Midwest Living Road Rally 2023: Where the Sun Meets the Water in Michigan

For our 7th annual Road Rally, we traced Michigan’s Sunset Coast, getting our feet wet and discovering the towns along the way. 

Traverse City Lake Cruise boat
Traverse City. Photo: Starboard & Port Creative

Lounging on the springy nets of a catamaran, we watch the sun prepare to take a dip in Grand Traverse Bay. The August air is warm; a gentle breeze ripples through the sails above us. We snap a selfie, raise a toast and turn our attention to the golden glow. It's the last sunset of our annual Midwest Living Road Rally, this year in partnership with Pure Michigan. We've seen a lot of painted skies in the past week, as we explored the state's fittingly nicknamed Sunset Coast.

Our journey took us along Lake Michigan, from Saugatuck to Traverse City, stopping in towns with personalities as varied as the views. We sampled award-winning wines, caught (and ate) Great Lakes fish, got our hearts pumping on dune buggies and ziplines, and met fascinating makers continuing cultural traditions. Over the course of a packed itinerary, we managed to get in or on eight bodies of water—one Great Lake, one bay, two inland lakes andfour rivers—in vessels both motorized and not.

We also got a taste of Michigan's efforts to encourage more eco-friendly travel. The state has installed new electric vehicle charging stations along the Lake Michigan shore. These efforts help protect the beautiful yet fragile coastal ecosystem. When you break to charge, think of it as a chance to slow down, admire the scenery, "meet" a new place—and maybe even catch a sunset.

Saugatuck Retro Boat Rentals
Starboard & Port Creative

Day One: Saugatuck + Fennville


Who You're Meeting

Laid-back with great taste, Saugatuck is like that friend with the arty decor and Pride flag bumper sticker. Located on the Kalamazoo River, the downtown has rainbow-stamped streets and brims with shops and restaurants in cute cottages.

What You'll be Doing

Sidle up to a takeout window at Pennyroyal Cafe and Provisions to grab a cherry-almond scone or settle into the back garden for a leisurely breakfast. Helmed by chef Melissa Corey, Pennyroyal highlights local ingredients in dishes like Johnnycakes with Michigan maple butter. The Whitefish Melt is a must-order at lunch.

Grab a silk scarf and channel Audrey Hepburn glam on a Pepto-pink retro boat at Retro Boat Rentals. Rent Laverne, Doris or Gladys for a relaxing cruise down the Kalamazoo River—the boats are all electric so the only sound will be your giddy chatter.

A striking black building gives way to a minimalist white interior at Coast 236, a downtown fine-dining restaurant. You can order a la carte, but the best deal is the $100 tasting menu: Six courses highlight sustainably caught seafood. (The restaurant is an ambassador in the James Beard Foundation's Smart Catch program.)

Saugatuck Michigan mural
Kylee Krizmanic

Photo Op

There's only one thing to do in front of the mural at the Dockside Marketplace building on Water Street—smile, of course.


Who You're Meeting

A hipster farmer deeply rooted in sustainable agriculture. This American Viticultural Area(AVA) produces some of west Michigan's best libations.

What You'll Be Doing

The land that would become Modales Wines was formerly the homestead of the Wadsworth family, agricultural leaders in the area in the 1800s. Today, owners Jim and Carol Gonzalez produce dry white and bold red wines from grapes grown on two estates within the Fennville AVA.

German beer hall meets working farm at Virtue Cider, an all-natural, solar-powered cidery. Share a few flights to try styles like classic bruts, barrel-aged ciders and inventive small-batch bottles. Sip your selections in a glass cottage or roam around to meet the resident pigs.

Wickwood Inn Bed and Breakfast
Wickwood Inn. Starboard & Port Creative

Where to Stay Along the Sunset Coast

Accommodations abound along the coast. Here are our picks.

Lake Shore Resort in Saugatuck, an immaculately restored motel, sits on a bluff above Lake Michigan; owner Andrew Milauckas plans to add cabins this year.

