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Treasures of Ohio's Lake Erie Shore

A ribbon of Lake Erie separates the roller coaster mecca of Sandusky on mainland Ohio from a pair of island escapes: Kelleys Island and Put-in-Bay.

Sandusky

It’s the morning rush hour in Sandusky. The causeway connecting the mainland and Cedar Point practically sags under the line of cars, all pointed toward a looming skyline of looping, arcing steel that sends kids in a thousand minivans into a frenzy at first sight.

The 364-acre park generously sprinkles family favorites among the thrillers. There’s a water park with a lazy river, musical revues and an animatronic dinosaur exhibit. Younger kids gleefully run around the Camp Snoopy area, getting their thrills on attractions like the Snoopy Bounce until the day comes when they can jump in line for the star attractions. (419) 627-2350; cedarpoint.com

Cedar Point

Courtesy of Cedar Point

5 more Sandusky gems

1 Berardi’s Family Kitchen Chain restaurants and hotels crowd Milan Road, Sandusky’s main tourist drag, but Berardi’s adds a dash of local flavor. Its legendary fries were served at Cedar Point from 1939 through 1978, and the founders’ granddaughter co-owns the place. The fries are thick-cut, perfectly salted and blanched before being fried. (419) 626-4592; sanduskyberardis.com

2 Crush Winebar One of a handful of finer dining options, Crush stands out with its partially exposed-brick interior, top-notch service and range of wine flights. The classy restaurant has two areas: a “Kitchenbar,” with an Asian Fusion menu of kicky noodle bowls and sushi rolls, and a wine bar serving small plates like pan-roasted Brussels sprouts in a truffle-balsamic sauce. The impressive wine list has vintages from as far away as New Zealand and as close as local Firelands Winery. (419) 502-9463; sanduskywinebar.com

Crush Winebar

Crush Winebar

3 Water park resorts Indoor water parks sprawl across the Sandusky landscape. Favorites include woodsy Great Wolf Lodge (greatwolf.com) and the massive African-theme Kalahari Resorts (kalahariresorts.com/oh). Lesser-known Maui Sands Resort and Indoor Waterpark may not offer the splashy amenities of its competitors down the road, but it’s a bargain, with a hot breakfast and passes to an indoor water park (mauisandsresort.com).

4 Merry-Go-Round Museum Housed in the sleepy downtown’s grand former post office, this enchanting museum provides eye-opening tours covering the history of carousels. Who knew that the Crusades helped shape the modern merry-go-round? The main attraction is an intricately carved and painted 1939 carousel in the exhibit hall. Yes, you can ride it! (419) 626-6111; merrygoroundmuseum.org

Merry-Go-Round Museum

Mount a hand-carved horse on the carousel at the Merry-Go-Round Museum.

5 Toft’s Dipping Parlor You can order Toft’s ice cream from several places in Sandusky, but if you want to see where the dozens of flavors are made, Toft’s Dipping Parlor waits 10 minutes west of downtown. Be warned: The menu may say “one scoop,” but what you get looks more like three. A favorite is Buckeye Bites, peanut butter ice cream studded with chocolate-covered peanut butter and fudge. Arrive early to avoid crowds. It opens at 8 a.m. daily, and because you’re on vacation, it makes a completely reasonable breakfast. (419) 625-5490; toftdairy.com

For more information: Lake Erie Shores and Islands–East (800) 255-3743; shoresandislands.com

Kelleys Island

The first thing you notice about Kelleys Island from aboard Kelleys Island Ferry is the string of clapboard buildings along the shore—and the golf carts parked out front. For travelers fresh from Sandusky’s high-speed amusements, the carts are a sign: Here, life tops out at about 15 miles per hour.

Among the clapboard buildings is The Village Pump, the island’s most popular hangout. Tourists, locals and fishermen linger over platters of fried perch and bowls of Richie’s Famous Lobster Chowder. When the restaurant isn’t packed, owners Gary and Jackie Finger relax in the dining room and chat with their guests. Even Richie himself sometimes steps out of the kitchen, his deep voice announcing, “I’m Richie; I make the chowder.”

Travelers learn a lot about the island unwinding at The Village Pump. Gary tells stories about his 1976 high school graduating class of two, and Jackie shares tips about how best to navigate the 4-square-mile island with 313 residents. After sips of a brandy Alexander (an indulgent mix of brandy, vanilla ice cream, nutmeg and crème de cacao), it’s off to explore this idyllic hamlet with beaches, hiking trails and charming homes. There’s not a lot to do, but out here, that’s the point. (419) 746-2281; villagepumpki.com

5 more Kelleys Island gems

1 Kelleys Island State Park On the north side of the island, you’ll find more than 100 campsites, a sandy swimming beach and relatively flat hiking trails. One of our favorites is the North Shore Loop, a 1-mile path winding through wooded areas and along the rocky shoreline. Brochures from the park office identify quarry ruins. (419) 746-2546; parks.ohiodnr.gov/kelleysisland

Lake Erie

Making a splash in Lake Erie off the Kelleys Island State Park beach.

