Savvy Traveler: Michigan is a surprising family travel destination

Anyone contemplating a trip with young family members, especially those who have done so before, knows there are certain “musts” that have to be taken into consideration:

  • Are we planning for the kids?
  • Will there be sufficient activities to keep them interested?
  • Will there be activities that adults can enjoy as well?
  • Will there be more “boots on the ground time” rather than traveling?

Too often a vacation destination for the family is taken without considering the varied ages of a family group. Search out an unlikely destination and do some homework.

A recent visit to Michigan impressed us with the truism that the state is much more than Detroit. By planning ahead, you can make arrangements for the younger set to enjoy age-appropriate activities while adults can, well, enjoy adult-age-appropriate activities. At the same time, there are myriad activities that will appeal to both generations.

Saugatuck, a quiet town in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, becomes exciting when you climb aboard one of the dune buggies of Saugatuck Sand Dune Rides. If you have goggles, bring them along for this journey because sand from the dunes kicks up.

If you have bad kidneys, you may want to wait and ask the kids how they enjoyed the ride. If you can stand roller coaster turns and road hazard bumps, you’ll have the ride of your life.

The ride will take you through dark woods, up hills with an amazing view of Lake Michigan. There is time to walk around, climb the hills and enjoy the views and foliage before climbing back aboard for another zip through the hills and dales (whatever a dale might be). Another caveat here for the adults…the drifting sand is difficult to walk through, especially while climbing hills for a view of the lake. Kids never seem to mind and actually enjoy it.

The town of Saugatuck itself is beautiful to walk though and enjoy coffee houses and art galleries. At this point, tell the kids you never wanted to do the dune ride and did it just for them, so don’t complain about visiting art galleries. They might even find things they can admire and enjoy.

A reasonable drive from Saugatuck (sounds as though the town should be located in Connecticut or Massachusetts) is St. Joseph. While the big guys enjoy the farmer’s market at the top of the hill, send the younger ones to the base and one of the most amazing carousels anywhere.

The original St. Joseph carousel is long gone, but the burgers felt they had lost a piece of the town’s history and recreated the beautiful attraction that sits there today, the Silver Beach Carousel. The animals are beautifully hand-carved and exquisitely designed.  If you can forsake the farmers market, you’ll enjoy a ride on it as well.

Keeping the kids in mind, head over to the Paw Paw River for a family aquatic experience. Depending on the weather and the water temperature, you might want to consider a wet suit for the activity here.

Unlike Lake Macatawa or the inland ocean affectionately referred to as Lake Michigan, the Paw Paw River is normally relatively placid and perfect for water sports. Kids and adults alike can either set out into the river via kayak or, for those a bit more adventurous, a stand-up paddle board.

For some nourishment and libation, a good choice in town would be the Buck. Although this is one of the many amazing micro-breweries in Michigan, the kids would be welcome here as well for a soft drink and some pretty darn good food choices.

Later in the day, even the young ones would enjoy a trip to the Journeyman Distillery in nearby Three Oaks. This might be a bit difficult to locate so make sure you have a good GPS with you. The place is in what might generously be described as an old warehouse district.

The behind-the-scenes tour is just long enough to be informative on the process of distilling the great variety of liquors and liqueurs that Journeyman produces and short enough so that it does not become a stretch. Many events are held here and it isn’t unusual to see a wedding reception come marching through the front door.

Michigan’s state motto wraps all of it up in a neat sentence: “Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice” — “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.”

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Bob and Sandy Nesoff are members of the American Society of Authors and Journalists.

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