of the island. If you only plan on staying in the downtown area then the Jet Express may be what is best but I was in explore mode. I wanted to see everything that was suggested to me before leaving the island later that night.
When you reach Put-in-Bay (named after inexperienced sailors “putting in” when the weather got rough in Lake Erie) you will need to find another mode of transportation in order to fully appreciate everything the island has to offer. I had planned on a golf cart from the beginning. I honked at just about everyone the whole time and plenty of happy people honked back. There is an airstrip on the island and biplane tours are available. By the end of the day my money and time were better spent than had I went to the amusement park and this was much more amusing. Money spent so far totaled $14 for the round trip to the island plus $75/day for the golf cart (there is an hourly rate but I knew I was going over that). Every place that rented golf carts said they were the least expensive, obviously someone was lying, but I will say I had a much better experience at Island Bike and Cart Rental.
This is where the Quid-Pro-Quo comes in. It is more expensive to ride the Jet Express because it takes you right into the heart of downtown where the golf cart prices are cheaper. I was really happy with Miller and glad I chose to explore the whole island. Next time I would love to Jet Express it on over and stay for more than one day.
Activities and Eateries
I chose my destinations based on what others suggested. Michelle also recommended I find the place that makes the best lobster bisque which was really easy to do because everyone I talked to suggested the same, they were almost demanding it. It wasn’t hard to find The Boardwalk, a parking spot on the other hand was a different story. I can only imagine what this place looks like at night from the water. The Boardwalk hosts a few restaurants but all you need to do is head on up to the Upper Deck to find the FAMOUS lobster bisque. I look forward to the days where my small town adventures take me to a land native to lobster. But for now this will do, and it did, it was really tasty inside a warm flaky bread bowl. I downed it with their current drink special;
The Peach Squeeze: Absolut Apeach, Summer Peach Puree, Fresh lemon Juice, Pink Lemonade and a Splash of Sprite. What a way to begin this island adventure.
A Little Bit of History
From the upper deck, and anywhere else on the island, you can not miss the 352-foot Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. So, naturally this was my next stop. Time for a history lesson:
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial signifies one of the most important naval battles during the War of 1812 and Celebrates the lasting peace between Britain, Canada, and the United States that followed the war. It is the 4th tallest monument in the U.S.
This was a very basic history lesson and I couldn’t have visited this land without paying my respect, and of course going to the top. Nothing like some vertigo and Canada…yes, you can see Canada…more on them later, eh?
Skipping Stones, Drinking Grapes, and Harvesting Crystals
I drove around the island a little more and found myself in the mood to skip stones, seriously, I love water, and skipping stones may be one of the only few talents I have, or so I thought. I couldn’t live up to my own inner-hype and walked down a trail to a beach made of mussel shells. Be careful because you can cut your feet [I take off my shoes when I can – hell, I prefer sandals and rarely wear shoes]. Lake Erie has been plagued with the invasive species Zebra Mussels and there is a beach made up of shells about a foot deep.
My feet were sore, my stone-skipping-skills were mediocre and most importantly there was a lack of grapes in me! Fortunately, I was reminded of Heinemann’s Island Wines, a locally produced and bottled winery since 1888! There isn’t much of a story here besides the selection of wines. The island was host to a number of wineries until the prohibition of alcohol. Fortunately Heineman’s stayed strong by providing grape juice and tours of the caves.
Ah, yes, caves. Water and caves. And wine. Are you ready to visit Put-in-Bay yet? Look, there is a lot of history here from the winery to the Battle of 1812; housing one of the tallest memorials in our United States. Crystal Cave is right up there being the WORLD’s largest geode!
A Bottle Brings a Smile
Besides the tasty treats and ancient anecdotes, what I really find fascinating when traveling are the friendly faces. I was given a free bottle of wine at Heineman’s after I heard, “Merry Christmas” and saw a gentleman place his bottle in front of me. I don’t think he is a fan of dry whites, but one man’s yuck is another man’s yum! I was only there to sample but a bottle brings a smile.
After making a pit stop at Joe’s Bar and finding out their cooler was down, their bartender, Lauren, who was super friendly, recommended we check out The GOAT. I will be forever grateful to the lady who sent me to my wildest mouthgasm of the trip. Seriously, the food was fantastic and the perfect bookend to my tastebud’s day, after that Lobster Bisque.
Continuing with the cool persons – is there anything better than good customer service? Yes! Genuinely compassionate customer RELATIONS, and John, the bartender, at Goat Soup & Whiskey Tavern, was the epitome of that. The Goat is open from May through the end of September and there is a location in Keystone, Colorado open from October through April. With a population of just over 1,000 I think that little ski resort community just hit the list for Small Town Adventures. I am not sure about the ‘whiskey’ portion as I stuck with my craft beers but the food…oh the food. If you didn’t get the hint already, was AMAZEBALLS, literally. For an appetizer, I got the HOMEMADE Reuben Balls (W/1000 Island Dipping Sauce) and they were some amazing balls. The main course for the evening was Perch Tacos and Coleslaw (the perch was caught locally, in the Canada portion of Lake Erie, see I said we would get back to Canada) As plenty of you know – fish tacos are pretty tasty and these had to be the tastiest EVER. “Best coleslaw I’ve ever had,” said one patron. I asked her about the perch tacos, “they’re delicious too,” She understated.
What an end to a delightful day, or so I thought. As I was prepared to leave the island I remembered being told about the “world’s largest bar” which is located at Beer Barrel Saloon. It must also mean the world’s longest wait for service. I was never served so I went to the bar outside, briefly mentioned my lack of service and was shrugged off by the bartender. I hate to end on such a sour note, but this puts the great customer service and friendly faces from earlier back into perspective.
Not Ending on a Sour Note!
I had a fantastic time and I look forward to future adventures and sharing my experiences but this is one place I want to get back to soon. Who of my Michigander friends and new Ohioan family are down for a mini vaca next summer? Let’s ‘put-in’ together and party with the best of them. Apparently the world’s largest swim-up bar is also located on the Island. See, there are a few things I didn’t mention like Frosty’s Bar where they have vodka-soaked cherries, bloody mary’s (still looking for the best), perfect pizzas, and quick made burritos. Like The Boardwalk, it is split into multiple options from The Backyard to Big Man’s Burrito Stand.
Next time you are looking for amusement outside of the park – you don’t need to travel very far to see what is Sandusky’s Sidebar!