Cruising Yachtsman: The Lake Michigan Triangle

One trip through three states in three days provides a great way of vanishing. Marty Richardson takes us on a journey to Chicago, Michigan City and Saugatuck.

There’s nothing like winter in Chicago to make a yachtsman yearn for summer voyages. One I often relive is the clockwise cruise around the Lake Michigan Triangle.

Chicago anchors the southwestern corner of the triangle, and the first leg takes you 90 miles northeast of the city to Saugatuck, Michigan. Perched at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, Saugatuck and its sister city, Douglas, offer visitors a chance to enjoy art, history and spectacular natural resources. Midwest Living magazine ranked this area fifth among the top 100 vacation destinations in the Midwest, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation named it one of 2009’s “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” in the United States. Its beaches have received high praise from the media as well, but you’d be better off asking one of the thousands of repeat summer visitors what they think — or best of all — making a visit yourself.

Tower Marina, photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.


No need to worry about shoreside transportation, because almost everything in town is within walking distance of the harbor, which is home to more than 900 boats of all sizes and character. My favorites are the Victorian hand-cranked Saugatuck Ferry, the old-fashioned stern-wheeler Star of Saugatuck dinner cruiser and a World War II amphibious “Duck” water taxi. You’ll find more slips on the Douglas side of the river at Tower Marine, which has 500 deepwater berths accommodating boats up to 90 feet, and just a block from downtown, Sergeant Marina has slips for yachts up to 50 feet long.

Saugatuck’s Oval Beach earned the distinction of being one of the world’s top 25. Photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.

If you need a break from the boat, you may try one of Saugatuck’s more than 25 bed-and-breakfast establishments. The lovely Belvedere Inn features six-course gourmet dinners complemented by boutique wine pairings on the first Saturday of each month, November through April. On Butler Street, you’ll find tasting rooms for two of West Michigan’s oldest and most prize-winning wineries. Of course, the city offers other dining options: Everyday People Cafe, the Wild Dog Grille (try a martini), Phil’s Bar & Grille, the Saugatuck Brewing Co. and the Lucky Stone Pub, where 11 brands of beer are on tap. You can even replenish your provisions with some locally grown produce, baked goods and flowers at one of several green markets.


****Tower Marina, photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.

Now that you’ve nourished your body, take some time to feed your aesthetic sensibilities. Dubbed the Art Coast of Michigan, Saugatuck features approximately 30 galleries where you can shop for clothing, jewelry, pottery, sculptures and paintings made by local artists. Visitors from Chicago will feel right at home at the more than 100-year-old Ox-Bow school of the arts, which is affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago. The area’s annual highlights include the Venetian Festival on the last weekend in July and the Tast of Saugatuck food festival on the last Sunday of August. You can take in live performances during the summer at the Mason Street Warehouse and Red Barn Theater, or catch Music in the Park at the Wicks Park Gazebo on Water Street.

View from Mount Baldhead, photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.


From the end of May through late September, you can get an introduction to the natural history of the magnificent dune land with a guided nature walk at Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area. Or take the 1.8-mile hike up Mount Baldhead, affectionately known as “Mount Baldy.” If architecture is more your style, the Saugatuck/Douglas Historical Society organizes walking tours of the historic downtown area during July and August.

The next point on your triangular cruise is Michigan City, Indiana, 75 miles southwest of Saugatuck. Two lighthouses welcome mariners: The East Pierhead Lighthouse, built in 1904, is the only operating lighthouse in Indiana open to the public. It features an elevated catwalk used by light keepers of old to access the tower. Nearby, the Old Michigan City Lighthouse, built in 1858 and originally fueled by sperm-whale oil, is now a maritime museum and on the National Register of Historic Places.

You won’t be lonely at the Heisman Harbor yacht basin in Michigan City, Indiana. It features 500 slips for boats up to 100 feet length overall. Photo courtesy Capt. Kleihege.


Pleasure boating received a big boost in 1965 from the creation of the Heisman Harbor yacht basin, where Washington Park Municipal Marina now features 500 slips and can accommodate boats of up to 100 feet in length. Transients are welcome on a first-come, first-served basis.

Photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.

Festivals play a big part in Midwestern summers. For almost 60 years, the Michigan City Summer Festival held in early July has provided fun for the whole family. Among its attractions are the Big Parade along Franklin Street, a Cavalier’s Drum and Bugle Corps Pageant, the Kite Festival and the area’s longest-running free fishing tournament.

Photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.

Every August, the Super Boat Great Lakes Grand Prix draws more than 80,000 enthusiasts to the lakeshore, and is the only race on the Super Boat International schedule to take place on Lake Michigan. The five-day event features some of the world’s best offshore powerboat racers, speeding past Washington Park Beach and the East Pierhead Lighthouse at more than 150 miles per hour. Mariners also love Michigan City’s In-Water Boat Show, the largest on Lake Michigan and one of the largest in the Midwest, held in late August.

Michigan City offers a combination of history, outdoor recreation and civilization. Take an architectural tour of downtown’s 27 historic properties dating back to 1833. The lakefront is the center of outdoor activities, featuring 99 acres of parkland where families enjoy walking among the dunes, picnicking and taking the kids to the Oasis Splash Pad. Visitors looking for a dose of modern civilization can lose themselves among the 120 outlet stores at the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlet Mall. Michigan City is the only port on the lake with an outlet mall within walking distance of the docks.

Photo courtesy Felicia Fairchild.

Hungry? Check out the Pierside Grill, Kelly’s Table at Creekwood Inn, Maxine’s or Rodini Restaurant. Before you cast off to complete Lake Michigan’s Triangle with the 38-mile leg west to Chicago, reprovision your boat at Michigan City’s farmers market. Anyone who drools over beautiful cityscapes ought to return at dusk to view in panorama Chicago’s architectural wonders glowing from within.

**For more information on these ports, check these websites:


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