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The sound of Jimmy Buffett singing the Parrot Heads' `national anthem' is coming from the speakers on the outdoor deck of Mission West restaurant on the beach.

At one table, a twentyish woman sits with a group of friends, quietly strumming a guitar.At other tables, couples and small groups, some decked out in biker leathers, tend to their beers and burgers, and chat.

Though the sun is still a few hours from disappearing into the blue waters to the west, only a few barefoot, bikinied and bronzed players romp amid the volleyball nets that sprout from the fine-sand beach next to the deck.

A light breeze off the water keeps the 80-plus-degree day very manageable.

Life is good.

This could be Key West.

Or Barbados.

Or Baja California.

Or . . . Michigan.

Michigan?

Michigan. Or Michigan's west coast, to be more exact.

And it's not far. Just head south out of town, take a left at the end of the lake, another left at the other side of the lake and you're there.

You can't miss it.

For more than a century, Chicagoans have been swarming to western Michigan's beach towns like flies to a fish-cleaning shanty. But, unlike the flies, they're welcomed by towns whose economies at one time may have relied more on fishing and logging than bed-and-breakfasts and boutiques.

On a four-day trip up the coast from New Buffalo to Muskegon near the end of June, my wife, Bonnie, and I found that, even on hot days, those dunes-enveloped beaches with that toasty warm, powder-fine sand never seemed crowded. And, there's no need to jockey for position when browsing the boutiques, galleries and antique stores of the area (well, except maybe in Saugatuck).

Now about those beaches: Expect to pay for parking (five bucks seems to be a popular figure) to get to most of the town beaches, unless you want to park farther away and hoof it. A notable exception is Muskegon's lovely beach with the lovely name, Pere Marquette, where the Mission West restaurant sits. There's no charge to park here, and the drive to the beach might make you think you're on a barrier island as you look at the houses and cottages along the road whose front yards are completely drifted over with that fine sand.

From New Buffalo to Muskegon there also are eight state parks that allow beach access.

At Warren Dunes State Park, between Union Pier and St. Joseph, we watched families with more energy than us slog through deep sand trying to gain the top of the 240-foot-high dune that backs the beach. The dunes that form on this side of the lake are compliments, primarily, of the wave action and prevailing west winds that drive the powdery sand onto the shoreline and inland. The road and parking lots that separate the beach from the dunes are constantly under attack by Mom Nature as evidenced by the sand drifts that appear and disappear with the whims of the wind.

But, you don't have to be a beach bum to appreciate these state parks. They also offer up a variety of trails for hikers. At 9:30 on a Sunday morning I had a trail in Saugatuck Dunes State Park, north of Saugatuck, all to myself. Well, that's not totally true. The female white-tailed deer that was munching on vegetation about 50 feet off the trail shared the morning with me, while maintaining a wary eye.

Maybe it's private, maybe it's not

But back to the beach. We got another lesson in beach access at the beginning of our trip, in New Buffalo and `suburban' Union Pier, where we stayed the first night at the Warren Woods Inn, a nicely done eight-room bed-and-breakfast. After dinner, we drove along Lakeshore Drive in Union Pier, a drive that suggested this is a land of haves and have nots as we passed private house after private house and signs warning "Private Beach" and "No Public Access."

When we finally did find a narrow public access not far from our inn, I was puzzled on reaching the shoreline to see "Private Beach" signs on both sides of the probably 100-foot-wide public access, though we saw a number of people walking along the "Private Beach."

The next morning at breakfast (at a civilized time, unlike many B&Bs; more on this in the If You Go box) Paulette Herkert, who owns the inn with husband Bob, explained away the puzzle. The beach--that is the area washed by the lake's waters, is public land. The accesses, which get you down to the beach, may be private.

"So, some house owners whose land abuts public accesses put up signs to try to make the uninformed think they own the beach in front of their property?" I asked. "Yes, they try. They do try," Paulette said.

