Sleek, fast and painted in patriot colors, the Jet Express catamaran to Put-in-Bay is the first sign that you're about to enter another kind of island.

Sleek, fast and painted in patriot colors, the Jet Express catamaran to Put-in-Bay is the first sign that you're about to enter another kind of island.

The booming cannon shots are another.

Located in the middle of South Bass Island, about 5.5 miles northwest of Kelleys, the bustling party town has been shanghaied by Pyrate Fest. It's the kind of weekend romp that inspires historical interpreters to display antique muzzleloaders and women to wear skin-tight tank tops reading: "I'm the reason Roger is so jolly."

Smoke from a morning pirate battle lingers as the handful of ferry passengers disperses into the bustling marina and through a town green transformed into a 17th-century smuggler's outpost. The sun has triumphed valiantly through the clouds and gathers energetic crowds by 11 a.m.

Along Delaware Avenue, people drink mystery beverages from plastic cups and piece together the previous evening while picking through sidewalk racks of sunglasses and souvenir T-shirts. Bars are open early, serving Bloody Marys and breakfast buffets meant to quell the queasy. A pair of friends motor down Delaware Avenue in beer coolers transformed into go-carts.

In the Erie family of islands, Kelleys is the austere, Ivy League son, while South Bass is the rebellious country cousin just after a good time. On a sunny weekend, the entire island bustles and buzzes with a vacation vibe that many travel hundreds of miles south to enjoy.

In the town of Put-in-Bay, you can visit the world's longest bar (405 feet, 10 inches) at the Beer Barrel Saloon. You can slam island-themed shots from bars consistently competing to throw the craziest bash and book the tightest cover band. You can lock sterns with revelers transforming boats into floating bars and tanning beds.

But like most resort destinations, the souvenir commerce and nonstop nightlife are surrounded by natural beauty accessible by land and water.

On this particular day, the lake shimmers and beckons, so I head to Kayak the Bay, located just east of The Boardwalk. Two hours cost $20 in a one-man boat or $35 in a rig for two.

On a calm day, a fit paddler can reach Middle Bass Island, a small residential enclave about 1.25 miles north, or Green Island, an acclaimed bird habitat about three miles southwest.

Three-foot rollers and heavy chop keep me close to shore, paddling among the marina's giant yachts into a marsh covered with lily pads and past homes where the yards cascade to the water's edge. Muscles warm and courage mustered, I circle Gibraltar Island, a small outpost in the bay that's home to Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory.

Waves crash against the island's rocky cliffs and through small keyhole outcroppings that testify to the lake's power and persistence. It's a tough, rewarding paddle that I celebrate with a delicious pizza at Frosty Bar and a flight of island-made vino at the Put-in-Bay Winery.

The marina opens wide before the winery's front lawn, and among long afternoon shadows striping the grass, you start to understand the region's true draw.

There are enough activities for weeks of adventure and enough bars for a month of headaches. But after you dock the boat, park the golf cart and stow the paddles, you can find a quiet place to sit, relax and find peace with the lapping of the tide.

Jane Davenport, who rents kayaks across the street from the winery, is an evangelist of the lake's calming magnetism and rugged, unpredictable charm. For her, the island allure is simple.

"I've lived here my entire life, so it's part of me," she said, tying up a boat. "I moved away in 2000, and I was like, 'What do you guys do without a lake? Where do you guys watch fireworks?'"