If you start your Lake Erie vacation in Sandusky, you will be very close to some excellent dining, gardens, and lakefront scenery. Fine dining (not really child appropriate) includes J Bistro, Crush Winebar, and Zinc Brasserie. Small City Taphouse (Asian fusion and craft beers), Water Street Bar & Grill (good pub food, fine for families before 8pm), and Dockside Café (outside dining only, simple foods from a service window) are all family appropriate. Also great in downtown Sandusky is the New Sandusky Fish Co, which is right next to Shoreline Park (east of where you’re staying). Also carryout/outside dining only, but the best Lake Erie fish you will ever taste. Port Sandusky family restaurant is new-ish, and I’ve not yet tried it but have heard good things. The Lunch Box is a well established place for breakfast and lunch. Mr. Smith’s Coffee is a good downtown place for breakfast and coffee in the AM. I’ve also never been to Hot Dog Tony’s because I don’t like hot dogs, but is very convenient to where you’ll be staying.
Outside of downtown, local family favorites are Cameo Pizza, Chet & Matt’s pizza, Berardi’s (especially for breakfast), Sortino’s Little Italy, and Toft’s Dairy (best ice cream ever). Demma’s Family Italian is a carryout place that has some of the best authentic (we’re talking 4 generations using the same recipes) Italian ever.
The Merry-Go-Round museum in downtown Sandusky is also cute and fun. The toddlers will love riding the inside antique carousel! And the downtown parks are beautiful to stroll around in. African Safari Wildlife park is fun for the kids. Bring a bag of extra carrots! As is the Deer Park.
Another place that enjoys visitors that not many people know about is Back to the Wild. It is a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center operated by the Rutger family and their volunteers/employees. You can call ahead of time to ask when a good time to visit is in order to avoid any large group tours that may be going on. There is no charge, but they suggest a $20-$30 donation. You will see permanent residents that include owls, eagles, hawks, turtles, bobcat, fox, snakes, etc. You can also see some of the animals that are temporary residents that are being rehabbed and will be re-released. It is an amazing place. If you google search, you’ll see it’s often featured in local news stories. Mona Rutger was a finalist for CNN’s Person of the Year a few years ago (though she didn’t win), and was awarded Animal Planet’s Hero of the Year a few years before that. They struggle to stay afloat financially, but northern Ohio’s wildlife would be lost without them.
Speaking of… Sheldon’s Marsh nature preserve is a great place to visit with the stroller for a nice evening walk in the woods. Also not to be missed in the area (mainland) is the Marblehead Lighthouse. Very picturesque, and you can (carefully) wade on the rocks there!
As you make your way to the islands…
A friend of ours just spent 4 days and 3 nights on Kelley’s and had a great time with their kids (9, 7, 3). I really recommend visiting KI as well as PIB. There are two “island hopping” options out of Sandusky on the Jet Express Put in Bay. One is the Goodtime I cruise boat. You spend a lot of time on the water with this one. But it includes stops on both islands. I personally don’t think the time on KI is long enough, but it’s enough to rent a golf cart and cruise around for a bit.
The other island hopping option from Sandusky is the Jet Express, which is much faster and has a more generous schedule. Be sure to look at the Sandusky –> KI schedule, the KI–>PiB schedule, and the PiB –> Sandusky schedule to plan your day. It is also going to be more expensive. For example, you could take the 9am boat to KI, arrive at 9:25, depart KI for PiB at 11:40, or 1:40, then take the 4:30 or 6:45 boat from PiB back to Sandusky (with a brief stop at Kelley’s, you don’t have to disembark).
Take a stroller or carrier for the little one. Even if you end up renting a four person golf cart and holding him/her, you’ll want the stroller option in case he/she needs a nap and can sleep in it. Take a bike lock and lock the stroller to a fence near one of the golf cart rental places if needed.
Personally, I love PIB during the daytime. We’ve never had an issue with taking our kids there during the day. There is SO much to see and do, and you can bypass the downtown bars completely if you want to. KI is also very nice though. Quiet, laid back, and has a very nice beach at the state park for your little one to cool off and enjoy putting their toes in the sand.
I think you all will enjoy yourself regardless.