On She Goes

The Hamptons of the Midwest: A Guide to Harbor Country

Just outside of Chicago lies a string of beach towns in southwest Michigan called Harbor Country.

Helene Achanzar
Helene Achanzar
August 29, 2017
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Chalk it up to my heritage, my people being island folks, but I love the beach. It’s where the midday sun renders my phone’s screen useless and I’m left with the water, my wild mind, and whatever small kingdom I’ve claimed on the sand. It’s a place where there’s no work and no city, where the rat race disappears.

Just over an hour outside of Chicago lies a string of beach towns in southwest Michigan called Harbor Country. While some locals despise that it’s referred to as “The Hamptons of the Midwest,” there’s some truth to the nickname. It was the Lake Michigan playground of celebrities like Oprah and the late Roger Ebert, and Chicagoans continue to flock there to escape their daily grind. Its proximity to the city makes Harbor Country a great place for a weekend getaway, or in my case, the perfect destination for a midweek day trip with pals who have PTO to burn.

So I scooped a couple of my favorite women for a romp through Harbor Country. This is what we did, and it should serve as your guide to the Hamptons of the Midwest.

Luisa’s Cafe
photo by Adam Jason Cohen

Harbert Swedish Bakery and Luisa’s Cafe
13698 Red Arrow Hwy, Harbert

You can’t begin a beach day on empty, so we fueled up at the Harbert Swedish Bakery and Luisa’s Cafe. The bakery was established in 1932, and after Luisa bought it in 2001, she started serving Italian-style breakfast and lunch plates in an adjoining room. While you’re scarfing down chilaquiles, Ninel’s lox and egg scramble, or gluten-free carrot-cake waffles, you can feel good about supporting local creameries and organic farms. Sit down for breakfast now, pick up an elephant ear for the beach, and save some donuts for the ride home. You’ll thank me later.

Helene at Harbert Antique Mall.
photo by Adam Jason Cohen

Harbert Antique Mall
13887 Red Arrow Hwy, Harbert

Red Arrow Highway, the road that connects the towns of Harbor Country, is littered with antique shops of various sizes, with various specialties. Among the best is Harbert Antique Mall, with a huge selection of furniture, books, and outsider art. Where else can you find vintage Art Deco engagement rings next to not just one, but two oversized, bejeweled Tweety pendants? If your morning gets rained out (as ours did), you can easily spend hours wandering through this mall or contemplating the meaning of life on an antique sofa.

Townline Beach
Town Line Ave, Union Pier

While Cherry Beach is a popular spot in Harbor Country, there are a number of “road-end” beaches with a more intimate vibe. There aren’t signs for these beaches, but as you cruise down Red Arrow Highway, the westernmost point of some cross streets is a tiny parking lot and a set of stairs that lead to a beach. My favorite is Townline Beach, which sits at the edge of Town Line Avenue, just off Lake Avenue, in Union Pier. Neighboring private beaches and limited public parking means you have to get there early, but it’s worth it to skip the crowds at other beaches during high season. Slather on the high-SPF sunscreen, bathe in the waters of Lake Michigan, and let the rest of the world fade away.

Pro tip: there isn’t a restroom at this lovely, semi-secluded beach, so pop into one of the small shops on Town Line Avenue to grab a snack and do your business.

Stray Dog.
photo by Adam Jason Cohen

The Stray Dog Bar & Grill
245 N Whittaker St, New Buffalo

After a long day under the sun, the bustling and boozy rooftop deck at The Stray Dog in New Buffalo is precisely what my girls and I need. Beneath a canopy of patio umbrellas, we enjoyed waterfront views, brightly colored frozen drinks, and good grub. Inevitably, anything called a “bar and grill” will have the standard fried fare, but many options at Stray Dog are distinctly lighter than your average beach town options. We were fans of the fish tacos, the BLT Guacamole sandwich, and, of course, the Chicago Dog.

Journeymen Distillery
photo by Adam Jason Cohen

Journeyman Distillery
109 Generations Dr, Three Oaks

Since 2010, Journeyman has been making certified-organic small-batch whiskey and other spirits. History buffs might appreciate the story of this building: Edward Kirk Warren was an industrialist and inventor best known for creating featherbone used in corsets. In 1883, he founded this factory, and though he was a staunch prohibitionist, Warren might be happy to see the way the Journeyman Distillery has repurposed the factory as a tasting room and restaurant to welcome locals and visitors alike. While tasting flights and punch bowls are ideal for groups, the lavender gimlet is a must. For the designated driver, there are natural sugar-cane sodas, nitro coffee, and Detroit-style pizza. For the rest of us, remember those donuts from the bakery? Eat ’em during the ride home to soak up all that booze.