A string of Lake Michigan beaches and a long trail of wine, all within a short drive of four states. See you in the sand.

By Dorothy Hernandez
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Silver Beach, St. Joseph.
Bob Stefko

Due to possible coronavirus-related travel restrictions, please check destinations' websites for the current status of attractions, events, restaurants and lodgings.

Lauren Kniebes started working in a winery when she was . But her love of wine goes back further than that. “Our grandma would make homemade wine and give us little sips,” Kniebes says. “We were obviously too young to really appreciate it.”

Her palate has evolved since then, along with the wine culture surrounding her hometown of Coloma. When Kniebes started working at Contessa Wine Cellars in 2008, a handful of wineries dotted Southwest Michigan. Now the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail connects about 20, including Lazy Ballerina Winery, which Kniebes opened with her cousin Melanie Owen in 2015, two years after finishing college.

Among Midwest states, western Michigan has uniquely wine-friendly conditions, including a lake-effect climate that prolongs the grape-growing season. The region is known for refreshing and crisp whites and, increasingly, bold reds that can hold their own against some European counterparts. But the spotlight has often been trained north toward Traverse City. Just as California has strong viniculture and winemaking traditions beyond iconic Napa and Sonoma, the area around St. Joseph and South Haven has a serious, weekend-worthy wine scene—plus a string of pristine beaches. And it’s a lot closer to most of us, just two to three hours from Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis.

St. Joseph River, St. Joseph.
Joshua Nowicki

A short hop across the Indiana line, boaters and paddlers navigate Lake Michigan’s glittering water. Peaceful and undeveloped rivers, such as the St. Joseph, are wildlife magnets. Ryan Gerard, owner and founder of Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo and St. Joseph says the surf scene has exploded since opening a store in 2005. Same goes for kayaking. “Visit the wineries and breweries, and then you can go for a paddle or vice versa. I would probably recommend paddling first,” he says with a laugh.

And no need to pack a snack. The waterside dining and drinking options look and taste better than ever.

Food on the Water

Midwest comfort food meets French preparation at Bread + Bar on the St. Joseph riverfront. The bread comes from community favorite Bit of Swiss Pastry Shoppe and is the ideal foundation for the creative tartines and sandwiches.

A multiple Wine Spectator winner, Bistro on the Boulevard at The Boulevard Inn in St. Joseph boasts a wine list as impressive as the view.

Bistro on the Boulevard, St Joseph.
Courtesy of Bistro on the Boulevard

Located on one of the oldest Great Lakes harbors, Plank's Tavern elevated gastropub caters to every taste, with obligatory burger and tacos, or pecan-crusted trout and Tso’s sesame cauliflower.

Just steps from the beach, a reclaimed train depot serves up the best slices in town at Silver Beach Pizza, also known for draft beer in frosted schooner glasses. Don’t miss Upper Deck (reservations required, adults only) above the pizzeria.

Other Eats

Houndstooth brought big-city vibes last year to Benton Harbor’s rising Arts District. The mod aesthetic and globally influenced dishes, such as punchy black bean chicken with gochujang aioli, make it feel like a Chicago transplant.

Houndstooth, Benton Harbor.
Joshua Nowicki

Rustic style cuts deep inside Salt of the Earth, a staple in Fennville for farm-to-table, scratch-made New American creations. Show up on a Sunday for live American roots music.

City Art

Vibrant murals and orange steel sculptures mark the funky, eclectic Arts District in Benton Harbor. It’s home to trendy restaurants and cool cafes, like The Phoenix Coffee Shop, plus gallery spaces, such as Water Street Glassworks, which fosters an appreciation for glassblowing. The GhostLight Theatre features provocative and innovative productions.

Water Street Glassworks, Benton Harbor.
Joshua Nowicki

The South Haven Center for the Arts is a world-class institution that typically hosts a two-day art fair over the Fourth of July holiday, plus premier exhibits.

The Water

In St. Joseph, family-friendly Silver Beach has a handcrafted carousel that looks like it was lifted from a movie set, plus the Curious Kids’ Museum and Discovery Zone and Whirlpool Compass Fountain.

Silver Beach, St. Joseph.
Joshua Nowicki

Hoping for less of a crowd? Head to Tiscornia Park or Jean Klock Park for the locals’ beaches. For the perfect Instagram post, visit South Haven’s South Beach, home to an iconic red lighthouse.

Take a 2.5-mile hike from secluded Saugatuck Dunes State Park to reach nearly 3 miles of undeveloped beach, beautiful dunes and, most likely, few people.

Saugatuck Dunes State Park, Saugatuck.
Amanda Slayboch
Paw Paw River, Michigan.
Joshua Nowicki

The Wine

One of the area’s oldest wineries, family-owned Fenn Valley Vineyards offers an idyllic backdrop in Fennville. Try Capriccio, a budget-friendly dry red that goes perfectly with pizza.

At Lazy Ballerina Winery in St. Joseph, the cafe-style tasting room features food and new, creative wines from the area. Co-owners Lauren Kniebes and Melanie Owen also opened a second location in Bridgman. Their grapes come from a small vineyard in nearby Coloma, where the cousins grew up.

Lazy Ballerina Winery, St. Joseph.
Joshua Nowicki

Dablon Winery and Vineyard in Baroda is five years old, but the wine world has quickly taken notice. Its terroir-driven wines are crafted with an old-world approach. Last year it nabbed accolades from Wine Enthusiast for its 2017 Riesling and 2016 Cabernet Franc. You’ll find varietals not common in this area, such as Malbec and Petit Verdot, and live music in the tasting room on weekends.

Dablon Winery, Baroda.
Courtesy of Dablon Winery

Stay

Melding turn-of-the-last-century coastal influences with modern flair, The Inn at Harbor Shores in St. Joseph offers heaps of amenities: a waterfront restaurant, a spa, entertainment and a championship Jack Nicklaus golf course.

Seven stories high and perched atop a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan and downtown St. Joseph, The Boulevard Inn and Bistro delivers big views and makes a good home base for exploring downtown. Breakfast is included for guests in the on-site Bistro on the Boulevard restaurant.

Stay close to the winery action at Among the Vineyards Bed and Breakfast in Baroda, just outside St. Joseph. Each of the four rooms is decked out in a wine theme, with the king rooms boasting a cedar soaking tub or Jacuzzi air tub. Owner and innkeeper Barb Antonucci is a St. Joseph native who returned home.

Build Your Own Beach Picnic

For an uninterrupted day on the shore, pack a backpack with locally baked, grown and fermented goods.

Cheese Pick up some artisan goat- and cow-milk cheeses at Fennville’s Evergreen Lane Farm and Creamery. The charming farm was inspired by a wayward goat who wandered into the owner’s home.

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Berries Healthify your picnic spread with farm-fresh blueberries and strawberries from the local farmers markets in South Haven or Benton Harbor.

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Sangria Glasses. Corkscrew. Wine bottles. That’s a lot to lug around (and potentially forget). Don’t leave anything to chance by grabbing some not-too-sweet canned Red Sangria from Round Barn.

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Bread What goes better with wine and cheese than bread? Carb up with a French-style baguette or sweet treat from Bit of Swiss Pastry Shoppe in Stevensville.