Here Comes Summer, Part I: Lake Michigan's Eastern Shore

Is there anything better than filling up your vehicle with a full tank of gas, stocking up on some road food and heading off on vacation? If there is, I can't think of it. The right car, the right company and the right piece of plastic with a high credit limit can spell fun in any country -- and especially in the good old USA where we have so many great places to go. In fact, this country offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to vacation offerings. Here's one of my favorites, which happens to be a hop, skip and a jump from Chicago. Check back next week for a destination right near Los Angeles. Enjoy!

Lake Michigan's Eastern Shore

The Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan offers its own bucolic beauty, but I can't hide my partiality for the lake's eastern shore. The prevailing west winds have, through the ages, created beautiful beaches and breathtaking sand dunes all along the western edge of lower Michigan, and there is no better season to drink in all their riches than summer. After heading north out of Chicago on I-94, follow 196 until it becomes Highway 31, which will be your route of pleasure for about 200 miles, all the way to Petoskey. The first pleasant stopovers on the route are the artists' communities of Douglas and Saugatuck, home of the slowly fading majesty of the SS Keewatin, a rare reminder of the days when large steam-powered vessels carried passengers throughout the Great Lakes region.

Up the road is Holland, a town that takes its name seriously by playing up its Dutch antecedents. Among the town's attractions are a 230-year-old windmill, the recreated "Dutch Village," and the DeKlomp Wooden Shoe Factory. Grand Haven and Muskegon are pleasant lakeside towns that offer attractive beaches and pleasure boat harbors giving anglers excellent access to Lake Michigan's sport fisheries. The scenery just gets better and better as you cruise leisurely to Silver Lake, where tall dunes to the west separate Lake Michigan from the smaller inland lake that provides great recreational opportunities. Take the opportunity to get out of your vehicle and climb into one of Mac Woods' expertly piloted dune buggies that have been plying the southern reaches of Silver Lake State Park for more than half a century for a ride you won't forget.

A short drive up 31, Ludington offers a state park with miles of beaches and still more miles of hiking trails through forests and dunes. Slightly farther north, Manistee is the gateway to one of the Midwest's most scenic wonders - Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. According to the Chippewa, the area's largest dune, once topped with pines so that it resembled a giant bear, was the mother of two nearby islands, North and South Manitou, the Sleeping Bear's cubs.

Still farther north is the tiny fishing village of Leland, which is still the best place to buy hardwood-smoked Lake Michigan whitefish and trout. From there it is but a short journey to Traverse City, a veritable metropolis compared to many of the other towns nearby, with terrific restaurants, protected beaches and a wide variety of pleasant hotels.

After a slight jog east out of Traverse, the route turns north again to Charlevoix, a village that has become an enclave for the rich and not-so-famous. Its snug harbor and understated downtown are desired for destinations for the many cruising sailors who frequent Lake Michigan in its short summer sailing season. Petosky, a favorite of Ernest Hemingway, among others, has a similar feel, and its Gaslight District is a crowded but happy place to be on a warm summer night.