At first glance, those surfers skimming Lake Michigan waves in St. Joseph may make you wonder if you’ve over-imbibed at the many craft wineries and distilleries dotting southwest Michigan.

But the wet-suited denizens of Silver Beach, mesmerizing to watch from shore, are among a small band of enthusiasts who live for the occasional favorable conditions—in any season—when they can indulge their surfing passion.

Anyone inspired to join them can rent a board and perhaps take a lesson from Third Coast Surf Shop in downtown St. Joe, within walking distance of the beach.

Given unpredictable lake conditions, surfing is iffy. But visiting the dozens of craft beverage-makers in Michigan’s “fruit belt,” as the area is known, is a guaranteed good time. You’ll find them along orchard-studded country roads and in picturesque beach towns with first-rate restaurants, art galleries and boutiques. A good base for exploring is St. Joe and its sister community of Benton Harbor, where the Inn at Harbor Shores, on the Riverwalk, offers romantic, upscale lodging with a spa.

For Chicagoans, the grape-friendly region some call “the Napa of the Midwest” (though not as pricey or pretentious) is less than a two hour drive—ideal for an easy weekend road trip or a quick overnight getaway. Even better if your visit coincides with a special event, such as St. Joe’s BBQ, Blues & Bluegrass (May 18) or Art on the Bluff, a showcase for 200 artists (July 13-14).

And on June 15, local vintners come together for the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Festival at Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, a setting that inspired poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote much of his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Abraham Lincoln while summering in the area.

“It’s all close in proximity, that’s the fun part,” says Kathy Sturm, executive director of the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, with 19 member wineries plus nine satellite tasting rooms. “You could spend the morning out on the beach and go wine-tasting, shopping and sightseeing the rest of the day.”

Beyond that, a Makers Trail Map guides the way to some three dozen wineries, craft breweries and distilleries, including cider-makers and meaderies, so you’re never far from a tasting experience.

Options range from established wineries with long track records, such as Paw Paw-based St. Julian Winery, Michigan’s oldest and largest, to the boutique, women-owned Lazy Ballerina in downtown St. Joe that promises an “intimidation free” tasting experience.

Find more good vibes at Karma Vista Vineyards, a seventh-generation family fruit farm and 17-year-old winery in Coloma. Under the motto, “Drink wine, live forever,” it produces fruit-forward wines with clever names like Moondance Merlot, Stone Temple Pinot, Starry Starry White, Pink Side of the Moon and Peach Train, each complemented by artsy labels. “It’s our version of album art from the glory days of vinyl,” says owner Joe Herman, whose son, Keith, a former Whirlpool accountant, is the winemaker.

Karma Vista won two silver medals for dry reds (2015 Syrah and 2016 Merlot) in the prestigious 2019 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, for North American wines. The vineyards where those grapes grow are visible from the winery’s simple, hilltop tasting room.

Farther north, in Fennville, Crane’s Pie Pantry Restaurant & Winery is a family-run enterprise dating to 1916. Housed in an antique barn decked out with memorabilia, the restaurant offers American fare and flights of homemade pies with fruit straight from its farm. The winery, opened in 2014, pours small- batch wine and ciders, including its Apple Cherry Hard Cider, named “World’s Best Flavoured Cider” at the 2018 World Cider Awards in London.

In Baroda, Dablon Winery & Vineyard welcomes visitors to sip its French-style, estate wines around a cozy indoor fireplace or a flower-lined patio overlooking stone- terraced vineyards. Among Dablon’s labels is Music Box Matinee Red, named after its sister company, the Music Box Theatre, a historic Chicago arthouse. (Check for the winery’s scheduled film showings, live music and tours that include its underground barrel cellar.)

Also in Baroda, the Round Barn Winery, Distillery & Brewery offers varied live entertainment in several venues, including its turn-of-the-century Amish-built round barn.

A half-hour south of St. Joe, in Three Oaks, Journeyman Distillery produces an array of organic “grain-to-glass” spirits in a renovated former buggy whip and corset factory. Choose from flights of artisan spirits such as barrel-aged gin, apple cider liqueur or wheat and rye whiskeys, dine at its Staymaker restaurant or play mini-golf on Welter’s Folly Putting Green out back.

There’s no shortage of inventive restaurants in the region, starting with The Mason Jar Café in Benton Harbor. Even the tables are handmade in this charming setting for locally-sourced, scratch-made daytime fare (try the huevos rancheros or mascarpone-stuffed French toast). The space, a former Cadillac dealership, also houses art studios.

Grab a sandwich and beautiful pastries at Caffe Tosi in downtown St. Joe, and book ahead for a special afternoon or evening at Tosi’s Restaurant in nearby Stevensville. A local institution, it specializes in northern Italian fare, from the fried squash blossoms appetizer to butterscotch budino and other memorable desserts. Stop for an artisan beer, wine or cider nightcap nearby at the rustic Watermark Brewing Company.

Back in St. Joe, add culture to your itinerary by visiting local artists at Chartreuse Co- Op Art Gallery. Several blocks over, Box Factory for the Arts, a renovated industrial space, is home to three dozen art studios, and hosts musicians, comedians and poets for performances, some free.

From May 31 to July 28, Krasl Art Center will showcase 56 images of Presidents Reagan and Obama in “Two Presidents, One Photographer,” by former White House photographer Pete Souza.

Soaring sculptures by Richard Hunt, Chicago’s internationally famous African American sculptor, and other artists make strolling the walkway along Silver Beach a treat.

Check out the hard-carved wooden animals on the iconic Silver Beach Carousel (circa 1910) and grab a slice at Silver Beach Pizza, in a century-old train station. And take time to stroll the pier, climb a lighthouse tower, take a guided North Pier walking tour, and catch a Lake Michigan sunset.

Story and photos by Susan R. Pollack

This article originally appeared in the 2019 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Susan R. Pollack is an award-winning travel writer in suburban Detroit.

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