We have lived in Michigan almost ten years now and never once visited Lake Michigan. We have visited a few of the other lakes, and the sand was gravelly or rocky, so we just assumed all the lakes were like that. It wasn't until this year that I heard (or read) that the sand on Lake Michigan is soft and white like a "real" beach, and nothing like the other lakes. So I decided we should go check it out for ourselves. I tried to find a camp site for us in one of the many state parks that dot the lake, but they were all full. So I ended up reserving a hotel room at the Residence Inn in Grand Rapids for the night of the 4th.
Wednesday night the 2nd we were enjoying a BBQ with some friends when a huge storm attacked us. The power went off and stayed off until Thursday evening the 3rd. Friday morning the 4th I had pictured us getting up first thing and driving to the beach. Dan, on the other hand, wanted to spend the entire day cleaning the house now that we had power again. We compromised by cleaning from about 6:30 a.m. until noon-ish. Before hitting the road we went to the grocery store to get sandwich fixings for our cooler. Then we drove straight to Saugatuck Dunes State Park, no stopping. I made sandwiches for everyone on my lap while Dan drove the car, managing to smear mustard all over my shirt. We hiked 0.6 miles on a nice wide trail to the beach. I had selected this beach specifically because of the hike in, figuring there would be a much smaller crowd to contend with than a beach with easier access to the parking lot. I was right.
I've been to several beaches in my life, but I've logged the most hours by far at the Oregon Coast. The beaches there are breathtakingly beautiful, but also pretty cold. The water, if you dare to get in, will freeze all your limbs numb so that you can barely stumble back across the sand to your towel when you get out. It is often overcast and rainy there, and even on the sunny days you are likely to encounter a stiff breeze. It is the kind of place where you "lay out" in a sweatshirt. The two beaches we visited on Lake Michigan were not the most beautiful beaches I've ever been to, but it was so much fun to be able to go swimming in the lake without getting chilled to the bone. The water was refreshing, not cold. The sun was shining, there were virtually no clouds, and the sand was soft and hot. There were lots of people there, and everyone set up their towels, blankets, umbrellas, coolers, et cetera in a long line down the beach just a few feet from the water's edge. The first day, we put our stuff way back away from the water, like we always do at the Oregon Coast, but it finally occurred to us that this was not necessary since there is no tide to come in and carry your things away. On the second day we claimed our own spot right by the water, which made it much easier to relax and watch the kids at the same time.
The two little boys went right out into the water. They just kept walking out farther and farther, and Dan and I finally realized one of us should get out there to make sure they were safe. Esther was completely focused on the sand. She virtually never looked up from her digging. It was the most intensely focused play I have ever observed. I kept trying to take pictures of her, but they all look the same, her head bent over her work, no time to look up and smile for the camera. Dan and I just went back and forth from the water to the sunbathing, and it felt like we were in Florida or California, just 2 1/2 short hours from Ann Arbor.
After several hours at Saugatuck Dunes, we drove to Holland, Michigan, to find some Dutch food for dinner. We failed. We ate at the 8th Street Grille instead. I had the all-you-can-eat soup bar for $5.99 with Boston Clam Chowder, Vegetable Beef, and Chicken Corn Chowder. The clam chowder was delicious, and I ate myself silly. Our next stop was the hotel in Grand Rapids, about 30 minutes from the beach. We got there about 9 p.m., and Dan and the boys had to leave almost immediately to make it for the fireworks display downtown. I put our things away, rearranged the furniture to make room for the boys' bed on the floor, and put Esther and myself down for the night. Dan and the boys got back close to midnight.
In the morning we enjoyed the hot breakfast buffet in the hotel lobby, and then made our way to the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park down the road. In two hours we only managed to see about half of the gardens, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly. They have a large, award-winning children's garden that we explored, and Esther was delighted by the many different "club houses" that we found. Then we took a boardwalk through a beautiful wetlands filled with turtles basking on logs in the sun. We enjoyed the farm portion of the garden, and then made our final stop at the giant three-story tall statue of a horse.
We hit the road after that and drove northwest to P.J. Hoffmaster State Park, where we visited the Gillette Visitor's Center, dedicated to the study and explanation of Michigan's sand dunes. Then we had part two of our cooler sandwiches, and made the much shorter walk down to the beach. As predicted, the shorter walk meant much bigger crowds, but we still found a place for ourselves and enjoyed the afternoon together until Adam got bored and started demanding that we head home to Ann Arbor. Esther, too, seemed to lose interest in the beach, and began angrily pouring bucket after bucket of sand on my head while I tried to relax. So we gave up and drove home earlier than planned, with a stop for dinner at Carino's for some Italian food.
I enjoyed our little vacation SO MUCH. I love exploring new places, and we got to see a whole bunch of things for the first time. We felt pretty silly that we'd never made the short drive over to Lake Michigan before, but at least now we know what we were missing.