In the last 30 years, hardly a summer of my life has passed without a week spent in Southwestern Michigan.
From a home base in the small town of South Haven, where my mom lived for 20 years, I can dangle my toes in a lake that looks like an unsalted ocean or bike for miles on the Kal-Haven Trail, which goes all the way to Kalamazoo. The artsy community of Saugatuck is just up the road, and the even smaller hamlets of Douglass and Fennville have lots to offer, too.
This year I got to share my summer stomping grounds with a friend from Texas, who now understands why I get giddy at the mere mention of the Mitten State.
And while summer means swimming, sipping gin and tonics on Adirondack chairs, and grilling on the deck, autumn brings its own pleasures, like cider and doughnuts, fall foliage and pumpkin patches.
South Haven, my home base in Southwestern Michigan
My grandparents bought an old house in the beach town of South Haven in 1970 for $7,000. They planned to fix up the crumbling old structure, but my grandma got sick and that never happened. My mom and her sisters inherited the place, atop a bluff overlooking the Black River as it flows into Lake Michigan. Then, in 2001, my mom – a single librarian who had been living in Chicago –- rebuilt it and moved in.
South Haven hosts the National Blueberry Festival each August and bustles with tourists from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
You’ll find plenty to do.
The beach is the main attraction, and both North Beach and South Beach (the river splices them) feature wide, soft expanses of sand, a marked swimming area and lots of seagulls. (No lifeguards.) My morning routine includes a stroll to the red lighthouse at the end of the pier.
Stop by DeGrandchamp Farms for pick-your-own blueberries in July and August. In October and November, the farm sells fresh cranberries.
The city hosts free weekly concerts each Thursday during the summer at the small park in front of the marina along the riverfront. And if it’s raining, head to the Michigan Theatre, where first-run movies cost $4 for matinees and $5.50 for evenings, and a bucket of popcorn is just $4 with $1 refills.
Expect to wait in line at Clementine’s, the most popular restaurant in town, where I recommend the lake perch. Same goes for Sherman’s Dairy Bar, which started scooping ice cream and making sundaes 65 years ago. (Get the cherry.) For breakfast, hit the Golden Brown Bakery for pecan coffee cake, doughnuts, and cookies. The café in the back draws locals, who meet for a cup of coffee or a plate of bacon and eggs.
The city is home to the Michigan Maritime Museum, which recently completed an expansion. Besides exhibits about the maritime history of the Great Lakes, visitors can take a ride on the tall ship Friends Goodwill or the river launch Lindy Lou.
Phoenix Street and Broadway are lined with cute boutiques like Renaissance & Papyrus, and Crescent Moon, where you can buy clothing, stationery and knickknacks. And don’t miss my quirky secret indulgence – D&L Sales, a warehouse on the outskirts of town that sells party supplies, including a massive quantity of napkins for 50 cents a pack. I save space in my suitcase for them.
Drive 25 minutes north from South Haven to the artists’ conclave of Saugatuck, the art mecca of Southwestern Michigan. Visitors can explore galleries, take an art class at Ox-Bow School of Art, an affiliate of the Art Institute of Chicago, or catch a live production at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. Saugatuck has a thriving LGBTQ scene, too.
It’s also got plenty of charming restaurants and boutiques.
From Saugatuck, pay $3 to catch a ride on the chain ferry, a hand-cranked pedestrian ferry pulled by a crew member (or you, if you want to give it a try) along a 400-foot chain. The 5-minute ride across the Kalamazoo River on a vessel that’s been in use since 1838 will deliver you to the neighboring town of Douglas.
After you get off, walk a block north to the staircase at Mount Baldhead Park. Clamber up all 302 steps for a view of the harbor below. Keep going down the dunes on the other side and you’ll reach Oval Beach State Park, a beautiful curve of shoreline set against a backdrop of sand dunes. You can also drive to the park and pay $10 to park.
On your way home from the beach, detour back to the 1950s with a stop at the Root Beer Barrel. The barrel-shaped root beer and hot dog stand opened in 1952 and closed in the mid-1970s. It stood vacant for 25 years, its wooden staves rotting and weeds growing at its feet. The owner planned to demolish it, but that’s when the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society stepped in. Restoration began in 2011 and the stand reopened in 2016.
I ordered a root beer float and a chili cheese dog and ate them at a wooden picnic table in the shadow of the towering barrel.
In fall, Douglas hosts a small Oktoberfest, complete with German music, Alpenhorns, a parade, keg tapping and a keg toss.
Fall’s a great time to visit Crane Orchards U-Pick and Corn Maze. Summer means sweet cherries and peaches, but after Labor Day, the focus turns to apples. Pop into the orchards to pick your own for $1.45 a pound. Afterward, dive into the 20-acre corn maze, where visitors get lost in corn as tall as an elephant. In October, pick up a pumpkin grown on site.
If you’d rather skip the fruit picking and go directly to pie-eating, stop by neighboring Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant & Winery. Ciderfest, a salute to the fall drink of choice, takes place in mid-September and features live music and, of course, cider, which has been pressed here since 1968.
I always reserve Monday night for a trip to the What Not Inn, also located near Fennville. The roadside diner’s Monday Night Jazz Jam draws big crowds, so if you want a table arrive by 5:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. show. A rotating cast of singers steps up to join the backup musicians. Food is homestyle, with offerings that include liver and onions, lake perch and burgers. Ignore that and order the fried chicken. And get coconut cake for dessert. It’s the best I’ve ever tasted.
Holland, the Dutch corner of Southwestern Michigan
For a taste of Dutch culture, make the hour-long drive from South Haven to Holland.
About a quarter of the city’s population is Dutch, and the city celebrates that heritage. Each May, carpets of tulips brighten every planter throughout downtown, and the city hosts the Tulip Time Festival. The 2024 event is set for May 4-12.
You can see an exhibit of Dutch art at the Holland Museum, watch a craftsman make a pair of wooden shoes and learn how to clog at Nelis’ Dutch Village, or skip through the flowers at Veldheer Tulip Gardens. And at Windmill Island Gardens, you can tour ‘de Zwaan, the only authentic Dutch windmill still grinding grain in the United States.
If You Go
From Austin, it’s usually cheapest to fly directly into Detroit and make the pleasant, 3-hour, mostly rural drive to South Haven. But you can also connect through Chicago to Grand Rapids, an hour away. Flights are also available into South Bend, Indiana.
Pick blueberries, bike the Kal-Haven Trail, visit nearby Saugatuck, Douglas, Fennville and Holland, learn about the history of the Great Lakes at the Michigan Maritime Museum, or swim in Lake Michigan.
Take in a sunset from the end of the pier in South Haven.