West Michigan Harbor Towns

Great Lakes
Saugatuck chainlink ferry

Where can you find turquoise blue and emerald green waters, and seemingly endless sandy beaches with spectacular sunsets projecting a kaleidoscope of colors almost every evening? It sounds like the Gulf Coast or California, but Michigan is the place to go. Boating here promises to deliver boundless shorelines, historic ports and a string of lighthouses that dot its western coast from the bottom of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the top off Mackinac Island.

The “inland seas” have a rich maritime heritage from Niagara to International Falls that ranges from recreational boating and ship building to fishing, sailing and jet skis. Long before the auto industry gained a foothold here, lumber and mining endured boom and bust times in many of these towns, making for a rich tapestry of history and a treasure trove of memories. Now, ambitious marina development projects are emerging as old power plants and factories are torn down, making way for bustling new waterfronts.

A multitude of attractions and festivals — such as Grand Haven Musical Fountain, the Coast Guard Festival, Silver Lake’s dune buggy rides or floating down the Pere Marquette or Platte Rivers on a lazy summer afternoon — are just a few of the reasons to visit. In addition, many marina and port facilities offer stopover opportunities, because Michigan is known not only for its recent College Football National Championship, but also for local blueberries, apples, cherries and grapes grown in sandy soil during warm days and cool summer nights.

When you explore this coastline, remember to keep up to date on the latest charts and harbor information. Lake bottoms are primarily sand and silt that are constantly shifting, even as water levels rise and fall. Plus, when you reach the northern islands, mosquitos and black flies can intercept your boat, covering it in the middle of the lake. The rewards far outweigh the challenges as you explore the following harbor towns.

South Haven

South Haven | Credit: bogdanstepniak via Wikimedia Commons

Highlighted by its state park beach and a very walkable lighthouse pier, downtown is just a quick pop away to check out Harbor Light Brewery. The beer, local music and hospitality are second to none. Insider tip: Try the peach cider. The Black River Tavern is right up the street, too. Michigan Maritime Museum welcomes young and old alike, shows what it was like to book passage on a 19th century passenger steamer, tells about Lake Michigan’s “Bermuda Triangle” and examines the wonders of the region with artifacts, displays and boating experiences.

The $3.7 million dollar Heritage Center sits on the banks of the Black River across the Dykman Drawbridge and across the street from Gull Lake Marine Storage. The Marialyce Canonie Great Lakes Research Library is in the historic Lightkeeper’s House and focuses on the maritime history in the Great Lakes and Michigan from the prehistoric period to the present.

Where to Dock: South Haven Municipal Marina North and Woodland Harbor Marina


On your way north take a quick pit stop in Saugatuck, especially if you’re antique shopping. As you enter Holland, the big red lighthouse hovers like a monolith over the channel entrance into Lake Macatawa, or “black water,” according to indigenous Ottawa legend.

Choosing between the local beaches along the shore comes down to the critical choice of ice cream, music or your favorite brew pub. New Holland Brewing Co. on Eighth Street is known for its famous Dragon’s Milk Stout, which is brewed in bourbon barrels, and their addictive pizza pinwheels. And you can’t go wrong with a stop at the Boatwerks Restaurant.

Holland’s waterfront could soon be home to a hotel, marina, cruise ship docks, restaurants, and additional homes with private and visitor slips in a unique land swap. “The Marina project here is about community vision, public involvement and engagement on work projects. It is about developing a world class downtown that didn’t have a connection to the waterfront,” said City Manager Keith Van Beek. Chris-Craft built beautiful boats here for years, and now Tiara Yachts has continued the boat-building tradition in Holland.

Where to Dock: Yacht Basin Marina and Ottawa Beach Marina


Looking for waves? Keep heading north to Pere Marquette State Park in Muskegon where the surf rolls in untethered, and always a crowd and good music convene at the deck. If rollercoasters are your speed, Michigan’s Great Adventure is a few minutes away, and though it isn’t quite like Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH, you find enough thrills to get your adrenaline flowing and heart pumping.

Lake Michigan Express ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee has replaced the old Milwaukee Clipper, which is still parked on Lake Muskegon waiting for restoration papers to breathe life back into its historic decks.

This region is about the future as well as major marina developments that are either in the works or on their way, such as Adelaide Pointe on Lake Muskegon. Local food and fun happen at The Deck at Pere Marquette Beach plus Ghezzi’s Deli & Market.

Just north is Ludington and the coal-fired SS Badger boat that takes you across the lake in Titanic style! It has a fresh coat of paint, making the legendary car ferry freighter look as new as it was when launched in 1953. It makes daily round trips to Manitowoc, WI, and on the four-hour voyage, be sure to play Badger Bingo.

Where to Dock: Safe Habor Great Lakes and Hartshorn Marina

Traverse City sunrise | Credit: Bryan Casteel via Wikimedia Commons

Traverse City

The base of Grand Traverse Bay is “traversed” by Mission Point Peninsula, which separates the East and West Bays. Its rolling hills and cherry orchards lend credentials that it is the Cherry Capital of the World.

The Cherry Festival anchors the start of July with an array of international musical groups and bands, with the highlight being the Blue Angels flying in and out of town at supersonic speeds.

Traverse City has an idyllic shopping and restaurant district just footsteps from local marinas. Foodie favorites include the Apache Trout Grill and Blue Tractor Barbeque.

Where to Dock: Elmwood Marina and Duncan L. Clinch Marina


Take a stroll through “Fishtown” and walk along docks lined with weathered fishing shanties, smokehouses, racks of drying fishing nets, and fish tugs on the Leland (Carp) River. It’s easy to imagine what it was like in the early 1900s to live and work in this small fishing village. Back then, many of the boats were small, built of oak and carried primitive gas power.

Today, Fishtown still operates as one of the only working commercial fishing villages in Michigan. Many shanties now house delightful gift and clothing boutiques, art galleries, and specialty food shops. Summer bustles with activity, and during colder seasons, the docks become quiet and tranquil.

For restaurants, try Bluebird or The Cove. Wineries are expanding rapidly in Leelanau County offering the character, landscape and charm of the best that Napa and Sonoma Counties offer. The whole region is embraced by Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park & Lakeshore with North and South Manitou Islands just over the horizon.

The park covers a 35-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline with Point Betsie Lighthouse on Sleeping Bear’s “front door” and located at the southern entrance to the Manitou Passage where the Race to Mackinac sailing fleet cuts through on their way north.

Where to Dock: Leland Township Marina

Harbor Springs/Petoskey

Just past the dunes lies the twin port towns of Petoskey and Harbor Springs on Little Traverse Bay. Petoskey features its famous stone (a combo of rock and a fossil, often pebble-shaped and composed of a fossilized rugose coral) that you can still find on the beach! And the Gaslight Village downtown shopping district is full of fun and fudge.

Stafford’s Perry Hotel is a must, as is near Bayview and its historic summer residences that once included the home of Ernest Hemingway. Harbor Springs is the closest copy of Bar Harbor you’ll discover on the Great Lakes. Many of its cottages seem transported in time from East Coast counterparts. Highlights include the annual Ugotta Regatta, Stafford’s Pier Restaurant and Legs Inn, known for its Polish cuisine and totem poles up the “tunnel of trees” on Highway 22.

Where to Dock: Harbor Springs Municipal Marina and Irish Boat Shop

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