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 200 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; 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 period clothing, the crew scales the masts, swings the boom 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. 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, the 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.
Box Factory for the Arts A rehabbed factory offers three art galleries, live music, more than 40 artists’ studios and classes in downtown St. Joseph. boxfactoryforthearts.org
Curious Kids’ Museum Kids make giant bubbles, create a newscast, drive an ambulance and explore 100 more hands-on exhibits in St. Joseph. curiouskidsmuseum.org
DeGrandchamp Farms Acres of blueberry bushes please pickers on the edge of South Haven. An on-site market sells 5- and 10-pound boxes of berries, plus other blueberry specialties like BBQ sauce, pancake mix and salsa. degrandchamps.com
Friends Good Will Feel the wind in your face at the bow of this sloop during a 90-minute sail on Lake Michigan. Learn the original tall ship's role in the War of 1812. (800) 747-3810; michiganmaritimemuseum.org
Grand Haven Musical Fountain Colorful jets of water dance to music by the likes of Sousa and Led Zeppelin every summer night in Grand Haven. ghfountain.com
Hackley and Hume Historic Site Side-by-side Victorian mansions in Muskegon impress visitors with ornate gingerbread (the original owners were a lumber baron and his business partner), turrets, stained glass and rooms restored to look like they did 100 years ago. lakeshoremuseum.org/project/hackley-hume/
Harbor Shores Home to the 2016 Senior PGA Championship (May 24–29, 2016), this 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed course in Benton Harbor challenges with diverse terrain. harborshoresgolf.com
Hungry Village Tours Discover the secrets behind popular Saugatuck restaurants during a leisurely three-hour culinary walking tour, with tastes at each stop. hungryvillagetours.com/
Michigan’s Adventure The price of admission includes land and water rides. Catch a wave, plunge down a water slide, and ride the state’s fastest wooden roller coaster at Muskegon’s amusement park. miadventure.com
Michigan State Parks All the beaches all have soft, clean sand. Solid options include: Saugatuck Dunes, Holland, Grand Haven and Ludington. michigan.gov/dnr
Mac Wood’s Dune Rides Open-air vehicles (imagine a jeep-truck hybrid) carry guests on a 40-minute roller coaster-like ride along Lake Michigan in Mears. (231) 873-2817; macwoodsdunerides.com
Saugatuck Chain Ferry Step aboard the 1838 hand-crank ferry for a 5-minute float across the Kalamazoo River to near the base of the dune Mount Baldhead; climb its 282 stairs to see Oval Beach on Lake Michigan. saugatuckcity.com
Silver Beach County Park St. Joseph’s popular downtown park includes a beach and an interactive splash park. A carousel sits at the heart of the entertainment venue there, Silver Beach Center. (269) 982-8500; silverbeachcarousel.com
U.S.S. Silversides Submarine Museum Tour the Navy's most successful surviving World War II sub at this Muskegon museum, plus a Prohibition-Era Coast Guard cutter and an exhibit about the USS Flier. (231) 755-1230; silversidesmuseum.org
Veldheer Tulip Gardens Artisans paint delftware (and answer questions) and carve shoes from blocks of wood at the factory at the largest tulip farm in the Holland area. veldheer.com
West Michigan Pike Paved in 1913 for Chicagoans heading north to the Mackinac region, this route now follows US-31. The reasons to make the drive are still compelling: beaches, orchards, farm stands, quaint towns and other amusements. beachtowns.org
Windmill Island Gardens In Holland, a 254-year-old working windmill, with the only female Dutch-certified miller in North America, towers above a 36-acre island. A re-created 14th-century Dutch inn houses a museum. cityofholland.com/windmillislandgardens
221 Main Modest in appearance, this downtown St. Joseph corner restaurant surprises with a list of 125 whiskies; flights narrow the choice. Dine on surf and turf, or go casual with pub grub. 221stjoe.com
Bread and Bar by Bit of Swiss The pastries resemble masterpieces in the artsy neighborhood of Benton Harbor. Grab-and-go sandwiches make the perfect picnic.
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 from the family-owned orchard. (616) 796-2489; cranesinthecity.com
deBoer’s Bakkerij and Dutch Brothers Restaurant It's Holland's spot for Dutch pancakes or buttery krakelinger cookies. (616) 396-2253; deboerbakery.com
House of Flavors Restaurant Pig out on the Original Pig’s Dinner: four flavors of ice cream, a banana and toppings, served in a wooden trough. In Ludington. (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 the American Bar and Grill. (616) 846-3299; thegilmorecollection.com
New Holland Brewing After perfecting the art of brewing, it now distills spirits. A copper fermenter sits in the center of the restaurant known for its creative pizzas in downtown Holland. (616) 355-6422; newhollandbrew.com
Piggin’ N’ Grinnin’ Judges on the Midwest BBQ circuit know this Benton Harbor place for its award-winning ribs. The trio of meats and sides in the Big Mama Sampler satisfies diners. piggin-n-grinnin.com
P.M. Steamers Dine on tender, flavorful fresh fish, like Great Lakes perch, at this upscale restaurant on Ludington's waterfront. (231) 843-9555; pmsteamers.com
Schu’s Grille and Bar Views of Lake Michigan accompany renowned burgers and potato soup in St. Joseph. (269) 983-7248; schus.com
Sherman's Dairy Bar Single scops look more like doubles at South Haven’s throwback dairy bar, churning out ice cream since 1916. (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 Locally grown ingredients flavor items like spaghetti alla primavera at this chic South Haven spot. (269) 639-9898; tellobistro.com
CityFlats Hotel Splashes of green and orange speak to the styling of the Holland hotel. Bamboo beds and sheets prove the ecoconsciousness that garnered it the status as LEED certified. (616) 796-2100; cityflatshotel.com
Nader’s Lakeshore Motor Lodge We half expected June Cleaver to appear at this tidy, family-owned Ludington lodge built in 1955. Thirty-six of the units open to a grassy courtyard two blocks from Lake Michigan. nadersmotel.com
The Pines Motorlodge Travelers find a cluster of retro-chic 1950-era motor inns near Saugatuck’s beaches, restaurants and shops. Amish-crafted beds with pillow-top mattresses and down duvets stand out against whitewashed walls. thepinesmotorlodge.com
Serendipity Resort Visitors craving privacy enjoy this resort’s six vacation homes. Suites occupy Victorian homes, carriage houses and cottages. It’s two blocks from the Grand Haven Musical Fountain. serendipityresorts.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. Adults only. (269) 637-6414; victoriaresort.com