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When spring returns to the Great Lakes, a string of shore towns shake off the snow and get ready for another kind of flurry -- tourist season along the Michigan coast.
Up and down U.S. Highway 31, coastal cities come alive after the thaw. The fountains of Grand Haven start to dance. Dune buggies begin bouncing along the sands of Saugatuck beaches. And an explosion of color greets flower lovers at Tulip Time Festival in Holland, where windmills twirl above an authentic Dutch village.
A long weekend is all that's needed to hit all the hot spots along this scenic 80-mile route, from St. Joseph in the south to Grand Haven up north. Our recommended itinerary includes these favorites (if you're coming from the north, just take the tour in reverse order):
Situated on a bluff looking over the mouth of the St. Joseph River, the old-fashioned town offers sweeping lake views from every corner of its brick-paved streets. If you have youngsters under 11, don't miss the Curious Kids' Museum. Allow 90 minutes here for climbing a miniature volcano, driving a scale-model ambulance, or crawling inside a giant soap bubble. The museum even has a "Mars Rover" table, where junior astronauts can use mini space buggies and robot arms to take soil samples on a Martian landscape.
From the bluff, take the steep steps down to Silver Beach, where you'll find beach shelters for changing into swimsuits, a playground, and two 1,000-foot piers leading out to a pair of lighthouses. During the first week of May, you'll catch Blossomtime Festival, a century-old spring celebration culminating in a Floral Parade in St. Joseph and neighboring Benton Harbor.
Thirty miles north on Highway 31, the picturesque fishing port of South Haven triples its population in spring and summer. Shops and eateries line the harbor at the mouth of the Black River. The Michigan Maritime Museum on the boardwalk recounts Lake Michigan nautical history, using models and real boats from prehistoric canoes to Coast Guard rescue craft. Stop here for 45 minutes, longer if you've signed up for one of the weekend boat-building or navigation workshops.
Nature fans love camping at nearby Van Buren State Park, with unbeatable water views and sites just off the beach. Older family members can stay at one of the many Victorian B&Bs in town. In August, don't miss the National Blueberry Festival, which celebrates the star crop of this fruit-growing region. Stop at The Blueberry Store for berry-themed clothing, gifts, and food.
Shoppers and art lovers flock to Saugatuck, 19 miles north of South Haven on Highway 31. You can search for masterpieces in more than 20 galleries here and in neighboring Douglas. Then, shop along Butler Street, Saugatuck's main drag, for everything from gourmet foods to hand-made stationery. The kids will appreciate a cherry phosphate or chocolate malted at the Saugatuck Drug Store. Its vintage soda fountain has been dispensing beverages since the shop opened some 85 years ago.
Another favorite with youngsters is the Star of Saugatuck, a stern-wheel paddleboat with 90-minute cruises down the Kalamazoo River. For a bouncier outing, take a rollicking 35-minute tour in an open-air dune buggy from Saugatuck Dune Rides. Beach bums won't be disappointed here, either. Oval Beach, a short walk from downtown, is consistently ranked as one of the best lake beaches in the U.S.
It's only a 15-minute drive north from Saugatuck, but you'll feel like you've crossed the Atlantic when you get to Holland, MI. Settlers from the Netherlands founded this village in the mid-1800s, and the Dutch flavor still enlivens the town.
The Dutch Village, a 10-acre theme park, recreates 19th-century Amsterdam. Canals, old-world brick buildings, and gardens surround a street carnival with klompen dancers, a carousel, and a "zweefmolen," a whirling swing ride.
It wouldn't be Holland without a windmill, and this Michigan namesake has an impressive one in Windmill Island Municipal Park. DeZwaan, a twelve-story giant built in the Netherlands in the 1780s, whirls 80-foot arms, grinding graham flour that you can buy as a souvenir.
Four miles north of town, the 80-acre Veldheer Tulip Farm lets you stroll fields of blooms, then order your favorite bulbs to plant at home. Next door, you can watch artisans at the De Klomp Factory produce delicate blue-and-white Delft china. Each May, when tulips are at their peak, Holland celebrates with a 10-day festival, appropriately named Tulip Time.
From Holland, go 18 miles north on Highway 31 to Grand Haven, where fountains dance and beach sand sings. That's right, every evening in spring and summer, water from a lighted fountain on the banks of the Grand River dances to the tune of recorded music. Tip: Get there early for bleacher seats -- it's a popular attraction.
At lakefront Grand Haven State Park, legendary "singing sands" serenade as you stroll the beach. Locals say that when the sand has the right amount of moisture, it "whistles" underfoot. After all that singing and dancing, hop on the Harbor Steamer, a jaunty paddle wheeler docked at Chinook Pier, for a half-hour tour of the riverfront.
Type of trip: Scenic, beach, theme park, shopping
Best ages: 3 and up
Ideal trip length: Long weekend
Distance (to St. Joseph): Chicago (94 miles); Flint, MI (181 miles); Toledo, OH (185 miles); Indianapolis (170 miles)
Best time to go: Late spring, or weekdays in summer (to avoid crowds)
Weather: 58/36 degrees in April, 82/58 in August
Curious Kids' Museum 415 Lake Blvd., St. Joseph, MI Phone: 616-983-CKID
Michigan Maritime Museum 260 Dyckman Ave., South Haven Phone: 616-637-8078
Van Buren State Park 23960 Ruggles Rd., South Haven Phone: 616-637-2788
The Blueberry Store 525 Phoenix St., South Haven Phone: 616-637-6322.
Saugatuck Drugstore Soda Fountain 201 Butler St. Phone: 616-857-2300
Star of Saugatuck Boat Cruises 716 Water St. Phone: 616-857-4261
Saugatuck Dune Rides 6495 Washington Rd. Phone: 616-857-2253
Dutch Village Theme Park 12350 James St., Holland Phone: 616-396-1475
Windmill Island Municipal Park 7th and Lincoln, Holland Phone: 616-355-1030
Veldheer Tulip Farm 12755 Quincy St., Holland Phone: 616-399-1900
Harbor Steamer Riverboat Cruises 301 North Harbor Ave., Grand Haven Phone: 616-842-8950
Favorite local spot: Crane's Pie Pantry 6054 124th Ave. (Route M89), Fennville (7 miles SE of Saugatuck) Phone: 616-561-2297 Note: Order a piece of homemade pie bursting with locally grown cherries, peaches, raspberries, or blueberries. Sandwiches, soups, and chili round out the menu. Open 7 days a week, May to January; weekends only, January to May.
Best souvenir: You can't come home from Holland without wooden shoes. At Dutch Village, watch lumber become footwear, then buy a pair to "klomp" around in.
Traffic alert: Be prepared for backups if you're driving up from Chicago on summer weekends.Annual events:
Make the kids promise to sit still for 17 more miles, and they'll be rewarded with a cool, half-hour tour of a WWII-era sub. On permanent display at Pere Marquette Park in Muskegon, the USS Silversides sank 23 enemy ships in its day. It's now a nifty maritime museum where young ones can go below deck for a taste of submarine duty. 1346 Bluff St., Muskegon, 231-755-1230.
Another crowd-pleaser: the Michigan Adventure Amusement Park, 8 miles north of town. This fun center combines classic amusement park rides with an adjacent Water Park, so if the Shivering Timbers roller coaster leaves you in a sweat, you can cool off in the Boogie Beach wave pool. 4750 Whitehall Rd., Muskegon, 231-766-3377.
Reviewed May 2004.