Weekend Getaway on America’s North Coast
- Josh Tuck
- Josh Tuck
We love Michigan’s west coast. Lacking access to an ocean, the sandy beaches and little harbor towns dotting the shoreline of Lake Michigan provide a refreshing escape from the heat and congestion of the city. Like Goldilocks with her porridge, it’s been hard for us to find a single town that’s “just right”. Some are too touristy; others have crummy beaches; and a few are too wrapped up in their own image. After visiting many of them, we found one small town, well two actually, that was close by and exactly what we were looking for – St. Joseph and Benton Harbor.
If the two towns were siblings, St. Joe would be the attractive, but demur sister, with a “girl-next-door” charm. Rather then flaunt it, St. Joe quietly reveals it’s small town friendliness and great lake coastal charm in it’s quaint downtown, on it’s expansive public beach, and in it’s quiet neighborhoods.
Benton Harbor is the hard working older brother in our genealogical metaphor. It’s a little more blue collar. You can see there have been hard times, but it’s factories and warehouses are slowly being renovated into hip microbreweries, gelataria, and cool local restaurants. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s coming out of it’s slump and making a new name for itself.
Unlike trying to get to Saugatuck or Pentwater for the weekend, the drive from Fort Wayne to St. Joe is an easy two and a half hour trip. It’s great to be able to sleep in, take off at 9:00, get there for lunch, and still have plenty of time for the beach. You can choose your own adventure for the drive up, but we like taking highway 30 to highway 31 before exiting onto Michigan 139. Highway 139 will merge with Michigan 63 and take you straight into St. Joe.
St. Joe’s Downtown
When your tires hit Main Street, turn west towards the lake, go in a few blocks, and you will be on the brick streets of the old downtown that are lined with local shops and restaurants. From here, you're a short walk from everything; even the beach if you aren’t carrying a lot of stuff.
For lunch, give Beachside Deli and it’s Mediterranean specialties a try. Located on State Street, between Broad and Elm Streets, they serve up terrifically authentic food. If a nap on the beach is on your to-do list, then one of their sizable gyros or falafel wraps should facilitate that nicely. Don’t forget to try a piece of their homemade baklava too. The layers of delicate syrup-drizzled pastry and crumbled pistachio are enough reason to make the drive up. Be prepared to wait on busy weekends, but it’s worth it.
Shopping tastes are subjective, and with the exception of the ice cream joints, and the toy store, I could pass on most of the shops downtown. One exception though is the G & M Variety Store. It’s an old fashioned five and dime that literally has everything. Take fifteen minutes to wander their cramped and densely packed aisles. You may find a replacement for your vinyl red-checkered tablecloth, some of the last floppy discs in the world, or colored pipe cleaners to finish that craft project you started in Sunday school thirty years ago.
For those with kids, point your stroller toward the waterfront and let them run around in the mammoth splash pad, ride a restored carousel or explore the small children’s museum. The splash pad features eight water canons mounted 35 feet off the ground that can spray water 75 feet. Sugary soft sand covers a broad public beach that has clean and convenient changing rooms.
For those motivated to hit the road early on a Saturday morning, your reward will be St. Joe’s small, but very nice, farmers’ market. It runs from 9:00 AM until 2:00 PM and has the normal assortment of locally grown and produced goods. This year we planned ahead and brought a second cooler for transporting our purchases. We also packed a couple of forks for the pie we would inevitably buy from the Amish man who also sells homemade breads, cookies, and cinnamon rolls. It’s a fact that pie tastes even better when there is sand between your toes… and when you don’t have to scoop out sticky handfuls with your fingers like last year.
It’s pretty standard stuff when it comes to restaurants in St. Joe and Benton Harbor; burgers, fried seafood, and other safe options that are neither great, nor terrible, nor too expensive. On a tip from reader Randal Robbins, we headed over the bridge to Benton Harbor to try out a local microbrewery.
The Livery, on 4th Street in the recently renovated industrial area of Benton Harbor, is located in the basement and ground floor of an old brick building. You order your food and drinks separately, and you have to go to the bar, or kitchen to place your order. The food was pretty basic, but their numerous varieties of beer were quite good. We tried a light and summery Farmhouse French Ale and a tangy Raspberry Wheat. By the looks of things, they also have some great tasting ambers and stouts as well.
The Best Part
You can’t leave St. Joe after dinner if there is even a remote threat of a sunset. There is no bad place to watch the sun slip out of view behind Lake Michigan and set the sky on fire with color. You have your choice of the hill overlooking the waterfront, the beach, or the pier. Just don’t forget your ice cream.
What kind of Michigan beach town would St. Joe be if it didn't offer you half a dozen options for ice cream? None of them are bad, but Kilwins; with it’s homemade ice cream, fudge and waffle cones; is tough to beat. So pick something indulgent, and a second scope of something really naughty, then find a nice spot over looking the water and squeeze a few more minutes of relaxation out of your day trip before driving home.