Paulette also introduced us to Alice, the golden retriever puppy that's the new playmate of Ralph, the inn's resident retriever, who had recently lost his longtime companion.

Not necessarily business as usual

After breakfast we backtracked a few miles to New Buffalo to check out the shopping options in this one-stoplight town (though that's one more stoplight than in Union Pier). In the process we made another discovery about beach towns: Some shops are run more like a hobby than a business. At 10:30 on a Friday morning, roughly half of the stores on New Buffalo's main drag were still closed.

"It makes it hard for serious businesses when some of these stores don't operate on regular hours or post their hours," one store owner told us, rolling his eyes, after we asked about the closed stores.

Abandoning downtown, we started back north, but were quickly lured off the road by a large wooden figure outside Customs Imports. An aging chocolate Laband a black Shar-Pei (yes, it seems everyone has a pooch or two here) padded up to greet us as we climbed the steps to the sprawling store that immediately made me think of Pier 1 on steroids. The store was jam-packed with exotic-looking masks, wood carvings, flying dragons suspended from the ceiling, Buddha figures and . . .

"We import from Indonesia, India, Mexico, Morocco, Vietnam and China, and we're working on Azerbaijan, Turkey and Thailand," said Brad Ellis Berk, a partner in the business with Dee Dee Duhn.

Duhn started about 10 years ago with a 700-square-foot gift store in the trendy Miller section of Gary, Ind. (And, yes, Gary does have a trendy section.) Today there's the main store in New Buffalo, a warehouse store, also in New Buffalo, and now a new store on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.

Stashing our purchases--a small mask and a flying dragon-- in the back of the car, we hit the road again, the road in this case being the Red Arrow Highway. If speed's your aim, you can get from beach town to beach town quickly using Interstate Highways 94 and 196 and U.S. Highway 31. But if you want to meander--stopping at an antique store here or a winery there--you're better off sticking to the Red Arrow, which eventually becomes the Blue Star Highway, which eventually turns into the Shoreline Trail.

Actually, road designations aren't all that important when you're in meandering mode. It's pretty hard to get lost as long as you keep that big blue body of water on your left heading north. And it's never far to the next town.

Of course the lake isn't always in sight from the road, and, after a hiatus of several miles, it played hide-and-peek with us as we neared St. Joseph, a tidy little town whose downtown included an interesting variety of shops--all open--and a sidewalk hot dog cart that had a constant line of customers.

Another 30 miles or so up the road, at South Haven, we were greeted by the sight of a large sailing vessel, the Windy II, coming into the harbor bound for the Michigan Maritime Museum. The ship was in town just for the weekend, offering sailing tours out onto the lake. Likewise there are many other limited-run special events held in these beach towns during the summer, ranging from bluegrass festivals to art exhibits to community theater. So it's wise to check Web sites or call ahead to tourism offices (again, see If You Go) for packets of information.

Over the next few days, our meandering took us to more beach towns--Saugatuck/Douglas, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon; more state parks--Van Buren, Saugatuck Dunes, Holland, Grand Haven, P.J. Hoffmaster, Muskegon; and more city beaches--Oval Beach (Saugatuck), Grand Haven City Beach, Pere Marquette Beach (Muskegon).

There were highlights:

  • Saugatuck, the shop-till-you-drop paradise, with its profusion of upscale and sometimes quirky stores. (How about Nostalgia, where you can buy a Rosie the Riveter action figure?)
  • Holland's Big Red, billed as the most-photographed lighthouse in Michigan (and don't ask what color it is).
  • Mt. Baldhead, the 600-foot-high dune in Saugatuck reached by climbing roughly 280 steps (I lost count, stopping to catch my breath five times on the way up, but only once on the way down to snap a picture of a cute white-tailed fawn resting under a downed tree).
  • Grand Haven's 2 1/2-mile Boardwalk, from the vicinity of the downtown shops, along the Grand River--with its constant parade of boats--to the lake and its sandy beaches and two colorful lighthouses.
  • Muskegon County Museum's Coming to the Lakes exhibit. It's hidden in the basement, but worth searching for. This nicely done exhibit uses a variety of media to show the area's history, from mastodons and mammoths, to Native Americans, and to the lumber barons and their sawmills that decimated the seemingly endless white pine forests in just half a century. And the immigrants, from Ireland and Italy in the early days to blacks and Mexicans in more modern times.
  • The U.S.S. Silversides, a World War II submarine you can tour just off the lakefront in Muskegon. (Even if you're the world's biggest pacifist, a claustrophobic venture below deck and the thought of going 15 days without a shower can't help but impress you with the grit of those submariners.)

