A flash of orange through slate-gray clouds and sky, the Kelleys Island Ferry chugs through chop built beneath persistent 30 mph winds skimming the lake from the northeast.

A flash of orange through slate-gray clouds and sky, the Kelleys Island Ferry chugs through chop built beneath persistent 30 mph winds skimming the lake from the northeast.

The hulking prow bounces slightly. Its course is unfazed.

In its wake lie the tiny hamlets of walleye-boat captains, Cedar Point's arching steel and towering conveyor belts of the quarry operations that dot the Lake Erie coast. Ahead is the calm southern harbor of Kelleys Island.

Those who live on the Lake Erie islands say this is where your cares begin to fade - the ferry's first push from the mainland. Relaxation is key to this trip, but I've also set out to experience the nature, sport and nightlife at the heart of Lake Erie's offshore communities.

Two islands, each its own world, in two days.

Twenty minutes after leaving the mainland, the pedestrians, bikes and cars shipped together into paradise migrate left onto Lakeshore Drive. If your vacation didn't start on the boat, it will along the sidewalks that line Kelleys Island's main commercial drag.

Bars with patios and plastic palm trees elbow restaurants advertising fresh perch and mini-golf courses serving ice cream. The lively, colorful downtown is flanked on both ends with stately homes whose real-estate listings likely emphasize private docks and pristine lake views.

Nestled among these estates about a mile from the dock is my lodging choice, Crafts Lakeview Lane. The family-run business rents motel rooms with no television and writes receipts by hand inside a small white bait shop that smells like minnows.

By 3 p.m., I settle into a modest room with two double beds and a small bathroom perfumed with the vintage lakeside smell of wool and wood. By habit, I grab an island map from a box sitting in the motel office among neon bass lures and portraits of gleeful fishermen holding up the day's catch.

The Erie islands often are pigeonholed as a place for bachelorettes and bros looking to get bombed. Yet among ample opportunities to get rip-roaring drunk, places to fish, hike, camp, bike, sail, paddle, and wine and dine litter Kelleys Island's 4.6 square miles.

To explore them, skip the shiny golf carts gleaming near the ferry landing and rent a bike, available in town for about $4 per hour or $20 per day. Mine was a sleek, black Pacific with fat tires, a coaster brake and a spring seat.

Once aboard, head north on Division Street, where eateries and shops cede to shady back roads, pop-up produce stands and the steady whirr of wind and pedal.

Throughout the heart of the island, residents cultivate the kind of carefree vibe you'd expect among bartenders in Key West or expat surfers in central Baja. Neighbors are friends beyond the casual wave. They take pride in stately lawns and natural beauty, but also in a pioneer spirit that draws one to live on an island three miles from the Ohio coast.

Case in point: When Kelleys Island School celebrates commencement, the entire town comes to watch. The size of 2011's graduating class: two.

Here, life's pace is delightfully languid, slow on purpose, a cruiser bike in a world of SUVs. Almost every house has a porch, and no one locks their bikes.

"I got to the point where I got sick of mainland life," said Marvin Robinson, reclining in a deck chair in front of a general store called Unc'l Dik's. "People often ask me, 'What do you do here?' I tell them, 'You're doing it.'"

Kelleys simmers with a comforting but intriguing allure - the idea that you can explore an entirely different world without the risk of being injured or even bothered.

For those more ambitious than Robinson, the area in and around Kelleys Island State Park holds things most Ohio hikers have never seen.

Discover the slicing power of ancient ice at the Glacial Grooves. Hike among vine-wrapped ruins and rocky coastal features along the North Shore Loop Trail. And trek to a remote, romantic sand beach past the marshy boardwalk in the North Pond State Nature Preserve.

After a triathlon of boating, biking and hiking, freshen up and stroll to Kelleys Island Brewery, about a mile west of downtown. The food's pricey, but nothing sweetens an island-hopping experience like homemade craft beer. Try the excellent five-beer sampler, then continue to hydrate with the surprisingly flavorful Anniversary Ale, which clocks in at an activity-friendly 3.5 percent ABV.

A sunset on the island's western side, downtown dive bars and well-deserved rest await.