Sleeping Bear Dunes, Mich. As a traveler who always prefers water to wheels, a summertime trip to the sand dunes of northern Michigan seemed like a perfect chance to test the waters of a ferry ride across Lake Michigan.
We hopped on board the fleet Lake Express for the trip from Wisconsin to Michigan and took the sentimental favorite, the S.S. Badger, back. Which is better? My kids (Evan, 11, and Tess, 9) vote for the Badger; I concur.
The Lake Express is all about speed. The 192-foot-long ship carries 250 passengers and 46 cars and makes the trip from Milwaukee to Muskegan in just 2½ hours. It’s newer and sleeker but has fewer options for keeping the kids entertained.
We took the 6:30 p.m. departure last summer expecting to see an incredible sunset on the lake. An overcast sky marred the view and the smokers on deck marred the fresh air.
We started our trip topside trying to walk against the wind created as the boat zips across the water. Big mistake. By the time we got below, most of the food was sold out and the seats were taken. We ended up sitting on the floor to eat our hot dogs. (If you go, be sure to claim some seats before heading off to explore the rest of the boat.)
This is the second summer for the Lake Express and it’s possible they have worked out some of the kinks we encountered—including the fact that the boat left late and they had no record of our reservation. (One-way fares: $50 adults, $46 seniors, $24 children ages 5 to 15, free for kids under 5; another $59 for a vehicle.)
On the return trip, we boarded the S.S. Badger at its Ludington, Mich., port and marveled at the sheer size of this 410-foot-long behemoth. Originally designed to carry 34 railroad cars, it now can carry 620 passengers and 180 vehicles—including 18-wheelers and RVs.
Even with its 18-mph traveling speed, it takes four hours to get this monster to Manitowoc, Wis. But there is plenty to keep the kids occupied. There’s a play area for the younger ones, an arcade (yuck) for the older ones, a fascinating Badger museum, a movie theater and a “boatique” (“Hey, Mom, what’s a boat-i-q?” my son asked).
We settled our things into our “stateroom”—a very fancy name for a very narrow room with two very narrow beds, a teeny toilet and sink and a life-saving window that opened to bring in fresh air and push out the smell of the diesel fumes—and headed off to explore. We discovered too late that the folks who know how to travel the Badger scope out chairs on deck first and explore later. But if you grab a chair topside, bring a sweater or a blanket. The lake breeze can be chilly, even on a warm July day.
It took nearly twice as long to get back to Wisconsin, but the time flew by as we went from movie theater to play room to stateroom to boatique to arcade and back again. (One-way fares: $49 adults, $45 seniors, $22 children ages 5 to 15, free for children under 5; another $53 for a vehicle and $36 for a stateroom.)
Staying in north Michigan
All that traveling was a way to get to and from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the gorgeous white sand beaches of far northern Michigan. We took the 7.1-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, stopping along the way to admire the view of a blue Lake Michigan and hike the great Dune Climb, a strenuous endeavor that is not for the out of shape.
We stayed as guests of the Crystal Mountain resort in Thompsonville. We felt like kings and queens as we spread out in one of the three-bedroom resort homes. The kids lounged on the leather sofa and watched cartoons while I lounged on the sun porch and read.
This beautiful spot 280 miles from Chicago was founded 50 years ago as a ski resort, opened two golf courses and now is expanding its family attractions, including a new water park pool area.
Lightning kept us from spending much time enjoying the pool or the view from the chair lift. But we did dig in the sand area and Evan spent some time on the climbing wall. This family owned resort has daily activities for families as well as programs that allow parents to spend some time alone while the kids are supervised at the pool, working on an art project or making s’mores around a campfire.
Our favorite activity, though, was floating down the nearby Platte River. (It would have been a very relaxing two hours if I had not brought along the competitive 11-year-old who saw his inner tube as a bumper car, speed racer and torpedo.)
Don’t miss the chance to take the kids to a real outdoor drive-in theater. The Cherry Bowl Drive In Theatre in nearby Honor, Mich., looks just like the drive-in my parents took us to 40 years ago. My kids loved it—although it took them some time to find just the right spot for optimum viewing of the first-run movies. (Be sure to adhere to the parking rules—blue posts only for SUVs. If you don’t, they will find you.)
And be careful to memorize the way—you may never find your way back to Crystal Mountain in the pitch black darkness of a northern Michigan night.
If you go, plan to stay more than the 2½ days we were there. It simply isn’t enough time to take in all this area has to offer.
Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor of Chicago Parent.