Growing up in Boston and later Tucson, I grew up going on beach vacations in New England and California. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a decade ago that I discovered America’s “Third Coast” (the Great Lakes, for our purposes, though some call the Gulf states the Third Coast) in the Midwest. Visiting my in-laws in St. Joseph, Michigan, I was amazed to see that you don’t need to go to the edges of the country to experience sand between your toes, eat an ice cream on the boardwalk, and swim out further than your parents can see you. The Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph is a resort town from way back in the midst of a comeback, striking the rare balance between charming and twee.
Each year that I’ve visited St. Joseph, the town has evolved and improved into a destination worth visiting beyond a quick side trip from Chicago. The waterfront parks have been revitalized in recent years, and the beaches are so wide and sandy, you could forget you aren’t on an ocean. St. Joe and its sister city Benton Harbor are under two hours from Chicago, as well as an easy drive from other Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, in what has been called the “Riviera of the Midwest.”Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, residents recently had hoped to revive the old Chicago-St. Joseph ferry that carried thousands to the beach in the 1920s heyday, but the venture proved too costly. Land remains the only approach, although there is a trans-Lake Michigan ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon in the summer season, about 90 miles north of St. Joe. Amtrak makes the trip an hour and forty minutes from Chicago daily if you’d prefer not to get caught in traffic.
This area of Michigan is also famed for its produce, owing to the “lake effect” on the climate, helping to produce what is arguably the world’s best fruit. From June to November, you can taste many varieties at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, one of the oldest and largest seller-to-buyer produce markets in America. Excellent fruit means excellent wine as well, and you can visit over a dozen wineries within a dozen miles of St. Joseph. You can also sample Michigan flavors at the annual Harvest Festival and regular farmers markets in the summer season.
In addition to the cute shops and a good selection of restaurants, St. Joseph has a budding arts scene anchored by the Krasl Art Center, which holds a major art fair each summer. The new pride of St. Joe is the Silver Beach area just below downtown. The historic Silver Beach Carousel was first opened in 1910 and re-opened 100 years later after the park had deteriorated and closed in the early ’70s. You can ride the carousel year-round, but go in the summer for the optimum effect, when you can finish out a day at the beach with one of Michigan’s famed sunsets and think about how soon you can return.
[flickr image via Molechaser]