1. St. Joseph
In a word: Kidcentric
Beach snapshot: Families with toddlers to teenagers easily fill a day at Silver Beach and its neighboring amusement area. Just off the sand, Silver Beach Center houses a vintage carousel with 48 hand-carved animals. Interactive exhibits make learning about the Great Lakes (and much more) fun at The Curious Kids Discovery Zone. At the splash park, 28 water jets and eight water cannons guarantee a soaking.
Talk of the town: Mom and dad appreciate contemporary outdoor sculptures surrounding the Krasl Art Center, which features works by local artists.
2. Grand Haven
In a word: Social
Beach snapshot: RV and tent campers may be steps from one another, but the beach is equally close at Grand Haven State Park. Close quarters mean you'll likely make new friends. Sand volleyball courts, grills, fire pits and swing sets add to the enjoyment.
Talk of the town: The Harbor Trolley whisks visitors from the beach to downtown Grand Haven, where one-of-a-kind boutiques, such as Calico Cat, and restaurants await. Wood-fired pizzas, some with crazy-good combinations, come from K2 (on the second floor of Kirby House).
In a word: Twofold
Beach snapshot: Double the fun at Holland State Park, which has two beaches, two lakes, two campgrounds and one well-known lighthouse, affectionately known as Big Red. Boats putter a channel linking the lakes, which sandwich the park. Most day visitors head to Lake Michigan's sandy shore, where children splash and build sandcastles, or indigo waters to paddle a kayak or stand-up paddleboard (on-site rentals available). Where you overnight depends on whether you like sun and sand or shade and woods: Camp on paved sites between picturesque dunes or in the woods along Lake Macatawa.
Talk of the town: Holland's tulip-lined downtown embraces its Dutch heritage. Family-owned de Boer's Bakery and Dutch Brothers Restaurant is known for its authentic krakelingen, a buttery cookie rolled in sugar. European-style Alpen Rose Restaurant and Cafe serves a variety of schnitzels with braised red cabbage and house-made spaetzle; be sure to snag patio seating.
In a word: Adventurous
Beach snapshot: The only state park in Michigan to allow off-road vehicles, Silver Lake State Park lets users bring their own ORV, rent one in town or lets someone else do the driving. Watch sand fly as four-wheelers climb steep dunes and zoom over moguls on close to 400 acres run by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Mac Wood's Dune Rides takes thrill-seekers on a 40-minute roller coaster-like ride in cherry red dune buggies.
Talk of the town: Nearby Pentwater's main drag inspires afternoon shop-a-thons with its fashion boutiques, art galleries and antiques stores.
In a word: Serene
Beach snapshot: Leading to Ludington State Park's entrance, a quiet undeveloped beachfront feels like a private shore for swimmers and sunbathers. The only downside: no restrooms or concessions. Inside the park, 22 miles of hiking trails and 2 miles of bike trails attract active travelers. Calm Lake Hamlin is a prime spot for fishing, kayaking and canoeing. Multiple campgrounds invite overnighters.
Talk of the town: Lick a scoop of House of Flavors signature Blue Moon ice cream while strolling among sculptures at Waterfront Park, which also features two marinas and a playground.
In a word: Breathtaking
Beach snapshot: With 65 miles of shoreline and dunes that reach 450 feet above Lake Michigan, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the place for dramatic vistas. Choose from a half a dozen swimming spots, including Platte Point River beach. Tubers float the swift and shallow Platte River, which flows into Lake Michigan.
Talk of the town: The size of the giant Boomchunka cookie might make you gasp; its generous flavorings of dried cherries, oats and chocolate surely will. Get it and all things cherry at Cherry Republic in nearby Glen Arbor. The bakery-cafe, winery (with free tastings) and retail store sell hundreds of cherry-theme foods and drinks.
7. South Haven
In a word: Walkable
Beach snapshot: Popular South Beach is so close to the historical downtown that beachgoers can swim, shop and dine without hopping in a car. Pristine paths wind past picnic areas and benches at Riverfront Park, a relaxing spot to watch boats, including tall ship Friends Good Will.
Talk of the town: More than 50 specialty shops and boutiques, such as Props for the Home with quirky hostess gifts, line downtown's quaint streets. Stop in The Blueberry Store for Michigan-made blueberry products, including preserves, teas and muffin mixes.
In a word: Educational
Beach snapshot: Home to Mt. Baldy, one of the tallest sand dunes along Lake Michigan, P.J. Hoffmaster State Park focuses on the ecology of dunes at its Gillette Visitor Center. Compare sand from five different states; then explore the dunes or take a guided nature program.
Talk of the town: It's all physics in action during a side trip to Michigan's Adventure, the state's largest amusement and water park. Roller coasters, a giant Ferris wheel and many more rides surround a picture-perfect lake. Zip down water slides or chill in wave pools at the connected WildWater Adventure.
In a word: Popular
Beach snapshot: Towering sand dunes and plenty of room to roam at Oval Beach attract sunseekers. Be sure to pack umbrellas, coolers and plenty of water toys. Feeling ambitious? Ascend 600-foot Mount Baldhead. To reach the top, climb 282 stairs on the eastern side of the beach. Catch your breath and race down to the water's edge.
Talk of the town: Hungry Village Tours leads three-hour walking tours in downtown Saugatuck or six-hour driving tours to local eateries, farms and vineyards.