2 Glacial Grooves State Memorial Gouges in the limestone in Kelleys Island State Park testify to the glaciers that covered this area 18,000 years ago. You can see marine fossils and other ancient treasures in this 400-foot-long, 35-foot-wide trough, known as the world’s most accessible display of glacial grooves. (419) 746-2546; parks.ohiodnr.gov/kelleysisland

3 Kelleys Island Brewery One of the country’s smallest breweries pairs front-lawn views of Lake Erie with its brews. The food is a mixed bag, but we love the flights served on trays shaped like the island. Try Island Devil, a dangerously easy-to-drink Belgian-style ale containing twice the alcohol of average beer. (419) 746-2314; kelleysislandbrewpub.com

4 Kelleys Island Venture Resort Across the street from the brewery, a pastel yellow exterior marks the island’s only resort. Thirty apartment-style suites feature spacious bedrooms, a living area, Wi-Fi and outdoor living spaces. On clear days, Cedar Point’s skyline appears in the distance. Other amenities include a swimming pool and hot tub amid beautiful landscaping and bikes for exploring the island. (419) 746-2900; kiventureresort.com

Kelleys Island Venture Resort

Guests of Kelleys Island Venture Resort get loaner bikes.

5 Caddy Shack Square Kelleys Island tends to eschew the kitschy tone of Put-in-Bay on nearby South Bass Island—with the exception of this colorful, quirky landmark. Located in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it downtown, the square consists of a popular bar, an ice cream stand, a Putt-Putt course that’s miniature by mini golf standards and a strip of beachwear shops. (419) 746-2518; caddyshacksquare.com

For more information: Lake Erie Shores and Islands–East (800) 255-3743; shoresandislands.com

Put-in-Bay

Put-in-Bay

The city of Put-in-Bay livens up South Bass Island, with the Perry's Vistory and International Peace Memorial offering great views.

Had Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial been standing on September 10, 1813, the view from the top would have consisted of British and American ships firing relentlessly at each other during the Battle of Lake Erie. Today, the 352-foot-tall monument (dedicated in 1931) stands as a salute to America’s War of 1812 hero Oliver Hazard Perry and as a tribute to the lasting peace between the United States, Britain and Canada.

Costumed interpreters at the Put-in-Bay memorial make the War of 1812 seem like it’s still raging offshore. After interacting with “sailors” and their worried shoreside wives, visitors ride elevators to the observation deck where park rangers answer questions about the landmark and its history. On clear days, the surrounding islands and shoreline spread out like a map: Mainland Ohio dominates the south, the Canadian shoreline the north. (419) 285-2184; nps.gov/pevi

Put-in-Bay—the sole village on South Bass Island—still sees plenty of action. The 400-acre village is often dubbed a party paradise, and college students fill Key West-style bars on summer nights. But family-friendly attractions, like the memorial, make for a well-rounded destination. visitputinbay.org

5 more Put-in-Bay gems

1 The Boardwalk A smorgasbord of dining and drinking options fills this lakeside spot, incorporating a cantina, quick-service fish stand and full-service restaurant. Obligatory nautical decor fills the Upper Deck, which serves creamy lobster bisque in bread bowls and a decadent Cinnabon sundae—two scoops of ice cream sandwiched between cinnamon roll halves drizzled with caramel. (419) 285-3695; the-boardwalk.com

Upper Dock in Put-in-Bay

The Boardwalk's lakeside Upper Dock serves crab-cake salad. 

2 Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center Although many stalagmites were stolen by early visitors, a rare underground lake makes the cave worth exploring. Don’t miss the War of 18 Holes mini golf course and the Butterfly House. If you’re lucky, volunteer Chuck—aka The Butterfly Guy—will let you release one of the 600 colorful insects. (419) 285-2283; perryscave.com

3 Crystal Cave Here’s a sparkling find: This tiny cave is billed as the world’s largest geode. Workers at Heineman’s Winery discovered the cave in 1897 while digging a 40-foot-deep well. Venture down the steep steps into the tight space surrounded by shiny crystals ranging from 8 to 18 inches in length. (419) 285-2811; heinemanswinery.com

4 Put-in-Bay Winery The pastel exterior of this Italianate home hints at the bright notes in many of the 10 wines made using local and California grapes. Sample five, including the almost saccharine Pink Catawba, during a 35-minute tour of the parlor, ice house and tasting rooms. It’s part of  the former estate of Valentine Doller, a German immigrant entrepreneur who, thanks to his ice business, became one of the island’s wealthiest and most influential citizens. (419) 285-3343; putinbaywinery.com

5 BayShore Resort The island’s quietest lodging option, BayShore Resort’s rooms look across the lake toward Kelleys Island. The rooms are clean and simple, but who needs luxury when the fun is outdoors? Unwind at two shoreline pools of varying temperatures and a large hot tub. Pop music wafts from the open-air tiki bar, and hotel guests dine al fresco on delicious breakfasts at the Waterfront Restaurant and Lounge. (419) 285-3931; bayshoreresortpib.com

For more information: Lake Erie Shores and Islands–West (800) 441-1271; shoresandislands.com

MWL Tips: Ferries

To Kelleys Island: The Kelleys Island Ferry departs every 30 minutes from Marblehead (a 30-minute drive from downtown Sandusky). One-way fares cost $10 per adult, plus $16 for vehicles. (419) 798-9763; kelleysislandferry.com

To Put-in-Bay: Take the Miller Ferry from Catawba Island (18 miles northwest of Sandusky). Ferries depart every 30 minutes. One-way fares cost $7 per adult, plus $15 for vehicles. (419) 285-2421; millerferry.com

Leave the car behind: Take The Jet Express from Sandusky to both islands. Check online for departure information. Fares start at $18 per adult. (419) 732-2800; jet-express.com 

Marblehead Lighthouse

Views of Marblehead Lighthouse greet ferry passengers traveling between Kelleys Island and Marblehead on the Ohio mainland.

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