really good beach holds its allure long after the sun-worshipers have rolled up their towels. That’s how you know you’ve stumbled upon a gem in the village of Empire, considered the gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and all of its bombastic scenery. As the sunset paints the sky and the first nip of evening air rustles the beach grass, there are campfire rings to be claimed and footballs to be tossed. People pull cherry brats out of their coolers, tug the strings on their hoodies, and settle into their lawn chairs. The last paddleboarder drags his ride onto the shore and slowly hitches it up to a cart so he can walk it home. No one rushes away from a beach this perfect.
Empire’s wide stretch of white sand on the Leelanau Peninsula dips into cool, slightly choppy surf favored by kayakers and longboard surfers, with massive bluffs and dunes framing the view of the water—and North Manitou and South Manitou islands in the distance. The beach backs up to a small park featuring swings and an antique anchor the size of a Volkswagen, which in turn backs up to tiny South Bar Lake with its wooden pier straight out of a Country Time Lemonade commercial. Just up the hill, the entire town of Empire barely tops out at 300 people, which makes this secluded pocket of coastline feel all the more like a well-kept secret. So you didn’t hear about it from us.
Travel Time: 7 hours
Getting There: To get your bearings, visit the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center (9922 W. Front St., 888-334-8499) on M-72 just east of the intersection with M-22. From there, the Empire Highway melds into what you might call the town’s main drag. Make your way to Niagara Street, which leads to the beach.
Going to Town: Located 26 miles west of Traverse City, Empire has a sleepy coastal-burg feel. You can pick up a Wi-Fi signal anywhere within the city limits, and buy a jar of certified-organic chocolate-chili rub at Grocers Daughter Chocolate (12020 S. Leelanau Hwy., 231-326-3030). But if you want to visit a “big” town, the boaters’ paradise of Glen Arbor, 8 miles away, bustles with enough sidewalk cafes and gift shops to keep you busy for a while.
Stay: You can feel like a local by renting a darling cottage in town, such as the two-bedroom, bungalow-style Holly House (from $1,300/week; 10184 W. Front St., 231-631-9606), or the Empire Rose ($1,200/week; 10176 W. Front St., 231-326-5643), which has its own rose garden.
Play: Follow the trail of sand up the hill from Empire Beach to Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak (10228 W. Front St., 231-326-9283) for kayak and bike rentals and $40 surf lessons.
You will want to explore Sleeping Bear Dunes ($10 weekly pass; maps and admission at Philip A. Hart Visitor Center). The protected lakeshore, part of the National Park Service, encompasses 65 miles of sandy beaches, inland lakes, lush forests, monstrous dunes to climb, and bluffs that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan—much of the spectacle connected by well-marked hiking and biking trails as well as the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Park side roads lead to remote shores, like Good Harbor Bay, where aquamarine water laps at a pair of white-sand beaches that feel like the Midwest’s version of the West Indies