Gerry Jeffers: Where’s the best place to get a divorce?
Taxi Driver: Well most people go to Reno, Nevada, but for my money, it’s Palm Beach. This time of the year you’ve got the track, you’ve got the ocean, you’ve got the palm trees. Three months; you leave from Penn Station.
— Dialogue from The Palm Beach Story (1942)
Where’s the best place to spend Memorial Day?
Well, a lot of people like to go to the beach or the woods or the parade or the Indy 500, but for my money, it’s the Lake Erie shoreline and islands, west of Cleveland. You’ve got the water, the sand, the roller coasters, the Chautauqua, the fort, the bandshell, the jetboat, the Jimmy Buffett thing. Eight hours from Philly or New York, five hours from Chicago or Indy, four from Pittsburgh or Cincinnati, two and a half from Detroit; how soon can you leave?
Regardless of whether we thought up the holiday first (Canada’s Victoria Day has us beat by a couple years), Memorial Day may be even more quintessentially American than the Fourth of July. You start with a solemn premise – remembering the Civil War dead. You add an unofficial (and much more enjoyable) premise – celebrating the start of summer – throw in a major sporting event and a long weekend, grill it over a charcoal fire, wash it down with a cold beverage, and maybe play a song about something being grilled over a charcoal fire and washed down with a cold beverage. Be sure to wear sunscreen.
So when you think about quintessentially American places to spend this quintessentially American holiday, there’s no shortage of options. National parks. State parks. Baseball parks, major, minor, and Little leagues. Your own backyard. Why Ohio?
It’s centrally located. There are more than 60 million people within one day’s drive of northwestern Ohio. That would be bad if they all crowded into the area at once, but they don’t. Only about 8 million visitors come to the shores and islands annually, many of them repeat customers. So the area stays relatively uncrowded – though on Memorial Day weekend, all bets are off.
It’s spread-out. The shores-and-islands area runs from the huge Cedar Point amusement park, the rollercoaster capital of mid-America, to the Michigan-Ohio border. In the middle and up a little as Google Maps flies are the islands – South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass, Catawba Island, and Kelleys Island. It’s more than 90 miles from one end to the other, a lot longer if you take the scenic route. (And why would you not?) All that distance means more area to explore – and more places for the other tourists to get lost.
It’s beautiful. There’s hardly a bad shoreline anywhere in the Great Lakes, and the Lake Erie shoreline here is no exception. The difference here is there’s more of it. Each island has its own beaches. The Lakeside peninsula is fringed with bright water and sand. The parks, particularly the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, give you another take on the lake, adding marshlands and estuaries into the mix. And the towns along the way are postcard-perfect. If your image of Memorial Day is kids with ice cream running around a tree-shaded, flag-festooned village square with a band in the bandshell cranking out Sousa marches, this is your place.
It’s incredibly varied. You can twist and turn and roll upside down at Cedar Point, then take a jetboat to Put-In Bay on South Bass Island, where the atmosphere is as close to Margaritaville as you’ll find north of the Mason-Dixon Line. (Margaritaville with history: Put-In Bay has a national monument commemorating Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British fleet, and War of 1812 re-enactments just a short walk from the village square. See if you get that in Key West.) The interior of South Bass and the other islands have more of a Finger Lakes feel, with Adirondack chairs, grape arbors, and airy white B&Bs. And if you’re looking for rock-ribbed Americana, it doesn’t come any more authentic than the Lakeside Chautauqua, where community members flock to the gracefully curved old auditorium for lectures, concerts, and community gatherings. (Here’s a sample: This weekend at Lakeside there’ll be a parade, a magician, a pancake breakfast and a concert by Bill Medley, late of the Righteous Brothers.) “This is new urbanism in 1870s’ form,” said Kevin Sibbering, CEO of Lakeside. “Everything is a short walk or bike ride away.”
You can even eat there. The local wines are good, the fresh seafood is decent, and there are signs of a food scene developing, especially on the east end, at new ventures like The Blind Perch and 41 North in Vermillion. But, hey, it’s Memorial Day; you can save the upscale dining for later. Today an ice-cream cone sounds just right. Vanilla, please. And play that “Stars and Stripes Forever” thing again, if you don’t mind.