By Bill Steiden
A rocky-shored island with granite cliffs and gravelly beaches in a northern clime, surrounded by sailboat-studded blue waters; a summer resort set in a Victorian village, accessible by ferry and steeped in history.
Martha’s Vineyard, right?
South Bass Island is part of a chain extending from Ohio’s Marblehead Peninsula to Ontario’s Point Pelee that divides Lake Erie’s far western basin from the rest of the lake. On the Ohio side is the Lake Erie Islands State Park, taking in sections of South Bass, Middle Bass, Kelly’s and Catawba islands, plus some smaller islets.
South Bass is the center of the action. Think of it as the Filene’s Basement version of the Vineyard. You won’t run into Barack Obama vacationing there, but you won’t pay presidential prices, either. The ferry ride from Catawba costs $13 roundtrip. A car can be transported there and back for a measly $30 – a fraction of the in-season cost to reach the Vineyard.
But you won’t need a car. South Bass is one-fifth the size of its Massachusetts counterpart, so a bike will suffice. Have camping gear to transport? A cab awaits at the ferry landing, or do like some and haul it from the ferry dock in a garden cart.
Of course, the trip can also be made by private boat, if you’re so inclined. You could even splurge on a $94 flight from Sandusky, Ohio’s Griffing Flying Service. It’s still cheaper by far than comparable service to Martha’s Vineyard.
Accommodations are also a bargain. A tent site at the park’s South Bass Island campground is under $30 a night, about half the cost of camping on the Vineyard. Motor home and trailer pads with full hookups are available for a few dollars more. Prices are even lower on less-developed Middle Bass Island, a short ferry ride to the north.
The eats are cheap, too. A plate of yellow perch – a delicious whitefish native to the lake – will set you back less than $15 at the fanciest restaurant in the village. That’s about the cost of a low-end appetizer on the Vineyard.
Speaking of vineyards, there’s also the local wine. It’s cheap, and that’s fine, because quite frankly, it’s an acquired taste. Heineman Winery has been tending its islands vineyards for 120 years, until relatively recently making its wines mostly from the sharp and foxy-tasting American Catawba grapes. It’s sort of like eating alligator “bites” when you’re in Florida or Rocky Mountain oysters in Colorado. Unless it’s something you grew up with, you try it for the experience.
Fortunately, the village abounds in watering holes offering libations imported from the mainland, including some high-quality Ohio wines from the Firelands Winery. A historic favorite is the Roundhouse Bar, dating from 1873. Set in the middle of the village, it’s a vaguely mushroom-shaped wooden building, round as its name suggests and with, appropriately, a round bar in the middle of its cavernous barroom.
Not a wine drinker? Order a Commodore Perry IPA from Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewery, recognized as one of the nation’s best. It’s an appropriate brew for South Bass because the island’s Put-In Bay was the base from which Oliver Hazard Perry launched his fleet for the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie. It’s a victory made famous by Perry’s bold message to then-general, and later president, William Henry Harrison at the fight’s conclusion: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” A 352-foot Doric column towers over the bay, commemorating the fight and today’s peaceful relationship with Canada, only a few miles away.
The bay and the village are idyllic, and so is the state park campground, especially for tent campers, who can claim the majority of the sites overlooking the lake. There’s a small swimming beach, a dock, and for rent, a small cabin and yurt-like “cabents.” A bathhouse with showers is available to all campers. The hike or bike ride to the village is a little over a mile, and if you prefer, you can rent a golf cart for the back-and-forth trip.
Those preferring simpler surroundings can look to Middle Bass Island, where a newer park, established in 2000, offers a primitive tent-only campground.
The lake itself may be the reason that this little slice of New England-style charm remains Ohio’s secret. Erie for decades was an industrial cesspool, fed by rivers like the Cuyahoga, which was so polluted that it famously caught fire. But a concerted clean-up effort that began 40 years ago has transformed the lake, aided by the natural advantage of Erie’s shallowness, which allows its waters to turn over and renew in much less time than the other Great Lakes. Around the islands, the water is now clear, and the fish population has recovered sufficiently to support commercial fishing.
But there’s one kind of fish for which Martha’s Vineyard is famous that you’ll never find in the lake. So you can paddle in the water content that you’ll never have to think of those ominous chords: ba-doom ba-DOOM ba-DOOM BA-DOOM!
Lake Erie Islands State Park
Port Clinton, Ohio.
866.644.6727 for camping reservations.
Photos courtesy of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at email@example.com.