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Island adventures close to home
By Nancy Pistorius

When you think of vacationing on islands, those blissful outposts of carefree fun, do you visualize the South Pacific? The Mediterranean? Or somewhere else, just as exotic, with an exorbitant price tag to match the distance you have to travel to get there?

How about the Midwest? All the relaxation of an island vacation is closer than you think. Within a day’s drive of Springfield, you can find affordable family fun on the unspoiled natural coastlines of Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores & Islands. 

And, if you want a splashing good time, you’ll have come to the right place, too — the water park capital of Ohio. If you wouldn’t dream of taking a trip without packing your bathing suit, this area is for you. Not counting Lake Erie — a natural water park — the area boasts four indoor and two outdoor water playgrounds. 

My personal favorite, Kalahari Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, is a climate-controlled oasis that at 173,000 square feet is America’s largest indoor water park. It also has an outdoor water park, a full-service spa, indoor mini-golf, a huge game room, an arts and crafts activities center, and myriad dining, shopping and entertainment options. 

Don’t fret if the Midwestern weather doesn’t cooperate with temperatures suitable for outdoor swimming — you can still relax and soak up the sun, courtesy of the indoor waterpark’s transparent Texlon roof. Besides, who needs to go outside when you’re staying at the Kalahari, with its tropical 86-degree temperature and 1.3 million gallons of water in the indoor water park? You can pretend that you’re in the Caribbean and even get a tan.

Kalahari has something for every member of the family. Little ones will enjoy the Kids Safari, an interactive play area for children ages 6 and younger. It features slides, net crawls, tunnels and interactive water toys. They’ll also love feeding carrots to the giraffes outside in the Safari Adventures Animal Park.

Teens will be thrilled with the idea of surfing — yes, surfing! — indoors. You don’t have to be in Hawaii or Australia to experience an authentic, wave-ripping ride. Kalahari has made surfing a popular sport in the landlocked Midwest, with the addition of the FlowRider, an indoor surfing attraction. To maximize the FlowRider experience, one-on-one lessons are available daily with expert lifeguards.

Moms like me will enjoy the wave pool, the indoor/outdoor whirlpool spa and just floating on the “lazy” Zambezi River, which surrounds the entire indoor waterpark. When you’re totally mellowed out, you can relax even more in Spa Kalahari with a seaweed body wrap or an aromatherapy massage.

Parents can have a ball with their children shooting hoops in Kalahari’s 3,700-square-foot basketball pool or cooling down with blasts from water cannons at Crocodile Cove. The whole family can fit on a tube on the Victoria Falls raft ride. For even more family togetherness (and pampering), you can rent a cabana featuring comfortable furniture, an LCD television, a refrigerator, personal food and beverage service, phone and Internet access and an iPod dock. 

There’s a smorgasbord of dining options at the resort—from Kahunaville Restaurant & Bar, which showcases dancing servers and juggling bartenders, to Café Mirage, where you can watch the chefs hand-tossing your pizza. Don’t forget to make a stop at the Candy Hut for a scrumptious caramel apple, salty popcorn or ice cream.

After a day of fun, you can just head to your authentically African-themed guest room, which includes at least one TV, a microwave, mini-fridge, in-room safe and Internet access.

With so much entertainment under one roof, you’ll have a hard time believing that you’re still in the Midwest. But you’ll want to get out of your hotel for at least one day — to experience Cedar Point, a 364-acre attraction in Sandusky that offers more exhilarating rides and roller coasters than any other park on the planet and has been voted “Best Amusement Park in the World” for 10 years in a row by Amusement Today readers.

Some of the park’s most impressive coasters include Maverick (low-to-the-ground maneuvers, quick turns and an exciting launch through a 400-foot-long tunnel), Top Thrill Dragster (riders reach speeds of 120 mph as they’re launched straight up a 420-foot-tall tower and spiral 270 degrees back down) and Millennium Force (consistently named the “Best Steel Roller Coaster in the World.”).

But Cedar Point offers gentler, tamer options for small children, too. While the older kids are screaming their heads off on the thrill rides, their younger brothers and sisters can amuse themselves at one of four areas designed especially for them — Planet Snoopy, Camp Snoopy, Kiddy Kingdom and the Gemini Children’s Area. In these special areas of the park, small fry can enjoy such rides as Flying Ace Balloon Race, Woodstock’s Whirlybirds, Kiddy Kingdom Carousel and Frog Hopper. Little ones can also dance and sing with Snoopy at the Camp Snoopy Theatre.

The park provides a variety of other family entertainment, including live shows — like Peanuts characters on ice — games of skill and many different dining options. 

If you haven’t gotten your fill of water parks yet, Cedar Point offers both an 18-acre outdoor water park, Soak City, and an indoor water park resort, Castaway Bay — complete with a spa and fitness center. If you want to stay where you play, there are numerous lodging options, including the beachside Hotel Breakers, which has been welcoming families to Cedar Point for more than 100 years. Guests at all Cedar Point properties qualify for early entry and can enter the park one hour before Cedar Point opens to the public.

