Michigan has a whole lot of coast, and it deserves to be experienced.
People travel from Chicago just to visit our beaches and lake towns, and those of us who live inland consider it a small vacation to visit one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.
Yet, there’s far more to the coast than sand and waves. There’s ancient history, great food, drinks, tradition, culture and more well worth visiting, whether you’re visiting from afar or taking a day trip.
So let’s drive up the coast — from the wrist to the palm to the pinkie —stopping at West Michigan’s hidden gems along the way.
We start with the front door to Michigan, coming up I-94 from Indiana. This region is known for a robust wine trail, but if we’re sticking to the coast, let’s make a stop in St. Joseph.
It’s hard to beat free, and Krasl Art Center charges nothing to visit and experience a permanent collection of 41 sculptures and cool exhibits. This summer, the main show is BLOW UP II: Inflatable Contemporary Art — just uh, leave your sharp objects at home.
If you’re ready for more free art, let’s head to Box Factory for the Arts while we’re at it. This old factory is now a multi-use arts facility, currently featuring the Michiana Annual Art Competition. That’s 90 artists from Michigan and Indiana representing just about every medium under the sun.
Let’s head a few miles inland for Fennville, a small city home to a few of the best spots in Michigan. For instance, Salt of the Earth is a top-tier restaurant combining fresh-made bread, seasonal ingredients and killer cocktails. Virtue Cider has not just delicious, complex hard cider, but a stunning farm for drinking, petting animals, walking trails and playing yard games.
Every single fall, I make a trip to Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant & Winery for cider, snacks, apples, music and more. But mainly, I visit to see Betty, the stuffed dog from 1937. Then, you can head to Fenn Valley Vineyards for one of the largest and most beloved wineries around.
Saugatuck is the pinnacle of hip lake town. Diverse, welcoming, cool and cute — it’s a destination. The main attraction is Oval Beach, but when you get hungry, check out Borrowed Time, a wine bar and restaurant specializing in small plates. And if you have the time to wait for a table, try The Southerner, an amazing waterfront eatery that’s super popular.
For your art fix, Saugatuck Center for the Arts is a renowned art museum, market and theater. They bring in big names and innovative art.
Before you leave, you need to experience the Saugatuck Dune Rides, a drive through the gorgeous hills of sand and lakeside flora. It’s deceptively thrilling! On your way out, stop at Guardian Brewing, a woman-owned brewery with a massive menu of beer, alongside food, cider, wine and cocktails.
Our journey north will take us through Holland, a city full of West Michigan’s Dutch heritage. Start with the Windmill Island Gardens, featuring a working 250-year-old windmill, towering 125 feet over acres of gardens, dikes and canals. There’s also an antique street organ, antique carousel, and a 14th-century inn replica.
To fill out the experience, head to DeBoer Bakery, a restaurant with all your Dutch favorites: croquettes, saucijzenbroodjes, almond coffee cake and more. Craving a different culture? The Curragh is a traditional Irish pub that sticks to its roots, offering dishes like Shepherd’s Pie year-round. Slainte!
Let’s be honest: You don’t need our help here. Grand Haven is the ultimate beach town, with a massive beach, great restaurants, breweries and more. Just find parking somewhere (good luck) and starting walking around!
A few personal favorites: Odd Side Ales, Mancino’s Pizza & Grinders, and Grand Armory Brewing Co.
For somewhere more intimate, I head north to Muskegon. P.J. Hoffmaster State Park is a gorgeous, lightly frequented beach with skyscraping dunes and miles of trails. Muskegon also has a number of naval museums, including the USS LST 393, a landing ship used in World War II!
If you’re from out of state, pay attention: You need to try Fricano’s pizza. The perfectly crisp, paper-thin crust puts the ingredients in the spotlight, and it’s widely considered to be some of the best pizza in Michigan.
Then there’s downtown Muskegon, home to Unruly Brewing Co., which has one of the coolest taprooms around. Nearby are
Rake Beer Project, 18th Amendment Spirits Co. and RAD DADS’ Tacos & Tequila. While you’re there, swing by Rair for the only aeroponic cannabis around.
Heading out of town, Michigan’s Adventure is a must for visitors. With seven rollercoasters, 16 water slides and a wave pool, it’s the best amusement park and water park in the state.
There’s plenty to do on the way to Ludington, such as traversing the dunes of Silver Lake, but we’re headed to Ludington State Park for a day of nature. This is one of our favorite places to camp. Hike incredible trails along lakes, through forests and out to the beach where historic lighthouses stand. Or kayak on Hamlin Lake, which is full of nooks and crannies to explore. Or bring a fishing rod for the Big Sable River!
MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
Before “craft” was a thing, the term was “microbrews.” When you visit Starving Artist Brewing, stationed in a barn in brewer Andy Thomas’ own backyard, you can see why they called it “micro.” This tiny brewery produces big flavor, and even if the tasting room isn’t open, you should stop by to grab a pack and experience Thomas’ sparkling personality.
Starving Artist is just east of Ludington, but we’re heading deep into the woods with our next stop: Iron Fish Distillery, the state’s first farm-based distillery. The spirits here are bold and innovative, such as bourbon aged in mezcal barrels and the Michigan Woodland Gin. Their cocktails use the spirits to great effect, and there’s plenty to do outside at this wide-open tasting room and farm.
If you’re going to take the scenic drive on M-22, you should start with the small town of Frankfort. Stormcloud Brewing is the crowdpleaser here, with delicious food and Belgian-style beers. Fuel up before heading to Platte River for a nice, pleasant float in a tube or kayak. Then get dinner at Rock’s Landing, a seasonal restaurant right on the water with high-end meals and fantastic cocktails.
From here, all that’s left is to follow the coast. M-22 will take you to Sleeping Bear Dunes, a national park with incredible views of crystal-clear water and truly gargantuan dunes. Keep going and you’ll hit Leelanau Peninsula and Traverse City, destinations in and of themselves. If you’re looking for hidden gems, we suggest Ethanology, a hyper-local distillery that creates magical cocktails you won’t see anywhere else. Forbes recently featured this place for a reason!
If you’re still looking for an adventure, visit the Traverse City State Hospital, a former psychiatric hospital that actually treated its patients pretty well! The ancient building is both beautiful and a bit spooky.
Cap your trip off with a visit to Bellaire, home of Short’s Brewing Co., Bee Well Mead & Cider, Mammoth Distilling and plenty of water for boating. This small town has a lot of energy — you just might feel inspired to keep going north, driving across the bridge and never looking back.
Ethanology. Courtesy Photo