By Brian Jewell
Like jewels set in a natural crown, the cities and towns along the shores of the Great Lakes give Michigan its splendor.
Lakes Michigan, Erie and Huron border three sides of Michigan, giving this state an abundance of freshwater coastline. Visitors will find plenty of beaches and bays, along with wilderness areas and other waterfront habitats that make for great ecotourism adventures. Outdoor activities dovetail with the region’s history and international cultural heritage to create a destination that appeals to a wide variety of travel tastes.
On the western side of the state, Holland combines a historic waterfront with a distinctive Dutch flavor. Both beachgoers and wine-lovers enjoy Traverse City, a popular vacation destination in the northern part of the state. Mackinac Island is a historic gem situated between the state’s mainland and the Upper Peninsula, and the Saginaw Bay region offers both ecological and cultural tourism.
Next time your travel group ventures to Michigan, plan to visit some of these great lake locations.
Windmills and Sand Dunes
Technically, the city of Holland doesn’t sit on the shore of Lake Michigan; it is located on the shores of Lake Macatawa, an inland lake that connects to the Great Lake by a seven-mile-long channel. The channel’s existence has a lot to do with the area’s original Dutch settlers.
“The Dutch were such a seafaring, water-loving people, so our history is very much tied to the water,” said Sally Laukitis, executive director of the Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “When Holland was settled in 1847, the channel to Lake Michigan did not exist. The state government turned down a petition to dig the channel, so people of Holland picked up their pick axes and shovels to dig the channel themselves.”
Today, visitors can enjoy a variety of experiences on that channel and the two lakes it connects, among them kayaking and paddle-boarding expeditions and daylong sightseeing cruises. Groups have special access to tour the Big Red Lighthouse, a Dutch-style working lighthouse not normally open to the public.
The city’s Windmill Island Gardens also sits at the intersection of Dutch heritage and maritime culture.
“To get to the island gardens, you have to cross a replica of an old drawbridge from the Netherlands,” Laukitis said. “The windmill is 250 years old, with a working grain-grinding mill, and the gardens are amazing. They have a wetland area at the end of the lake.”
The Holland area also has a number of large sand dunes. Groups can take a ride in a “dune schooner,” a 16-passenger vehicle driven by expert guides who give a historical and natural overview of those interesting natural formations. More adventurous travelers can climb a dune themselves at Mount Pisgah.
“It’s a really nice 2-year-old wooden staircase that goes 157 feet up the side of a dune,” Laukitis said. “From there you have beautiful views of Lake Michigan, Lake Macatawa and Big Red. On a clear day, you can see 15 miles out into Lake Michigan.”
Beaches and Wine
The coastline defines Traverse City, a town that has become one of the most popular summer vacation destinations in the upper Midwest. The area has 60 miles of beaches, as well as Grand Traverse Bay, a sheltered environment where calm waters make the perfect setting for kayaking, swimming, sailing and other aquatic activities.
Traverse City has also made a name for itself with wine enthusiasts, who come to visit the region’s 40 wineries (30 of them have tasting rooms).
“We have a unique microclimate that makes our weather mild in the fall and early winter; that’s why we grow so many wine grapes, cherries, peaches and apricots up here,” said Mike Norton, media relations director for the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People come to taste the wines and tour the vineyards and orchards. Many of the wineries are really good places for groups, particularly in spring and fall, when you can escape the crush of summer visitors and enjoy yourself.”
The natural bounty of the area is complemented by the variety of things to do on the lake itself. Several outfitters in the area offer kayak rentals and guided tours that teach novices to navigate kayaks on the calm waters of the bay. A number of tall ships, such as the Schooner Maintou, afford an opportunity for a distinctive experience.
“During the summer months, they do three trips across the bay, lasting two hours each,” Norton said. “It carries as many as 60 people on deck. You get the chance to steer the ship and help raise the sails if you want to. But it can also be a very relaxing way to see the bay and enjoy that sense that the years have melted away.
Although there is enough tourism variety to keep an itinerary packed for several days, Norton also encourages group planners to arrange for some free time at the beach and other waterfront locations.
“There’s a zen to being at the water’s edge,” he said. “I can’t think of anything that would be better in the middle of a tour than to take some time to relax and remember the important stuff in life.”