A West Coast Favorite

Grand Haven lures visitors with its sandy beaches, 1.5-mile boardwalk, and small-town friendliness.
An evening stroll along the south pier boardwalk (in the distance) or along the beach at Grand Haven State Park often leads to a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset.

Summer always seems to call to me from Grand Haven. Lake Michigan and memorable getaways have that effect. Come enjoy a sunny weekend in this spectacular west coast town — and, in particular, this little slice of sandy heaven.

Lumber and pianos helped build the city of about 11,000 residents west of Grand Rapids, which ranks on the short list of many folks’ favorite summer destinations.

Whether you’re a first-timer or just need a refresher on its dining, recreation, or accommodations, here are some of my favorites.

Places to Stay

I normally pull my small RV onto a beachfront campsite in the giant sandbox called Grand Haven State Park. It’s one of the state’s most popular parks, and it’s a short walk through the beach’s trademark squeaky sand to the water. There are other private campgrounds along U.S. 31 east of downtown, plus two more state parks just a few miles north.

Other accommodations line U.S. 31 or are scattered around the downtown area — a cute combination of 1940s and ’50s businesses that give the town its charm.

Nestled in the dunes near the state park, for example, is Brezza Di Lago Hotel and its neighbor, the Harbor House Inn, overlooking the beach. Popular vacation rental homes and condos, located near the beachfront or scattered along the coast, are plentiful.

Dining Spots

I love to watch the parade of boats enjoying the evening on the Grand River, Michigan’s longest. One of my go-to places is Porto Bello, a charming Italian restaurant in the old Story & Clark piano factory, which was the town’s main employer until it closed in 1984. Other parts of the building have been repurposed into condos, some of which are available to rent.

About a block away is the Kirby House, a restored former hotel with an upstairs outdoor dining area that offers neat views of the river and lake beyond.

On the beach, Noto’s at the Bil-Mar, a short walk from the state park, has one of the town’s best sunset views. Dr. Rolf’s, founded by a local doctor, is a good choice when you need to scratch your barbecue itch. South of downtown, you can choose from a delightful selection of Indian, sushi, and Mexican cuisine.

Grand Haven’s busy downtown district, with its old-fashioned vibe, is a short walk from the boardwalk, the famous lights on the pier, beach action, and one of the state’s most popular state parks.

After-Dinner Treats

A stroll along part of the 1.5-mile-long riverfront boardwalk from downtown generally leads to a spectacular Lake Michigan sunset, best seen from the beach with the two famous red lighthouses on the south pier. The illuminated lighthouse walkway has been refurbished, and I always try to make the trek past the attractions and anglers all the way to the pier head at least once each visit. Last time, I was rewarded with photos of a Great Lakes freighter making its approach to drop its cargo off upriver.

Weather permitting, include a morning stroll on this south breakwall — but don’t risk it when the waves are high, because people have drowned when they’ve been swept away by the rough water.

There’s also a north pier across the Grand River channel, in Ferrysburg, that’s worth a visit. It gives visitors a different perspective of the two historic lighthouses.

On the Road

Summer Saturdays are made for hopping on a bike and heading back to the riverfront walk to explore the 15-mile Lakeside Trail. It’s part of the Grand Haven Spring Lake Trail Network, a 28-mile system that enthusiastic bikers can use to connect with a regional system leading south to Holland, east toward Grand Rapids and beyond, or north to Cadillac.

I always pause at Sweet Temptations, where owner Kelly Larson has done something truly special with ice cream treats. The ice cream business, started in 1989, was an offshoot of a candy-making pursuit. Up to 40 flavors at time are available at its four locations, including downtown along the Grand River at the old train station.

Larson’s creations recently earned two awards that named her vanilla bean and dark decadence flavors best in the nation. “We make them in 10-gallon batches at our year-round store at Beacon and Taylor in town,” Larson says. That’s why I never miss a stop (or two) during any visit.

To see all the sights, hop on the Grand Haven trolley system that runs daily, from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend. It usually visits neighboring Spring Lake, Ferrysburg, and Fruitport, and makes stops at the city beach and state park in Grand Haven.

Grand Haven’s Rosy Mound Natural Area includes Lake Michigan access and 1,000 feet of stairs through the beach dunes.

Beach Life

It’s all about the beach in summer. Follow the 1.5-mile trail from downtown to the “singing sand” that squeaks when you scuff your bare feet in it. It’s part of the country’s longest freshwater strand, and you could literally walk for miles along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Or, spread out a mat and get some glorious beach time watching everyone from toddlers with their floaties to their grandparents enjoying the water.

For more active fun, check out the MACkite Boardsports Center for gear or lessons on handling a kiteboard, hydrofoil, or wingfoil. It’s the best way to get cooled off and ready for evening entertainment.

High Notes

Grab a seat in the grandstand along the river for a show you won’t see anywhere else in Michigan. The Grand Haven Musical Fountain is the largest of its kind outside of Las Vegas, and before Vegas introduced its musical fountain, this local one was the world’s largest. Since 1962, from Memorial Day until Labor Day, Grand Haven’s fountain has presented a nightly spectacle of brightly lit dancing water set to a 20-minute concert. Make sure to arrive early to get the best seats, especially on weekends.

The city’s biggest spectacular, the annual Coast Guard Festival, takes place this year from July 28 through Aug. 6. The festival typically attracts more than 350,000 people who take in parades, ship tours, food, and other fun activities. It’s been held along the lakefront annually since 1924, thanks to the U.S. Coast Guard’s long-tenured presence in the city. Grand Haven was designated the country’s first Coast Guard City USA in 1998.

Early risers can make their way to Chinook Pier before sunrise and hop aboard a chartered fishing boat in search of the trout or salmon just offshore in Lake Michigan.

From the docks, view the static display of the Pere Marquette Railroad steam locomotive No. 1223, sister engine to No. 1225, which was made famous in the animated movie “The Polar Express.” It delights kids of all ages during the Christmas season, when daily trips are made from Owosso to visit the “North Pole.” The trains are the only two Berkshire-class PM steamers left.

Saying Goodbye

I often save one of my must-dos to savor last. It’s a trip to Butch’s Beach Burritos, located along Harbor Drive just inland from Grand Haven State Park. It’s been a town staple since 1987, and you’ll find delicious food made from family recipes as well as fresh homemade salsas to top everything from huge burritos to hot dogs. If you can’t get enough, stop by Butch’s second location in nearby Spring Lake, which is open year-round.

Butch’s place is just another reason to visit Coast Guard City USA this summer. Just like me, you’ll discover welcoming locals, a really amazing beach, and more fun than you can have in just one weekend.

Plan It!

Grand Haven Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

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