5 stops on Michigan’s Sunrise Coast

I grew up going to Michigan’s west coast beach towns, but until a recent trip with the good folks of Pure Michigan, I had never explored the Lake Huron side. On “The Sunrise Coast,” you’ll find tiny towns with tons of charm, uncrowded beaches and outdoor experiences to delight the whole family. In Michigan, a state that boasts the largest freshwater shoreline, you’re never farther than six miles from water.

Port Austin is a small town with a lot of heart

Located at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb, Port Austin is an adorable town with less than 800 permanent residents, only mom and pop hotels (no big chains here), cute shops and restaurants, and loads of character. Strolling down the street, your kids will love uncovering the crosswalk art. Instead of yellow straight lines, each is painted with a unique pattern of turtles, fireworks, seashells and more.

Relax and enjoy the uncrowded beach of Port Crescent State Park. Stay until dark and you’ll see countless twinkling stars at the Dark Sky Preserve. Make sure to visit Bird Creek Farms for a delectable farm-to-table dinner on an airy deck above an organic farm. They brew their own beer (the Port Austin Pale Ale, PAPA, is sensational) and I couldn’t more highly recommend the sweet spiciness of their Ancho Rubbed Pork Tenderloin.

Kayaking to Turnip Rock, a formation that looks like the vegetable’s round bulb with trees for stems, is a popular activity for single kayakers (no tandems) who plan to paddle for about four hours. Top that off with a burger, brew and beautiful view at PAK’s Backyard, a wonderful place for families to slow down and enjoy a relaxed setting while kids play backyard games.

Since it is the Sunrise Coast, try your best to rise before 5:30 a.m. to catch the sky bursting into bloom above the water. Multitask while you caffeinate at The Green Clean Bean, a laundromat with espresso drinks and WiFi. You’ll be pumped to hit up Port Austin Farmer’s Market — one of largest in state of Michigan. Open Saturdays from Memorial Day to mid-October, the market is bursting with fresh produce, baked goods, unique crafts and art. The Little Yellow Cottages provide a great place to stay in the heart of the downtown area. For a meal in a National Historic Site, try The Bank 1884. I had a strawberry chicken wrap that was quite delicious.

Head to Grindstone General Store for ice cream that’s sure to be a hit with the kids and get tons of Instagram traffic. These colossal cones are crazy huge (the biggest in the Thumb). Make sure to bring wipes!

Bay City and Saginaw will set your clock to lake time

More than just the birthplace of pop icon Madonna, Bay City is an eclectic mix of vintage and modern. The largest city on Lake Huron, it is still quite quaint with adorable antique shops and tasty restaurants, as well as sandy beaches and peaceful parks.

Notable for birding in the spring or fall migratory seasons, you can catch a glimpse of sandpipers, egrets or herons at The Bay City State Recreational Area, which offers almost 3,000 acres of land and over 1,000 feet of sandy beach. Johnny Panther Quests Ecotours provide scenic boat tours in the undisturbed “Everglades of Michigan.”

Listen to the captain’s colorful stories from decades of exploring the area and immediately understand why he says stress relief is a byproduct of exploring one of the richest wildlife habitats in Michigan with him. The air smells so sweet out there, and his enthusiasm is contagious.

Morning at Maggie’s is the place to go for homemade breakfast with fresh herbs and interesting ingredients. Got a hankering for a donut? Visit Cops & Doughnuts for a maple bacon donut, chocolate coconut confection or cup of coffee in a local bakery that was saved by the entire local police department (They banded together to launch this business and prevent the demise of a more than 100-year-old bakery.).

The new indoor City Market is a happening place to purchase fresh fruits, try mouthwatering marshmallows and view cooking demonstrations. If you’re lucky enough to have a night out with an over-21 crowd, do something different and cruise the streets on a Sunrise Pedal Trolley.

Dow Gardens offers concerts and story time sessions in a beautiful setting. Roam free in the abundant Whiting Forest and view the forest from above the trees in the new Canopy Walk. The Walk, which will be the longest in the nation, will partially open in 2018, with the full project expected to be complete in 2019.

Tour a lighthouse and stay in a low-cost cottage in Harbor Beach

Ever been up in a lighthouse? Experience the sensational view from the top, and be sure to pop your head out the porthole of the restored, historic Harbor Beach Lighthouse. A passionate team of volunteers take guests out by boat to see what life was like as a lightkeeper. Summer Saturday tours are $20 per person and can book up, so reserve your seats in advance. Just make sure to hold the hands of little ones, and visit the teeny, tiny gift shop for a souvenir.

Four cottages are available for rent just steps from the water and for only $400 per week at Waterworks Park. Each sleeps seven and come with a kitchenette and shower. Book early for this affordable, off-the-grid getaway.

Love the beaches, restaurants and shops in Lexington

Lexington is a little village with friendly people, quaint stores, an art and music scene and lots of soft, sandy public beaches. Plan plenty of time to stroll the long, wide beaches, play on the playground and walk the beautiful boardwalk.

Downtown is full of beach shops bursting with souvenirs as well as high-end home stores, like the serene Noble. You’ll want to deck your home out with lovely lakeside décor, handy kitchen tools and Turkish cotton bath towels after a jaunt around this store.

Visit the Lexington Village Theatre for a high-quality show in a handsome setting. The Cabaret cocktail table section is adorable and provides for an intimate view. Music, comedy, and even karaoke are offered, with Ted Nugent and Jeff Daniels on the ticket this year. The connecting pub has Connect Four built into the wall.

For a family classic, drive up to the Lakeside A&W for curbside service. Endless root beer, grilled burgers, hot dogs and fries can be delivered to your car or even the grassy area out back if your kids want to run around and kick a soccer ball while you wait. The Windjammer, on the waters of lovely Lake Huron, serves pasta, seafood and steak with pretty sensational views. Stop in the Lexington Brewery & Wine House for craft beers and award-winning wine served in a fun setting. The native Chicagoan owners have put a lot of heart and soul into this brewery, making it a great place to relax. Chill out with a refreshing, three-layer Sunrise and enjoy the live music or Free Bacon Fridays.

Port Huron is a splendid place to kayak and float

Close to our neighbor nation to the north, Port Huron provides adventurous ways to have fun on the water. With seven ADA accessible kayak launches, Port Huron makes kayaking accessible for all, without even getting wet when you get on the water. Plus, on the third Sunday in August, they host the 40th Port Huron Float Down, a super fun way to float the day away with older children (must know how to swim).

Missy’s Kayak Connection not only rents equipment, but also provides instruction, and Missy is adamant about safety, so rest assured, your family is in good hands with her.

Look up at the Blue Water Bridge, a beautiful, twinkling blue at night. It connects Port Huron to Point Edward, Ontario, Canada. DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Port Huron is a comfortable place to rest, with views of the bridge and St. Clair River from your balcony.

Try Tio Gordo’s Cocina for Mexican cuisine on an expansive outdoor patio. Their spicy queso dip and elote (Mexican street corn with the most delicious seasoning) offer great kicks for adult palates. Kids meals come with popsicles (yum!). Cap off your day with a performance at the Citadel Stage, a local theater with plenty of passion.

Cortney Fries
Cortney Fries
An award-winning travel journalist, Cortney Fries (pronounced "freeze") has been writing about family travel for over a decade. She knows that parents planning trips are looking for all members to have fun and make lasting memories. Cortney believes that you should definitely try anything that makes you slightly nervous.


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