Thursday, July 2, 2015
Southwest Michigan shore seems like a world away
Section: Local Section
Source: Beth Behrendt
Illustration: Photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild Saugatuck/Douglas Visitors Bureau
We climbed the huge dune – quiet from the exertion – with the only sounds being the wind rustling the dune grasses and creaking the branches of scrub trees bent crooked and low by the storms that can blow in off a vast body of water.
This evening, however, was warm and calm and the sky clear. Seagulls swooped and cawed overhead as we crested the dune and gasped in awe at the sight of the sun setting over deep blue water that stretched to the horizon. The wide, white-sand beach along the water extended as far to the north and south as we could see.
A getaway to the Oregon coast or Costa Rica? Nope! My friend and I had driven a mere 2 hours and 45 minutes from Fort Wayne to explore the Lake Michigan coastal towns of Saugatuck and Douglas in southwest Michigan.
Over 100 years ago, the timber industry lit on the area to feed construction booms across the lake in Chicago and Milwaukee. Towns quickly grew up for the lumbermen and their families. Farmers next moved in to turn the cleared land into fruit farms and orchard groves.
Resorts and entertainment venues arrived and lured Chicago urbanites there to summer.
In 1910, the Art Institute of Chicago began offering painting classes and established the Ox-Bow School of Art. The teachers set up residences and the area quickly became known as an artists’ retreat. Ox-Bow is still going strong with classes, an artists’ residency program and events for the public.
It’s no wonder, then, that Saugatuck-Douglas bills itself “The Art Coast of Michigan.” The community’s support of art is reflected in the numerous galleries that line the streets of Saugatuck and other nearby towns, and dot the surrounding countryside.
The Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which is housed in a former pie factory, offers concerts, plays, and other performances and events.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Saugatuck-Douglas one of the nation’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” for “offering cultural and recreational experiences different from the typical vacation.” And just this year USA Today named Saugatuck No. 1 on its list of “The Best Coastal Small Town in America.”
Recreational options abound, from relaxing to adventurous:
Shop the boutiques – fashion, homewares and antiques. Enjoy restaurants and ice cream shops that fill in the spaces between galleries and boutiques.
Of course, there are water sports. Saugatuck and Douglas are nestled on either side of the Kalamazoo River where it forms the small Lake Kalamazoo before flowing into Lake Michigan.
The river and lake can be toured on the Star of Saugatuck II, a 150-passenger stern-wheeler. Or you can catch a ride across the lake on the last hand-cranked chain ferry in North America.
The Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society Museum, a tour of the S.S. Keewatin (the last luxury liner to cruise the Great Lakes) and the ghost town of Singapore will entertain history buffs.
The scenic beauty of the area makes a compelling call to get outside and explore. Bring your own or rent bikes, kayaks and canoes. Hiking, running and biking paths crisscross the area. It’s a rite of passage to climb all 282 steps to the top of Mount Baldhead, the 600-foot dune.
Oval Beach is wonderful for walking or jogging, lounging with a good book, or building sand castles and playing in the waves.
Tracy Bellavance, a physician with Women’s Health Advantage in Fort Wayne, has been bringing her three children and extended family to the area for almost 15 years.
“We always enjoy going to the beach and hanging out there,” Bellavance said. “We bike-ride everywhere.
Even in winter, the area has a lot to offer, Bellavance said.
“In February, we had a great time snowshoeing and cross-country skiing – rented equipment in Saugatuck and then had our choice of many area parks and trails to use,” she said.
Dining options are numerous, from upscale to casual. The “farm-to-fork” trend is strong in the area, with great farmers markets, local foods, beers and wines to support it. On our visit, we enjoyed dinner at the Salt of the Earth in nearby Fennville, which partners with local farmers and growers to get the freshest produce, dairy and meats.
For casual dining, there are coffee shops, brewpubs and the famous 80-year-old Charlie’s Around the Corner for ice cream.
Vineyards, wineries and breweries also abound and offer tours and tastings.
At southwest Michigan beach towns, there’s a feel a “big city” getaway with art and restaurants plus the fun of beach recreation.
It’s a different world. And less than three hours away!
Plan a getaway
For a calendar of summer 2015 events and a complete list of lodging, dining, wineries, shopping and more, check these resources:
* Saugatuck/Douglas Visitors Bureau, http://saugatuck.com/index.asp
* South Haven/Van Buren County Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.southhaven.org
* Michigan Beachtowns, www.beachtowns.org