Summers are made for chill sunny days with toes dug deep in the sand, warm nights licking ice cream cones and racking up family memories. You can do that in Chicago any day (yay!). But for a change-of-scenery experience, hit Michigan’s vacation towns. Just around the bend of Lake Michigan in Harbor Country and further north, these beach communities have tons of secrets to discover. Read on to see which spots to explore now.
Union Pier/New Buffalo (1½ hours away)
This is the first beach stop in western Michigan, just over the Indiana border. Union Pier makes up a few little towns in the area, the most notable being New Buffalo.
What to do: If you head there in July, blueberry picking is a must and the best place to do that is at Mike's Blueberries (11160 Farina Rd.) in New Buffalo. For little climbers, head to the Warren Dunes State Park before it gets too hot to conquer the massive dunes. Of course a trip to any beach town wouldn't be complete without play time in the sand, so head to Town Line or Berrien Street beach for fun in the sun.
Where to eat: You'll find no shortage of ice cream shops in any of these towns but a particular favorite is Oink's. For meals head to The Stray Dog, a cute bar and grill with dog photos aplenty and an enclosed patio overlooking the harbor. A full kids' menu and a private family bathroom make this easy to enjoy with little ones. The food happens to be very good, too. Redamak's is a can't-miss because of its famous burgers and kid-friendly atmosphere (aka: you can make all the noise you want without getting the stink eye).
Where to stay: Elephant Walk Resort is perfect for families or groups who want to spread out a bit, and is only a short walk to the beach. As a bonus, it's dog-friendly. If you want somebody else to make the bed at night, The Harbor Grand is a hotel with an indoor pool and waterfront terrace restaurant.
St. Joseph (2 hours away)
This classic vacation spot combines a nostalgic feel and cool modern updates, including a ginormous beachside sprayground and indoor carousel.
What to do: Silver Beach and Silver Beach Center are where your kiddos can play all day. The beach itself has beautiful views of Lake Michigan and plenty of sand for building castles. There are also a few playgrounds right on site for both the wee ones (age 2-5) and the older ones. The Silver Beach Center is a kiddie haven with a hand-painted giant carousel; Michigan's tallest kaleidoscope; and the Curious Kids' Museum, which is colorful and engaging enough to give Chicago museums a run for their money. For a different, tasty type of adventure, go a bit farther afield to Coloma and pick ripe cherries and peaches at Fruit Acres Farm Market.
Where to eat: Check out Silver Beach Pizza, located in an old Amtrak depot at the beach, for great pizza and plenty of fun for the littles. If you want to shake the sand from your toes and go somewhere a little more fancy, Schu's is a family-friendly restaurant with lake views and a kids' menu.
Where to stay: The Holiday Inn Express has special kid suites complete with bunk beds and a selection of video games.
South Haven (just over 2 hours away)
Known for its 100-year-old lighthouse, South Haven is more than just a picture of maritime. It's where families come to relax and get away—with plenty of fun and good food on the side.
What to do: The beaches are where the action is at in South Haven. With seven public beaches and access sites, you could have an entire week of sun-ing and fun-ing. More active families will want to hit The Kal-Haven trail, a picturesque 34-mile trail that runs from Kalamazoo to South Haven. The little ones can point out birds, cool historical sites and small villages. And put the fun in your evening at Fideland Fun Park with go karts, bumper boats, mini golf, kiddie rides, disc golf and an arcade.
Where to eat: Clementine's is a family-friendly hangout that looks like an old saloon with tin ceilings and heavy wood trim. The onion rings are a table pleaser and served sky-high on a wooden peg. It takes walk-ins only, so come early. A full kid's menu will appease the smaller set. Of course a trip to South Haven is not complete without visiting the famous Sherman Dairy Bar, the ice cream you’ll find at most shops throughout Western Michigan — it’s that good.
Where to stay: There are plenty of B&Bs in South Haven, but with kids your best is checking on VRBO or Homeaway.com for a cute house, cabin or cottage. They come at a variety of price points.
Saugatuck (2½ hours away)
This über artsy town offers plenty to do and has one of the last standing old-school, crank em’ up chain ferries that will quickly become a favorite mode of transportation for the little ones.
What to do: Oval Beach is so beautiful it often tops best beach lists, but not too pristine that your kids can’t run, build and play along the lakefront. The Harbor Ducks tour will excite the whole family as an amphibious bus takes you through both water and land highlights of Saugatuck and neighboring Douglas. Finally, go bumpity-bump along the dunes in an open-air truck for thrills with a view at Saugatuck’s famous dune rides.
Where to eat: Worth the short drive to Fennville, The Salt of the Earth has incredible fresh-from-the-oven bread, entrees made from local ingredients and a kids’ menu. In town, check out Saugatuck Brewing Company for a fun, lively experience with a menu with everything from burgers to pizzas — appeasing the pickiest eaters.
Where to stay: Renting a house or cabin is the way to go, especially for families. Click here for a list of some of the popular rental companies.
Holland (3 hours away)
Wooden clogs and tulips will draw you to the historically Dutch town. But you'll stay for the lakeside dining and petting zoo.
What to do: Stroll through Nelis' Dutch Village and see the giant windmill or pick up a pair of traditional wooden shoes. There is even a giant clog slide! Don't leave without trying traditional Dutch food, like Mettwurst (pork sausage) and Saucijzebroodjes (pigs in a blanket). Head to the nearby town of Zeeland to explore the Critter Barn a petting zoo with tons of animals to mingle with; or chill out at Holland State Park, one of Michigan's most visited state parks and famous for its huge beach on Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa.
Where to eat: Check out the Alpen Rose restaurant where you can dine outside on tastes from around the world. Boatwerks Waterfront Restaurant is another great indoor/outdoor option with American cuisine and a full kid's menu.
Where to stay: Lake Ranch Resort is the only spot where you can stay on the water. It’s a 10-minute drive from downtown and rooms range from 2 person up to 10. You can also check out the Holiday Inn and Conference Center that has cots and cribs, a game room, and babysitting services available... not to mention a Michigan-shaped heated pool.
Ludington (4 hours away)
It’s worth going the distance for this Michigan beach town that has two lighthouses, pristine beaches, a port for salmon fishing and a ton of events.
What to do: Sure a four-hour cruise with kids may not seem like a great idea but when the cruise is aboard the SS Badger Carferry there's no chance boredom will pay a visit. (You can actually take your car across if you want to drive to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and take the ferry across — for a total of 2.5 hours.) The ship is filled with a video arcade, a kids’ room with tons of activities, a place to nap and plenty of food. If you prefer to stay grounded, head to the Sandcastles Children’s Museum with interactive exhibits, including a real four-passenger plane and a climbing wall. Be sure to take a trip back in time while there at the historic White Pine Village, an old-times community with historic buildings and attractions, complete with locally made ice cream.
What to eat: House of Flavors is a must-stop where over 400,000 gallons of ice cream is made each week. You can order a proper meal if you'd like, but this would be a place to allow dessert for dinner because it has a dozen different sundaes and countless ice cream flavors.
Where to stay: For familiar chain appeal, the local Best Western has a game room, indoor pool and playground. Free breakfast, too!
— Maria Chambers & Samantha Lande