South Haven, Mich., Boasts a Long History as a Resort Spot

Article excerpt

Byline: Mike Michaelson

Chicago-area residents have a long history of vacation getaways to South Haven, across the lake in Van Buren County in southwest Michigan. Earlier this century, "resorting" in South Haven became such a major pastime that in 1925 a quarter of a million visitors descended on the town by steamship. Even earlier schooners shipped lumber and fruit from South Haven to Chicago and other lake cities.

The stylish resort community remains closely tied to the rhythms of Lake Michigan. It also remains a big draw for Illinois vacationers and weekend travelers, offering excellent beaches, fine restaurants and a variety of accommodations. These days, though, most visitors arrive by car (about a two-hour drive from Chicago).

Charter fishing for trout and salmon also ranks as a major attraction, as do canoe trips on the Black River. Hiking and bicycling along the nearby 34-mile Kal-Haven Trail also keeps visitors busy.

One of South Haven's most photographed structures, a pink-hued lighthouse, dates from 1903, replacing a wooden tower built in 1872. Tours are offered during some of the community's annual festivals.

The South Haven Center for the Arts showcases the work of local, regional and nationally known artists and hosts many touring exhibits. Also in South Haven, the Michigan Maritime Museum chronicles the use of boats on Michigan's Great Lakes. Exhibits depict American Indians, fur traders and settlers, as well as the boat builders who created schooners and steamers.

You'll find a museum store, an exhibit of marine art that shows how artists recorded maritime history, and a 500-foot-long boardwalk on the Black River that offers views of harbor traffic. In nearby Hartford, the Van Buren County Museum explores Southwest Michigan history.

One of the region's newer attractions is the Ginger Man Raceway, a two-mile, 36-foot-wide road course with 13 turns. An annual calendar includes events for the Sports Car Club America (for production, GT and formula race cars), super-speedway racing karts, vintage sports-racing cars, historic sports-car racing and super-speedway motorcycles. It also hosts specialized driving schools.

Close to South Haven you'll find the trailhead of the multiuse Kal-Haven Trail that stretches eastward to Kalamazoo. Originally a railroad completed in 1870, the rail bed has been converted to a trail with a limestone/slag surface for hikers, bicyclists, equestrians, cross-country skiers and (when there is a 4-inch snow base) snowmobilers. The trail passes through small towns and villages, across seven bridges that originally were railway trestles, and past many points of historical interest. Many of the towns along the way offer food and lodging. If you wish to rent equipment or need a shuttle, both are available from CyclePath Adventures; call (888) 639-1905.

Trail highlights include a covered bridge across the Black River, a hilly area full of wildflowers, wetlands with pretty blue irises and the community of Mentha, once the world's largest producer of mint. At Bloomingdale you'll find a restored depot and caboose that now serves as a museum; near Mattawan is the Michigan Fisheries Interpretive Center, site of a fish hatchery.

South Haven lodgings include the Old Harbor Inn, on the banks of the Black River, part of a complex of shops and boutiques designed to resemble a New England fishing village. It offers 37 suites and guest rooms and amenities that include whirlpools, fireplaces and balconies. The inn has an indoor pool and hot tub. Moored alongside is the Idler, a turn-of-the-century New Orleans riverboat offering al fresco drinking and dining. …