Top Lake Michigan Getaways: Stearns Park Beach

Surf city

One minute, you’re strolling down a shaded residential street,

past 100-year-old family cottages and retreats that go by names (The Hideaway, Woodlea Cottage) instead of addresses. The next minute, the horizon opens onto an expanse of creamy white sand, cobalt-blue water, and cornflower sky, their layers as distinct as the stripes on a Kate Spade handbag. As beaches go, Stearns Park takes up very little coastal real estate—just 2,500 feet of sandy shoreline on public property within walking distance of downtown.

But the beach’s petite size and convenience make it all the more darling—in a free-spirited, Gidget Goes to Lake Michigan kind of way. The waist-deep water feels pleasantly cool, the waves low and gentle as they roll you around and lap at a beach that becomes a patchwork of lounge chairs and coolers as the sun rises higher. At the far end of the sand sits a sunny yellow concession stand, and just a Frisbee’s toss away, a skateboard park and shuffleboard courts are open to the public in a neighborhood that could pass for a laidback SoCal beach town, right down to the high lifeguard perch and police officers patrolling the boardwalk on bicycles.

Distance: 326 milesStearns Park Beach Map

Travel Time: 5.5 hours

Getting There: Take a right when U.S. Route 10 hits the coastline, and you’ll arrive at Stearns Park Beach (Stearns Outer Dr.), where parking is free–but only for early birds. If you arrive later, find a spot along downtown streets, grab an iced latte, and walk a couple of pleasant blocks to the water.

Going to Town: Charming sidewalks are lined with the requisite cafes, T-shirt shops, and hangouts like The Mitten Bar (109 W. Ludington Ave., 231-843-7616), a cozy spot for craft beer and live music, and The Book Mark (201 S. Rath Ave., 231-843-2537), a cafe and bookshop where nearly every board meeting in town must take place. A walkable harbor area bustles with pedicabs and Bermuda-shorts foot traffic, especially around Waterfront Park, which has a playground and a series of life-size statues depicting the town’s history (imagine Carmel’s City Center-by-the-Sea). But to truly soak in the quaintness of Ludington, take the cellphone-guided Lumber Heritage Trail tour (231-480-3084), which offers historic narration and stories about 10 area lumber-baron mansions.

Stay: Don’t make the mistake of pronouncing the Cartier Mansion (from $135/night; 409 E. Ludington Ave., 231-843-0101) as you would the luxury brand; around here, the word has two syllables (car-teer). The eponymous bed-and-breakfast, a stunning white-columned Neoclassical estate along the town’s main drag of historic homes, offers five meticulously appointed guest rooms, an in-house museum, and an antiques shop in its carriage house.

The Aloha House (from $175/night; 706 E. Ludington Ave., 231-907-1299) owes its elegant island theme to a Maui-expat owner. It also welcomes pets.

Play: The Trailhead Beach Shack (south end of Stearns Park Beach) rents kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and bicycles.

Eat: Fruit crisps a la mode and house specialties like the Roseanne, Roseanna Banana (hot caramel sauce, a sliced banana, and vanilla ice cream over homemade banana bread) draw crowds to the House of Flavors (402 W. Ludington Ave., 231-845-5785), a townie and tourist favorite since the 1950s.

If you want to eat fresh fish the way the locals do, choose your catch of the day at the seafood dive Bortell’s Landing (5528 S. Lakeshore Dr., 231-843-3337), a few minutes out of town. After they have deep-fried it and added french fries, go outside, take the driveway to the left, find a comfortable spot to sit at lakefront Summit Park, and watch the waves roll in.