Escape to Michigan's Art Coast

Sometimes in our fast-paced, rush-hour-traffic lives, taking a break and slowing down can be just what we need to reconnect and revitalize. Three unique towns on the west coast of Michigan give visitors a chance to do just that.

Saugatuck, Douglas and South Haven are located in what is fondly known as the "art coast" of Michigan. Visit for a weekend or a full week and you will quickly see how they earned that name, with one-of-a-kind shopping, dining and live-life-to-the-fullest experiences.

There is no wrong or right way to explore these Michigan hideaways. The walkability of each town invites you to put yourself in low gear and simply enjoy all that awaits you.

Saugatuck and Douglas: A Tale of Two Towns

Three hours or less from the furthest west suburbs, as I-94 swings northwards along the shores of Lake Michigan, is a destination prized for its authenticity — the twin towns of Saugatuck and Douglas. They are located just a mile apart, on opposite banks of the Kalamazoo River. Together, they provide the perfect escape for those looking to unwind and enjoy some of the finest dining, shopping and — most importantly — beach life in the country.

As no chain businesses or restaurants are allowed within city limits in either town, every restaurant, shop and place of lodging is owned by local families, some in their third or fourth generation. Every turn of the corner offers something new to explore. Both downtowns feature art galleries and shops with one-of-a-kind finds that showcase local artists and craftspeople.

A Home for the Arts

Saugatuck and Douglas earned their reputation as an arts enclave during the late 19th century, as artists from around the country sought out the temperate climate and magnificent lake views the area has to offer. Saugatuck is home to the Ox-Bow School of Art, which began in the early 20th century as a respite for students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The school helped turn the once lumber-focused town into the vibrant, open arts community it is today. During the summer, Ox-Bow hosts visiting artists — July alone welcomes West Coast artist and Guggenheim Fellow Arnold J. Kemp, structural mixed-media painter Eric Mack and performance artist Ernesto Pujol, among others. On the education side, the school attracts aspiring artists of all ages and levels to programs that range from one to four days and run through the summer, including a popular Art on the Meadow workshop.

There are plenty more opportunities to create your own art while inspired by the Art Coast. Express Yourself Art Barn is a must-do for couples, families and friends looking to make memories and have fun. Housed in a barn from the 1880s located in Fenville, just a short drive southwest of Douglas, Express Yourself Art Barn has over 800 projects to choose from. From ceramic painting to glass fusion, to mosaics to jewelry making, there are endless opportunities to bring out your inner artist. Friendly and experienced staff are on hand to help you make each piece your own.

The arts in Saugatuck and Douglas are not limited to the brush and palette. Located right on the Kalamazoo River, Wicks Park in downtown Saugatuck offers Music in the Park, a free event open to the public. Bring a picnic and your dancing shoes every Wednesday evening from 7 – 9 p.m. through August 29th.

If you’re in a mood for theatre, be sure to check out the summer season at Saugatuck Center for the Arts. This summer you can catch Broadway professionals a bit west of the Great White Way in Mamma Mia! and Once: The Musical. Also, you can get a good laugh — and even buy some Tupperware — at Dixie’s Never Wear a Tube Top While Riding a Mechanical Bull, starring world renowned Tupperware lady Dixie Longate.

If something more classical is what you are looking for, be sure to check out the Chamber Music Festival of Saugatuck, now in its 31st season. Beginning July 5 and running through August 10, each week offers a different selection of classical music and performers. The concerts take place at the historic Saugatuck Women’s Club.

On the Water

Since Saugatuck and Douglas are located on the water, one can’t-miss summer event is Venetian Festival, July 27 – 28. This family friendly festival includes live music, hot air balloon rides and boat races. It is capped off with a beautiful lighted boat parade on Saturday night. Even if you miss the festival, visitors and residents alike always enjoy a lovely walk along the harbor, taking in sights of the luxury yachts and sailboats that dot the shoreline.

If you prefer to get out on the water yourself and cruise the river and lake, consider taking a step back in time and renting a rare classic runabout boat at Retro Boat Rentals. The vintage styles have been retro-fitted with electric motors so that you can cruise the lake in style — and in quiet tranquility. The boats are environmentally friendly and include onboard navigation so even those who are nautically challenged can have a great time.

For an unusual on-the-water experience, Saugatuck is home to the country’s only remaining hand-cranked chain ferry. This ferry is pulled across the Kalamazoo River via a chain and pulley system. For $1, take the chain ferry across to Mt. Baldhead.

Let’s not forget about the number one attraction of Saugatuck and Douglas — Oval Beach. Named by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the Top 25 Beaches in the World, Oval Beach might just make you redefine your idea of a beach vacation. A smooth, white sand beach and rolling sand dunes make this the ideal place to set up for the day and relax. Take in the vastness of Lake Michigan and explore the dunes that make this beach a can’t miss.

The Michigan Outdoors

For nature lovers, Saugatuck and Douglas offer plenty of outdoor recreation. Rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard for a close-up look at the Kalamazoo River. Or, test your endurance with the 302-step climb to the top of Mt. Baldhead, where you can take in dazzling views of the towns and Lake Michigan. With an elevation of 800 feet, the climb and the views will take your breath away.

Saugatuck Dunes State Park also offers plenty of hiking trails among the rolling sand dunes and 2.5 miles of shore line. A popular activity at this park is to set up a camp hammock between the pines that grow thick in the dunes and enjoy the views and the breeze.

