Imagine a weeklong vacation spent lounging on a sandy beach in Florida, touring a Napa Valley winery, visiting an art gallery in New York, exploring a historic Cape Cod lighthouse and golfing surfside on Hilton Head Island.
Sounds great - except for the expense, the unfeasible travel logistics and the exhaustion.
Now imagine a leisurely vacation on the west coast of Michigan, where similar destinations are close enough to each other to be enjoyed in a lot less time, for a lot less money.
“Whether you're looking for a day or a week of relaxing in and enjoying beach-front communities, Lake Michigan's shoreline is really where you need to go,” says Kirsten Borgstrom, a spokeswoman for Travel Michigan, the state's travel and tourism agency.
Entirely within U.S.
Lake Michigan - the only one of the five Great Lakes entirely within the U.S. - is so large, up to 118 miles wide, that it resembles an inland, freshwater sea, with crashing waves and high and low tides. And when locals refer to Michigan's west coast, they generally mean the eastern shore of the bottom half of the lake, running about 150 miles from the Indiana border north to the Ludington area.
Summertime sunsets along the lakeshore recall dusk along Florida's Gulf Coast - except for the greater likelihood of seeing the aurora borealis (northern lights) after nightfall.
Lake Michigan's sandy eastern shore has dunes and beaches, summer water temperatures in the mid-60s to low 70s. Summer air temperatures rarely surpass 90 degrees and humidity is low. Still, Canadian cold fronts can arrive swiftly, so pack a jacket.
New Buffalo, about a 90-minute drive from Chicago, is the first stop for many visitors to Michigan entering from Indiana on eastbound Interstate 94. It offers public beaches, resort cottages and a number of antique shops. Southwestern Michigan's first gambling casino, the Four Winds Casino Resort, is scheduled to open nearby next year.
Heading north about 10 miles, spectacular views of the lake await energetic visitors who scurry to the top of the 260-foot-high dune formation at Warren Dunes State Park.
Along the coast, all the way up to Grand Traverse Bay, the temperate climate and sandy soil is ideal for growing certain types of fruit, including apples, cherries, strawberries, blueberries, plums, pears and grapes. The region also boasts many vineyards.
Continuing northward to St. Joseph, travelers can enjoy fine dining, downtown specialty shops and Silver Beach, one of the finest public beaches on Michigan's west coast.
Noted for golf
Golf Digest magazine ranked neighboring Benton Harbor No. 18 among the country's best golf cities last year. The Western Amateur, a nationally known tournament that started in 1899, has been held at Benton Harbor's Point O'Woods Golf and Country Club since 1971. This year it takes place July 31-Aug. 6.
To keep hugging the coast, exit I-94 onto eastbound Interstate 196, which leads to South Haven, home of the Michigan Maritime Museum and the self-proclaimed blueberry capital of the world. The harbor city's National Blueberry Festival - Aug. 10-13 this year - attracts thousands of visitors.
Next stop, the Saugatuck-Douglas area, a little slice of coastal New England, known for art galleries, bed-and-breakfasts, downtown shops, fishing charters and scenic dunes. The Keewatin Maritime Museum is the home of the retired steamer SS Keewatin, a 350-foot vessel that turns 100 in 2007.
After a short drive on eastbound I-196, it's decision time. Exiting onto northbound U.S. 31 means continuing along the lake coast, but staying on the highway another half-hour allows a day trip to Grand Rapids.
Doubling back on westbound I-196 and exiting onto northbound U.S. 31, travelers arrive in Holland. From its 6 million tulips that bloom each spring to its authentic 240-year-old windmill to its very name, there is no mistaking the city's Dutch heritage.
At least 10 lighthouses still stand in the region. Holland State Park has a beach adjacent to the harbor lighthouse, Big Red, that resembles an old-fashioned schoolhouse.
Although shipwrecks are often associated with oceans, the Great Lakes hold more than 6,000 sunken ships. Many are regularly explored by scuba divers. Ocean Sands Scuba in Holland has a charter boat that takes divers to several shipwrecks off the coast of Saugatuck.
A dozen miles north of Grand Haven, two more lighthouses stand near Muskegon's Pere Marquette Park, home to a beach repeatedly recognized as one of the nation's cleanest.
Need to make a fast trip from Muskegon to Milwaukee? The high-speed Lake Express ferry crosses the lake with passengers and their cars in two-and-a-half hours. It makes three daily roundtrips in spring and summer.
Just north of Muskegon is Michigan's Adventure Amusement Park, the state's largest theme park, which started 50 years ago as a petting zoo. This season's new attraction is a $5 million river ride called Grand Rapids.
Head north another 30 miles to Silver Lake State Park, where there are nearly 2,000 acres of sand dunes. Mac Wood's Scenic Dune Rides has thrilled visitors since 1930.
Another ferry, the SS Badger, is based in Ludington, the final stop along Michigan's west coast. The massive, 410-foot-long craft, which has operated since 1953, makes one roundtrip daily to Manitowoc, Wis., taking cars and passengers across Lake Michigan in four hours.
Travelers wanting one last dip can indulge at the city-owned Stearns Park Beach in the heart of Ludington or head north a few miles to scenic Ludington State Park.