A few lowlights:

  • Prices, particularly for lodging and food. (Midway through out trip, Bonnie observed, quite correctly, "You know, when you go to Wisconsin, everything always seems to be so reasonably priced. Up here, it's Chicago prices.")
  • More "hobby" stores. In Grand Haven's downtown, on a Sunday, roughly a third of the stores, which obviously targeted tourists, were closed.

And some more puzzlers:

  • Ottawa County's (think Holland and Grand Haven) Sunday liquor law. Try to order a glass of wine or a beer with your meal (or in a bar) on Sunday and you'll find you can't. But you can order all the cocktails you want. Hello? Pounding down hard liquor gets you drunk, too, you know.
  • Michigan Time. To the rest of the country it's Eastern Time. Not here. If you're from Chicago and any points west of Michigan, they'll remind you, "Don't forget, we're on Michigan Time."

And speaking of time, we're all out of it here. Now get out there and eat some sand.

Living close to Lake Michigan, we sometimes take it for granted, get complacent and think it's like a backyard pond.

We sadly learned the lake can be as dangerous as the ocean after seven people drowned 4th of July weekend on southwestern Michigan beaches. Dangerous rip currents or undertows, probably generated by a storm, were responsible.

Some Lake Michigan beaches have lifeguards and/or warning systems. But even with lifeguards and warning systems, there are no sure things when you're dealing with Mother Nature.

Visitors to coastal areas of California, Oregon and Washington are warned not to turn their back on the Pacific. Lake Michigan deserves that same respect.


If you go...

GETTING THERE

Michigan's western coast starts about 70 miles from downtown Chicago. Take Interstate Highway 90 East to the Chicago Skyway, connecting to the Indiana Toll Road. At the Lake Station exit, take Interstate Highway 94 toward Detroit. After crossing the Michigan state line, take either Exit 1 or 2 for New Buffalo or Union Pier.

GETTING AROUND

If you're in a hurry, use the interstates/four-lanes. But this is a vacation, isn't it? So, for ambience, go with the local two lanes as mentioned in the main story. We're not talking humongous distances here. From New Buffalo to Muskegon is only about 120 miles. With lots of meandering, backtracking and sidetracking, we covered 390 miles getting from Chicago to Muskegon (and around Muskegon, which, at about 40,000 people, is the largest of these beach towns). The return trip, strictly on four-lanes, was just 200 miles.

LODGING

Lots of options and lots of prices. Keep in mind that if you're traveling on a weekend, some lodgings (Saugatuck is a notable example) require a two-night stay. But, just like room rates, this can be flexible, so don't hesitate to ask. We stayed at a mix of places:

