Winter Getaways: Sandusky & Lake Erie

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Winter on the Island

If you can find a way to get there in winter, Put-in-Bay offers terrific outdoor recreation, gorgeous snowy landscapes and bonfires on a frozen Lake Erie. Yes, bonfires.

When the temperatures drop, Put-in-Bay transforms into a serene little town. The heart of the Erie Islands' summertime party scene empties out, leaving the 350 or so year-round visitors to relish the quiet beauty of the frozen lake. "It's ideal if you like peace and quiet, a close-knit community and great outdoor recreation," says Julene Market, co-owner of Miller Ferry.

Visiting the island is difficult during this time. Two plane services-Griffing Flying Service and Island Air-continue to operate, but the ferries shut down once Lake Erie freezes. What's more, just a handful restaurants and bed and breakfasts stay open on the island. (Check with the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce for winter lodging and dining options.)

But if you do find a way to South Bass Island (an ATV, airboat or snowmobile also can make the 5-and-a-half-mile trip if the lake is solidly frozen), you can enjoy some unique experiences: ice skating on Lake Erie, cross-country skiing on snowy roads, watching the sun set over a frozen moon-like landscape filled with ice-fishing shanties. Winter gives islanders a chance to catch up, says Market, who's lived in Put-in-Bay most of her life. "Gears shift down, and it's very welcoming," Market says. "In the winter, I'll see people who live year round on the island, and I'll say, 'Oh my gosh, I haven't seen you all summer.' "

But the party scene doesn't completely disappear. Locals organize "ice parties" on the frozen lake. "Last year, we had this great party on the ice, and the theme was Hawaiian, so people came in grass skirts on top of their Carhartts," Market says. The parties include barrel races, ice bowling and-believe it or not- bonfires. Market assures that the fires are safe. "It doesn't burn through," she

The Joy of Ice Fishing

Why freeze your tuchus off on a frigid Lake Erie this winter? Because it may be your best chance to catch a trophy-sized walleye.

Lake Erie may offer the best ice fishing of all the Great Lakes. It freezes reliably, thanks to its shallow waters, giving anglers a chance to catch one of the lake's legendary 10-pound-plus walleye. And the best spot is around the Erie Islands, where the fish congregate and the ice is the safest, thickest and sticks around the longest.

John Hagerman, an outdoors writer and former Lake Erie fishing guide, says anglers have a better chance of catching a monster fish in winter. "A higher percentage of them are trophies because they're concentrated in a smaller area-namely the Lake Erie Islands and the Western Basin reefs," he says.

But ice fishing is a much different animal than its warm-weather counterpart, and it's easy to have a bad experience or, worse, make a poor decision that could put you in danger.

So how do you ensure you have a good expedition? The first thing to do is fish with a friend. It's best to go with an experienced angler or fishing guide (the Ohio Department of Natural Resources licenses guides, though the qualifying process is minimal). But even two inexperienced people are better off together than alone, Hagerman says.

You also should make sure you dress warmly. "You need triple layers," says Bud Gehring, a longtime fishing guide in Put-in-Bay. "Lake Erie is a lot different than an inland lake." Other helpful gear includes an auger to drill a hole, digital fish finders and four-wheel ATVs, which tend to work better on bare ice (snowmobiles are better in deep snow).

If you want to give ice-fishing a try, check out this guide put out by the

Out of Africa

What's an African-themed waterpark doing in the farm fields of Ohio? Who cares? Kalahari Sandusky is irresistible, cheesy fun.

The country's largest indoor water park elicits many reactions-fear, surprise, excitement and, in the case of my Africa-loving family, confusion. When I tell them about our planned trip to the Kalahari Sandusky Resort, their response is, "Why did they name a water park after a desert?"

For a decade, Kalahari has offered an oasis for winter-weary Ohioans-a wet-and-wild escape that doesn't require a drive to warmer climates. The resort bills itself as an "all-under-one-roof" experience. During the winter months, you can park your car, put on your swimsuit and forget about the snow and the cold outside, never leaving the temperature-controlled confines other than to relax in the indoor-outdoor whirlpools. You can buy a day pass for the water park or stay at the connected hotel, the largest in Ohio, with 884 suites and six entertainment villas that sleep up to 22. Other amenities include a spa, six restaurants, a fitness center, an arcade and a 215,000-square-foot convention center.

But the indoor water park is the big attraction, a monster the size of three football fields, where you can surf on manmade waves, plummet down three-story-tall slides and drink frozen, fruity cocktails at the swim-up bar. And everything comes wrapped in a cheesy African theme, with valets wearing pith helmets and hotel beds engraved with rhinos, elephants and wildebeests. Needless to say, authenticity isn't Kalahari's strong suit. When we turn on Botswana Drive to enter the huge complex in the farm fields outside of Sandusky, my wife, Carrie, says, "I think we owe an apology to the entire continent of Africa."

Our kids, Adam and Mala, react with awed silence when we enter the 173,000-square-foot water park. They've been to small parks in Michigan and Wisconsin, but nothing like Kalahari-a sea of screaming children, twisting rides and roaring water. Our first stop is the 12,000-square-foot wave pool. Nine-year-old Adam grabs an inner tube and dives in. His younger sister, Mala, stays by my side, clutching my hand. We work our way up the thrill-ride ladder. We climb a play structure called Leopard's Lair with a couple of small slides. We all try a raft ride called Victoria Falls, and Mala likes it so much she decides to take on the Zip Coaster, a water roller coaster. On the Tanzanian Twister, Carrie and I discover what it feels like to be flushed down a giant toilet.

But the Wave Pool is our favorite. We keep coming back to it, over and over. Mala gains confidence as we swim together. Eventually, she doesn't need me at all. I stand on the "beach," the waves lapping at my feet, Mala playing in the surf alone, the water bathed in natural light from the transparent ceiling. I smile. Authentic or not, this sure beats standing in the