Pelee Island might not be the original Garden of Eden, but there are days when it comes awfully close to heaven on Earth. It has – at least in the summer – a mild climate, an abundance of fruit and grain, snakes galore (harmless except to the fish and other stuff they eat) and a birder’s paradise of meadow, forest, lake and marsh birds. You can find all order of ducks, sandpipers/plovers, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, robins, purple martins, gulls out the yin-yang, herons, egrets and/or ibises (I think), Canada geese, ducks, more ducks, more geese, finches, a bazillion other songbirds and God knows what else. And that’s just the birds. Between Pelee and Sandusky, there is no shortage of guano. Crap galore. Bird bombs. Poop. Doo-doo. Yeah, whatever. Still haven’t washed my car yet. Think of it as a, um, souvenir. Yeah, a souvenir, that’s what we’ll call it.
All this packed onto 18 square miles of island that finds a mellow way to accommodate its Ontario and Ohio neighbors.
Aboard the MV Pelee Islander, with Cedar Point in the background
While the island and town are pretty kid-friendly, the two-hour (yeah, the brochure says hour-and-a-half to hour-and-forty-five, but it’s more like two hours) trip might test the patience of some used to the jet express to Put-in-Bay on Ohio’s South Bass Island, and party animals will probably find the Pelee atmosphere to be a tad tame. Oh, well. There is fun to be had, just not so over-the-top as some South Bass stories I’ve heard over the years.
But people swear (and I have to agree) that as you leave the boat or plane (OK, technically, you can drive onto Pelee, but you do so from a ramp off of a ferry) your blood pressure drops 20 points within 15 minutes, and it’s not long before you shrug when you realize your cell phone is a) out of range or b) on outrageous roaming charges which you’d be an idiot or insanely desperate to use.
What qualifies as a traffic jam on Pelee these days, a couple of hours before the ferry departs for Sandusky.
Visitors who have friends/family on the island or who spend a fair amount of time on the island will discover that there is a pace to the island, in some ways as if the American South took up residence in Canada. Folks are a little less hurried (except, perhaps, at the restaurants – both of them). Locals look after one another but they don’t snoop around too much. Work gets done, but it gets done when it gets done and not a week sooner.
This postcard-perfect lighthouse does indeed appear on many postcards: the redundantly titled Historic Pelee Lighthouse (aren't they all "historic" pretty much?)
You should know, however, that the weather is always perfect the day you leave Pelee. It might be storming with 25-knot winds and boats getting tossed onto the rocky shoals as you arrive at Pelee on Friday, but by Sunday the winds have calmed, the waves are less than 2 feet and the skies are sunny and bright. It’s all part of the program.
This brings you back despite the bugs and (to some, because of, not despite) the lack of creature comforts or modern conveniences on every block or Starbucks member privileges or trendy clubs. The point of all this is it’s not just like home. If you want all the amenities and gadgets of home, go home.
Even with the elevated Homeland Security hassles, Pelee has a decidedly casual approach to the international exchange, particularly with the U.S. dollar-Canadian dollar exchange. They’ll take your American cash without complaint and give you Loonies in return, also with no complaint. Sometime the exchange difference is calculated, sometimes not.
The housing ranges from what I’d call a sprawling motel, except it really doesn’t sprawl much, to a now-closed hotel and restaurant right across the street from the MV Pelee Islander ferry dock, some bed-and-breakfasts, to a few hundred (I guess) cottages that vary in style from old stone houses the first settlers built to tiny one-room cottages to impressive new island homes – maybe not Palm Beach but really, really nice. All-in-all, you might say it has understated charm. Pretty much the anti-Put-in-Bay. Not that I have anything against Put-in-Bay. It’s just a different kind of atmosphere.
Development on the island is maintained at a. very. deliberate. pace. Part of this is by design of Canadian law. The Canadian equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency, or perhaps the Department of the Interior or National Parks, Fish and Wildlife – you get the picture – is very particular these days about how much land is cleared and how the construction will affect the various wildlife (see: “Endangered” Lake Erie water snake) and surrounding environment. Another part of this is because, well, there are 200 year-round residents, and not all of them are in the construction biz. So you either get in line with the local guys who generally do good work (my sister’s drywall guy did an excellent job, for instance) but are really busy and also find time for lives outside of work – they live on a resort island for a reason. Or you bring in you own work crew at premium price and hope you’ve cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles before you do. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Warning: Objects in viewfinder may be closer than they appear.
One of the more curious stories of Pelee are the Lake Erie water snakes. I have never seen one on the Ohio side of Lake Erie (and I spent my share of time on the Ohio side as a youth). On Pelee, though, you can hardly go anywhere near water on the island without seeing one. There basking on a rock at the water’s edge. There on the – oops, thump-thump! – road. Here, staying safely on the side of the road. There snaking through the gravevine-like leaves. There swimming along with its little snake head bobbing in the waves. Scientific name: Nerodia sipedon insularum. Apparently they are considered an endangered species in the United States. In fact, they are protected in Ohio under the Endangered Species Act. They have a limited range, namely that of the immediate area of western Lake Erie. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service notes that while these snakes are not venomous, they “will defend themselves and may bite” in self-defense. NOW they tell me (see closeup photos shot by yours truly).
Also amusing are the local squirrels. I refer to them as the endangered Pelee ambling squirrel. Rather than exhibit the usual skittish squirrel behavior most of us are accustomed to seeing, these squirrels rather seem to amble across the road at a surprisingly casual pace, giving rise to what must be an elevated mortality rate among road-traveling squirrels on Pelee Island. Per capita at least. I only saw one victim, but he was sprawled across the pavement as if sunning himself. Like a water snake. Just slower.
The Pelee Island Vineyard is a pleasant surprise for wine aficionados who turn their noses up at typical Lake Erie wines.We recommend the pinot noir -- but don't bother with the "Reserve" - the regular pinot noir (at least the 2005 vintage) is better.
If you think you’d like to visit Pelee with or without local connections (folks are pretty friendly, so don’t be afraid), it’s roughly four hours from most points in Northeast Ohio if you factor in drive time to Sandusky, getting your car parked (you can park for FREE in public parking lots near the ferry launches or take your car over at costs I don’t car to repeat here) and getting tix to the island, roughly $15 per body or a lot more via puddle-jumping airplane. You MUST have a passport now, either the full-blown passport book or the slightly less expensive passport card. Apply at least a month in advance for your passport if you don’t already have one.
The ferry ride is a tad noisy above deck, although most riders seem to prefer the outdoor experience when the weather’s good. Expect a few dogs and at least one chatty rider nearby. That’s half the fun, of course. If you don’t mind spending a few extra bucks there are flights to Pelee that make the trip in 15 minutes vs. the two-hour boat ride. They also afford a fun bird’s eye view of the lake and the nearby islands including the Bass islands and Kelleys Island. You’ll also notice that much of Pelee’s interior is a patchwork of farms, much like you’d see during a low overhead flight in the heart of Ohio’s farmland.
You might run into some Cedar Point traffic in Sandusky. But then again, I had virtually no traffic on July 3, a Friday. You’d think the town would be overrun with holiday weekend amusement park warriors. It was not. Sunday egress was no worse.
Now that the sunburn is fading and the bug bites are healing, I’m ready get back to Pelee. I can hardly wait. And here’s a reminder of what awaits:
In less than two minutes the sun rises from just a tiny sliver of itself to the full orb on the horizon. Here it's about halfway there.