With beaches that could be mistaken for those in some Beach Boys songs and world-class golf along its coast, Michigan could be the summer destination you never knew you were missing—and that’s just fine with many of the locals, who like their beaches and their courses open for play. For a short time I did my best to get in their way, and instead found that I was welcomed and wowed at every turn. A quick few days in Michigan having fun, fun, fun…
Mention the State of Michigan and you might conjure pictures of cars, industrial landscapes and large factories. But for those who have spent warm days along the shores of Lake Michigan on the state’s west coast, the pictures will be quite different: Mediterranean, perhaps. Or Adriatic. Or if someone has been there on a particularly sunny day, maybe even Caribbean. Blindfold a man and drop him on the right Michigan beach and he might guess any of those. Turquoise waters gilded by white or gold sands, the sun streaming down, people playing in the waves and doing their thing as sunbathers look on. With 3,288 miles of shoreline Michigan has more than any other state except Alaska. That shore is on fresh water, and it often comes with huge expanses of soft sand.
Unsurprisingly there are beach towns to go with the beaches; some overdeveloped and packed with eager families who take up too much room; some charming and out-of-the-way-feeling with haphazard beach streets warmed in blown sand and the odd beach dog paddling through shadows to keep his paws cool. In the best of these, the only reminders of where you are come in the elegant Victorian homes crowded together on quiet residential lanes behind the comparably busy downtowns. It’s Michigan after all, and if the homes seem narrowly proportioned in summer they’re likely cozy come winter, long after the last sunburnt family has been packed into the last overloaded car and left town for the season. And when the sun returns the following year it begins again: beaches, ice creams, great golf and dining and wineries and some of the most amazing cold beer you’ll ever have. You want the best of a traditional American family summer with all the red, white and blue you can handle? It’s beautiful, and it’s right here in Michigan.
Midwestern families have known about Michigan’s appeal for more than a century. Even in the northern part of West Michigan tourism was strong as early as 1875, but in 1911 state engineers gave it a boost. They built a byway called the West Michigan Pike, which ran along the lakeshore from Michigan’s southern border all the way to Mackinaw City in the north. It opened in 1922 with a rally and, designated as a state historic byway in 2016, it continues to help tourists discover the state’s wonders. It helped me, certainly, during what was my first visit to the beach communities along its route.
Truth be told I was a bit early for an area vacation, arriving the week before Memorial Day when winds off the lake can remind you that spring is a season of transition, but nevertheless, through driving and exploring I was continually amazed by the natural beauty that I saw and by the friendly people I met. Driving in from Chicago, let’s get started:
Google “Benton Harbor” and the headlines might put you off. For ages it has been a factory town full of hardworking people, and like so many of those towns it’s been through a rough patch and so it might appear a little worn at first glance. But look again and you’ll notice bright spots emerging, and none so bright, perhaps, as The Golf Club at Harbor Shores (harborshoresresort.com). The story of Harbor Shores deserves its own article, and in fact this magazine has written about it. In truth you could fill a book with the tale, which began with over 3 million square feet of dilapidated buildings and 140,000 tons of waste, and ended with a shining jewel of a golf course and a revitalized community. Designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened in 2010, the course is part of a redevelopment spurred on by Whirlpool, which has long had its headquarters here. As the company’s now-retired former VP of Sales, North America Region Sam Abdelnour told me a few years ago after he described the cleanup effort effected by the company to build a world-class course on the site of what had been an informal dumping ground, “Restaurants, microbreweries… We opened up the waterways so that the Paw Paw River is on the golf course, Lake Michigan is on the golf course. And with those waterways all opened up, even vendors are now on the edges of the golf course renting equipment for people to use on the rivers and lake. As you play these 18 holes, you might see paddle-boarders and kayaks and sailboats, people on the beaches, big ocean liners out on Lake Michigan…
“I’ve lived all over the country working for Whirlpool and I’ve never seen the communities like we have here— along with Whirlpool Corporation and other big companies around the area—come together so often and so well for the general benefit of the greater community. Not just during the Senior PGA Championship, but in dozens of other events and activities that take place during the year, they come from their parts of the country and are astounded by the support and the positive impact on the community. Part of it is Harbor Shores, part of it is the tournament, it’s the people in the community, and it’s just amazing.”