Walkable from downtown Saugatuck, Wickwood Inn, a luxe bed-and-breakfast, offers evening wine in the library and breakfast in the garden.

Adorned with matching pink shutters and flower boxes, Harbor House Inn in Grand Haven has 19 spacious rooms, some with large balconies.

Modern rooms in Traverse City's Hotel Indigo put guests strolling distance from bustling Front Street; the rooftop patio is perfect for bay views and cocktails.

De Zwaan Windmill
De Zwaan Windmill. Starboard & Port Creative

Day Two: Holland + Grand Haven


Who You're Meeting

Knows that clogs never go out of style; always game to share fun facts about its culture. This Dutch town's calling card? The country's oldest authentic working windmill, set among gardens on the Macatawa River.

What You'll be Doing

Feeling blue is a good thing at Bowerman's on 8th. The downtown outpost of the popular Holland U-pick farm utilizes fresh blueberries in, well, everything. Blueberry donuts, coffee cake, muffins, cinnamon rolls, even Blueberry Pie Lattes. Feeling savory? Order the Blueberry Smoked Brisket Sandwich or a Blueberry BrieGrilled Cheese fromthe lunch menu.

Wind your way up five floors of the working De Zwaan Windmill to learn about the craft and history of flour milling—and for spectacular views of36-acre Windmill Gardens. As you explore, don'tmiss the Dutch street organ. (It still plays tunes.)

With origins that date to the early 1900s, Holland Bowl Mill produces buttery-smooth wooden bowls from Midwest timber. Take a tour to see the fascinating process of making nested bowls—cut from the same log in decreasing size.

Grand haven musical fountain
Grand Haven Musical Fountain. Starboard & Port Creative

Grand Haven

Who You're Meeting

Musical theater kid grows up and moves to the beach. The town's musical fountain show is as iconic as its fire-engine red lighthouse. After the display, a pedestrian district buzzes with places to grab a meal or nightcap.

What You'll Be Doing

Fun fact: Noto's at the Bil-Mar is the west coast's only restaurant actually on a Lake Michigan beach, grandfathered in after a law prohibited beachfront development. Watch the sunset from the sand before feasting on Italian-inspired dishes. (Don't fret if you don't get a prime seat. The entire restaurant has epic views.)

The Grand Haven Musical Fountain isn't a little burbler with a permanent soundtrack. Perched on a dune overlooking the Grand River, the 60-year-old fountain show was the first and only of its kind until the Bellagio in Vegas started theirs. On May and September weekends, and nightly June to August, water and light join in a choreographed dance to new music each year.

End the night at Long Road Distillers, a Grand Rapids-based distillery with a tasting room and restaurant in Grand Haven. Snag a spot outside along the pedestrian street corridor and sip a Polish Falcon: vodka, ginger beer, lime, lemongrass and mint.

5 Great Beaches along the Sunset Coast

Plant yourself in the sand or dip your toes in Lake Michigan at these spots: Oval Beach in Saugatuck, Ottawa Beach in Holland, Grand Haven City Beach in Grand Haven, Fifth Avenue Beach in Manistee or Clinch Park Beach in Traverse City.

Day Three: Muskegon + Mears + Manistee

Muskegon luge Adventure sports park
Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park. Starboard & Port Creative


Who You're Meeting

Sporty, fun, a real four-seasons type of pal. This coastal town and its popular year-round adventure park are easily accessible even for those "across the pond"—a ferry crosses Lake Michigan to Milwaukee.

What You'll Be Doing

In summer, you can fly through the trees on a quarter-mile-long zipline or don an Evel Knievel star-spangled helmet to try wheel luge at Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park. In winter, wheel luge turns into ice luge on an Olympian-designed track.

Sunbuggy Fun Rental ATV Adventure
Sunbuggy Fun Rentals. Starboard & Port Creative


Who You're Meeting

A thrill junkie with a need for speed. Dune buggies rip across mountains of sand, while Jet Skis zip around nearby Silver Lake.

