Four men in their 20s wobbled down this island's main drag on a Tuesday afternoon with red buckets on their heads. An hour earlier the buckets were full of beer. Now drained, they made convenient, if curious, headgear as the men slithered into another bar, their fourth of the afternoon.
Behavior of that sort runs high in this island village planted in Lake Erie: red bucket hats, boozy young people breaking off cartwheels in the park and fist-pumping sing-a-longs to yesteryear's radio hits.
Yet five miles east, on Lake Erie's other major island escape, Kelleys Island, the charms are more subtle: beach lounging, hiking and biking, and searching for an abandoned stone winery in the woods. There are just a few bars, and between them, a winery and a tiny brewery, there also is opportunity for nightlife. It's just a calmer nightlife.
Nearly 20 small islands are clustered in this scenic area of walleye-rich western Lake Erie, but at the heart of the action are South Bass (the party island, which is home to Put-in-Bay) and Kelleys (the quieter one).
>South Bass Island
To many visitors, South Bass Island is about two things: golf carts and partying. The golf carts are everywhere. People rent them to traverse the island's 4-mile length and mile-and-a-quarter width. A dozen places rent them, usually for $50 a day.
But partying seems to be the real draw, and visitors are so aggressively "on vacation" and "having fun" that what's left is a mind-blowing amalgam of Key West meets Las Vegas meets ... Cleveland.
No wonder, then, that the oldest business on the island is the Roundhouse, a bar built in 1873. Or that one of the largest businesses on the island -- with a capacity of more than 2,000 -- is the Beer Barrel Saloon, a bar so cavernously impersonal that it would make Vegas jealous.
There are family-friendly opportunities: miniature golf or the 352-foot Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, opened in 1915 to honor the American-British Battle of Lake Erie (we won!). Better still, avoid downtown on the weekends and wade into the island's loveliness: thick woods in parts (though not as thick as Kelleys'), rock cliffs dropping into the lake, and small public beaches at the ends of side streets.
On Kelleys, it feels more as if you're joining something -- a community, a mind-set, an intersection of life and character that already was and will continue to be after you leave.
Just after arriving on Kelleys, I got lost trying to find my B&B and came across a woman hanging laundry who offered instructions, then said with homespun warmth, "Welcome to the island." I realized that not only had I not heard those words at Put-in-Bay, I hadn't heard that tone.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources owns or manages nearly a quarter of 2,800-acre Kelleys but just 2 percent of 1,600-acre South Bass. Undisturbed land is something of a Kelleys hallmark: Kelleys Island State Park at the north end of the island offers about 5 miles of easy, pretty hiking. What locals call the fire trails, in the middle of the island, loop around a water-filled former quarry so jagged that it looks more like the West than the Midwest. And the Scheele Preserve on the northeast side of the island has 24 acres of trees and grassland.
To be sure, there also was a party going on -- Bag the Moon is known for its $2 shots of strawberry liqueur in a hollowed-out strawberry and topped with whipped cream. There also is the Kelley's Island Wine Co. and the Kelleys Island Brewery, which offers decent beer and an outdoor patio beside the bobbing lake.
If you go:
When to visit: Locals say the best time to be there is pre-Memorial Day May and post-Labor Day September and October. The weather is favorable, and restaurants and bars are open.
Getting there: The most common route is by ferry from the mainland. All operate first come, first served, but different lines originate from different ports.
South Bass: With a car, the only option is Miller Boat Line (millerferry.com; 800-500-2421), which departs Port Clinton on the mainland. Jet Express (jet-express.com; 800-245-1538) departs Port Clinton and Sandusky but doesn't take cars.
Kelleys: With a car, the only option is Kelleys Island Ferry (www.kelleysislandferry.com; 419-798-9763), which departs Marblehead on the mainland. Jet Express also comes here, departing Port Clinton and Sandusky on the mainland. The only option between Kelleys and South Bass is Jet Express. To take your car from one island to the other, you must return to the mainland.
Where to stay:
South Bass: B&Bs are generally the best bet but often accommodate only couples. Bodee's Bungalow (385 Dollar Ave.; 419-967-0837; bodeesbungalow.com) is modern and immaculate; ask for a room overlooking the woods, or try Ashley's Island House (557 Catawba Ave.; 419-285-2844; ashleysislandhouse.com). The Anchor Inn (anchorinn.info; 419-285-5055) is lovely and another great bet.
Kelleys: The Fly Inn (103 Edgewood Lane; 419-746-2525; kiflyinn.com) is bright, airy; Eagles Nest Bed and Breakfast (216 Cameron Rd.; 419-746-2708; eaglesnestbnb.com) is clean and cozy, plus it's near the lake.