When you visit Oval Beach late on a Tuesday morning—even on a perfect Tuesday, when streaky white clouds define the distant horizon between blue sky and deeper-blue water, and the hot sun and cool breeze team to thrill your hair and tingle your skin—you’d never guess that Conde Nast Traveler is said to have ranked this serene stretch of sand among the best shorelines in the world. (Yes, the world.) With press that good, more people should be here. And there should be more fuss. At least a T-shirt shop or an ice-cream stand.
Thank goodness there is none of that. Despite its massive scale, Oval Beach feels more neighborhood park than tourist attraction. The light-sand beach, partly hidden in swaying dune grass, stretches out of sight. The facilities, consisting as they do of little more than a modest showerhouse and a weathered boardwalk (with a sweeping view of the shoreline), have the same well-worn-but-functional patina characteristic of Lake Michigan’s southwestern corner, a region as attractive, in its own laidback way, as any American seacoast—where there’s plenty of money around but not the kind that needs to show off.
Distance: 225 miles
Travel Time: 4 hours
Getting There: Oval Beach (Perryman St. and Oval Beach Dr., Saugatuck, $6 per car) has parking a few steps and a long staircase away from the sand. You can go by foot from Saugatuck for $1 via the Saugatuck Chain Ferry (528 Water St.), first launched in 1838 to cross the Kalamazoo River. The beach is about a third of a mile from the ferry dock.
Going to Town: It’s difficult to put a finger on where, exactly, Saugatuck reminds you of. The cozy hamlet is part Maine fishing village and part Northern California beach town, and locals like to call it the “Key West of the Midwest” (partly because the area is a popular gay-travel destination). Comparisons aside, though, Saugatuck has a casual Middle American style all its own. The shops, galleries, restaurants, and bars have a scruffy charm, as do many of the seasonal townsfolk—well-heeled, fun-loving summer-homers who dock extravagant vessels in the harbor and stroll into town to let their hair down.
Across Kalamazoo Lake, the more-dignified sibling of Douglas feels like a place where people actually live—in adorable clapboard cottages huddled close together on a grid of sleepy little blocks. The impeccably preserved 19th-century Main Street, bearing a resemblance to postcard Vermont, provides a stroll of art galleries, artisan shops, and upscale cafes.
Stay: Lake Shore Resort (from $140/night; 2885 Lake Shore Dr., Saugatuck, 269-857-7121) is a rarity in these parts—hotel-style accommodations right on Lake Michigan. Perched on a high bluff overlooking the water, the resort offers breathtaking views, manicured lawns, firepits, an intimate private beach with chair set-up, and free use of bicycles and kayaks.
Nearly 15 years ago, a Hoosier couple spruced up Pines Motorlodge (from $99/night; 56 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas, 269-857-5211) with beachy beadboard walls, cushy knotty-pine beds, vivid summer colors, and Adirondack chairs for a retro breath of fresh air.
Shop: You can’t swing a handpainted ceramic cat in Saugatuck without hitting a gallery or gift shop. But save room in the trunk for Earl’s Farm Market (1630 Blue Star Hwy., Fennville, 269-227-2074), located at the end of a gravel lane. U-pick berry fields surround the open-sided market building.