Located between the roller coasters of Cedar Point and the waters of Soak City, the Challenge Park activity complex offers attractions for the ultimate thrill-seeker, including the towering RipCord Skycoaster.

What’s new at Cedar Point in 2010? Well, for starters, there’s the Shoot the Rapids wild river adventure ride, where you’re bound to get wet. It’s a terrific option for cooling off on warm summer days. Also this summer, Cedar Point will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Peanuts comic strip. 

Unlike other Midwestern amusement parks that seem to be surrounded by concrete as far as the eye can see, Cedar Point is located on a peninsula, surrounded by beautiful Lake Erie. When you’re there, life is definitely a beach.

If you’re longing for a “more grown-up” dining option after a day at the park, head to the waterfront Mariner’s Club at Sawmill Creek in Huron, which offers upscale dining on Friday and Saturday evenings. Start with a mouth-watering appetizer of artichoke and asparagus fritters, then try the local delicacy, fresh Lake Erie perch, deep-fried to a crispy golden brown. 

While you’re staying in Sandusky, you’ll want to explore all the charms of this little town, including the Sandusky Greenhouse and Parks, the Maritime Museum, which includes exhibits on Sandusky’s role in the Underground Railroad, and Sandusky State Theatre. But probably the best attraction for families is the Merry-Go-Round Museum, where you can even take a spin on an antique carousel.

You can’t visit Ohio’s Lake Erie Shore without escaping to its islands, each one of them unique, with a whole different “feel” from the mainland. Take a Jet Express ferry boat from Sandusky to idyllic Kelleys Island, which at more than four square miles is Ohio’s largest island and is filled with natural beauty and serenity. 

Head to the Kelleys Island Historical Society for a quick tour to get your bearings, then visit Kelleys Island State Park and Glacial Grooves — the world’s largest, most spectacular glacial scoring, a remnant of the last Ice Age. It’s an impressive sight.

If you can’t bear to leave the scenic island vistas at lunchtime, turn your golf cart or bicycle toward PF Dockers, which faces Portside Marina, for open-air lakeside dining. The Village Pump is another great watering hole for boaters and vacationers. Don’t forget to sample the local perch and walleye. Fish just doesn’t get any fresher.

You can postpone getting back to the hustle and bustle of the mainland by checking in to one of the 31 luxury suites at Kelley’s Island Venture Resort, the island’s first modern hotel. Expect to be pampered.

Put-in-Bay (also known as South Bass Island) is often referred to as “the Key West of the North.” You’ll see what that means once you step foot on this “party island” — it’s a real “happening” place, especially after dark, when you can find any kind of live musical entertainment imaginable. But the island has its serious side, too. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, at 352 feet high, is our country’s third-tallest national monument. When renovations are complete in 2011, you’ll be able to ride the elevator to the top to experience spectacular views of the bay and neighboring Canada.

Families with kids will enjoy the tram tour of the island’s more “touristy” attractions — including the Butterfly House and Perry’s Cave. 

Watch the sun dip slowly into the water while enjoying a gourmet feast at Axel & Harry’s Waterfront Grille. You don’t need to leave all those gorgeous island views behind when you dine on their outside patio. Try Axel’s Clam Chowder, made fresh daily from Axel’s own recipe, circa 1910.

No visit to the area would be complete without exploring Marblehead Peninsula, a quaint village that is home to many unique art galleries, shops and Ohio’s largest-producing winery. Stop in at Firelands Winery for a tasting, and be sure to sample the chocolate candies made with Firelands’ wines by Tres Sorrelle Cioccolato.

One of my favorite galleries is the Ferguson Gallery, where you can watch artists create hand-blown glass and hand-cut crystal masterpieces. If you or someone you know collects frogs, the gallery offers a huge selection.

You can also tour the picturesque Marblehead Lighthouse, the Great Lakes’ oldest operating lighthouse (77 spiral steps to the top—but the view is definitely worth it).

Marblehead Peninsula is also home to Lakeside, a gated, Chautauqua-style resort founded by the Methodist church, with Victorian cottages and family activities galore, including many performances by the Lakeside Symphony Orchestra.

If you love popcorn, you won’t want to miss Great Lakes Popcorn Co. in Port Clinton. Vanilla butternut is their most popular flavor, but they have everything from amaretto to Wild Walleye. 

Dinner at The Garden at the Lighthouse is a perfect way to top off your day. No need to request a menu, since this is the “Walleye Capital of the World.” Try the potato-crusted walleye with the complimentary pâté.

Other interesting places to visit while you’re in the area are the historic town of Milan, birthplace of Thomas Edison and an antique shopper’s paradise; Berlin Heights (home of the Berlin Fruit Box Company); and Vermilion, a New England-style harbor village with a Main Street that could have come straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. Stop in at the old-fashioned ice cream parlor, Granny Joe’s Ice Creamatorium, for a hand-dipped ice cream cone “to die for,” “sit a spell” and start planning your next trip back to Lake Erie Shores & Islands.

Want more info? Visit www.shoresandislands.com

Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )

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