Harbor Shores has hosted the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship every other year since 2012 and it’s scheduled to go on hosting it through 2024. With the excellent Inn at Harbor Shores just down the street serving up sophisticated cuisine and modern, cleanly designed rooms, this is a fantastic venue, an amazing story, and my first stop. A quick breakfast at The Mason Jar Cafe (masonjar.cafe), with its farm-fresh organic ingredients, crazy-good bacon and great lavender lemonade, and I was off.
Outside Benton Harbor is Point O’ Woods Golf & Country Club (pointowoods.com), host to the Western Amateur since 1976 and a design that Robert Trent Jones Sr. called “Probably my best American course.” Just about an hour north of that is Ravines Golf Club in Saugatuck. This beautiful Arnold Palmer design is a real gem, with a full driving range and short game practice area as well. Another couple of hours up Hwy 31 is Arcadia Bluffs, which has a lodge with bedrooms to match the terrific golf course, before you come to the town of Frankfort, which turned out to be one of my favorite places in the state.
It’s small, or at least it feels small. I stayed at the definitively named Hotel Frankfort, a B&B type of accommodation that was exactly what you want in a town like this. My room was incredibly well apportioned and even included a sauna in addition to its comfortable bed and view overlooking Main St.
Walking distance to everything in town, including the beach, and staffed by friendly, helpful people, I highly recommend it. In town there are mineral springs (try the water if you must, but it’s fairly intense), the nearby Point Betsie Lighthouse is one of West Michigan’s better known, and the beach here is wide and beautiful, exactly right for long, contemplative walks or summer fun and games, depending on your mood. There are fishing charters, trails for hiking, and excursions to Sleeping Bear Dunes (more on that later) but the beach was enough for me—until I was hungry. Thankfully, just a few doors down from the Hotel Frankfort there’s the Stormcloud Brewing Company (stormcloudbrewing.com). One of the state’s bajillion craft breweries (various lists have Michigan as third or fifth in the nation for number of breweries), Stormcloud was a pleasant find. The brewery proper began in what is now the pub, where I ate, but expanded in 2018 to a 13,000 square-foot facility on the east side of town. The team there can put out 4,500 barrels of beer each year in a facility that utilizes solar power and other systems to run as efficiently as possible.
Their Whiled Away IPA was a particular favorite, but Belgian-style beers are their specialty, and their Birdwalker Blonde was great as well. They have no ambitions beyond Michigan, which is a shame for the rest of the country, but if you ever get to town definitely give them a try, either with a tasting at the brewery or at the pub, which also serves great food. And that goes for in winter as well, when part of the outdoor grass area is converted into a curling rink. It sounds like so much fun I’m half tempted to make the journey again when the ice starts falling… Well, maybe slightly less than half tempted.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
A bit of a winding drive north from Frankfort brings you to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (sleepingbeardunes.com), which was named the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by Good Morning America.
Words fail nature even in its smallest display. When it is overwhelming, words fail miserably.
Crowded with people I’m not sure if the effect is the same, but unpopulated in the cool of spring, the dramatic sand walls of Sleeping Bear Dunes, which stretch 450 feet above Lake Michigan, look almost impossible from a distance, the whiteness of them causing the water at their base to look almost candy blue-green in the sun. I would have spent some hours here but the road called and Traverse City was far enough away.