Relax and Dine

After a day of relaxing on the beach, browsing unique shops, or just taking in the sights of the town, why not cap off your day with a world class dinner at one of several award-winning restaurants? At the top of your list should be The Southerner. Named one of Michigan’s friendliest restaurants, and one of the best places for fried chicken, this popular spot offers farm-to-table cuisine with magnificent views of the Kalamazoo River.

Among other options, James Beard Award semi-finalist, Matthew Millar, specializes in soul food and southern cooking. The views cocktails are top notch as well.

If you are looking for a more traditional bite to eat, try The Butler. This hotel-turned-eatery in the heart of downtown Saugatuck brings back the feel of traditional supper clubs. An outdoor patio offers views of the beautiful yachts docked in the harbor and live music in the summertime. It’s also a great place for families and offers a kid’s menu.

Looking for something lighter? Head over to the Douglas side and hit up Borrowed Time. The restaurant serves small plates and has an extensive wine and beer list that will satisfy even the pickiest of beer lovers. The outdoor space is perfect for chilling with friends and listening to live music.

Home Away from Home

There is no shortage of amazing places to stay in this part of Michigan. Take a step back to the 1950s or 60s and choose one of the retro-hipster motels, a specialty in Saugatuck and Douglas. Old school not your style? Try one of several bed and breakfasts focused on giving you an experience you’ll never forget. Many are located within walking distance of downtown’s shops, restaurants and bars.

South Haven: A Harbor Town

Drive 20 miles south along the coast from Saugatuck and Douglas and a small paradise awaits — the little town of South Haven. Located on the shores of Lake Michigan, South Haven offers beaches and a beautiful harbor. Delightful at any time of year, the town is perhaps at its most dazzling during fall, when autumn colors, orchards and wineries come to life.

In the early 1900s South Haven was known as the Atlantic City of the Midwest, thanks to a casino, as well as theaters, an opera house and even an amusement park with a roller coaster. The harbor would have seen large ships from Chicago filled with summer visitors looking to escape the city heat. Since then, it has been a place for families and couples looking to unplug and relax.

South Haven has a variety of lodging choices from the romantic to the family friendly. There is a good mix of historical resorts and more modern chain hotels as well.

Festivals and Events

One of South Haven’s key summer attractions is the National Blueberry Festival held every year during the second weekend in August. This is one of the nation’s oldest, continuously running agriculture festivals, and it celebrates one of Michigan’s top crops. Enjoy a slice of blueberry pie at the ice cream social, buy fresh, locally grown blueberries, try some local craft beer and wine — and, if you feel up to the challenge — burn it all off at the Blueberry Festival 5K. There’s also live music, children’s activities, and lots of shopping!

Keeping with the agriculture theme, The Haven Harvest Festival weekend has all things fall. Over the weekend of October 19 – 21, get your fall fix with hayrides, haunted houses, apple orchards, pumpkin carving, and lots of live music and family fun.

For art lovers, the South Haven Art Fair, from June 30 - July 1 in Stanley Johnston Park, features more than 120 artists along with local food in a beautiful wooded setting just steps away from Lake Michigan.

If you find yourself in the mood for some jazz the South Haven Jazz Festival on September 14 – 15 is a free event that shows off the talents of jazz musicians. Bring a lawn chair and sit back and enjoy the sounds!

On the Water and on Land

Have you ever wanted to sail on a tall ship or brave the waves in a Coast Guard lifeboat? The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven offers these adventures and so much more. Learn about boat building and maritime skills, and the history of Lake Michigan’s past as a maritime powerhouse.

One of the most exciting offerings of the Michigan Maritime Museum is its on-the-water experience. Sail on Friends Good Will, a Michigan built merchant vessel from 1810. Learn about her exciting past, including its role in the War of 1812. Chase pirates, have a sunset sail, or go big and watch the 4th of July fireworks from the deck of this tall ship.

To enjoy a different slice of history, you can take a shorter trip on the USCG motor lifeboat, which was featured in the 2016 movie "The Finest Hours," and participated in the most daring rescue in Coast Guard history.

For those in search of relaxation rather than adventure, a not-to-miss water experience is kayaking on the Black River, a gentle waterway suited to all ages. SoHa Kayak River Rentals is an option for kayak, canoe or paddleboard rentals.

Another way to get in touch with nature in South Haven is by visiting one of 15 nature preserves. They are all within a short drive of downtown and offer spectacular views whether you’re on foot or on a bike. Also, be sure to visit Van Buren State Park, just south of South Haven, for amazing dune climbing right on Lake Michigan.

Take a Little Piece of Michigan Home

If you are looking to bring home some locally grown produce or flowers, look no further than Barden’s Farm Market on Phoenix Street in South Haven or on Blue Star Highway in Saugatuck. Family owned and operated, the shop offers seasonally grown produce like strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes and fresh cut flowers. This is just one of several places to pick up locally grown items to enjoy at home. There are also plenty of artisinal shops and boutiques in Saugatuck, Douglas and South Haven where you can browse until you find the perfect souvenir to remind you of your days on Michigan’s art coast.

Kelly Albrecht has been a professional writer for more than 10 years. She currently lives in West Michigan with her husband and three sons.

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