Most people think about heading to one of the coasts when they need a beach retreat and while Florida and California are pretty great, you don’t need an ocean to find an epic beach town. It’s actually the middle of the country that’s privy to some of the most surprising travel gems for summertime fun where you won’t have the fight the crowds or worry about getting saltwater in your eyes. Here’s where to escape for a great (lakes) Midwest getaway (family or otherwise…) where everyone is virtually guaranteed to be Minnesota nice.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
A car-free island trapped in time in between the Upper and Lower peninsula on Lake Huron, you have to take a ferry to reach Mackinac Island. But leave your cars on the mainland because there are only three ways to traverse this tiny 8-mile stretch of sand: horse and buggy, hike, or bike. The 19th-century settlement hasn’t changed much over the decades, which is what makes it so special. Almost all the accommodations are quaint B&Bs (one even run by the mayor), there are 17 fudge shops within a few block radius with the smell of chocolate permanently permeating the air, and carriage rides are your only source of traffic. You can be as active as you want to explore Michigan’s first state park which covers 80% of the island or practice your porch sitting and take advantage of the 360-degree beach views.
Door County, Wisconsin
On a little sliver of peninsula between Green Bay and Lake Michigan, Door County has over 300 miles of shoreline and makes up the “thumb” of Wisconsin. It’s technically 34 islands and dozens of communities in one making it a true choose your own adventure vacation. There are lighthouses to explore, wrecks to dive, and art galleries to peruse. Throw a fish boil, pick some cherries, and tour the vineyards knowing you’ll be eating and drinking well in this neighborhood.
Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri
A large reservoir in central Missouri, the Lake of the Ozarks extends into three smaller creek and river tributaries promising no shortage of H20. There is world-class boating, golfing, shopping, and fishing. Speedboats, pontoon boats, fishing charters, and personal watercraft can be rented by the hour, day, or longer from marinas, resorts and campgrounds because getting out on the water is what people do around here. But when you’re ready to dry off, there are also a series of four underground caves to explore.
Where to Stay: If you want an an upscale getaway with private boat dock, check out Camden on the Lake Resort.
Home to the unspoiled boundary waters, Ely is a paddler’s and nature lover’s paradise. While most people will canoe or kayak along the one million acres of wilderness and waterways, the International Wolf Center and North American Bear Center are also great places to get up close and personal with wildlife. Whether you want to get out on the water for a day or a week, it’s an ideal spot to disconnect, unwind, and get back to nature. You may even be able to see the Northern Lights, which are more common in fall and winter, but have been known to make surprise guest appearances.
Where to Stay: Most people camp or rent cabins, but if you’d prefer to stay in town it’s mostly motels and inns.
Lake Geneva, Wisconsin
A resort town for Midwesterners, especially Chicagoans, Geneva Lake is a small freshwater lake in southeast Wisconsin. Voted one of the best small towns for adventure, there is horseback riding, biking, zip lining, boating and hiking in the summer and skiing, ice skating, and ice fishing in the winter. Don’t miss walking along the 20-mile shore path, which surrounds the entire body of water and follows the same route the Potawatomi Indians took.
Once a historic naval base, this tiny village on South Bass Island in Lake Erie is less than five miles across and Ohio’s party island. Billed as a family-friendly getaway that’s more of a millennial magnet for its open-air breweries, wineries, and clubs that are hopping in the summer, people tend to make DIY bar crawls via golf carts, the island’s most popular way to get around. And they’re only a 25-minute drive from Cedar Point Amusement Park if you want to get your rollercoaster on.
Where to Stay: Put-in-Bay Resort is conveniently located near the chaos of downtown and features a tropical themed swim up bar.
New Buffalo, Michigan
Anchored by one of the region’s largest beaches and recreational harbors, New Buffalo is the quintessential summer escape for Chicagoans. Just 70-miles north and right across the Indiana border, you can stop at the outlet mall before entering harbor country. A series of lakefront beaches and villages, peruse the antique shops, hike the dunes, and relax on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan. When Oink’s, the ice cream shop, and Redamak’s, old-timey burger joint, are the most popular spots in town, you know you’re doing summer right.
Where to Stay: The Harbor Grand is an upscale property with free bike rentals and beach gear to borrow.
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