A destination that's so close — and so enticing
By Leslie Sweet Myrick
Southwest Michigan, with its 60 beautiful miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, offers an accessible and relaxing vacation, even with young children.
The area's white sand beaches are clean, not too crowded and surrounded by charming towns starting with New Buffalo (3-hour drive from Champaign) to South Haven (4-hour drive). The water, admittedly, is a bit chilly, but we quickly got used to it, and the kids, of course, had no issue with it.
Besides beautiful beaches, the area offers a multitude of other activities for all ages, and visitors can truly do as little or as much as they desire.
We stayed in Union Pier, a quiet town that worked well for us for several reasons. By renting a house just two blocks from the beach, we could manage two beach outings in a day. It is commonplace to leave your beach umbrella, chairs, etc., to go grab lunch and then return later for an afternoon session.
Union Pier has a handful of restaurants and several grocery stores, which, combined, provided nearly everything we needed. We noticed that nothing is too expensive here: Groceries, souvenirs, batteries, etc. — all the things we usually pay a fortune for on vacation — were all reasonably priced.
From our house, we walked to Red Arrow Roadhouse, a lively restaurant with great walleye. We also enjoyed walking to lunch at nearby Nani's Beach Cafe, which has great hot dogs (Chicago style and other) and shrimp rolls.
Although somewhat sleepy itself, Union Pier has great proximity to busier towns. To the south about five minutes, as previously mentioned, is New Buffalo, a famous beach town. In New Buffalo, we enjoyed several restaurants, including Casey's, The Stray Dog and Redamaks. All restaurants in the area were noticeably accommodating to families with young children.
Immediately to the north of Union Pier is Warren Dunes State Park, which offers a nice beach as well as a sand dune that beckons you to climb to its top. After the challenging climb up, descending the sand dune is truly euphoric.
Farther north about 30 minutes is St. Joseph, which boasts yet another great beach — Silver Beach — as well as several kids' activities including a splash zone, a carousel and a museum.
A week in southwest Michigan could easily be filled with the aforementioned family-friendly activities; however, if a baby-sitter or handy grandparents are along, the area offers several adult-only activities as well. For example, we visited the casino nearby, Four Winds, and ate at its Hard Rock Cafe, which offered live music on a weeknight.
(Actually this casino even offers a child watch center, but we didn't use it.)
Additionally, my husband and parents enjoyed a fishing charter out of St. Joseph, My Mistress Charters (stjosephcharters.com). They caught nearly 20 pounds of salmon even before they had to dock early because of rough water.
Just a sampling of the activities we didn't make time for (this time) include wineries, blueberry picking and antiquing. The websites http://www.swmichigan.org and harborcounty.org detail the many opportunities available within this area.
We achieved a true beach vacation within a short drive. On the way, the kids enjoyed a movie, a lunch (Interstate 57's Prairie View Rest Area is a great halfway location to stop with a picnic), a short nap and we were already there.
Vacationers generally start booking in the fall for the next summer. We used homeaway.com (ours was Rental No. 326835, which even allowed pets). I also noticed yellowbirdvacations.com signs outside several houses that looked inviting.
I always enjoy collecting retro-style artwork for my souvenirs; my most recent purchase advertises, "So close, so enticing"; I have to agree it adequately sums up beautiful southwest Michigan.
Leslie Sweet Myrick works part-time for the College of ACES at the University of Illinois. She lives in Champaign with her husband and children.