Cherry Point Farm and Market
Cherry Point Farm and Market. Starboard & Port Creative

What You'll be Doing

Tug on your helmet, buckle your seatbelt and hit the gas at Sunbuggy Fun Rentals. Adrenaline courses through your veins as you command a dune buggy up, down and around massive sand dunes. Take a moment to pause at the top—the view of Lake Michigan is spectacular. Sunbuggy rents dune buggies, ATVs and UTVs, but not without the proper training and orientation before.

It wouldn't be Michigan without cherries, and Cherry Point Farm and Market in Shelby is the county's oldest operating fruit farm. The roadside market tempts travelers with cherry turnovers, muffins, strudels, jams and jellies. In summer, a lavender labyrinth provides a peaceful walking spot.

Reel Pleasure Fishing Boat
Reel Pleasure Fishing. Starboard & Port Creative


Who You're Meeting

Quaint and charming with plenty of fish tales. Downtown lines the Manistee River, where anglers troll for trout or head out for deeper salmon fishing in Lake Michigan.

What You'll Be Doing

Hook a king or coho salmon with the expertise of Larry Scharich, who has been chartering fishing trips for 44 years with Reel Pleasure Fishing. If the waters are rough in Lake Michigan, anglers can still drop a line in Manistee Lake. Ask Captain Larry to see the 40-pound salmon—the biggest catch to date on one of his trips—mounted in his office.

A nautical theme takes sail at North Channel Brewing Company in downtown Manistee, where taps are mini propellers and beers are named Lighthouse Lager and Cap'n Piles Pilsner. Taste the same lager in the batter for fried walleye and fish tacos.

M-55 outside Manistee
Starboard + Port

Photo Op

Just outside of Manistee, stately willows tower over a picturesque half-mile stretch of M-55.

Crystal River Outfitters
Crystal River Outfitters. Starboard & Port Creative

Day Four: Traverse City

Who You're Meeting

The life of the party, with big energy and a little well-earned swagger. Traverse City is the most urban-feeling stop on our trip and home base for adventures, including Leelanau Peninsula and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

What You'll Be Doing

Beans are roasted and shipped weekly at Mundos Coffee. Buy a bag in person at oneof four locations, and stay for a Honey Latte and Lemon Custard Waffle or Avocado Toast topped with tomatoes, radishes, and pickled cabbage and onions.

Head 30 minutes northwest of Traverse City to Glen Arbor for a paddling trip on the Crystal River with Crystal River Outfitters. On the 4.5-mile float, you might spot turtles and otters peeking their heads out of the impressively clear water or blue herons soaring among the dense forest. About halfway through the trip, paddlers get to "shoot the tube." You'll funnel through a culvert under the road that pops you out on the other side.

Look out the window and you'll see why Moomers' ice cream tastes so fresh—dairy cows graze in a field next to the shop. Run by the Plummer family, Moomers celebrates25 years this year. The most popular flavor is Cherries Moobilee, black cherry ice cream with real fruit chunks, fudge swirl and brownie bits.

When the weather's nice, The Little Fleet, a food truck park, is hopping. In season, grab a boozy frozen drink and settle down at a picnic table to dig into pizza, barbecue, tacos, Chinese food and more from permanent food trucks.

Nauti cat cruises
Nauti-Cat. Starboard & Port Creative

Watch the sun slip away during a Nauti-Cat catamaran cruise on Grand Traverse Bay. Relax on the large nets on board while admiring homes along the Old Mission Peninsula. The Champagne Sunset Tour includes a complimentary glass of bubbly—butyou can always treat yourself to the signature electric green Cat-Nip cocktail.

Traverse City Charging Station
Starboard & Port Creative

It's Electric

Driving an electric vehicle? Traverse City has dozens of charging stations, many of them free. And Michigan has an initiative to put them in many state parks too. (Check the DNR website for an updated list.)

See behind-the-scenes videos and photos from our trip.

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