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Day tripping on the lakeshore
The Lake Michigan coastline provides a laid-back getaway for urban dwellers.

By Peter Frost
Photography by Johnny Quirin

Sand, water, art and fun — the Lake Michigan coastline attracts tourists from all over the world who come for the festivals, the beaches and the relaxed, come-as-you-are atmosphere.

For urban dwellers in Grand Rapids, West Michigan’s coastal cities and towns offer an easy getaway, whether it’s a daytime jaunt or a weekend at the cottage.

“The nice feature about this area is that each of the towns has its own unique flavor,” said Kristin Armstrong, a Chicago transplant who heads up the Saugatuck Center for the Arts.

“When you talk about Holland, Grand Haven and Saugatuck/Douglas, we’re like the laidback bedroom communities of Grand Rapids, just 30 minutes or so away.”

And May is the month that kicks off a summer’s worth of activities, starting with Holland’s annual Tulip Time Festival. Holland, with its Dutch heritage, has two distinct halves — beach and business.

The city’s beaches are among the most frequented in the state, with Holland State Park seeing more than one million visitors per year. But the heart of the city is its historic downtown district, a year-round attraction that brings Old World charm together with developing commerce and business. Restaurants, shops and eateries line the well-worn cobblestone streets of 8th street.

“The downtown area has such a vibrant feel during the summer, with all of the tulips from the Tulip Time festival blooming and the greenery of the parks in full swing,” said Sally Laukitis, director of the Holland Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It really makes our town one-of-a kind.”

 

Bicycling along 8th Street on the cobblestone streets in the historic downtown district.

A big draw in the summer is the farmers market, held on Eighth Street every Wednesday and Saturday spring through fall, with dozens of vendors selling everything from produce to meats. On Saturdays, chefs from local restaurants share their skills and cooking tips with visitors.

On Thursday nights, the avenues transform with street performers — including magicians, musicians, face painters, artists, face painters, break dancers and more — lining the walkways and entertaining crowds.

“In Holland, heritage is so important,” said Dianna Stampfler of Promote Michigan. “Whether you’re visiting Windmill Island or walking around downtown, you just feel it. The residents embrace their Dutch heritage wholeheartedly.”

Saugatuck/Douglas also offers a charming, touristy downtown with kitschy shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors. But it’s the art scene that sets it apart.

“So much of the arts culture goes back to the founders of Ox-Bow,” Armstrong said.

After visiting the Saugatuck area one summer a century ago, two artists from the Art Institute of Chicago were so enamored with the beauty of the area, they began teaching summer painting classes on the east bank of the Kalamazoo River.

“It became a respite for artists away from the havoc of Chicago,” she said.


Diners on the patio of Wild Dog Grille in Douglas

And that’s still true today. Maryjo Lemanski, who owns Water Street Gallery in neighboring Douglas, said people looking for an art experience that isn’t in a big city flock to Saugatuck and Douglas.

“They get to access art in a low-key way. And the advantage for artists: They are connected with a regional art center that takes a more laid-back approach.”

The downtowns in Saugatuck and Douglas are also very walkable. “People can take a fast-forward tour and spend half an afternoon visiting shops and galleries, or spend a weekend and linger. You see a lot of people strolling around, watching the boat traffic and eating al fresco.”

She’s especially proud of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which provides high-quality cultural experiences for adults and children. SCA is home to Mason Street Warehouse, a nonprofit summer theater company, and the annual Waterfront Film Festival the second week of June. SCA also sponsors special programs such as the Saugatuck/Douglas Greenmarket — a summertime farmers market.

Grand Haven — a.k.a. Coast Guard City — thrives on tourism. The March issue of Travel+Leisure magazine named it one of the Best Secret Beaches on Earth, touting the trolley cars, the 2 1/2-mile harbor-front boardwalk, and two 19th-century red lighthouses that give the town a “sweet, old-time feel.”

 

The downtown is lined with shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors where kids and adults stroll in flip flops and beach wear.

“It’s a great hangout for Grand Rapids people,” said Stampfler. “It has a casual, family vibe that welcomes people to come and let loose.”

Grand Haven kicks off the summer with the Great Lakes Kite Festival, this year a three-day event May 18-20 that has families flying kites next to world-famous stunt fliers. In June, the 3rd Annual Grand River Kayak Race will raise money for the local community and allow participants to engage in friendly competition.

Grand Haven’s crowning event is the annual Coast Guard Festival, a weeklong extravaganza with parades, food, fireworks and more honoring the men and women of the United States Coast Guard. Beginning the last week of July, the festival turns the coastal city into a hub of activities and celebration, including a street dance, cruise-in car show and tours of visiting ships and concluding with a fireworks extravaganza over the Grand River. GR

Peter Frost is a student at Hope College.

   
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