Lake Erie Shores And Islands: A Fun And Easy Trip For Chicago Families! (part 1)

We just got back from vacation on Sunday!

Well, it was technically a working vacation for me, but the best kind: I was invited to bring my family to the Sandusky, Ohio area to enjoy a whole bunch of stuff that Lake Erie Shores and Islands has to offer, for the explicit purpose of sharing it with you. (Yes, YOU.)

Before I get started, let me summarize in case you’re the type that likes to read the last chapter of a mystery novel first so you can see whodunnit: WE LOVED IT. ALL OF IT. That said, I encourage you to read more. (And MORE: this is post number one out of three because dangit, we did so much and I took so many pictures that I had to split it up!)

Lake Erie Shores and Islands...welcome, indeed!

We drove our awesome Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid loaner (Thanks again, GM!) to Sandusky on Thursday night and arrived shortly after midnight at Castaway Bay Resort. The drive took about six hours ONLY because the skies opened up and dumped what seemed like a year’s worth of rain on the Ohio Turnpike that evening. Without the rain, the trip actually takes about five hours and fifteen minutes to the western burbs of Chicago, which is a really great distance for a “just a bit more than a staycation vacation” that doesn’t require airfare.

That rain was exhausting, even for those of us who weren’t driving (sorry, Jim). We were all ever so happy to fall into bed, believe me.

Castaway Bay Resort in Sandusky, Ohio

Castaway Bay Resort, which is owned by the folks behind Cedar Point*, has a pretty fantastic water park that is open year-round. Due to the timing of our arrival and our need to get out the door right after breakfast on Friday we didn’t get to use it, but there’s always next time!

Castaway Bay Resort in Sandusky, Ohio

Our first stop, at 10:30 a.m., was Firelands Winery. (Yes, 10:30 a.m.! It was 5:00–er, 5:30–somewhere, I know.) Firelands is Ohio’s largest winery, and its original wine cellar was built in 1880. When we arrived, we were treated to a wine tasting. All we had to do was choose which type of tasting we wanted. Jim and my sister Julesie chose the Firelands tasting, which was made up of six dry to medium wines. I chose the Mantey tasting, which was made up of six medium sweet to dessert wines. We got a “bonus pour” of Italian wine, which was HELLAGOOD. (Because we had a full day ahead, we three literally tasted the wines and poured half of each of the tasting amounts out. Tragedy, I know.)

The options at Firelands Winery in Sandusky, Ohio are quite spectacular.

J had a grape juice tasting. Seriously.

J had a grape juice tasting.

We ended up buying five bottles of wine to bring home with us. We will be pouring full glasses when those are opened (and when we’re not going anywhere), just sayin.

After our wine tasting at Firelands, we headed over to Catawba to catch a ride from Miller Boat Line, to South Bass Island, which is home to the city of Put-In-Bay, Ohio. I was really excited to take this ferry ride, because the Miller ferries transport people AND vehicles. J was a little worried about taking this ferry ride, because the Miller ferries transport people AND vehicles. (At seventeen years old, he’s traveled a bunch but has never seen a vehicle ride on a boat.) We boarded the ferry and started taking pictures immediately. The ferry was clean, the cruise was fun, and the scenery was GORGEOUS. It took us less than twenty minutes to arrive in Put-In-Bay. (Pro tip: we stayed downstairs, with the vehicles, to avoid having to stand in line to debark!)

The Miller Boat Line: getting you from here to there in and around the Lake Erie Shores and Islands.

This is what it looks like when the ferry pulls away from Catawba:

Leaving Catawba. So pretty!

This is what it looks like when I try to be artsy with my camera at the back of the ferry:

Lake Erie was dramatic that day!

The folks at Miller Boat Line run a tight ship, so to speak, and it’s no wonder: it’s a family-run business (originated and operated by the Millers until 1978 and then the Markets through today) that has been around since 1905 when the company started as an ice delivery service. Read their fascinating history here.

Miller Boat Line welcomes you to Put-In-Bay, Ohio

Once we left the ferry, it was time to pick up our island mode of transportation.

