The five Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior—form the largest freshwater system in the world, bordering eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. That’s a heckuva lotta coastline begging to be explored. As America emerges from the haze of the pandemic, travelers who aren’t quite ready to go abroad may seek new ways to experience their own backyard—and the Great Lakes offer no shortage of adventures. From parasailing to shipwreck snorkeling, these lakefront towns have everything you need to pull off an unforgettable vacation by the water this summer.
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Lake Ontario: Oswego, NY
Oswego means “the place of the pouring out” in Iroquois—and that’s exactly what happens where the Oswego River meets Lake Ontario. Reserve one of 14 boutique rooms at the Beacon Hotel Oswego and start your holiday with a boat tour of the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse. Organized by the H. Lee White Marine Museum, the tour waltzes through the history of the harbor and the special engineering required for a lighthouse to withstand the extreme conditions of Lake Ontario. While you’re there, check out the star-shaped Fort Ontario State Historic Site, which dates to the 1840s, and the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum, the only World War II refugee shelter in the U.S. Oswego Expeditions, a woman-owned paddling company, organizes guided kayaking tours of the Oswego Canal, or you can try reeling in king salmon and walleye aboard one of K&G Sportfishing’s two 40-foot charter boats. Kick off a packed day with a buttermilk biscuit sandwich at Nora’s; for lunch or dinner, tuck into New England-style fried haddock at Skip’s Fish Fry or Texas hots at Rudy Lakeside Drive-In, a lakefront staple since 1946.
Can’t miss: Oswego’s sunsets are legendary, and there’s no better place to take in that layer cake of electric color than under the bell tower at Breitbeck Park.
Lake Erie: Put-in-Bay, Ohio
Only 72 people live in Put-in-Bay year-round, but that number balloons when summer rolls around. Dubbed the “Key West of the North,” the Ohio village is located on South Bass Island. To get there, hop the 20-minute Miller Ferry from Catawba and rent a golf cart to tool around the 4.5-mile-long isle. For a bird’s eye view, book a parasailing trip with local operator Put in Bay Parasail or hitch a ride in an open-cockpit World War II biplane with Put-in-Bay Biplane Rides. Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial, run by the National Park Service, commemorates the War of 1812’s Battle of Lake Erie with a 352-foot-tall Doric column. Firing demonstrations of reproduction flintlock muskets take place on weekends. When hunger nags, head to waterfront restaurant The Keys for perch sandwiches, key lime pie, and frozen daiquiris. The charming Getaway Inn at Cooper’s Woods is Put-in-Bay’s only cedar wood lodge; guest perks include complimentary bikes and access to neighboring hotel pools. The innkeepers can also arrange a private boat tour of Put-in-Bay onboard their own 29-foot Tiara yacht.
Can’t miss: The 50-plus varieties of butterflies flitting about the Butterfly House, a 4,000-square-foot aviary at Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center.
Lake Huron: Alpena, Michigan
Alpena reels in history buffs with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a cluster of nearly 200 shipwrecks submerged off the coast of Michigan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s only freshwater sanctuary. Although its Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center remains closed amid the pandemic, visitors can still explore the sunken crafts aboard a glass-bottom boat. For a more immersive experience, call up Captain Paul LaBrecque of local outfitter Alpena Adventures, who leads shipwreck snorkeling excursions as well as tours of Alpena’s backwoods sinkholes. For a front-row seat to the beauty of Lake Huron, hit up Starlite Beach; its candy-colored water park is popular with little kids on a hot summer day. Island Park, a 500-acre wildlife sanctuary in the middle of the city, is another enchanting sight, good for fishing, picnicking, paddling, and birdwatching. And instead of booking a chain hotel, lock in a unique vacation rental—like this 32-foot Trojan yacht, run by Captain LaBrecque (an Airbnb superhost) himself, or this sweet-as-can-be two-bedroom beachfront cottage, bookable via VRBO.
Can’t miss: Hunting for Devonian-period fossils by day and comets at night in the 4,237-acre Rockport State Park Recreation Area, an official Dark Sky Preserve.
Lake Michigan: Egg Harbor, Wisconsin
Door County claims more than 300 miles of coastline on northern Lake Michigan, with plenty of bluffs, beaches, and parks worth exploring. In the thick of it all is Egg Harbor, a wee town of just 252 full-time residents. Check in to the adults-only Ashbrooke hotel for an indoor pool, firepit on the sundeck, and deluxe suites with gas fireplaces and two-person whirlpool tubs. The public beach at Egg Harbor Marina is a decent spot for swimming, though local operator Door County Kayak Tours offers more interesting ways to get on the water. Consider either a two-hour tour that visits the Schooner Fleetwing shipwreck, which sunk in 1888, and Native American rock art tucked into the neighboring bluffs or the half-day excursion to Cave Point and Whitefish Dunes, piggybacked with a little picnicking and cliff jumping. Back on dry land, drop by the tasting room at Hatch Distilling Co. for a cherry bourbon smash, fashioned with locally grown cherries and bourbon whiskey. At Fireside all-day Cajun eats are what’s on the menu. Order the chicory coffee and breakfast jambalaya in the morning, lobster and andouille hush puppies and bayou gator for lunch, and the chimichurri-marinated camel tenderloin for dinner.
Can’t miss: The award-winning wheels and triangles at Wisconsin Cheese Masters, the most epic cheese shop on the entire peninsula.
Lake Superior: Grand Marais, MN
Though it has fewer than 1,400 full-time residents, this pearl of the North Shore is a treasure trove of Rockwellian-quaint shops and restaurants. Stop by art boutique The Big Lake for cozy candles and hand-thrown ceramics; The Crooked Spoon food truck for heavenly pastrami sandwiches; and The Fisherman’s Daughter for heaping baskets of fish and chips served on a patio overlooking the world’s largest freshwater lake (by surface area, anyway). Unwind with an oil painting class at the nonprofit art center, Grand Marais Art Colony, or dig deeper into the medium of your choice at the renowned North House Folk School, which hosts workshops in everything from blacksmithing to basket weaving. With its popular “Craft of Sail” course, students spend a day aboard the 50-foot Hjørdis, learning the basics of sailing a gaff-rigged schooner on mighty Lake Superior. For a different lake view, hike the short but steep loop up Honeymoon Bluff on the Gunflint Trail National Scenic Byway in Superior National Forest; BYO binoculars for birdwatching and moose spotting. The SkyHouse, a Scandi-chic two-bedroom property, makes a terrific home base. Ditto Agua Norte, a timber-frame cabin whose humongous picture windows perfectly frame Superior’s moody blue expanse.
Can’t miss: A cinnamon- and sugar-dusted cake ring straight from the fryer at the humbly named World’s Best Donuts, a family-run spot since 1969.
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