For boaters, cruising the Kalamazoo River and heading out to Lake Michigan provides one of the best ways to experience the charms of Saugatuck and neighboring Douglas.
On shore, visitors will find plenty to see and do because these southwest Michigan communities combine to create a beach-lover’s oasis, a shopper’s delight, an artist’s paradise, and a hiker’s hideaway.
The towns, situated on the river — which opens up to Kalamazoo Lake, separating the two — enjoy a vibrant boating scene. Large yachts, for example, docked in prime slip spaces, draw admirers along the downtown waterfronts as the river continues on to Lake Michigan.
“Visitors can enjoy so many of the outdoor and indoor activities in our charming coastal towns (in the spring) before the summer crowds start to heat up,” advises Lisa Mize, executive director of the Saugatuck Douglas Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In summer, she says the communities swell with tourists, day trippers, artists, and cottage owners who flock to the area for its distinctive shopping, waterfront dining, and laid-back beach days.
Adds James Brandess, a painter and downtown art gallery owner since 1994: “Part of the appeal of Saugatuck and the uniqueness of Saugatuck is its location. The river runs right through the center of the town.”
Reminiscent of a picturesque New England coastal town, the Saugatuck-Douglas area has been the setting of many books and the inspiration for many paintings. Each town retains its own unique character and together they’re called the Art Coast of Michigan because of their array of artistic offerings.
Brandess finds inspiration for his works among the area’s water, woods, and dunes. Art lovers will often find him at James Brandess Studios & Gallery, located in the old post office building.
“There’s a sparkling light, a particular beauty to the light here,” he says. “It also nurtures all sorts of creativity. The quality of life here is very good. It differs from tourist destinations I’ve been to in that there aren’t a lot of T-shirt shops; it’s not filled with that type of tourist fare.”
In the spring, redbud, dogwood, crab-apple, and magnolia trees burst with pink and white flowers throughout the downtown area. It’s nice to take a walk along the river or sit in Wicks Park, visit a few shops, and stop for crab cakes and a Bloody Mary at the waterfront BARge restaurant.
Thanks to a new state law, visitors can take a drink to go and walk around Saugatuck’s Social District until Memorial Day, or enjoy Douglas’s Social District year-round.
Why worry about driving? Plan a weekend getaway at a bed and breakfast, and enjoy a night of laughs at the Coral Gables Comedy Club every Saturday.
Relax and see Saugatuck from the water on the Star of Saugatuck, a paddleboat excursion that runs on the Kalamazoo River and out to Lake Michigan. Various other outfitters offer kayaking, charter fishing, sailing trips, and more.
For an outing with friends and family, Retro Boat Rentals offers retro, donut, duffy, and pontoon boats from early May to late October. Afterward, stop at The Old Boat House Bar, which serves food, craft beer, and cocktails from its perch overlooking the Kalamazoo River.
A trip to popular Oval Beach involves driving through Douglas to the Lake Michigan shore. On the way, visitors can see Saugatuck from a different perspective — the other side of the river. Make time to stop and enjoy fresh root beer from the restored Root Beer Barrel, explore the Saugatuck-Douglas History Museum and The Pump House, and discover Mount Baldhead Park.
It’s fun to climb the 302 steps to the top of the Mount Baldhead sand dune for a scenic view of Saugatuck and Kalamazoo Lake. Don’t want to drive? Cross the river on the Saugatuck Chain Ferry, Diane, and experience the only remaining chain ferry of its kind in the United States. It operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and costs $2 per person per ride.
Many artists, including Brandess, discovered the area through the historic Ox-Bow School of Art, nestled on wooded property between the river and Lake Michigan. The secluded campus serves as a respite for students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ox-Bow also hosts open studio nights, public art classes, and artist-in-residence programs.
The Saugatuck Center for the Arts is home to concerts, professional theater, exhibits, films, and classes for adults and children. The Market at SCA is a seasonal farmers market that features local produce, and art vendors on Tuesdays and Fridays. There’s live music on Fridays in the summer.
“I love the SCA market because of its uber-fresh produce, plus the types of artisan baked goods, floral, and high-end crafts you would expect from the Art Coast of Michigan,” says Kristin Armstrong, executive director. “You can grab a beverage and a snack at the bar, and hang out in our garden or shop.”
Saugatuck’s lodging options range from Sea Suites Boat & Breakfast, a large houseboat docked in Douglas, to The Hotel Saugatuck, an upscale boutique hotel in a converted mill built in 1865.
OTHER FAVORITES: The Felt Estate, Saugatuck Dunes State Park, antique shops, wine and cider sampling at Fenn Valley Vineyards, Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant and Winery, Virtue Cider, Michigan Wine Co., and Modales Wine. Top off the getaway at Saugatuck Brewing Co., the area’s oldest brewery.
Saugatuck/Douglas Area CVB