Can you find our transportation? Hint: it's not a car, and it's not a bike.

We were thrilled to learn that we’d be traveling around Put-In-Bay in style, in a golf cart. Our host picked up the cart and we hopped in, er, on. He drove us around the island for a while so we could check it out. It’s beautiful. I fell in love immediately. Put-In-Bay has a similar “attitude” as Key West, Florida. Our host told us that some people even call Put-In-Bay “Key West North” or “Key West of the Midwest”.

We rode past the site of the Hotel Victory, a 625-room hotel that was built in 1892 and burned to the ground in 1919. Only one small, brick “chunk” can still be seen today.

We rode past some beautiful houses, including one really cool home that was actually the bow of a freighter, the Benson Ford Shiphouse (middle picture on the right, below).

Put-In-Bay, Ohio. I needed more than a day there.

Soon it was time for lunch. We hit up Goat Soup and Whiskey. YUM.

The Goat "Float". You know, for the weekly Put-In-Bay parade!

Though you would think I would select whiskey to drink, being a Jack Daniels girl and all, I went instead for the Basil Mojito. It was different AND delicious. We enjoyed some appetizers too, including walleye and perch bites, and Reuben balls (corned beef, Swiss cheese, and sauerkraut all balled up, breaded, and fried, served with a thousand island-style dip).

Fantastic food and drink at Goat Soup and Whiskey in Put-In-Bay, Ohio

Goat was another place where I could’ve easily burned a few hours, but we had places to go, so into/onto the golf cart we went!

The next stop was the Perry’s Victory International Peace Memorial, which is the world’s largest Doric column.

Perry's Victory International Peace Memorial. Strikingly beautiful. Historically significant.

We had a VIP tour with one of the National Park Service rangers, and I decided to do a separate post for that because we got so many fascinating bits of information about it, I don’t want to squeeze it in here. Stay tuned for that.

After our tour at the International Peace Memorial, we headed over to Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center, where we toured Perry’s Cave itself (an Ohio Natural Landmark) as well as the amazing Butterfly House, a 4000 square foot aviary where there are something like nine hundred butterflies (fifty different types).

The Butterfly House at Perry's Cave in Put-In-Bay, Ohio

The main rule: the butterflies can touch you, but you can’t touch them. I had a great time there and took around one hundred pictures.

I could have taken butterfly pictures all afternoon.

After the Butterfly House, we were ready for dinner. We headed over to the brand-new-this-summer “The Keys” complex (I guess the Put-In-Bay-ers embrace the comparison, huh!) to eat at Tortugas Rum Republic. I enjoyed the gorgeous scenery (are you getting the idea? it’s EVERYWHERE) and I enjoyed the mango salsa and goat cheese burger and fries, which ranks up there with the best burgers I’ve ever consumed in my life.

Tortugas at Key West in Put-In-Bay, Ohio: SO YUM.

After dinner, we took the Miller ferry back to Catawba and drove ourselves to Toft’s Dairy for dessert. Our host warned us to get smalls. I’m so glad he said that. The small was more like a large, and it was a steal at $3.00! You can even choose two flavors if you’d like: a good thing, since they had some amazing and unique flavors like, well, just check them out HERE. And HERE. I enjoyed a bowl of Lake Erie Islands Cherry and Coconut Cream Pie, Jim enjoyed Black Cherry, Julesie enjoyed Cotton Candy Confetti and Caveman Chocolate (I think), and J enjoyed…VANILLA. Really.

Toft's Dairy in Sandusky, Ohio serves quite possibly the best ice cream ever, anywhere.

It was delicious, and the perfect ending to our first day.

What? Did you forget that all of this happened on ONE DAY? It was a great day. Read about Day Two, HERE!

Disclosure: Accommodations and attractions were provided by Green Door Mediaworks and their partners at Lake Erie Shores and Islands. I was not asked to write in any particular style or even about anything in particular; they just hoped that I would have a good time and share my experience, and I did, so I am. My family enjoyed this weekend immensely and we thank our hosts for their hospitality!

