Saugatuck Review: A World Away
An easy two and half hour drive away from Chicago is Saugatuck Michigan; a charming lakeside town with a population of just under a thousand that is filled with artists, hippies, boaters, families, and plenty of LGBTQ identified people. Chicago should be jealous of its pristine beauty and it doesn’t seem possible that this is the same lake Chicago shares. But beyond the towering sand dunes lies Lake Michigan which while certainly is as crowded as Chicago beaches, the vibe here manages to feel more tranquil and relaxed. The air smells cleaner, the sky seems bluer, and the water more colorful with shades of blues and greens with its waves gently caressing the shoreline. There is so much to see, brightly colored beach umbrellas abound, kites are flying, children are making sand castles and burying each other in the moist sand. Frisbees are being thrown and footballs caught. There’s boogie boarding and even the occasional surfer hoping to catch just the right wave, but the lake is calm today perfect for wading in waist deep with a refreshing temperature of 64 degrees as the sun blazes overhead.
There are picnickers intermingled with partiers with the faint smell of marijuana wafting through the air. The crowd is both young, old, and every age in between with the prevailing attitude being carefree and laid back. Watching these somewhat chaotic scenes unfold this writer feels perfectly comfortable even serene roaming the beach, woods, and dunes for that perfect picture. A whistle is faintly heard in the distance coming from The Star of Saugatuck, a historic paddle boat filled with sightseers, as she slowly floats by at just the right pace causing a gentle ripple to come ashore. Postcard perfect views exist around every turn in Saugatuck.
The pinnacle of gayness is located at the Dunes Resort which is the Midwest’s only full-service LGBTQ resort. While not on Lake Michigan, the wooded property has a charm of its own and Oval Beach is mere minutes away. In the center of the resort are their pool and bar. It’s a great place to have a dip while sipping one of their frozen drink concoctions. It’s the kind of place that reminds you that you are on vacation. On Saturday there’s a poolside barbeque that sounds delightful. Most of the resort is motel style with clean efficient rooms. A nice touch is the red benches located outside between each room creating a communal “front porch” to hang out or to smoke a cigarette (ashtrays are provided). This writer sat there writing this review and everyone walking by said “hello” and asked, “how are you doing?”
An LGBTQ Destination
There are also four darling little cabins on the property and for those budget minded there are basic rooms with just a bed, no ac, or tv, and a shared bathroom. It sounds as awful as it is but one doesn’t visit Saugatuck to stay at the Dunes Resort for the décor. The Dunes Resort is about having fun. Meeting your mister right at the moment happens easily and frequently at this resort, but gay friends could easily use the resort as a starting place for their Saugatuck adventure and a gay couple would feel perfectly comfortable having a passion filled weekend here. While welcoming, this isn’t the place you would bring mom to, at least not this writer’s mother. There is a large wooded ravine that while cruisy during the day at night is filled with men having anonymous encounters seemingly around every tree or bush. There is a restaurant on the premises which provides the typical fare of sandwiches and salads, but it closes at 5 pm and besides, it’s much more interesting to venture into town where quaint eateries are abundant.
When asked what was so great about the Dunes Resort, Alex the bartender replied, “The diversity that makes up our clientele is awesome. You have all age groups intermingling, which is something you typically don’t see in a large city gay bar.” On summer weekends there are themed parties such as Christmas in July where the Dune’s nightclub has strippers and drag queens performing. This resort is a destination spot on its own. Being located in Saugatuck is just the icing on the cake.
Welcoming AtmosphereAccommodations vary from lavish bed and breakfasts to historic inns, economy lodges, nor frills motels, rustic cabins, renting out one of the newer condo’s that line the docks in downtown Saugatuck, or there are many options to camp out which would be very appealing for more adventurous types. Spending the evening under a brilliant starlight sky is something we Chicagoans can’t enjoy. Where ever you choose to stay, be prepared to pay a premium during the summer high season. Saugatuck struggles against tourist growth and instead maintains its small town feel preferring to keep its original arts and cultural roots. The streets are lined with a canopy of trees and flower boxes burst with color around every corner with quaint stores, bars, and eateries mix together in perfect harmony. Bethany a waitress at the dockside restaurant, Coral Gables, says “People come here not only for the water sports but because we manage to have big resort amenities without losing that small town quaintness.” What you won’t find in Saugatuck are bill boards, chain restaurants or touristy gift shops selling bumper stickers or tee shirts. And sorry, the nearest McDonald’s is 20 miles away. Each shop is independently owned selling only hand made goods each crafted by local artists being its own unique treasure. This assures the variety and quality of the items sold at each boutique which there is a plethora of in a several block area that is downtown Saugatuck. Bob and Evan, owners of the store, Earth Echo’s agree. Evan comments, “We ran a jewelry store in Texas for 10 years before coming to Saugatuck and we love the atmosphere here so much that we would never leave. Our customers know that what we sell is authentic and hand made.” There’s still only one gas station on the outskirts of town. Although in recent years Saugatuck has seen a real estate boom, custom homes and gated estates have cropped up around the outer edges of Saugatuck while downtown Saugatuck is still filled with charming 1930’s and 40’s cottages and bungalows. Regardless of what brings you to Saugatuck, it will be a memorable get away full of Norman Rockwell small town charm, Midwestern friendliness, and peaceful splendor all only a couple hours away from the hustle and bustle of Chicago.
Open year round but from Memorial Day to Labor Day is high season
Located 2.5 hours from Chicago on the Western shore of Lake Michigan
At the Dunes Resort, weekday rate is $139 for a standard room. Weekend rate is $200 per night with a 2-night minimum. But Saugatuck offers a multitude of accommodation options and prices
About the Author:
Steven Braun, Volunteer Engagement Committee Leader and Volunteer Trainer at Center on Halsted was born and raised suburbanite, now 30 years Chicago urbanite. Steve is a real estate entrepreneur and germane to these pages, also a member of, advocate for, and friend to the LGBTQ Community. When not volunteering, writing, or at the gym, Steve can be found watching "House Hunters."