Stretching up along the state’s Gold Coast, from New Buffalo into Mackinaw City, Lake Michigan is punctuated by charming towns and historic ports linked by distinctive beaches. Each is someone’s personal paradise, whether it’s a place revisited every summer or just newly discovered, whether it’s because of a grand view from majestic dunes or wooden steps worn smooth over generations.
No matter, each has its own way of staying with us when we have to leave, until one day, that hold evolves into the decision to stay.
“After spending many summers vacationing in Pentwater with our children, we finally decided to make this idyllic resort community our year- round home. We’ve never regretted our complete lifestyle change — and we’re not alone.”
— Jane Lemme
“This is a vacation land for so many people, and we get to call it home. It’s kind of the perfect place to be,” said Cindy Beth Davis-Dykema, executive director of the Ludington-based Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association. And just what makes the lake so mesmerizing? “Isn’t that the million-dollar question?” she mused. “I don’t know what it is exactly. It’s something very powerful … and very mysterious.”
For many, their lake haven offers the best of both worlds, even when the population skyrockets in summer. It’s the friendly vibe of classic small-town life with accessible downtown areas (easily reached on foot and by bike, boat or car), low crime rates and good public services, mixed with a medley of stylish boutiques, trendy eateries and vibrant arts. That all of this overlooks Lake Michigan’s natural attributes, with plenty of public beach access and recreational opportunities, just seals the deal.
“These ports really lure folks with “the smallness and the quaintness and the kind of people that live there,” said Jane Lemme, who owns the Gardener’s Folly shop in downtown Pentwater with her husband, Neil. In 1998, they moved from Chicago to the lake town after visiting every summer for 20 years with their children, who are now grown with kids of their own. “This is such a beautiful area: the sky, the water, the small-town living. It’s a different, more relaxed way of life,” Jane said.
Back then, the couple wasn’t quite ready to retire, but they didn’t want to wait any longer, either. Their advice to others considering the same kind of life-altering move is simple: “Do it now, while you’re healthy,” Neil Lemme advised.
“While you’ve got the drive, the fire,” his wife added.
One thing they noticed right away was that people in Pentwater, even the seasonal residents, were filled with civic pride and more than willing to help with various fundraising events. (It was a change from Chicago, where most in their suburban neighborhood seemed busy with careers and families and didn’t have much time to socialize). The Lemmes were drawn to these activities too, both as business owners and volunteers. It was just a bonus, since they’d already fallen in love with Pentwater long ago.
“We’re certainly not the biggest beach town on the west shore of Michigan,” Jane noted, “but I think we’re one of the nicest.”
Residents of Petoskey, nestled away in Little Traverse Bay, can claim the same. From treasured Victorian homes to the renowned Gaslight shopping district, the city is a beacon to vacationers.
Though Michigan winters can’t be escaped, warmer days are always just around the corner — and nothing compares to the earthy scent of spring along the shore.
“We have a reputation for catering to the ‘genteel’ customers, yet we’re highly democratic, and have shops that would appeal to any demographic,” said Becky Goodman, the city’s downtown director, calling it “an authentic and beautiful place.” She moved here for the job about seven years ago from the Detroit area. “It was a big culture shock, but you know, I’ve never looked back.” And even the heavy summertime traffic is really nothing to complain about, according to her big-city standards. “I kept wondering, when does the traffic get bad?”
On the opposite end of the coast in the collaborative cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, residents enjoy being near a world-class development (Harbor Shores), a quaint and accessible downtown area, and clean beaches, said Brian Smith, executive director of St. Joseph Today, a nonprofit organization that promotes tourism. Residents take pride in the city’s safe, family-friendly image, and that’s exactly how they want it.
One advantage this area has over many beach communities is a larger job base, which includes the Whirlpool headquarters. That also gives it a more year-round, lived-in feel than some of the other seasonally based towns, Smith noted. “We’re not like New Buffalo, where they roll up the sidewalks in the winter,” he joked.
Though Michigan winters can’t be escaped, warmer days are always just around the corner — and nothing compares to the earthy scent of spring along the shore, Davis-Dykema said. And this isn’t the first time she’s been lucky to live in paradise.
She and her husband, both Muskegon-area natives, spent several years in Hawaii, where she went to college. The volcanic islands were “breathtaking,” she said, but they weren’t Michigan. In 2008, the couple moved back home, first to Whitehall, then near Pentwater. As part of her job, she often drives the 55 miles or so that link the nonprofit organization’s four lighthouses. “There are so many benefits of being on this incredibly pristine shoreline,” Davis-Dykema said.
She’s not the only one who thinks so. Andy McFarlane, the founder and publisher of absolutemichigan.com, grew up in Leland and now lives in Traverse City. He spent a few years in Portland, Oregon, which he described as “an amazing city.” But one day, he realized he was surrounded by too much concrete and not enough sandy beaches. He’s glad to be back, although things have changed a bit.
Many of these once sleepy towns have morphed into major tourist attractions.
“When I was a kid, it was like the town shut down in September and you could sit in the middle of street and nobody would come by,” McFarlane said. “That’s all changed. People retire here; there’s more to do. You start to see all these amenities spring up because of the demand. At the end of the day, it’s simple economics.”
This basic necessity is leading more shoreline towns to become pro-active, from creating new festivals and family-friendly events to building arts centers and adding other attractions. Davis-Dykema planned the association’s inaugural lighthouse festival the first weekend in June, an invitation for tourists to visit earlier. In Petoskey, the city will have “Petoskey Rocks” events on nine Friday nights this summer, with live music and movies in the park, weekly themes, wine tasting and a youth talent show, plus the possibility of a downtown trolley service.
Of course, many established events remain popular, from Traverse City’s National Cherry Festival to Pentwater’s Thursday night band concerts, a tradition for decades. These are still held on the lawn overlooking the yacht club and Lake Michigan.
The scene, complete with grandparents and kids and dogs playing Frisbee, is “kind of like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Jane Lemme said. The town also has the annual four-day Homecoming celebration in early August, which draws a huge crowd with its Saturday parade; this year’s event welcomes the Budweiser Clydesdales.
Homecoming is always lot of fun, Jane shared, but of course events like it are so much more than just that to area businesses: If there’s one thing many people will fight to hold onto, despite their lighter wallets, it’s their prized vacation time at a favorite beach-side retreat.
“People who have longstanding connections with Michigan are reluctant to let them go,” David-Dykema said.
That’s reason enough to stay.
Freelance writer Stefanie Scarlett is a Michigan native now residing in Indiana.