Some believe Put-in-Bay, Ohio, is in Canada. Or that the National Park Service monument is a really tall lighthouse. Or that the island is one continual wild party. There are so many myths about Put-in-Bay that locals have to laugh. Even the island's name is confusing. It is actually South Bass Island, but everyone just calls it Put-in-Bay, the island town's name. A big draw for boaters in the summer, the town operates in its own little quirky, self-contained orbit, a sort of Key West of Ohio. "You have history here, and you also have the bars," says Dusty Shaffer, director of the Wyland Gallery in town.
Put-in-Bay is part of a small clump of islands in Lake Erie -- Kelleys, Middle Bass, North Bass and some others. It's a quick 18-minute ferry ride north of Ohio's Port Clinton region. See Visitputinbay.com or 1-419-351-5166.
WHAT TO DO
To many, Put-in-Bay is the place for summer boaters and visitors to whoop it up. In fall, though, it's as if the whole town is settling down for a long winter's nap. "If you don't like shoulder-to-shoulder people, now's the time to come," Shaffer says.
And then there are the golf carts. The town allows visitors to rent golf carts and drive them around on the roads. From the Miller Ferry on the west end, you can putter along the road, letting cars pass, taking your time. Since the island is only 3 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, a golf cart is plenty fast. (Rates vary, but I rented a two-person cart all day for $40. You also can rent bikes.)
Out in the vineyards in the fall, fat Concord and Niagara grapes are ready to drop. You can stop at Heineman's Winery (1-419-285-2811; www.heine manswinery.com), founded in 1888, and its Crystal Cave, a little geode cave full of celestite crystals. Also drive past the vineyards to see the grape harvest.
Some galleries and shops stay open until the bitter end of the season. Bars and restaurants are open, but some curtail hours as season's end nears. Take your cart to the far edges of the island or the South Bass Island State Park, and if you are lucky, you may see interesting birds and wildlife.
The other bonus of visiting in fall? On weekdays, you may have the road to yourself. Only about 350 people live on the island year-round, but about 750,000 tourists come each season. There is a stillness to the island. Winter is coming.
"Most people who live here say [fall is] their favorite time of year," says Julene Market, owner of Miller Boat Line, the ferry company.
Fall color will peak in Put-in-Bay in early November, later than on the mainland. The ferry will stop running in late November. Then the island will sleep, dreaming of next year's rowdy mischief.
The enormous Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial looms 372 feet over Lake Erie, paying tribute to Put-in-Bay's pivotal role in America's nautical history (www.nps.gov/pevi).
After the Revolution, young America still felt animosity toward Britain and had an eye on Canada's land. It declared war on Britain in 1812. One of the war's crucial battles -- the Battle of Lake Erie -- took place just off Put-in-Bay, where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry based his command and all his ships.
After capturing the British fleet in September 1813, he sent notice to Washington that "We have met the enemy, and they are ours." The words are more remembered now than the battle, but that day ensured that Michigan, Ohio and New York would remain part of the United Sates.
Closed and under renovation since 2009, the memorial's observation deck is due to reopen in June, just in time for the War of 1812 bicentennial. In September 2013, there will be huge commemorations at Put-in-Bay, including re-enactment of the battle with a fleet of tall ships.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Some hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are open through the end of the season, and rates drop significantly in fall. See www.visitputinbay.com.
From Port Clinton, Ohio, it's an 18-minute ferry ride to the island. Miller Ferry runs several times a day from March 23 to Nov. 23 from its Port Clinton Catawba dock (www.millerferry.com; 1-800-500-2421).