There’s an old fishing village at Leland that’s supposed to be nice, and plenty to see between the Dunes and Traverse City if you poke around, but I had an appointment at Bonobo Winery and so I kept driving, just over an hour east of Frankfort. Bonobo Winery is just one of many grape-fueled operations in this part of Michigan. It used to be cherries up here, and it still is in many places with mom-n-pop cherry stands and multi-location Cherry Republic stores chock full of cherry soda, cherry salsa, cherry almond butter, cherry pepper jelly, cherry horseradish sauce and, one imagines, actual cherries as well; but over the last ten years vineyard area has doubled here, and Michigan is now the fourth-largest grape-growing state.
Most of that is in the north on the 45th parallel, that fantastic band that passes through some of the greatest wine regions on earth, including Italy’s Piedmont, Bordeaux in France, and the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Miles away from those but close in spirit, Michigan’s wineries are turning out some lovely pours, and among them the wines at Bonobo Winery are some of the best (bonobowinery.com).
The winery itself is beautiful, as one would expect in a place owned by carpenters, which Bonobo is. It was founded by brothers and local natives Todd and Carter Oosterhouse, with the latter perhaps known to DIY fans as the host of TLC’s Trading Spaces and of several HGTV shows. Todd is also a builder and understandably takes pride in the tasting room, which truly is a work of art, nicely proportioned and elegantly designed. It was hosting an event the day I visited, but Todd took the time to give me a tour and to walk me through why they do what they do. Beyond the obvious, that making wine is fun, Todd said the brothers genuinely wanted to invest in their community, create jobs, create beautiful unpretentious wines and create joy, and I’d say they’re doing a good job of that. As it happens a friend of mine visited Bonobo on his birthday and said it was a fantastic experience, and I’m not surprised. What I will admit surprised me, however, was the quality of the wines. Having tasted wines as far afield as Greece, Alaska, the Republic of Georgia and other places not named Bordeaux, I was skeptical; but Bonobo’s wines were lovely, with their rosé a particular favorite; dry, balanced, beautiful—and thankfully not bursting with cherries. Not even close.
From Traverse City there’s The Bear at Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, which hosted this year’s Michigan Open Championship (grandtraverseresort.com) and which has a great fly fishing school as well. But I was headed for Petoskey to find a famed Petoskey stone and to consider Bay Harbor Golf Club nearby (bayharborgolf.com). The club is lovely but I arrived too late in the day to swing by. It describes itself as “the Pebble Beach of the Midwest” and that kind of claim will make anyone curious. It’s certainly well regarded, with its Arthur Hills designs.
I’d really wanted to see Charlevoix and its Belvedere Golf Club as well (belvederegolfclub.com), a 1925 track that’s hosted the Michigan Amateur 40 times! The architect was William Watson of Olympia Fields and Olympic Club fame. Moreover I wanted to try out my Michigan pronunciations, which were improving every day. I’d been corrected on “Charlevoix” when I told someone I wanted to stop by “Sharl-VWA” and, with her head shaking, she told me that it was “Shar-luh-voy.” Detroit is not “Day-twa,” right? What was I thinking. Charlevoix and Petoskey each are known for stones, and specifically for a kind of fossilized coral that features beautiful geometric designs. Petoskey’s are more hexagonal, and if you spend long enough looking, they can be found. I had some luck at Magnus Park on a foggy morning, stepping over the stony shore and looking in the water (they’re easier to spot when they’re wet). Satisfied, I returned to my room at Stafford’s Perry Hotel (staffords.com), which was built in 1899 and which retains its period grandeur alongside modern amenities.
My original plan had me going to Mackinaw City and taking the ferry to the car-free Mackinac Island (both are pronounced “Mak-ih-gnaw” for some reason) to see the incredible Grand Hotel (grandhotel.com) with its “longest porch in the world” and to perhaps shake loose memories of having seen the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour romance Somewhere in Time on TV in my childhood (it was filmed there). I also wanted to see the hotel’s Jewel Course, which looks charming, but it wasn’t to be. Stretched for time I pointed my car south and returned to Chicago and then home to the beaches of Southern California, not quite as far away from Michigan as I thought.