We know what you’re thinking: No body of water in Michigan can hold a candle to the Caribbean’s impossibly turquoise hue. You’re mostly right. But Torch Lake is the state’s freak of nature: light-blue water fetching enough that National Geographic once ranked it the third-prettiest lake in the world. The exact shade depends on the weather, but on a sun-blessed afternoon, the tone reaches can’t-look-away beauty with clear visibility up to 15 feet. Plus, the springfed lake is warmer than Lake Michigan. Those are high priorities for beachgoers spoiled by Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
The catch: You’ll want a boat. Torch comes by its enviable striated colors because the glaciers that dug its long trench left several shelves below the surface, and each depth creates a different hue. But the topography also makes for steep banks without any great beaches—at least not on the shoreline. Instead, a crowd gathers at a large sandbar just offshore, halfway up the eastern edge. Boats tie in next to one another, and sunseekers wade around, drinking and flirting. Even on a cloudy day, there will be hundreds of pontoons and speedboats; in perfect weather, it’s a mob scene best described as adult spring break. Footballs fly, four-person innertubes float past, and the Burger Barge, parked in knee-deep water, plies the masses with grilled patties and barbecue. Pro tip: Watch for ropes that can trip you up in the water.
If you’re not in the party mood, don’t worry. Torch is Michigan’s second-biggest inland lake, so it’s easy to find a quiet cove, take a dip, go tubing, and watch windsurfers fly. Offshore from the YMCA, north of the sandbar, regulars search the water for coveted Petoskey stones (once polished, they have a decorative hexagonal pattern). It’s also a short drive to an unspoiled Lake Michigan beach at Barnes County Park. As part of the Chain of Lakes, Torch is connected to five other swimming and fishing holes by channels and small rivers. They aren’t as dazzling at Torch, but hardly anything is.
Travel Time: 6.5 hours
Getting There: Butch’s Tackle & Marine (6235 Crystal Springs Rd., Bellaire, 231-377-6787) can hook you up with a pontoon (from $350/day) that launches from the shop’s dock, plus kayaks, paddleboards, and jet skis. If you want to hit the sandbar without a boat, wear your swimsuit and park on the shoulder of Crystal Beach Road just north of Torch River Marine (12906 Cherry Ave., Rapid City) and the bridge over Torch River. There’s a pocket park with a patch of sand; walk from the shore to the sandbar in chest-deep water.
Going to Town: Alden, located on the eastern shoreline, feels like a postcard New England hamlet with its tidy inns, upscale boutiques, and casual restaurants. About 20 minutes from the north end of Torch Lake, the upper-crust harbor town Charlevoix scales up the same vibe and hosts a big summer art show (June 27–28).
Stay: Most of Torch is ringed with private homes in wooded areas. Stay on the eastern shore to enjoy sunsets. One such choice is Torchlight Resort (10783 Torchlight Lane, Central Lake), a lakefront community of eight rental homes, each with a boat slip. Communal amenities include a swimming area, a shady lawn, and Adirondack chairs. Number 4, a four-bedroom cottage that sleeps 12 ($1,675/week in June, Sat.–Sat.), was remodeled in 2011 with modern finishes. Large A-frame windows and a deck offer gloriously unobstructed water and sunset views.
Eat: Area resident and HGTV heartthrob Carter Oosterhouse is a fan of Short’s Brewing Company (121 N. Bridge St., Bellaire, 231-498-2300)—along with everyone else. The brewpub known for great live music will open an expansion this summer.