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Road Trips | South Bass Island’s Put-in-Bay

Party down Key West-style or embrace local Lake Erie lore.

 (Photograph: FLASHToledo)
Photograph: FLASHToledo

Mist swim-up bar at the Commodore Resort on South Bass Island

 (Photograph: Courtesy of Lake Erie Shores & Islands)
Photograph: Courtesy of Lake Erie Shores & Islands

Perry's Cave on South Bass Island


Butterfly House on South Bass Island

 (Photograph: Courtesy of Lake Erie Shores & Islands)
Photograph: Courtesy of Lake Erie Shores & Islands

Perry's Monument on South Bass Island

 (Photograph: Courtesy of ODNR)
Photograph: Courtesy of ODNR

Stay in a cabent�that's a cabin-tent hybrid�in South Bass Island State Park.

In the town of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island, you don’t ask why grown men barhop with red plastic buckets on their heads. Or why Christmas is celebrated in July. Or why the Victorian village off Ohio’s coast is known as “the Key West of the North.” Spend a few hours here and these absurdities start to make sense. The 4-by-1.5-mile island attracts 750,000 visitors a year, most during summer for tropics-themed amusements—think the Commodore Resort’s swim-up pool bar, the sandy Mojito Bay tiki tavern and the Flaming Skull pirate-ship canteen at the Grand Islander Hotel.

After a five-hour drive from Chicago and an 18-minute jaunt on Miller ferry service(departs 5174 E Water St, Port Clinton, OH, 800-500-2421; $6.50 one-way ticket, kids ages 6–11 $1.50, cars $15), my friend and I arrive in Put-in-Bay on an unseasonably warm afternoon in late April. We have a car, but we won’t need it. Most people—including cops and pizza delivery guys—get around via golf carts, available at Island Transportation(2071 Langram Rd, 419-285-4855, put-in-bay-trans.com; $11–$17 hourly, $60–$90 per day).

Our innkeeper at the antique-filled First Island Son(560 Langram Rd, 419-285-4448; $75–$185/night), a six-room Victorian B&B, suggests taking bikes instead, which she offers free to guests. We ride to Delaware Avenue, which marries the charm of Victorian wood-slatted storefronts with the we’ll-have-fun-if-it-kills-us determination of Rush and Division Streets. The streetscape of restaurants, T-shirt shops and live-music bars faces leafy DeRivera Park, which abuts the boat-filled harbor. We’ll return here tonight to hit the ’70s-themed welcome-back-for-the-season party at the 130-year-old Round House(Delaware Ave at Loraine Ave, 419-285-2323), where beer is guzzled out of red beach pails—hence the “bucketheads.”

But not all of the island’s 500 permanent residents embrace the beer-fueled debauchery. Quizzing some on their go-to alternatives, we learn that Goat Soup and Whiskey(820 Catawba Ave, 419-285-4628), housed in an old winery, is the place to go for peace, quiet and outstanding perch tacos. It doesn’t open until high season, so we end up at cheap-beer mecca Frosty Bar & Family Pizza(252 Delaware Ave, 419-285-4741). Across from Goat is the 124-year-old Heineman’s Winery(978 County Rd, 419-285-2811), where we belly up for $2–$3 samples (stick with the traminette). The tasting room has all the trappings of a dive bar: linoleum floors and plastic cups. But its charms include an expansive garden and a fifth-generation Heineman, Dustin, serving the barrage of tipsy tourists.

Locals also suggest checking out Perry’s Cave(979 Catawba Ave, 419-285-2283; $8, kids ages 6–12 $4.50) across the street, part of an amusement complex that includes a butterfly house, mini golf and an antique car museum. During the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry brought his men to the cave’s underground lake to recuperate.

In 1912, Perry was honored with the Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial(93 Delaware Ave, 419-285-2184), which towers 50 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. After a lengthy renovation, the observation deck reopens July 20, just after the start of the island’s biggest event in a century, the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial Celebration, June 18 through September 2013, which will include a reenactment and tall ships armada.

Still, most of the island’s returning party people will mark their calendars for Christmas in July, July 26–29. The debaucherous blowout covers the town in over-the-top holiday decorations, while intoxicated Santas stagger the streets.

We get a preview of that famous Put-in-Bay summer party scene Saturday night at the Round House, where locals of every legal drinking age converge in Afro wigs, go-go boots and neon polyester minidresses for buckets of beer, big-hugged reunions and plenty of grooving to the ’70s cover band.

For nature lovers, our island insiders recommend South Bass Island State Park(866-644-6727; free admission), where you can spend the night in a cabent—that’s a cabin-tent hybrid—plus view the last ruins of the Hotel Victory, a grand resort that was the nation’s largest when it burned down in 1919. With so much history to see, there’s hardly time to indulge in the faux tropics bar scene. Well, maybe just a margarita or two.