By STEVE HALL
Mid-October might not be everyone's choice for a trip to the lakeshore, but for us, it was ideal. Montague, Mich., is only five hours north of Champaign in an area known as West Michigan, not Western Michigan. The timing was slightly past fall peak, but colors were still abundant. The crowds were not. For three midweek days, we had the area largely to ourselves.
Our base was the Weathervane Inn in Montague. The inn overlooked beautiful White Lake, an inlet from Lake Michigan, home to migratory egrets, herons and even wild swans. Our daughter found a great discount coupon to make already affordable accommodations a sweet deal.
After exploring the town, we headed to dinner at the Old Channel Inn, just north of where White Lake empties into Lake Michigan. (Note: Don't trust your GPS when trying to find this place.) The restaurant is known for its perch and walleye; both were great. After dinner, we walked behind the restaurant along the beach to watch the sunset over Lake Michigan. Given that the wind was rising and the temperature falling, we headed back inside to warm up to Old Channel Inn Coffee, a concoction that has a lot more than coffee in it.
The next morning, we rented bicycles from the hotel to head up the Hart-Montague Trail State Park, a 22-mile trail with southern terminus in Montague. As a converted railway bed, the trail features gentle grades and curves with few road crossings.
Though the weather was a bit brisk, we enjoyed the fall colors along the trail and even fall scents as we rode by a local butternut squash canning company. The harvest of squash was in full swing in the area, and we didn't have a single meal without it.
Just north of the town of New Era, the trail passes by the Country Dairy. This working farm and restaurant provides an ideal break point for a snack.
We enjoyed burgers with the farm's own cheddar cheese, but the uniqueness of the venue lies in the bottomless cup of milk that comes with every meal (including chocolate!).
We decided to use the car for the afternoon as the winds were continuing to strengthen. We enjoyed driving along country roads in West Michigan with its rolling farmlands and lake vistas. Our first stop was Little Sable Point Lighthouse near Silver Lake State Park. As we wandered along the beach, staring up at the lighthouse, I realized just how deserted the whole place was.
We continued through a nearly deserted commercial area around Silver Lake. The famous sand dunes of Silver Lake were open but also totally empty. In the summer, these dunes would be filled with suntan-oiled throngs and the whine of ATVs rolling over the dunes; the landscape was now wild and empty. The strong wind sent waves of sand dancing across this vast expanse. All traces of previous visitors had been erased. The only sound was the roar of the wind along with our awe-filled laughter. Exhausted and cold after our solo jaunt around the dunes, we continued to the quaint town of Pentwater, where we found people, as well as many shopping and dining choices.
Tuesday morning we began a slow, scenic descent along the Lake, enjoying White River Light Station and Muskegon State Park. The winds were near-gale force, so the waves were dramatic and fierce. We encountered sand drifts along the lakeshore roads not unlike snow-encroached roads in Illinois.
We lunched at the German AlpenRose Restaurant in downtown Holland; I highly recommend the Jager Schnitzel.
Our last stop was Fenn Valley Vineyards near Fennville. It had a wine for every palate, and we found a few that, just like the rest of West Michigan, fit ours just fine.
Steve Hall and his wife Shari have lived in Champaign for 15 years, raising three daughters and several pets. Steve is an executive at Horizon Hobby, and his hobbies include road trips, hiking and landscape photography.