Photo courtesy the Old Boat House.
Candy-colored runabouts with tail fins and lots of shiny chrome are the newest way to cruise the Kalamazoo River as it flows through Saugatuck, an upscale resort town in southwest Michigan. The floating equivalent of the red 1959 Chevy Impala convertible your fun aunt drove, these 14-foot fiberglass boats were manufactured between 1955 to 1963 and called jet or atomic boats. Those remaining are most likely languishing in old barns and waiting to be salvaged by someone like Lauren and John Sharar, who bought an old boathouse on the river and then wondered what to do with it.
The answer was restoring these lost beauties and opening Retro Boat Rental at the Old Boat House. Starting at $115 for a 90-minute ride and $225 for three hours, you can now navigate the Kalamazoo just like Midge Maisel or Don Draper would have if they had summered in Saugatuck.
No coolers are allowed on board, but since Saugatuck is located in a region brimming with orchards, vineyards, and farms, better culinary options abound, anyway. Take along a catfish sandwich on a housemade biscuit from James Beard nominee Matt Miller’s The Southerner , an Appalachian-inspired restaurant. Or go for pit-smoked barbecue at Baldy’s Smoked Meats.
Being a river, there are really only two ways to go, so why not both? Southeast, the Kalamazoo meanders through Saugatuck’s historic waterfront, past the social scene at places like Coney Island on one bank and stately summer homes and quaint cottages on the other. Pack a suit, let Lauren or John know ahead of time that you want to go for a dip, and head north. In that direction, the river narrows into a channel that drifts into Lake Michigan. There’s a harbor here—locals call it The Cove—where you can drop anchor, enjoy your meal, and strip down to your swimsuit to take a float in the cool waters. Your aunt would have.
Territory: Saugatuck, Michigan
Distance: 225 miles
Drive time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Sip: Lake Michigan creates the perfect microclimate for grapes, earning the designation of the Lake Michigan Shore American Viticultural Area. Find tasting rooms in downtown Saugatuck and in nearby Fennville.
Stay: The Wickwood Inn (starting at $229/night) is owned by Bill and Julee Rosso. She’s a famous cookbook author and co-founder of the Silver Palate food empire.