Imagine a weeklong vacation spent lounging on a sandy beach in Florida, touring a Napa Valley winery, visiting an art gallery in New York, exploring a historic Cape Cod lighthouse and golfing surfside on Hilton Head Island. Sounds great -- except for the expense, the unfeasible travel logistics and the exhaustion. Now imagine a leisurely vacation on the west coast of Michigan, where similar destinations are close enough to each other to be enjoyed in a lot less time and for a lot less money.
Lake Michigan, the only one of the five Great Lakes entirely within the U.S., is so large (up to 118 miles wide) that it resembles an inland freshwater sea, with crashing waves and high and low tides. And when locals refer to Michigan's west coast, they generally mean the eastern shore of the bottom half of the lake, running about 150 miles from the Indiana border north to the Ludington area.
The glorious summertime sunsets along the lakeshore recall dusk along Florida's Gulf Coast -- except, of course, for the greater likelihood of seeing the aurora borealis after nightfall.
Lake Michigan's sandy shore has beautiful dunes and beaches, summer water temperatures in the mid-60s to low 70s and summer weather approaching perfection. Summer air temperatures rarely surpass 90 degrees and humidity is low. Still, Canadian cold fronts can arrive swiftly, so pack a light jacket, even for the dog days of summer.
Golf and blueberries
New Buffalo, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago, is the first stop for many visitors to Michigan entering from Indiana on eastbound Interstate 94. It offers public beaches, resort cottages and a number of antique shops. Southwestern Michigan's first gambling casino, the Four Winds Casino Resort, is scheduled to open nearby next year.
Heading north about 10 miles, spectacular views of the lake await energetic visitors who scurry to the top of the 260-foot-high dune formation at Warren Dunes State Park.
Along the coast, all the way up to Grand Traverse Bay, the temperate climate and sandy soil is ideal for growing certain types of fruit, including apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, plums, pears and grapes. The region is also dotted with vineyards. Local wines will be featured at the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival, June 24 at Weko Beach in Bridgman.
Continuing northward to St. Joseph, travelers can enjoy fine dining, downtown specialty shops and Silver Beach, one of the finest public beaches on Michigan's west coast.
Golf Digest magazine ranked neighboring Benton Harbor No. 18 among the country's best golf cities last year. The Western Amateur, a nationally known tournament that started in 1899, has been held at Benton Harbor's Point O'Woods Golf and Country Club since 1971. This year it takes place July 31 to Aug. 6.
To keep hugging the coast, exit I-94 onto eastbound Interstate 196, which leads to South Haven, home of the Michigan Maritime Museum and the self-proclaimed blueberry capital of the world. The harbor city's National Blueberry Festival -- Aug. 10-13 this year -- attracts thousands of visitors.
Next stop, the Saugatuck-Douglas area, a little slice of coastal New England, known for art galleries, bed-and-breakfasts, downtown shops, fishing charters and scenic dunes. The Keewatin Maritime Museum is the home of the retired steamer SS Keewatin, a 350-foot vessel that turns 100 next year.
After a short drive on eastbound I-196, it's decision time. Exiting onto northbound U.S. 31 means continuing along the Lake Michigan coast, but staying on the highway another half-hour allows a day trip to Grand Rapids.
Michigan's second-largest city has shopping, theaters, minor-league sports teams, a 12,000-seat arena, a new convention center, a thriving arts scene, bustling nightlife and family attractions. The 1913 Room at the Amway Grand Plaza hotel is considered one of the state's finest restaurants.
Museums include the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, the Public Museum of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has held several important art exhibitions in recent years. One of its largest and most unusual, on through Sept. 10, features bronze sculptures by Tom Otterness, including 35 displayed along two miles of downtown sidewalks and pedestrian bridges.
Doubling back on westbound I-196 and exiting onto northbound U.S. 31, travelers arrive in Holland. From its 6 million tulips that bloom each spring to its authentic 240-year-old windmill to its very name, there is no mistaking the city's Dutch heritage. Its biggest event is the Tulip Time Festival, held each May, when tulips bloom throughout the city.
Holland State Park has a large beach adjacent to the picturesque Holland Harbor Lighthouse. Informally known as Big Red, it resembles an old-fashioned schoolhouse and stands at the mouth of the channel linking Lake Michigan to inland Lake Macatawa.
One of the cleanest beaches in the U.S.
Although shipwrecks are often associated with oceans, the Great Lakes hold more than 6,000 sunken ships. Many are regularly explored by scuba divers. Ocean Sands Scuba in Holland has a charter boat that takes divers to several shipwrecks off the coast of Saugatuck.
"The greatest diving in the world is in Michigan," says Chuck Larsen, the shop's owner and veteran diving instructor. The cold freshwater at lake bottom, about 39 degrees year-round, is ideal for preserving wrecks.
At least 10 lighthouses still stand in the region. One of the most visible is north of Holland in Grand Haven, at the mouth of the Grand River and next to popular Grand Haven State Park. Each May, the park hosts the colorful Great Lakes Kite Festival.
Camping is one of Michigan's most popular summer activities, but make reservations ahead of time. Campgrounds near Lake Michigan fill up fast between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
A dozen miles north of Grand Haven, two more lighthouses stand near Muskegon's Pere Marquette Park, home to a beach repeatedly recognized as one of the nation's cleanest. Close to the park is the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, home of the USS Silversides, a World War II submarine and a Prohibition-era Coast Guard cutter.
Need to make a fast trip from Muskegon to Milwaukee? The high-speed Lake Express ferry crosses the lake with passengers and their cars in two-and-a-half hours. It makes three daily roundtrips in spring and summer.
Just north of Muskegon is Michigan's Adventure Amusement Park, the state's largest theme park, which started 50 years ago as a petting zoo. This season's new attraction is a $5 million river ride called Grand Rapids.
Head north another 30 miles to Silver Lake State Park, where there are nearly 2,000 acres of sand dunes.
Another ferry, the SS Badger, is based in Ludington, the final stop along Michigan's west coast. The 410-foot-long craft, which has operated since 1953, makes one roundtrip daily to Manitowoc, Wis., taking cars and passengers across Lake Michigan in four hours.