Michigan shore is beautiful

Lovely scenery at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. (Courtesy Travel Michigan)

Lovely scenery at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. (Courtesy Travel Michigan)


, Last Updated: 4:16 PM ET

Savvy Southwestern Ontario residents know there's more to Michigan than cheering the Tigers in Detroit or bargain-hunting in the outlet malls of Birch Run.

They've discovered the northern half of the Lower Peninsula, where the slopes they ski in winter become part of the courses they golf the rest of the year.

Some of my favourite parts are along the Lake Michigan shoreline, where wealthy industrialists from Chicago and Cleveland built massive "cottages" in the late 1800s and travelled there by yacht or private rail car.

Aim for Traverse City and you can't go wrong. Just west of it is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which extends for 56 km and includes two islands, North and South Manitou, which can also be visited.

Make a point of doing the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 12-km self-guided auto tour with overlooks of Glen Lake, the dunes and the Manitous. An unusual feature is a so-called perched dune bluff nearly 140 metres above Lake Michigan.

Even the not-so-fit can hike some of the dunes without much difficulty. We took Old Indian Trail, which has two loops, each about 4 km long. The Green Arrow loop is the easier one, a stroll through evergreens and hardwoods ending with a climb up the first of a series of dunes. Nature hikes led by park rangers focus on such creatures as the piping plover, an endangered bird that nests on sand. Visit nps.gov/slbe for details.

Seen from the water, the Lake Michigan shoreline can appear to be one immense stretch of soft clean sand. There are many attractive places to picnic, build sand castles or cool off. Here are three I can vouch for:

-Elberta beach, near Frankfort. Elberta Lookout, off M168, the shortest state highway in Michigan, offers a fine view of the beach and the Frankfort lighthouse and breakwater.

-Muskegon State Park, with more than 3 km of beach, is rated by tourism insiders as among the most beautiful in the state.

-Pere Marquette Park, also in Muskegon, is the only nationally certified clean beach in Michigan and one of about 20 in the U.S. We joined several families one evening to eat and watch one of the spectacular sunsets for which the Michigan side of the lake is famous.

If the big lake is too rough for swimming, try Crystal Lake, near Frankfort. Its a few kilometres inland, fed by spring water and is clean and clear. There's a sand bottom and a gentle drop-off that makes it safer for kids at the paddling-around stage.

For a different perspective, go offshore. Jim Thompson, who used to live in Peterborough, took us out on his 10-metre Niagara-built C&C. Thompson works for Torresen Marine in Muskegon, an American Sailing Association facility. He teaches sailing and assesses sailors who want to become instructors.

We spent most of our time on Muskegon Lake, but headed into Lake Michigan in time to see the Lake Express, a high-speed catamaran that runs between Muskegon and Milwaukee, come charging in our direction.

Thompson does a three-hour, hands-on sunset cruise for $75 per person, but the bargain is a three-day learn-to-sail course for $150 per person per day, which includes accommodation on the boat. Visit torresen.com.

The small cities and towns along the coast were clean and well-kept. The countryside just inland is gently rolling, with tree-lined back roads, second-growth forest and rivers that will appeal to cyclists, hikers and paddlers.

Lodging/dining tips: I liked the looks of Crystal Mountain, near Thompsonville, a four-season family resort, and Harbor Lights Resort in Frankfort, which overlooks Lake Michigan. Visit crystalmountain.com and harborlightsmotel.com. Locally caught perch, walleye (pickerel) and whitefish are a treat.

Tourism information: Visit travelmichigan.org.