Whimsical Adventures

On the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, Donut Boats come in Jelly, Glazed, Sprinklers, and Twist options
Up to 10 passengers sit around a central wooden table with an umbrella to shade the sun as they cruise the Kalamazoo River.
Up to 10 passengers sit around a central wooden table with an umbrella to shade the sun as they cruise the Kalamazoo River.
Photo By Susan R. Pollack

Doing donuts takes on a whole new meaning on the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck.

Members of the Sometimes Wine Book Club are still talking about the fun they enjoyed at their end-of-season get-together aboard an electric-powered Donut Boat from Retro Boat Rentals in Saugatuck. The business, operating out of a riverfront patio-bar called The Old Boathouse, is in its seventh season renting novelty boats in the west Michigan beach town.

You can practically feel heads turning on shore when any of their four round Donut vessels — whimsically named Jelly, Glazed, Sprinkles, and Twist — cruise past.

“We had a great time,” enthuses Sarah Goy, who took a turn piloting one of the Donut boats during a two-hour evening cruise that ranks among her book club’s most unusual season-ending adventures. She and her nine literary pals — 10 is the maximum number of passengers allowed — sat in a conversation-friendly circle around the vessel’s central wooden table, shaded by an umbrella.

“The staff put a nice cooler together for us with all the nibbles and beverages we needed (including Michigan beer and hard cider), and we just tooled up and down the river enjoying each other’s company,” she says. “No one had to sit on a cooler facing backward, as people do on some boats — it was relaxing and comfortable. And it was definitely memorable.”

Not to mention easy to navigate. “You don’t have to be good at driving a boat. It’s just a slow electric motor (with a 4 mph cruising speed),” Goy says of the round vessels, which are retrofitted with a steering wheel. “They told us how to work it: ‘this is how you steer,’ ‘this is how you reverse,’ ‘this is how you come in.’ They explained it well, so we didn’t have to worry.”

Indeed, operating a Donut Boat was a piece of cake for Rainey Stoll of Kansas City, Mo., the driver on a group outing last fall for her job as a public relations representative for Experience Grand Rapids. “Not having much boat experience, I would say it was pretty easy to navigate, not too challenging,” she says. “If you know how to drive a golf cart, you can drive a Donut Boat.”

Retro Boat Rentals in Saugatuck operates out of a riverfront patio-bar called The Old Boathouse
Photo by Susan R. Pollack

As first-time visitors to Michigan, both Stoll and her co-worker, Haley Mueller, of New York City, say they were “blown away” when they saw Lake Michigan, their first Great Lake, with its big waves and surf. “I’ve never seen a lake that looks like an ocean!” Mueller exclaims.

While Lake Michigan is visible from the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, Donut Boat drivers are advised to stick to the Kalamazoo River and Kalamazoo Lake, and avoid venturing into the big lake. A swimming cove, within view of Lake Michigan, is a popular river stop. Donut-Boaters can watch the sunset from the cove and look down the pier toward Lake Michigan.

Along the riverway, the women kept their eyes peeled for wildlife including
turtles, cranes, heron, and deer, and were impressed by the array of waterfront homes in what Mueller describes as Architectural Digest-worthy styles. “Oh
my gosh, they’re stunning, beautiful homes,” she says. “I remember a boat ride around Fort Lauderdale — it’s reminiscent of that, though in a much different climate, of course.”

The foliage during their early October cruise was just beginning to change color. “The leaves change a little later here than most places, but the colors are usually popping by mid-October, depending on the year,” says Lauren Stanton, who owns Retro Boat Rentals with her husband, John Sharar. “We stay open through the end of October and bring out plaid blankets. People wear sweatshirts and jackets in the fall, and often take coffee and hot toddies out with them. They still have a really great time.”

Four electric, round Donut boats are available for rent.
Photo by Steve Pollack

Post-Labor Day, when summer crowds are gone and the waterways are quieter, is a great time for a Donut Boat excursion, according to Stanton, who also notes that dogs are always welcome. “September is sneaky. People don’t realize it, but it can offer beautiful, warm days — some of the best weather we have in Michigan. We love September boat rides.”

A former TV morning news anchor in Grand Rapids, Stanton and her husband, a national sales manager, traded in their high-powered jobs six years ago to run the boat rental business full-time after a one-season trial. In addition to the Donut Boats, their quiet, all-electric fleet includes five classic, four-passenger fiberglass Retro Boats from 1958-1963, some with fanciful fins and chrome detailing; seven pontoon boats with seating for 8-16 passengers; and two 12-passenger, gondola-style Duffy Boats with canopies.

The four Donut Boats, originally orange but now painted a vintage-inspired turquoise, are especially popular with women for events ranging from book clubs and reunions to bachelorette parties and girlfriend getaways, Stanton says. “Couples like to take them out, too. Everyone thinks they’re a hoot. It’s a very unique experience.” 

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