The Great Lakes constitute the largest collection of freshwater lakes on the planet. They are remnants of the last ice age – now enjoyed on hot summer days (though they are not without their winter charm too). These five lakes (Michigan, Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario) are split between the Northeastern United States and the Southeast of Canada (save for Lake Michigan). All around their shores, and in the gaps in between, there are beautiful, fun, and inviting small towns. Something about being away from the big cities but near big bodies of water just makes people nicer and eager to welcome visitors to their treasured homes. These are eight shining examples to add to your 2024 hit list.
Grand Marais, Minnesota
This small Cook County city resides on Lake Superior's Western shore and within the subtle shadows of the rolling Sawtooth Mountains. Though thoroughly rural, Grand Marais is welcoming in many regards. For starters, it is home to Minnesota's oldest art colony. Explore a wide range of creative mediums by participating in a workshop, support the local scene by shopping for a few treasures in town, or walk out to Artist Point – a whale's tale-shaped peninsula that divides Grand Marais Harbor and East Bay, affording inspiring views of the world's largest freshwater lake (by surface area). Grand Marais also invites exploration of its surrounding backcountry. There are networks of well-blazed hiking and biking trails in the immediate vicinity. Afterward, cozy up in one of the folksy restaurants or enjoy the breeze on a cafe patio.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Floating at the apex transition between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, this small, car-free island tempts travelers to adopt a slower pace and a fun-loving spirit. The best way to explore Michigan's 4.35-square-mile Mackinac Island is to rent a bike – stashing it occasionally to take on the inland trails through Mackinac Island State Park. For a trip back in time or to inject some romance into the vacation, horse-drawn carriages can also be hired. Linen-white lodgings, churches, restaurants, and shops line the perimeter, and plenty of natural formations and viewpoints will encourage lots of snack and picture breaks. Speaking of snacks, don't leave without tasting some of Mackinac Island's world-famous fudge.
Kelleys Island, Ohio
Let's stay in island mode for a bit longer. Kelleys Island is anchored in the Western wing of Lake Erie (the shallowest, and therefore warmest of the Great Lakes). In contrast to Mackinac, Kelleys Island does allow cars (note: the only way to reach the island is by ferry), but it is not as if there will ever be heavy traffic. There are less than 300 permanent residents living in the village of Kelleys Island, and the preferred method of transportation (other than the self-propelled varieties) is actually a golf cart. Along with offering charming lakeside accommodations, including cottages/cabins, authentic B&Bs, resorts, and quaint inns, "Lake Erie's Emerald Isle" is also covered in large part by Kelleys Island State Park (be sure to check out the Glacial Grooves), as well as historical landmarks, a sculpture garden, a children's camp, and a few small beaches, including the pretty, pebble-strewn stretch coincidentally called "Pebble Beach." Otherwise, mini-putt, breweries, kayaking, scuba diving, and even a butterfly greenhouse will keep all family members entertained.
Not all great Great Lake towns have to be directly on the water (though this one does straddle the sizable Avon River). Stratford, Ontario, is a prime example. Situated almost equidistant from Lake Huron (to the North), Lake Erie (to the South), and Lake Ontario (to the East), this elegant, red-brick, Shakespearean city fosters all kinds of memorable experiences. As the name teases, Stratford operates a theater festival from April to October. But this place isn't just for thespians. There is tons of live music, a winter festival of lights, a Chocolate Trail (which visits the many artisanal confectioners and bakers), and even a Bacon & Ale Trail (which is everything you imagine it could be). Whatever you're into, Stratford combines that quintessential Canadian friendliness with an uncharacteristically old-fashioned-looking layout.
Another Southern Ontario gem nestles right against New York's Northwestern boundary, on the Southern shore of Lake Ontario (where it meets the Niagara River), and just North of one of the continent's most dramatic collection of waterfalls. Niagara-on-the-Lake. "The culinary capital of Canada" is also one of the country's most revered wine regions – welcoming tourists to whet their appetite at one of the many upscale establishments throughout the Heritage District or sample some award-winning glasses from the grapes grown in the temperate valleys below the Niagara Escarpment. With such exquisite dining, Victorian-era charm, pleasant climate, and proximity to Niagara Falls, it is no wonder that "NOTL" is widely considered one of Canada's prettiest towns.
South Haven, Michigan
The blueberry capital of Michigan is also a dog-friendly, people-friendly beach town. South Haven has long stretches of sandy, swimmable shoreline marking its Western boundary. The only interruption is a welcomed one. The Black River bisects this small Lake Michigan city and is guided by long, walkable piers (the Southern one ends in an adorable red lighthouse) to the waters of Lake Michigan. Aside from simply lounging in the sun, the local Michigan Maritime Museum also encourages visitors to get in touch with the lake-centric history of this region. Tourists can board the Friends Good Will tall ship (a replica of the one constructed all the way back in 1810) and sail a portion of the open waters. If your sea legs give way, stretch them out on the delightfully walkable and hospitable streets of downtown adjacent to the harbor.
Grand Haven, Michigan
If you're in a Lake Michigan kind of mood, scoot just 50 miles North or 35 miles West of Grand Rapids into the warm embrace of Grand Haven. Like South Haven, Grand Haven has soft, tropical-esque beaches and a long pier with a sharp red lighthouse at the end of it. But Grand Haven also has a network of paved biking paths, a trolley to take tourists all through town, a waterfront stadium with regular live music performances, sheltered bayous branching off of the Grand River that is perfect for paddle sports, and regular local farmers markets for all your produce and socializing needs. Heck, there's even a musical fountain that lights up at night. Grand Haven is designed to bring people together in the most joyous ways possible.
At the Northern tip of Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, the tranquil town of Tobermory is waiting to welcome you. This lovely harbor/fishing community serves up fresh daily catches to fuel fun adventures and/or relaxing camping/cottage getaways. There are many sunken ships that can be seen right from the limestone shorelines, thanks to the crystal-clear waters around Fathom Five National Marine Park, or studied up close by taking a glass-bottom boat tour or strapping on snorkel/scuba gear. Tobermory also marks the end of the 560-mile Bruce Trail, which begins all the way back in Niagara but saves its best part for last as it follows the coast across Bruce Peninsula National Park. Those visiting Tobermory will be in for a real treat of a day hike if they follow the white tree markings into the soothing wood and past several watery vistas and amazing rock formations. Another nice but much shorter hike is to the Big Tub Lighthouse. This vital beckon still shines out over the waters of Lake Huron (to the west) and the massive Georgian Bay (to the east).
The Great Lakes region is one of the most idyllic and inviting parts of North America. Perfect for soaking up the sun in the summer, watching the leaves change in the fall, and getting cozy by the fire in the winter, there's no wrong time to plan a trip to this sector shared by the U.S. and Canada. The trip will be made all the more wholesome because these lake towns love showing out-of-towners a good time. The setting is serene, the activities are plentiful, and the rejuvenation offered by the fresh air and fresh water cannot be beaten. So bring your best smile and handshake (or heck, why not a hug?) next year to these eight great Great Lake towns.