Finding an agreeable way to spend the day with teens can be a challenge for some families. It definitely is for mine. So when the start of summer rolled around and we discussed making our yearly pilgrimage to Put-in-Bay, I expected some pushback from my crew. Surprisingly, no one balked at the idea. Partially because the kids haven’t been anywhere in over a year, but mostly because they still enjoy our yearly visits to this Lake Erie island.
Not familiar with Put-in-Bay? Picture Mackinac Island but without the fudge, and instead of bikes and horse-drawn carriages, the island — which is four miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide — is populated by tourists driving around in golf carts. Cars are allowed but definitely not recommended or needed.
This summer marked our 11th visit, and our teens, ages 16, 15 and 13, had just as much fun this year as they did when they were toddlers. With a wide variety of things to do, this Ohio destination appeals to kids of all ages.
Initially deterred by the island’s reputation as a party destination, we decided that the drive from our house — just under two hours — was perfect for a one-day adventure. And while the island has a good number of bars that are packed during the day, we’ve never felt like it was an inappropriate place for a family getaway. We’ve also never been there after dark.
While we opt to make our visit a day trip, there’s enough to do on the island that you could easily spend the weekend there or in Port Clinton, one of two locations where Detroiters can catch a ferry to Put-in-Bay. Port Clinton also is home to the African Safari Wildlife Park, and it’s 30 minutes from Cedar Point.
Getting to Put-in-Bay
Miller Ferries and Jet Express offer ferry service to the island. Each option has pros and cons. For example, the drive to the Miller Ferry dock is about 15-20 minutes farther than the Jet Express dock. The longer drive time compensates for the amount of time on the boat — 18 minutes versus 30.
We prefer Jet Express. Although it costs more because it docks right downtown, Miller passengers need to take a bus, taxi or immediately rent a golf cart to get to the downtown area.
On Miller, adults pay $8 each way, children 6-11 are $1.50, and kids under 6 are free. Parking is free at designated lots near the dock.
Jet Express charges $35 for adults, kids 12-16 are $15, kids 6-11 pay $6 and those under 6 are free. All fares are based on a round-trip ticket. There is a $12 daily fee for parking in the Jet Express lot located across from the dock.
Both Miller and Jet Express sell tickets online and at the dock.
Things to do in Put-in-Bay
With so many options, visit one of the online travel planning websites such as visitputinbay.org, putinbayonline.com or putinbay.com. All offer a comprehensive list of what the area has to offer, including a tour train, carousel, two wineries, a nature and wildlife center, lighthouse, nature preserve, helicopter ride and more.
On a side note, although this destination is an island, don’t plan on a beach day. While there are places where you can swim, the shores are rocky and there aren’t any sandy beaches.
Here are some of the many activities we’ve enjoyed over the years.
- Rent a golf cart. We recently learned that you can reserve a cart in advance. While we’ve always been able to find one, there were a few years where we had to go to multiple locations. I can’t recommend one rental place over another. We always just go to the closest one when we’re ready to rent. But seeing the island grow in popularity, I would recommend reserving in advance.
- Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. There is so much to do here, including mini-golf, a 4,000-square-foot butterfly house, a rock wall, a walk-through maze, and an underground cave with a small fresh-water lake.
- Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. The highlight of the memorial is the impressive 352-foot Doric column, with an observation tower offering spectacular views of the area. The tower was built to honor the soldiers who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 and celebrate the long-lasting peace between Great Britain, Canada and the United States. Although the observation deck is closed indefinitely due to space limitations, it’s still a great stop and an excellent way to sneak in a bit of education along the way. Maintained by the National Parks Service, the memorial offers various programs, including musket demonstrations, ranger talks and fishing programs.
- DeRivera Park. This is a beautiful and well-shaded park that separates the downtown shops, bars and restaurants from the waterfront. When the kids were younger, they loved the playground. Now we enjoy tossing a Frisbee or football while enjoying the scenery.
Where to stay in Put-in-Bay
Lodging options include a handful of hotels and motels, vacation home/condo rentals, and bed and breakfasts (not all allow kids). Renting a house, condo or cabin is probably the best bet for families. Check out islandclub.com or putinbaycondos.com for rental options.
The website booked.net lists these properties as family-friendly:
- Put-in-Bay Resort & Conference Center
- Bay Lodging Resort Put-in-Bay
- Edgewater Hotel
The one time we spent the night, we chose to make reservations at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Port Clinton-Catawba Island. The hotel was clean, spacious and close to the ferry.
Places to eat in Put-in-Bay
We are creatures of habit and always eat at a place called the Boardwalk, a collection of waterfront eateries in the downtown area. Our favorite place to dine is the Upper Deck. The view, in my opinion, is the best on the island, the food is good, and the kids meals come in a Frisbee, which we always end up using at the park downtown, especially if we have time to kill while waiting for the ferry back to Port Clinton. Although I haven’t tried this out myself, here are a few others that appear to be kid-friendly.
- Frosty’s for pizza, sandwiches, burritos, salads and more.
- The Keys for waterfront dining and a large menu selection, including burgers, fish, salads and sandwiches.
- Pasquale’s Café serves breakfast all day, along with sandwiches and burgers. It is open for breakfast and lunch.
- The Forge is best known for its brunch menu, particularly the crepes and the chicken and waffles dish. The kids’ menu includes a PB & J crepe, quesadilla, turkey sandwich, and peanut butter, banana and honey panini.
- Hooligans is an Irish pub serving fish and chips, sandwiches, nachos and more. For the “Wee Irish,” there’s macaroni and cheese, chicken strips, grilled cheese, and burgers.
Why our family loves Put-in-Bay
Our yearly trips are clockwork predictable and always enjoyable. We find the ferry to be a pleasurable, relaxing boat ride to the island.
Once there, we head straight to lunch before renting our golf cart and exploring the island.
Driving around in the golf cart is the highlight for all of us. We love exploring the island and it’s an easy way to get to all our favorite destinations. Along the way, we like to drive by the airport to watch the private planes take off and land. I personally like seeing the homes, which range from small cabins to beautiful waterfront homes.
We always eventually end up at Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. Before returning our golf cart, we head to the Chocolate Café for a scoop of ice cream. It is always the last thing we do before catching the ferry.
I have a feeling Put-in-Bay will remain a family tradition for years to come and eventually span to the next generation of our family.