*A word about Cedar Point: When our itinerary was being planned, I was asked to select a variety of activities I thought my family would enjoy. I intentionally asked to stay away from Cedar Point because although it’s a fantastic amusement park with some of the world’s best roller coasters, it already gets lots of press and I wanted to see how much a family could enjoy the Sandusky area without stepping onto the Cedar Point grounds. I’m thrilled to report that a family can do A LOT.


  • Samantha

    This trip looks FANTASTIC and can’t wait to hear more about it! I’ve been wanting to head back there (went forever ago), but never knew there was so much to do apart from Cedar Point.

    Great pictures!

    • Melisa

      It’s so funny because most Chicagoans I know, I’m finding out, totally knew about this great place but I did not. I need to get out more.

    • Melisa

      I know, right? And what’s cool is that–nothing personal against Ohio or anything–you totally forget you’re in Ohio! (or the Midwest, for that matter)

  • Lisa

    I’ve never been to Cedar Point nor have we been to Sandusky. After your review, I want to go check it out now! If they ever want more bloggers to come out there to check them out, give them my name. (Ironically, earlier tonight we were trying to figure out where we are going on vacation next year)

    • Melisa

      I want to go back, too!

      By the way, I forgot to tell you: we tried to get a “Carol” picture of me on the carousel at the museum (for the next post), looking all glamorous like your pic. You win that one. 🙂

  • Mom24@4evermom

    It looks fabulous and I’m horribly jealous as that area is one of our favorites to vacation at, and vacations aren’t happening around here…

    But, disappointed you didn’t get to experience Kelleys Island. We love it much more than South Bass, it’s much more family friendly and you don’t have to worry so much about the people who drink to excess and hit your child backing up their golf cart.

    Very happy for you you got to check out such a fabulous area.


    If you go to Put In Bay in the summer, do not attempt to take young children as the party atmosphere will leave the kids asking many questions lol

  • David

    I’m so glad that you enjoyed your stay. The Lake Erie Islands have long been Ohio’s secret treasure. Come back anytime (but not too many of you 🙂 ).

    • Melisa

      Yep, I won’t tell another soul. 🙂
      We had such a good time that I’m trying to figure out when I can get back there, whether with my family or on a girls’ weekend…

  • Vicky Wigle

    That WAS a great day, but you missed something that is REALLY cool on South Bass Island- Kayak the Bay, Ltd. The next time you come this way-be SURE to come and kayak around the limestone cliffs of Gibraltar and “thread the Needle’s Eye” in your kayak. FUN. Lots of people who go to Cedar Point, make it a point to come and kayak here. We were written up last year in Midwest Living as a “must do” in the area. J would like riding the waves in a kayak. Hope to see you on your next trip to the island.

    • Melisa

      Thanks Vicky,
      We will definitely check that out next time! There was so much for us to check out on our 2.5 days that we couldn’t fit it all in! (Totally a good problem to have, don’t you think? 🙂 ) Kayak the Bay, Ltd. sounds awesome!

  • Kathy miller

    We take our grandson who is 6 with us each year. This was his 3rd trip. You just don’t hang around in town after dinner and there is plenty to do that is child appropriate.

  • Jane Mueller

    I was born and raised in Sandusky but now live in Florida. Trust me when I say it is an AWESOME place to visit! Head to Kelley’s Island for a quiet, peaceful, bike-riding kind of day. Head to Put-In-Bay for a more lively day. Sandusky has at least 4 hotels with indoor waterparks. There are booze cruises to the islands if that’s your thing. Great restaurants in downtown Sandusky so it’s worth leaving Rte 250 and all the chain restaurants. For week-long cottage rentals, check out Lakeside, OH. It’s a throwback in time where the kids can run free and you don’t have to worry about them and you can leave your doors unlocked.

  • tracey

    Weaselmama and I stayed at Castaway Bay one time and it was nice. Not a big waterpark, but decent for a few hours to kill.

    And she has told me many times about Put In Bay and I have NEVER BEEN THERE and I keep meaning to! I would love to hit it!

  • Cy

    Looks like a LOT of fun. We’ve been to Cedar Point which was pretty much a bust as our kids weren’t really into coasters at that time. This all looks much better!