Saugatuck and Douglas are small Michigan beachtowns I never knew I needed to experience.
Actually, I never even knew the charming “twin towns” existed — until I was invited for a four-day retreat in the Midwest state.
The retreat was organized by Pure Michigan, a new campaign that is making the state an increasingly popular travel destination. But Michigan shouldn’t be a hard sell. It has over 11,000 inland lakes and more freshwater coastline that any other US state.
On that coastline, which is over 300 kilometres along Lake Michigan, are quaint, scattered beach towns. This is where you’ll find Saugatuck, which USA Today declared the “2015 Best Coastal Small Town,” and its counterpart town, Douglas. Often referred to as Saugatuck-Douglas, it’s difficult to tell where one stops and the other begins.
Gay-owned resorts, remote and retro
For a small town, there are surprisingly many gay-owned and gay-friendly establishments. LGBT travellers aren’t left short of options when choosing a welcoming place to stay.
The Dunes Resort is the only gay nightlife destination in the area and has become the core of the Saugatuck-Douglas gay community. It’s the biggest gay resort in the Midwest, hosting a cocktail lounge, disco, patio, cabaret and poolside bar. Accommodations include two-bedroom cottages and standard rooms in two motel-style buildings. If you’re looking to mix relaxation with some fun, this is the place to be.
For those seeking something more low-key, there are two boutique inns that aim to take guests back in time with their retro decor. The Saugatuck Motel and Pines Motorlodge, adorned with neon signs and log furnishings, have been completely transformed by their gay owners. Both little lodging joints are almost always fully booked during the summer season.
The Starlite Resort and Blue Star Motel are also gay-owned and are highly recommended. Don’t be fooled by the word “motel” — these lodgings provide the same amenities as hotels. But who needs Wi-Fi and TV when you’re minutes away from beaches and wineries?
Fine wine and fresh fruit
Michigan is home to more than 100 wineries. One of the most prominent is Fenn Valley Vineyards, a family-owned and operated vineyard spanning across 240 acres. It’s a short drive from the gay resorts and motels.
The vineyard is located in what is called the “Lake Effect,” meaning the proximity to Lake Michigan makes the area great for growing quality grapes. Try the locally and internationally award-winning wines.
Not far from Fenn Valley Vineyards is Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant and Winery. This family-owned establishment is approaching its 100th anniversary. Over that time it has become a favourite among locals and tourists alike thanks to its pies, wines and jams. Now it’s adding cider to that list. The ciders come in apple, blueberry and pear.
Close by is Virtue Cider, which differs from its competition. This craft cider company has become popular for its old farmhouse style, producing a harder cider.
Don’t end your tour without stopping somewhere like Blue Star Farms and picking your own blueberries. Michigan is the cherry and blueberry capital of the US and Saugatuck-Douglas sits within the heart of the country’s fruit belt.
Footprints in the sand
The famous Oval Beach is nestled along the sandy Lake Michigan shoreline. The beach has been rated one of the 25 best shorelines in the world by Conde Naste’s Traveler Magazine, and one of the top five beaches in the country by MTV. The northern part of the beach is said to be popular among the LGBT community.
Then there’s Singapore, which is one of Michigan’s most famous ghost towns. It was destroyed in one of the four great fires of the Midwest and now rests in peace beneath the sand dunes of the Lake Michigan shoreline near Oval Beach.
If you feel like getting your Mad Max on, hop in the dune buggies at Saugatuck Dune Ride and get a tour of the dunes. Don’t worry, no one gets hurt on this vehicle; the scenic ride is a nice family event.
Colourful art scene
Downtown Saugatuck has a vibrant art scene. Well-known local artist James Brandess gave us a tour of about five galleries, including his own. The openly gay artist makes stunning Saugatuck-inspired art. His paintwork is plastered on canvases, mugs, cards and magnets. His studio is a great place to pick up souvenirs and gifts.
The 95-year-old Ox-Bow School of Art, a summer school of art and artists’ residency, is a pillar of the Midwest art scene. If you have time, tour the waterfront campus.
Explore nearby surroundings
Saugatuck-Douglas is close to a series of other beach towns along Lake Michigan. It’s also not a far drive from cities like Chicago, Detroit and Grand Rapids, which is becoming well known for its art and beer.
Start with some of the world’s most notable sculptures and Japanese gardens at the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. For each piece, the canvas is the land surrounding it. The park is breathtaking and often otherworldly, especially when some of the sculptures look like giant aliens. Finding Zen is easy here.
If you find yourself at Founders Brewing Co, you’ve done well for yourself. This small-batch brewery is run by a group of beer lovers who believe in quality over quantity. They have consistently been ranked one of the top breweries in the world on Ratebeer.com and several of their beers are listed in the top 100 beers of the world on beeradvocate.com.
I would recommend checking out the art before drinking, but sometimes that can be a tall order in Grand Rapids. ArtPrize, an international non-profit art competition, has more than 1,500 works at over 160 venues across Grand Rapids. The best pieces from past years can be seen all around the city in parks, restaurants — wherever you go. It’s easy to find yourself marveling at a giant Loch Ness Monster floating in a pond, or catching a conversation piece sitting in a lounge.