If you haven't been to southwest Michigan in a while, you haven't been to southwest Michigan.
This long-time haven for vacationing Chicago families is no longer just the quiet spot you remember from your childhood. There are big resorts, spas, paddleboarding and all of the hip resort action you would expect from a tourist destination. (Despite the changes, though, you can still have lunch at the Stray Dog Bar & Grill, stroll through the artists' galleries and rent one of those musty-smelling cottages a block or two off the beach.)
This is an outdoorsy place along the shores of Lake Michigan. You can spend plenty of time chilling at the beach and hiking around Warren Dunes, or you can make it a more adventurous trip by bringing (or renting) bikes to explore one of the well-marked Backroads Bikeways bike trails or by taking up the hottest new water sport, stand-up paddleboarding.
Paddleboards are everywhere these days. If there's a body of water nearby, chances are there's someone renting stand-up paddleboards. We got ours from Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, which rents boards, paddles and life jackets for $30 for a half day and $35 for a full day.
Paddleboards are wider and thicker than surfboards, which adds stability when you're standing up and dipping the long paddle into the water. We paddled on the Galien River on a day that was chilly enough to make us glad we were wearing wet suits.
Third Coast owner Ryan Gerard says most tweens or young teens can paddle their own boards, while younger kids can sit on the front of a parent's board. I would only try that with a kid who is content to sit relatively still. Paddling is a little like riding a bike: Until you get the hang of it, it's tough enough to stay up, without the added challenge of someone else leaning to the right or the left.
In addition to renting surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks and other water equipment, Third Coast offers a summer beach camp for kids ages 8-12. It's $130 for three mornings.
I recommend parking the kids at camp and then treating yourself to a massage or facial at one of New Buffalo's spas. My facial-one of the best I've ever had-was at Harbor Country Day Spa, just up the street from Stray Dog, the family-friendly pizza and burger joint that is a New Buffalo tradition.
There's a growing number of places to stay in and around New Buffalo, from plenty of small, privately owned individual cottages to the slightly more upscale but still traditional small resorts such as Gintaras, which sits on 300 feet of Lake Michigan beach.
For a more luxurious visit, there is the decidedly upscale and lovely Marina Grand Resort, built in 2006. The one- to three-bedroom suites include a fireplace and full kitchen (the key to keeping hungry kids happy while also holding down costs for a traveling family), as well as free Internet and bike rentals.
Best of all, it's just down the block from the Amtrak stop in New Buffalo, which is less than 90 minutes from Union Station.