Aerial view of the South Haven Lighthouse on Lake Michigan

Four Satiating Towns in Southwestern Michigan

Tucked up in the Midwest, dispersed amongst two massive peninsulas, and encased by four of the Great Lakes, Michigan is a big fish to filet. And though the untouched north has its primal appeals, the Lower Peninsula's Lake Michigan shore is universally enticing. There are long, powdery soft beaches, windswept dunes, and a seemingly continual streak of captivating towns. Armed with my humble camper van and a week to work my way back to Canada after visiting my sister in St. Charles, Illinois, I set out to explore St. Joseph, South Haven, Saugatuck/Douglas, Holland, and their surrounding attractions. I had no idea what a satisfying experience it would turn out to be. Allow me to indulge you.

Appetizer: St. Joseph

A spacious wooden deck on a hillside park. A perfect spot to watch the sun set
Quite the stage to watch a sunset from at Lookout Park. Photo: Andrew Douglas

Those driving in from Indiana will have a chance to whet their appetite in St Joseph - a small, easy-going city in the southwest corner of Michigan. St. Joe, as it is known locally, sits atop a rather dramatic bluff, overlooking the majesty of one of the world's largest freshwater lakes. For an epic panorama, and one of the best sunsets of your life, pull over to Lookout Park - a well-maintained roadside turnout off of Lakeshore Drive. When I rolled through with my camper, I lucked out with not only spectacular weather, but also the presence of a Mexican food truck. The ensuing quesadilla went down extra smooth alongside pleasant conversations with the locals. Everyone was in high spirits, and actively friendly with one another as the sun descended over the distant Chicago skyline.

If you have the chance (either before or after your stay in St. Joe), I recommend popping into either Grand Mere State Park or Warren Dunes State Park (only five and ten miles south, respectively). The southeast shoreline of Lake Michigan is blessed with pristine beaches and colossal sand dunes that are not only a riot to climb (and descend), but foster a unique and delicate ecosystem.

Second Course: South Haven

An outdoor commercial district in the style of a fishing village
Old Harbor Village is like something plucked straight out a Herman Melville novel. Photo: Andrew Douglas

South Haven makes a good impression. It makes an even better second impression. And its third reveal is the best of all. Hear me out. After a restful sleep in St. Joe, I rolled into South Haven, which is only about a half-hour drive up the coast, eager for coffee. I was greeted by a magnetic main drag (i.e. Phoenix Street), which I made sure to walk up and down before deciding on my cafe of choice: in this case, We Coffee. There, the cozy atmosphere and accidental eavesdropping into small-town morning conversations easily swept away a couple of hours (and the coffee was pretty good too). Great start, I thought.

Now that the sun had found its legs, I felt drawn to the beach. This was surprise number two. South Haven's shore is bisected by the Black River and a lengthy pier that juts into Lake Michigan (topped with an iconic red lighthouse). To cross from South Beach to North Beach (you can't go wrong with either, though I would give a slight lean to the latter), one must cross the Dyckman Avenue Bascule Bridge. I arrived just in time for the draw-bridge to raise for an incoming sailboat. Though I was stalled for five-minutes or so, I actually found the experience to be exceptionally charming. I casually munched on some pretzels (conveniently stowed on the passenger seat) and embraced the lake-town pace of life.

South Haven's third big reveal was its Old Harbor Village. This enclave of shops and eateries looked plucked straight out of a New England (or for you Canadians, the Maritimes) fishing community and then whipped into shape for the modern coffee/brewery/retail connoisseur. I fell into a trance of continual picture taking - taking one step and immediately noticing another, even better angle (but probably still didn't do it justice).

To fill in the gaps, South Haven has a little matinee theater, the Michigan Maritime Museum, and a boat-load (literally) of other attractions, throughout downtown, and its Great Lake coastline.

Main Dish: Saugatuck/Douglas

A colorful mural for the lakeside town of Saugatuck, Michigan
A mere taste of the bright and bubbly Saugatuck/Douglas. Photo: Andrew Douglas

Another 20 miles up the road from South Haven, Saugatuck and Douglas, two small Allegan County cities that are often lumped together simply as Saugatuck/Douglas (for they really do play off each other as a single community), await. Both share the inviting Kalamazoo Lake (Saugatuck to the north, Douglas to the south) and are connected by a small bridge on the Blue Star Highway, both stake out a sandy Lake Michigan beach (Oval Beach and Douglas Beach, respectively), and both have quaint and colorful downtown Social Districts filled with quirky shops, brewed hops, and caffeine pit stops.

The texture of both towns was, in a word, vacation. Saugatuck and Douglas have the hippie-dippie beach town essence, but without the heavy-handed commercialization of a tropical getaway. Sure, I arrived in advance of the peak summer crowds, but that doesn't change the basic infrastructure. I think the added energy of peak-season will be appealing to many travelers anyway. After all, there is ample parking at Oval Beach (Douglas Beach, on the other hand, parallels mostly private houses), and the beach itself is generously sized. And besides, there are plenty of side attractions to help keep things free of congestion. I recommend hiking up to Mount Baldhead Park (either via the wooden stairs on the Kalamazoo side or the lovely wooded trail network stemming from the beach) for a wide view of the area, or heading into the additional trails of the Oxbow Lagoon or Saugatuck Dune State Park. There are also destination-worthy spots outside of the downtown cores. For instance, I had a crisp pint at the Saugatuck Brewing Company (right next to the sizable Saugatuck Antique Pavilion) while listening to live music in good company. Not a bad way to wash down a sunny day.

Dessert: Holland

A very Dutch-looking park in Michigan, complete with tulip gardens, a traditional windmill, and brick farm houses
Windmill Island Gardens is quintessential Netherlands, especially during tulip season. Photo: Andrew Douglas.

Just a dozen or so more miles north, but this time slightly inland from Lake Michigan (instead, along the slim subsidiary: Lake Macatawa) Holland is another one-of-a-kind hub. This Dutch heritage community continues the trend of charming downtown strips. 7th street, with its majority brick structures and orange city flags visually connotes the motherland. And as we speak (or rather, as I write this), the 94-year-old Tulip Time Festival is underway (May 4-12), giving Holland an even more cultured aesthetic. Small gardens are regularly-spaced throughout downtown and a massive collection of the colorful flowers briefly bloom at Windmill Island Gardens. All told, Holland hosts roughly one-million tulips come late spring.

Final Thoughts

Holland was a wholesome, walkable and intriguing spot. The perfect cherry on top after a string of satiating Michigan towns and engaging state parks. I think what made my short tour of the Lower Peninsula so special was the synergy between each distinct, yet complimentary town, in conjunction with omnipresent nature in the form of Lake Michigan ecosystems. I know we've only scratched the surface of The Great Lake State, so I hope you share my enthusiasm to unpack much more of this wild and varied section of America.


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