June 13, 2010
SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — The red-haired toddler’s blue eyes filled with tears as the big red ball in the sky vanished beneath the Lake Michigan horizon. No one recalls exactly what he said that day, but it was clear he was heartbroken. Turns out he was afraid the sun was gone for good.
That young boy is now 23, and that story is one of the threads in a tapestry of summertime tales and traditions that have grown over the decades at our family’s vacation destination in South Haven.
Every summer for more than 20 years, almost always on the Fourth of July, members of our extended family of six siblings, spouses, children and additional significant others have made the two-hour trek from Chicago to the lakeside resort town. At first, our parents, Rich and Elaine, rented a house and invited their grown children and young grandchildren to join them at the lake. Poppy died a few years after the first lake trips, and Elaine bought a summer house just up the street from the rental and called it Poppy’s Place.
That is the place around which the summer tradition revolves.
There’s little that can compare with traveling the world and exploring new places; the rewards are endless. But there’s something comforting and nurturing in returning again and again to a familiar destination. And when that place offers beaches and bonfires, parades and pie-eating contests, there’s not much more that a house full of cousins and their baby boomer parents want. Well, except for more beds, make that more beds and bedrooms. The record was 25 people in 2009 in a house that really should sleep only 8 to 10. There are tents, of course, and 20-somethings sleeping on almost every available floor space.
But what is it about returning to a familiar place that makes a vacation so enjoyable? Part of it is that the trip becomes easier: You know which restaurants you prefer, where to shop for necessities, what to do when it rains. There are fewer decisions to make. And there is the anticipation of being able to repeat, or share with others, the thing that you enjoyed most the last time around.
Either way, South Haven is a winner. It has small-town charm with world-class beaches, a variety of attractions and decent restaurants. And there’s just something about the sunsets.
So, take it from a regular, here are some highlights you want to consider whether you’re a newbie or a repeat customer:
Sand and surf are South Haven’s biggest draws, its beaches within walking distance of the quaint downtown.
Sometimes the waves are so big that people really do surf. Sharkless Boardsports (269-639-7873, sharkless.com) in downtown South Haven, rents surfboards and equipment for kite boarding and other active pursuits.
South Haven itself has seven public beaches along five miles of shoreline. When you include the surrounding area of Van Buren County, you have 13 miles of public and private Lake Michigan beaches, including the public dog beach at Hagar Shores, about 10 miles south of South Haven.
South Haven’s shoreline is split by the Black River, which runs through the town. That provides riverside dining for all, plus docking and lake access for boaters. Just to the north of the river is North Beach, probably the most congested of all in town. But there are reasons so many make it their destination: wide flat swaths of smooth sand, playground equipment, beach volleyball pits, a wooden walkway that eases access for people in wheelchairs, and a real, old-fashioned concession stand that sells ice cream and lemonade and rents volleyballs. Plop down on one of the stools, dig your toes into the sand and watch the world go by.
South Beach is on the other side of the river and is closest to the historic lighthouse that stands at the end of the pier, where the river empties into the lake. It’s close to the many activities taking place each year in Riverfront Park. It’s also within walking distance of Kids Korner, an elaborate, mazelike wooden playground little kids seem to love.
Packard Park Beach is about half a mile north of North Beach. We often walk to the wooden viewing stand to survey sunsets. Up top, away from the beach, are picnic tables and grills in a grassy area, and public bathrooms.
Places to stay and eat
Cottage and condo rentals, hotels and B&Bs are among the options in South Haven. Prices and booking information can be found at the city’s tourism Web site, southhaven.org. There are many good choices, from old-fashioned, smallish beach cottages with sand and water outside your front door to more elaborate rental homes to elegant B&Bs to the retro Sleepy Hollow resort.
Dining options are varied, but two must-stop locales are the Sherman Dairy Bar on Phoenix Road just outside of town, near Interstate Highway 196, and Clementine’s (500 Phoenix Road) in the heart of downtown. Sherman’s ice cream is rich and creamy and comes in more than 50 flavors. The crowds don’t seem to stop anyone from coming. Some people have been known to splurge and have ice cream for breakfast. It’s OK, this is a vacation. Clementine’s draw is that it’s right in the middle of downtown and has cocktails and a kids menu and entrees ranging from fried perch to steak to sandwiches and salads. It’s good food at a decent price. Insider’s tip: There’s always a crowd at Clementine’s, so stop in about an hour before you want to eat and put your name on the list (they don’t take reservations). Then you can wander around the downtown shops until your table is ready.
Attractions and events
South Haven calls itself the Blueberry Capital of the World. Regardless of the veracity of that claim, the annual National Blueberry Festival — this year Aug. 12-15 — is a fun family event that draws 60,000 to 100,000 visitors. Pie-eating contests for all ages are great photo opportunities. There also are riverfront concerts, an arts-and-crafts fair, a 5K run and a parade.
Another big draw is the Fourth of July, which includes a fireworks display for which thousands jam the beaches, radios in hand, to listen to music synchronized to the night-sky explosions.
But check the calendar: The fireworks aren’t always when you might expect them. This year the big display is Monday, July 5. And each Fourth of July, the town hosts an annual art fair that draws 200 to 300 artists from around the U.S. to the lovely Stanley Johnson Park.
Though we return year after year, there always seems to be something we haven’t done.
If I have my way, this year we’ll be checking out the Pirate Chaser Sails, 90-minute sails for kids age 4 and up along the river and out onto Lake Michigan. (800-747-3810, michiganmaritimemuseum.org). The trips aboard the 1812 tall-ship replica Friends Good Will are provided by the Michigan Maritime Museum. Pirate sightings are guaranteed.
If you go
Getting there: South Haven is about 130 miles from Chicago, so it’s about a two-hour drive if you don’t get caught in traffic. Before you go, check out southhaven.org, a good Web site with lots of information on events and lodging.
Other draws: Black River Books, 330 Kalamazoo St., 269-637-7374, a comfortable used-book store right in downtown with more than 30,000 titles — just in case you’ve run out of good beach reads. Maybe you can get a copy of Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which is set in South Haven and Chicago.
Kal-Haven Trail, a 33.5-mile path between South Haven and Kalamazoo, is perfect even for casual bike riders and families: straight, fairly flat, well-maintained and picturesque, stretching through farm fields, cool, shady groves and along the Black River. Best of all, the trail mostly slopes down toward the lake, so the trip back to South Haven is even easier than the trip out, no matter how far you’ve ridden.
Michigan Theater, 210 Center St., 269-637-1662. We liked this downtown movie theater better before it was remodeled, but it’s still a favorite attraction with first-run films at bargain prices: $5.50 gets you admission to the movie and a drink. You can take the kids and get snacks without breaking the bank. It’s the only movie theater where I’ve ever allowed my kids to buy treats.
Stephenson Farms, 6783 Baseline Road, 269-637-4824. A good choice among the blueberry you-pick farms. Very relaxed place, where the buckets come with ropes to tie around your waist so both hands are free when you head to the blueberry bushes. Or you can buy a box filled with berries that someone else’s fingers picked.
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