  • Martha's Vineyard Bed & Breakfast, 473 Blue Star Highway, South Haven, MI 49090; 269-637-9373; www.marthasvy.com; $99-$185. This is a very classy looking 1850s vintage B&B that has a second building, in which we stayed, for a total of eight rooms. The grounds are spacious and include a small pond. Our room was quite large and included a double whirlpool, a queen-sized bed and a fireplace. But, here's where I have to pick a couple of nits: 1) The fireplace, set into the wall and nicely adorned by a large mantle, wasn't all it would seem. It wasn't gas. It wasn't wood burning. It was just one of those electric fireplaces with a light bulb inside a little wheel that spins, giving the impression of flames. Yikes! 2) The four-course gourmet breakfast is served at 9 a.m.--not before, not after. When I asked why the precise timing, I was told it's a "hot" breakfast. Hot, unlike the fireplace, I guess. 3) The morning coffee that was left outside our door early in the morning, as promised, already had been removed when we left our room at 9:30. I wonder if they talked over breakfast about what sluggards we were.
  • The Timberline, Blue Star Highway, Saugatuck, MI 49453; 800-257-2147; www.timberlinemotel.com; $95-$185. In bed-and-breakfasty Saugatuck, we decided to go the opposite direction, to prove you can go to Saugatuck and not pay an arm and a leg to stay. The Timberline is a basic motel with 29 rooms that includes an outdoor pool and whirlpool. Our room ($95 with AAA discount) had a queen-sized bed in a large room that was comparable to a Motel 6 or similar budget accommodation. By comparison, a new AmericInn in Douglas wanted $160 a night for a room. And Saugatuck's Pines Motor Lodge, which describes itself as a "quaint 1940-50's style retro boutique motel," has weekend rates of $75 to $140, but wouldn't rent a room for just one weekend night.
  • Shoreline Inn, Terrace Point, Muskegon, MI; 866-727-8483; www.shorelineinn.com; $109-$150. This is a very nice hotel, open less than a year, on the shores of Muskegon Lake. Our 8th-floor Parlor Suite, one of the hotel's 140 rooms and suites, was extremely nice. The bedroom held a king-sized bed and a TV, and the living room held a couch, small table and chairs, another TV, a desk, full-size refrigerator, microwave and sink. Nearly a full wall of glass doors looked out on a west view of Muskegon Lake and the setting sun. The hotel is decorated in lots of antiques or faux antiques but seems to be still a work in progress. A gift shop/convenience store still isn't open and, other than an accompanying restaurant, there aren't any real attractions around the hotel, though a private marina abuts it. The continental breakfast was pretty basic stuff. We did get a free car wash, though. When we left in the morning, the lawn sprinklers were on and were pelting our car, making it interesting for us to get into it.

DINING

Again, lots and lots of choices, including quite a few fine-dining options. But, as noted in the main story, be prepared to pay Chicago prices. Also be prepared, in some instances, for a wait, unless you can get your B&B to make a reservation. In Saugatuck, for example, at 7 on a Saturday night, we tried Marro's, a popular Italian restaurant that doesn't take reservations, and were told it would be 45 minutes. Foolishly we (or, let's be honest, I) decided to whip over to neighboring Douglas. One place there said it would be an hour and a half. Another was so busy I couldn't even find out how long it would be. We went back to Saugatuck, having by now wasted at least 45 minutes, and were seated immediately in a very good French bistro. A sampling of the better places we tried:

