By Judi Markowitz
I am a lifelong resident of Michigan. The changing seasons here are stunning, and never more so than this time of year. Nothing can beat the kaleidoscope of colors on parade in the fall. Even our license plates communicate the true splendor of our state — Water-Winter Wonderland.
When it comes to taking vacations with my family, Up North is our go-to place. This means visiting Harbor Springs, Traverse City, Petoskey, Mackinac Island, Charlevoix, and our family favorite — Burt Lake. Not to sound like a travel agent, but Michigan has more than 11,000 inland lakes and is surrounded by the five Great Lakes. It’s a summer paradise for boaters, golfers, jet skiers, hikers and just plain ole’ tourism
During the winter months, these locations become a haven for those who love to ski. The chilly weather and, hopefully, the abundant snowfall make it the perfect fit without having to travel to another state to partake in this sport.
Our family has been going Up North for decades. Most of the time, we’ve rented a house on Burt Lake for a week, but in 2003, our journeys took a hard left to the west side of the state. Our son, Eli, who was 15 at the time and on the varsity basketball team, was headed to basketball camp at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. I volunteered to drive a few of his teammates to the campus. My daughter, Lindsay, came along for the adventure. It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive to parts unknown.
Once we arrived, unloaded their gear and settled them into their new digs (dorm life), I pulled out a map (my flip phone did not have GPS) and looked for Saugatuck. We were only 25 minutes away and so Lindsay and I took off for a new journey.
My sister and her husband had visited Saugatuck a few years prior to our excursion. When they got home, they had raved about this treasure on the western coast of Michigan. Since we were in the vicinity, I decided that it was a good time to check it out.
I headed down I-96 and took the expressway to the Saugatuck exit. As I drove down Blue Star Highway, there was a large sign directing visitors to the downtown area. Following my trusty map, I made a right on Lucy Street and then a left on Water Street. I had no idea about my destination.
And then I saw the glistening waters of the Kalamazoo River! The landscape was dotted with beautiful homes and a line of interesting shops and restaurants. As I drove around the town, I observed the absence of parking meters and plenty of accessible spaces for those in need. This was smart city planning. I believe they borrowed the idea from the movie Field of Dreams — if you don’t charge to park, tourists will come! Winter, spring, summer or fall, people arrive in droves to experience this quaint city.
I love to shop, and totally get into “the shopper’s zone.” Lindsay is a mini-me. She enjoys shopping as much as I do. We were in fresh territory and loving it! Saugatuck is known as Michigan’s Art Coast with galleries galore. There are wineries, breweries, great restaurants, and it’s an LGBTQ friendly community.
There was so much to do, and we only had a few hours until we headed home. We decided to focus on the art and went into numerous galleries up and down Water and Butler Streets, and every street in between. Of course, I found a lovely oil painting of a landscape and told the owner it was a wrap. But before leaving this picturesque town, I felt compelled to stop at an interesting hotel/boatel. Boats could dock and pay a fee to use the hotel amenities. It was the on the Kalamazoo River and quite charming. I booked two rooms for our family.
No trip is complete without a scoop (or two) of the local ice cream. While walking around town I noticed several enticing spots to satisfy our appetite. Hudsonville Ice Cream is a Saugatuck favorite, right up there with Kilwins. People on the west side of the state also have a sweet tooth for this delicacy. We decided to try something new and headed to Boardwalk Ice Cream.
On our second trip to the city one month later, we took a leisurely sunset cruise on the Kalamazoo River to Lake Michigan. This was no ordinary boat ride. Saugatuck has an interesting history and we wanted to find out the details. To begin with, The Star of Saugatuck is an authentic sternwheel paddle boat. The captain narrated the bygone years of the city as we took in the sights. For history buffs it’s a lesson worth learning. The town was originally named Saugatuck–Sauki-Tuk–in 1640 by Native Americans in the area.
As we headed to Lake Michigan, the sun was beginning to set. It looked like a ball of fire sinking into the water. It was a magnificent sight — a vast expanse of the lake and nothing else to see for miles. We have now taken this boat ride for over 20 years and always marvel at the splendor of nature. On our most recent trip we had to bundle up for the ride since evening temperatures tend to dip in the fall. The extra layers made the top deck of the boat feel like a spring night.
Another point of interest in the city is Diane, the chain ferry. She is the oldest, one-of-a-kind, hand-cranked chain ferry in the United States. A chain connects one side of Saugatuck to the other, straight across the Kalamazoo River. This delightful, short ride provides more possibilities for exploration. One of these sites is Oval Beach, on Lake Michigan, along with the sand dunes that beg for more adventure. National Geographic ranks Oval Beach as one of the top freshwater beaches in the USA. Film makers also gravitate to this scenic area. In fact, a segment of the 2002 film, Road to Perdition, was filmed on Oval Beach.
We never tire of visiting this unique city. With fall colors on the ascendance and Lake Michigan still warm enough for adventurous souls to take a quick dip, it’s a special destination during any season. We look forward to our next trip. Saugatuck is a Magical Mystery Tour that keeps calling us back!
Judi Markowitz is a retired high school English teacher of 34 years. She primarily taught 12th grade and had the pleasure of her three sons gracing her classes. In addition, she taught debate, forensics, and Detroit film. Judi has four adult children and seven wonderful grandchildren. She is married to Jeffrey Markowitz, whom she met in high school.
Judi grew up in Oak Park, Mich. which had a stellar school district, with excellent teachers. The city provided activities for all–and there were even sidewalks. Judi moved to Huntington Woods as an adult, which is a half mile from her childhood home. She wanted the same experience for her children as she had growing up, and Huntington Woods provided that. The View from Four Foot Two is Judi’s first book.