The arch over the entrance to the Mount Pisgah boardwalk feels like a portal separating two worlds in Holland, Michigan. On one side, a sun-baked sidewalk leads past an ice cream shack to a vast beach. On the other, stands of beech, oak and maple trees cast dappled shade over a wood-planked path.
More than two hundred wooden steps lead up through the trees to the top of the 157-foot sand dune where Lake Michigan is on display: Deep blue water rolling out to kiss the horizon, the immense expanse of lake dwarfing people lounging on the shore. Back at the bottom of the stairs, an easy stroll through Holland State Park returns hikers to the water’s edge for swimming, grilling and languid sunbathing on a beach that looks the same in each direction.
And that’s how it is for 140 miles along the Lake Michigan coast between St. Joseph and Ludington: silky-soft, powder-fine sand; wide-open spaces that rarely feel crowded; access to the soothing (if often chilly) Lake Michigan waters; and stately piers and lighthouses. Though the beaches may all look similar, they—and their adjacent towns—each offer a distinct take on lakeside getaways.
The attractions around Silver Beach in St. Joseph, on the southern end of Michigan’s shoreline, keep barefoot toddlers splashing even when the lake’s temperatures hover in the 50s. Giant jets and streams of warm water arc to the center of Whirlpool Compass Fountain, a splash park a block from the beach. Across the street, Silver Beach Center rings with the cheerful song of a vintage carousel; a hallway of fun-house mirrors gives kids goofy new self-images.
Kids-at-heart thrill to the adventure on the Friends Good Will, a replica 19th-century tall ship sailing out of South Haven. Wearing sailcloth clothing, the crew scales the masts, swings the boom with shouts of “helms-a-lee!” (meaning “heads up!”) and pulls willing guests into the fray, giving them hands-on practice with knot tying. The wooden dock creaks and groans, and the sails snap sharply in the wind.
Landlubbers might prefer to watch the majestic ship sail out of port then explore the restaurant-dotted downtown. Victoria Resort Bed and Breakfast loans bikes to guests for the mile ride into town, with harbor views from a flower-box-bedecked drawbridge along the way.
Beside Grand Haven’s harbor, teenagers skateboard up to the polka-dotted Dairy Treat to grab an ice cream cone before gliding to the skate park near the beach, all while expertly licking ice cream drips and dodging joggers and puppies. A busy paved path leads from the Grand Haven State Park beach to the Grand Haven City beach to an area designated for dogs—and connects all three to the walkable downtown. There, colorful MACkite store sells giant rainbow-color kites and beach toys, and Kirby House serves juicy burgers to patrons wearing beach gear.
A swimsuit is the only suit you need in sculpture-decorated Ludington. Even at upscale P.M. Steamers, where fresh seafood and luscious strawberry shortcake make a date-worthy dinner, jeans and flip-flops are de rigueur. Or for a picnic, head to Ludington State Park, where grills and picnic tables dot a grassy knoll at Lake Hamlin. But the park’s high point is Big Sable Point Lighthouse; climb it to overlook the waters of Hamlin Lake to the east and, to the west, the waves rolling onto Lake Michigan’s shore.
Experience the dunes! Take a high-speed dune ride in our video. 
What to do
Friends Good Will Purchase tickets at South Haven’s Michigan Maritime Museum, and head to the South Haven marina. Then it’s all aboard for a 90-minute sail on Lake Michigan. (800) 747-3810; michiganmaritimemuseum.org 
Michigan State Parks The state parks’ beaches all have soft, clean sand. Solid options include: Holland State Park, Grand Haven State Park and Saugatuck Dunes State Park. A pass is required for each vehicle: A day pass runs $8.55; an annual pass costs $31.10. (616) 399-9390 or (800) 447-2757; michigan.gov/dnr 
Mac Wood’s Dune Rides Open-air vehicles (imagine a jeep-truck hybrid) carry guests up and down steep inclines and along Lake Michigan in Mears. (231) 873-2817; macwoodsdunerides.com 
Silver Beach County Park St. Joseph’s popular park includes a beach and an interactive splash park. Don’t miss the giant carousel at the heart of the Silver Beach Center. (269) 982-8500; silverbeachcarousel.com 
U.S.S. Silversides Submarine Museum Tour the namesake submarine, decommissioned in 1946. It’s permanently moored just outside this Muskegon museum. (231) 755-1230; silversidesmuseum.org 
Where to eat
Crane’s in the City In Holland’s busy downtown, this small cafe serves panini, salads and fresh apple cider. But you’re really here for to-die-for pie. (616) 796-2489; cranesinthecity.com 
deBoer’s Bakkerij and Dutch Brothers Restaurant Stop in the bakery-restaurant combo in Holland for Dutch pancakes or krakelinger cookies. (616) 396-2253; deboerbakery.com 
House of Flavors Pig out on the Original Pig’s Dinner: four flavors of ice cream, plus a banana and toppings, served in a wooden trough. (231) 845-5785; houseofflavors.com 
Jamesport Brewing Company A warm atmosphere and upscale pub food, like onion rings topped with crab, pair with craft beers in Ludington. (231) 845-2522; jamesportbrewingcompany.com 
The Kirby House This former hotel in Grand Haven shelters a trio of restaurants. Try the tomato-bacon mac ’n’ cheese at Kirby Grill. (616) 846-3299; thegilmorecollection.com 
New Holland Brewing Cheesy pizzas go great with a beer at Holland’s restaurant and brewery. (616) 355-6422; newhollandbrew.com 
P.M. Steamers Dine on tender, flavorful Great Lakes perch at this comfortably upscale restaurant on the waterfront. (231) 843-9555; pmsteamers.com 
Schu’s Grille and Bar Views of Lake Michigan accompany their renowned burgers. (269) 983-7248; schus.com 
Sherman Dairy Bar Sundaes, shakes, malts and waffle bowls fill the menu at South Haven’s throwback dairy bar. (269) 637-8251; shermanicecream.com 
South Bend Chocolate Company In downtown St. Joseph, discover a cafe that’s part candy store, part coffeehouse and part ice cream parlor. (269) 985-9866; sbchocolate.com 
Tello Italian Bistro Pan-seared scallops and butternut squash ravioli star at this intimate restaurant in South Haven. (269) 639-9898; tellobistro.com 
Where to stay
CityFlats Hotel A mod boutique hotel combines sleek style with environmentally friendly touches, plus plush beds, iPod docking stations and free Wi-Fi. From $134. (616) 796-2100; cityflatshotel.com 
Victoria Resort Bed and Breakfast A few blocks from Lake Michigan in South Haven, this rehabbed 1920s resort features spacious guest rooms, many with whirlpool tubs and fireplaces. (269) 637-6414; victoriaresort.com