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Road Trip: South Haven, Michigan

South Haven combines small town charm with big lake fun.

December 21, 2010
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South Haven, Michigan

The forecast for South Haven at 9 a.m. called for a soaking-wet high of 68 degrees. Light fog obstructed the view from the harbor looking west over Lake Michigan. (Not that it mattered, because even on the clearest day you’d have as much chance of seeing Kenosha, Wisconsin, 80 miles directly across the lake, as you would seeing Portugal from Boston.) But then, before we had a chance to bag our on-water plans, the forecast did what it usually does alongside the world’s fourth-biggest freshwater lake: It changed.

At 9:45, the call was for 76 degrees, mostly sunny. The word spread quicker than warm butter. From the vast yard behind the Lake Bluff Inn and Suites, three boats could be seen arcing around the lighthouse, so dwarfed by the water’s size that you couldn’t tell if they were 19-foot cuddies or 45-foot cruisers.

“We tell everyone to constantly monitor the weather,” says Robin Abshire, who manages South Haven’s four municipal marinas. “Our message is that the water might look flat enough to go across, but don’t venture too far out.”

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One of the goals of Great Lakes officials is to have a safe harbor every 15 to 20 miles, tailoring Lake Michigan’s east coast for touring, and also explaining the high draw of cuddies. Weather comes up out of nowhere. So do mechanical problems and near-empty fuel tanks. You can find reprieve at dozens of shoreline communities. So why South Haven? Why do Chicagoans cruise 78 miles to converge on the city’s 1,100 slips when they could just as easily moor in St. Joseph or Holland, or in any of Wisconsin’s ports? The best one-word answer: sidewalks.

From the moment you cruise past South Haven’s lighthouse and enter the channel, you’re three minutes from a slip or side-to docking, whereas idle can be a 45-minute yawner in other ports. With the boat tied up, you step onto concrete and stroll into restaurants, grocery stores, a movie theater, antique stores and ice-cream shops. There’s also the 40-mile Kal-Haven bike trail, and a beach so wide and long that it rivals those found around the Gulf Coast — but water here is salt-free.

“The biggest surprise for first-time visiting boaters,” says Abshire, “is the convenience. If the weather turns, you can be in the harbor and walking in town within minutes. You don’t usually find that on big bodies of water.”

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On this day, the safe anchorage wasn’t necessary because at 10:30 a.m. the sky cleared and, for this region, the forecast did something highly unusual. It didn’t change all day.

First Impression: Small town (friendly and predictably clean), big lake (erratic and surprisingly clean).

Something You’ve Got to Try: A room overlooking the lake at Lake Bluff Inn and Suites (http://www.lakebluffinnandsuites.com, 800-686-1305).

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Local Flavor: Blueberries and wine. We’re told 25 percent of the nation’s blueberries come from the area. There are also three-dozen wineries, thanks to the coastal climate.

Distance from Chicago: 130 miles (by road), 78 miles (by water)

Best Contact: southhaven.org

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