  • The Inn at Hawkshead, 523 HawksNest Drive, South Haven; 269-639-2121. Hawkshead is a country club that also has an inn where lodging is available and a fine-dining restaurant, though casual dress, including shorts, is acceptable. Our excellent dinner--prime rib and roasted potatoes for me and shrimp in a lemon-basil alfredo sauce over pasta for Bonnie--was about $70, including drinks and tip.
  • The White House Gallery, Bistro & Winery, 149 Griffith St., Saugatuck; 269-857-3240. David Barton, who owns this place with wife Deb, was working the crowd quite affably the day we ate lunch on the outdoor porch, next to the patio. Because of this place's name, all of the offerings on the lunch menu have a presidential name attached to them. I had the Madison Ham and Swiss Panini, and Bonnie had the Taft Tangy Spinach Salad. (No sign of a Nixon Nosh.) Both were very good and totaled about $20 including tip. Only wine and wine concoctions are served here, and sometimes items listed on the menu aren't available, as we found out in two instances.
  • Restaurant Toulouse, 248 Culver Street, Saugatuck; 269-857-1561. This French bistro has a nice outdoor courtyard setting and excellent food. Bonnie had escolar, a whitefish, with lentil-cherry sauce and basmati rice with saffron. I had possibly the best French onion soup I've ever had and steak frites. Total with cocktails and tip was about $80.
  • Alpenrose, 4 E. 84th St., Holland; 616-393-2111. A nice setting and very good food in downtown Holland. For lunch, Bonnie had a turkey and gruyere cheese sandwich with cranberry orange mayo on ciabatta and I had an excellent gulyas soup and Chicken Shortcake, a creamed chicken dish. Total with two beers and tip was about $35.
  • ATTRACTIONSShopping is a popular activity in these beach towns, though the offerings in most are modest enough to handle in an afternoon. In a very informal tally, we counted up 41 antique stores and malls during our trip and 27 art galleries. In addition to the beaches, other offerings include charter fishing, golf, u-pick farms, wineries, biking and a variety of maritime museums. Keep in mind, though, that it's not unusual for stores and some attractions like museums to close at 5 p.m. Also keep in mind that we concentrated on beach towns, and there are many other towns with interesting attractions not far inland.
    INFORMATION
    • Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce, 269-469-5409; www.harborcountry.org
    • South Haven Visitors Bureau, 800-SO-HAVEN; www.southhaven.org
    • Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, 269-925-6301; www.swmichigan.org
    • Saugatuck/Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau, 269-857-1701; www.saugatuck.com
    • Holland Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-506-1299; www.holland.org
    • Grand Haven Chamber of Commerce, 800-303-4096; www.grandhavenchamber.org
    • Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, 231-722-3751; www.muskegon.org
    • Muskegon County Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800.250.9283; www.visitmuskegon.org
    • West Michigan Tourist Assn., 800-442-2084; www.wmta.org
    • Michigan Travel Bureau, 888-784-7328; travel.michigan.org
    • Michigan Department of Natural Resources list of state parks is at http://www.michigan.gov/dnr

    Beyond the west coast: 10 more Michigan favorites
    1. 1 - Yes, there really are other places to stay on Mackinac Island besides the Grand Hotel. But it's the Grand and its image of gentility that's been attracting tourists to this speck in Lake Huron for many, many years.
    2. 2 - Henry Ford and Thomas Edison continue to touch the lives of millions. Their work comes alive at the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, newly renovated in Dearborn.
    3. 3 - It's been the target of many a bad rap over the years, but Michigan's chief city, Detroit, has many attractions, from the Detroit Science Center, showing authentic Titanic artifacts this summer, to the Detroit Zoo, celebrating its 75th birthday, to the Motown Historical Museum.
    4. 4 - Yoop, you can't talk about Michigan without talking about the Upper Peninsula. Mapmakers like to show scenic roads by marking them with a dotted line, and the U.P. map will make you think you're seeing spots before your eyes.
    5. 5 - And speaking of the U.P. and scenery, Pictured Rocks, the country's first national lakeshore, packs 'em in with its rugged sandstone cliffs, beaches, dunes and waterfalls along the Lake Superior shoreline.
    6. 6 - And speaking of peninsulas in general, we can't forget the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas, which have their share of scenic routes, along with art galleries, wineries and shops-till-you-drop.
    7. 7 - Driving up the west coast is a treat, but there are other ways to climb up "the mitten"--like the S.S. Badger car ferry from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington.
    8. 8 - Tony the Tiger says a visit to Kellogg's Cereal City USA in Battle Creek is a G-R-R-R-E-A-T vacation idea.
    9. 9 - Loons and wolves and moose, oh my, are the draw at Isle Royale National Park, accessible only by boat or float plane. Because of its isolation, the park has become a living laboratory for wildlife scientists studying the relationship between the wolves and moose.
    10. 10 - And we can't forget Lake Huron, that "other coast" whose shoreline roads, say the mapmakers, are indeed a scenic drive, all the way from Port Huron to Mackinaw City.
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