Every summer (shortly after Memorial Day), you can spot a serpentine wall of brake lights snaking its way out of the Tri-State and crawling over the Smoky Mountains to its destination on the South Carolina Coast. For many Tri-Staters, the southward trek to Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head has become a summer pilgrimage, as evidenced by the wave of Reds and Bengals jerseys frequently crashing on Dixie’s sunny shore.
If only there was a closer beachfront paradise: two towns that offer Cincinnatians the same surfside relaxation as Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, for half the commute. Enter: South Haven and Saugatuck.
South Haven is one of the most popular Michigan beach towns, and it is easy to see why. South Haven boasts an iconic lighthouse, a slew of cozy timeshares, a quaint main drag, and plenty of waterfront dining in its picturesque harbor, which is formed by the mouth of the Black River. The famous lighthouse (and great swimming) can be found in North Beach Park, just north of the harbor. If you are looking to plunge into Great Lakes history, check out the Michigan Maritime Museum, located on the harbor.
The museum features age-old ships (you can even crawl through a few), and other timeworn artifacts from Michigan’s rich nautical history. Visitors can even take a two-hour sunset cruise on a historic 1810 replica sloop.
Located just a few miles up the coast, Saugatuck is South Haven’s artsy older sibling. Downtown Saugatuck is a gallery hopper’s dream. It has everything from avant-garde, contemporary galleries to the sort of comforting, sunrise and sailboat paintings that you'd expect any self-respecting Michigan art town would have.
Speaking of works of art, Saugatuck has a craft beer and food scene that punches way above its small town weight. For craft beer, check out Saugatuck Brewing Company. The brewery has been a local staple since 2005 — plenty of time to perfect the refreshing blondes, wheat beers, and IPAs that are the ideal accompaniment to a Michigan summer.
For legit, award-winning (seriously, the chef is a two-time James Beard semifinalist) southern comfort food, check out The Southerner. They whip up a fried chicken that would make any Kentucky Colonel weep into his perfectly-manicured goatee.
Oh, and in case you couldn’t tell from the pictures, the beaches are pretty amazing too.
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South Haven and Saugatuck are both a little over 300 miles north of Cincinnati. That makes for a drive time around 5+ hours.