One of Michigan’s most popular destinations, South Haven is hardly a discovery. But North Beach, right in town, still feels like one. You have to go looking for it—tap the brakes down a steep hill on a neighborhood side street before it takes a hard left at a weatherbeaten burger shack with aquamarine trim advertising ice-cold pop, hot dogs, french fries, and ice cream in handpainted letters. Beyond that, the beach: so flat and close you muse for an instant that a lead foot would shoot you across the powdery sand and smack into Lake Michigan. Outside your driver’s-side window, a cute little row of houses painted in lavender, mint, teal, and flamingo-pink crowds the sandswept street.
A lot of newer vacation homes in these parts look big, private, gated, and cold. But North Beach cottages feel like the places your hardworking grandparents might’ve taken their family in a puttering Model T. Where their kids could play with other youngsters staying in the quaint cottages up the hill, overlooking the surf. Where they sat on the porch come evening and handed out glass bottles of Coca-Cola and Schlitz from a steel cooler. You stay here not to get away from it all, but to be in the middle of it—walking a sandy block barefoot to take a morning swim; hollering at the gang to come in for lunch; cooking out for new summer friends; remembering, if only for a few wistful days of the year, that beachside is where you truly belong.
Travel Time: 3.5 hours
Getting There: North Beach (Lakeshore Drive and Avery Street) is located on the north side of South Haven, across the Black River and over the Dyckman Street bridge, with meter parking right on the beach. Daily ($7) or weekly ($15) parking stickers for South Haven’s city beaches are available at City Hall (539 Phoenix St., 269-637-0700).
Beach-hop: If you long instead for summer reading and tanning naps, you can escape the squeals and splashing of North Beach with a quick drive to any of five public pocket beaches—Woodman (97 N. Shore Dr.), Dyckman Street (175 N. Shore Dr.), Packard Park (231 N. Shore Dr.), Oak Street (375 N. Shore Dr.), and Newcome (725 N. Shore Dr.)—tucked away in neighborhoods along a one-mile stretch just up the road from North Beach. Each has a handful of coin-meter parking spaces, though only Packard Park has a restroom, making these spots mostly non-destinations for the throngs.
Stay: You can’t get any closer to the beach than Key Lime Cottage (3 BR, 1 BA, sleeps 6; $1,800–$2,400/week), a cheerfully decorated rental with a broad view of the lake.
A no-fuss alternative just a couple of miles up the coast, Sleepy Hollow Beach Resort (from $190/night; 7400 N. Shore Dr., 269-637-1127) offers a well-manicured community of historic-but-updated Art Deco cottages and newer condos in a wooded setting. It sits on a high bluff with a lovely view of the private beach and has a large, heated pool.
Do: All summer long, Riverfront Park (101 Water St., 269-637-0772) hosts a free Riverfront Concert Series, movie nights, and other entertainment on Thursday evenings at 7 p.m.
Eat: You might plan the big family sit-down at Clementine’s (500 Phoenix Rd., 269-637-4755), a downtown South Haven institution. The dining hall with handsome wood paneling occupies a historic bank building that looks like a castle, with a one-size-fits-all menu.
For less-eventful meals, a good bet is Brix Corner Oven (402 Eagle St., 269-767-7342). Wood-fired flatbreads are made in a former filling station and served al fresco with summer cocktails and local craft beer.