MORE than 70 years ago Ernie Pyle, in his itinerant-travel-writer phase, traveled to Ohio’s Lake Erie shore and wrote about a village on South Bass Island called Put-in-Bay. Caribbean-style cruise ships plied the Great Lakes then, and Put-in-Bay was a favored, and lively, stop.
“Put-in-Bay is the capital, you might say, of the Lake Erie islands,” Pyle wrote before adding, “Put-in-Bay lives off wine and summer excursionists.” Save for a few details, Pyle got it right — then and now.
These days Put-in-Bay has the fun, tank-top informality of Key West, Fla., with golf carts, and includes energetic game fishing, striking over-the-water sunsets — and mixed drinks in place of the wine noted by Pyle. Local residents largely steer clear of the village, and repair to cool inland cottages and lakeside retreats where stick-built, three-room affairs rub architectural elbows with mini-mansions of more recent vintage.
“It’s kind of a slice that’s frozen in time,” said Charles Lowe, 79, who drove a 1930 Model-A Ford from Fairport, N.Y., to Put-in-Bay to spend the summer. “You genuinely feel like you’re in a different place.” Mr. Lowe has been visiting the region since the 1940s, and says he has already booked his rental for next summer.
Put-in-Bay’s island neighbors include Kelleys, Middle Bass and North Bass, which deliver their own brands of escapism, but with less night life, less frequent ferry service, more solitude and slightly lower property values.
For those not enamored of island life, the nearby Ohio shore also features second-home living. Oak Harbor sits on a broad river that leads to Lake Erie, and overflows with gingerbread porches and roadside fruit stands. Port Clinton, home to the Jet Express high-speed ferry, features century-old lakefront homes with long front lawns. It also offers charming inland Victorians; a drawbridge; a high concentration of condos, Super-8 motels and McDonald’s for island-hopping day-trippers; and an August festival that celebrates polkas, perch, peaches and pirogi.
Marblehead, about 11 miles east of Port Clinton, has the area’s most famous lighthouse and extensive second-home and condo developments. Three miles west is Lakeside, a 135-year-old Chautauqua community where about 900 mostly older Victorians and saltboxes are crammed into one square mile on lots that originally held tents.
The village of Put-in-Bay can be a party town. Sybarites pour off the Jet Express ferry early, whoop it up in the village, then pour themselves back on a late boat.
Cars are neither encouraged nor useful in Put-in-Bay. So on weekends the village can take on the giddy tone of a Victorian-faced midway ride, with golf cart drivers meandering from T-shirt shop to ice-cream parlor to watering hole, sometimes narrowly missing pedestrians and other cart drivers. Meanwhile, the cool breezes sough, sailboats nod in the harbor and, indoors, jukeboxes roar out like thunder.
“When you get on that ferry, a pressure valve goes off,” said Corky McIlrath-Flint, whose family has had a second home on South Bass Island since the 1960s, when her father bought a lot with a hunting shack that evolved into a cottage.
Ms. McIlrath-Flint, who is a local real estate agent, added that the place has two distinct cultures. “You can choose to partake in the camaraderie on Main Street,” she said, “but there are so many other things to do.” That includes boating, swimming and fishing for walleye, lake perch and smallmouth bass.
Solitude and inhabitability are best found together in fall. The lake is shallow, and the water holds the summer’s heat. Many local residents say September and October are the best months on the lake, and the weather often stays mild through Halloween.
“Winter is a lot of fun here,” Ms. McIlrath-Flint added. “If the ice comes in good, we have ice-fishing parties. Sometimes we drive to the mainland on a trail marked with Christmas trees.”
Properties that are on their eighth generation of owners give the area continuity, residents say, and create a sense of safety, especially for children.
Outside of the village of Put-in-Bay, solitude is the great appeal. Even so, Cleveland, Toledo and the Cedar Point amusement park aren’t so far away.
The old cottage culture is being altered as small dwellings give way to three-story second homes with three-car-garages. And Lake Erie does have a dark side.
“The lake is scary,” said Dave Warga, a fifth-grade teacher in Marblehead who bought a second home in Put-in-Bay three years ago for $330,000. “Because it’s shallow, when it warms up it breeds storms. You really have to know the lake to be out on the lake.”
The market is actually three markets: the islands, the shores and Lakeside. Island landowners generally don’t sell unless family circumstances dictate. That, combined with the high cost of ferrying building materials to the islands, discourages new construction. Seekers of new golf-and-condo developments are directed to Marblehead and Catawba Island, where there are many such spreads.
“There’s a pecking order for water-related properties — lakefront, bayfront, riverfront and canal,” said John Rader, an agent with Re/Max Lake Shore Realty in Port Clinton. “Some have just a deeded dock. But it’s better than not having any access to the water.” He said that the supply of shoreline properties currently exceeds demand.
“The island second-home market is very steady,” Ms. McIlrath-Flint said. “There was never a superinflated bubble. It’s not a flip-it market. In fact, our biggest job is educating buyers who think they can swoop in and pick up something cheap. That doesn’t happen here.
“The median prices of properties on the islands mirror the amount of commercial development. Middle Bass Island has a lower average price — around $290,000. Kelleys Island is slightly more commercial, and the average price is about $390,000. Put-in-Bay is around $425,000.”
Port Clinton and Marblehead waterfront real estate starts at $70,000 for a small lot of undeveloped land, with lakefront condos priced at $75,000 and up.
In Lakeside, “properties range from $190,000 to around $1 million, and it’s based on the proximity of the property to the lakefront,” said Charlene Carroll, an agent with Lakeside Chautauqua Realty. The average is around $350,000.
“Many times people stumble across Lakeside,” Ms. Carroll said. “They weren’t planning to buy at all, and before they know it they’re down at the real estate office, pulling listings. They’re in disbelief that a place like this exists.”
Of course it exists. Ernie Pyle could have told you so.
LAY OF THE LAND
POPULATION 130 for the village of Put-in-Bay, according to a 2006 Census Bureau estimate.
SIZE The Port Clinton/Put-in-Bay region comprises 509 square miles of shoreline, islands and mainland.
WHERE Port Clinton is a one-hour drive from Cleveland. The ferry takes 10 minutes to reach Put-in-Bay from Port Clinton.
WHO’S BUYING City dwellers from Ohio, and people from Detroit, Indianapolis and Pittsburgh.
WHILE YOU’RE LOOKING Put-in-bay Resort (439 Loraine Ave, Put-in-Bay, 1-888-742-7829; http://www.putinbayresort.com) has 80 period-furnished rooms. Rooms range from $95 to $259 a night.
Put-in-Bay is a popular vacation spot just 2 miles offshore of mainland Northwest Ohio in Lake Erie. While "Put-in-Bay" is technically the name of the village on South Bass Island, the name commonly is inadvertently used to refer to the entire island. A summer resort since the mid-1800's, the village can be considered the hub of tourism among the Lake Erie Islands, with its numerous taverns, wineries, restaurants, waterfront condos, rental homes, and hotels.