That America has a stunning coastline isn’t surprising, but that this coastline is neither the Atlantic nor Pacific nor Gulf, that its beaches of hourglass-fine sand and hundreds of miles of sparkling blue water are in the Midwest, is. The beaches, along with the charming villages, are kept a secret, not by design but by the natural understatement of the Midwesterners who vacation here. Few outsiders know of Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, but heartland denizens have been summering here as long as it’s been hot in St. Louis, Chicago and Detroit in August. In fact, the central time zone aristocracy has long foregone Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod for the 42-mile stretch from Benton Harbor to Saugatuck.
Though the views here are stunning, you won’t find sprawling mansions with more columns than an accountant’s ledger. This lack of ostentation, says Julee Rosso Miller, the owner of Wickwood Inn in Saugatuck ($ rooms, from $195; 510 Butler St.; 269-857-1465; wickwoodinn.com), is “the Michigan way.” This is a place for cooling off, not showing off.
To understand the geography that created this enchanting town, it’s best to take a cruise along the Kalamazoo on the Star of Saugatuck, a paddleboat that makes the 90-minute round-trip several times a day. As it heads from Saugatuck’s protected harbor toward Lake Michigan, its captain, Kathy Wagaman, says proudly, “There are no hidden propellers.” She could be speaking the Michigan mantra: What you see is what you get. And what you see is unforgettable. Port-side, Ox-Bow, a school affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago, sits on 115 unspoiled acres below Mt. Baldhead, the highest point for miles. Starboard-side, fishermen pull in steelhead, walleye and chinook salmon.
For those who prefer to stay on land, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Chicago or a 45-minute drive from Grand Rapids leads to the Blue Star Highway, the main road into Saugatuck. There, a decorated barge that looks like a Victorian gazebo on water connects the two halves of town. For a dollar, a perky teenager will turn a crank to tow you across the river. The chain ferry docks just half a block from the Wickwood Inn, which typifies the elegance of Saugatuck.
Its owner, Miller, grew up in Kalamazoo but spent many years in New York, where she cofounded a gourmet food shop called The Silver Palate in 1977. That store led to a series of best-selling Silver Palate cookbooks, which helped a generation of working women prepare simple dinner-party fare. Then she fell in love with a Saugatuck native and in 1991 bought the town’s first B&B, updating its classic American decor and adding Silver Palate–style feasts. At 6 p.m. guests gather for hors d’oeuvres: shrimp and crab crostini, baked caramelized onion dip and homemade tomato jam with cheeses. Later there are brownie bites as light as clouds.
Wickwood’s bounty is so rich that many guests never make it to Saugatuck’s restaurants. It’s their loss. Ida Red’s Cottage ($ 631 Water St.; 269-857-5803) serves cheddar corn muffins and a Chinese scramble (eggs with mushrooms and snow peas), about as ethnic as food gets in these parts. Everyday People Café ($ 11 Center St., Douglas; 269-857-4240; everydaypeoplecafe.com) offers dishes that belie its populist name, like sea salt–roasted beet salad, local organic cheeses and braised pork belly. But this is the milk-fed Midwest, and ice cream parlors abound. At Kilwin’s ($ 152 Butler St.; kilwins.com), one of the most popular flavors is Saugatuck Mud: vanilla ice cream mixed with chocolate chips and caramel.
But Saugatuck also has pockets of cool. For the Summertime Market ($ summertimemarket.com), Savannah College of Art and Design grad Andrew Milauckas renovated a former Standard Oil station overlooking the river with antique fixtures from the Allegan Antiques Market, 25 minutes from town. He now sells local produce and apple pies from the 95-year-old Crane’s Pie Pantry ($ 6054 124th Ave.; cranespiepantry.com) in nearby Fennville. Of course, as befits Saugatuck, suspended in the amber of summers past, he stocks other favorites, like Coca-Cola—glass-bottled and made with real cane sugar.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.