Its funny that some people in the Upper Midwest spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Cancun or Cape Cod, because the best beaches in the world are in their own back yard.
Lake Michigan is Americas freshwater Riviera, a nearly unending strand of sand that looks like Florida without the high-rise condos. Its clean, blue and pleasantly cool, with water temperatures in the 60s, and in most places it looks just like the ocean.
Add in candy-striped lighthouses and even more ice-cream stands, and youve got the makings of a great beach holiday a cheap one, too, if you're on a budget.
If sun, sand and water are your favorite things, the Circle Tour of Lake Michigan is the vacation for you.
The 1,100-mile drive along this Third Coast is an easygoing road trip that appeals to beach bums, lighthouse lovers, boating buffs and anyone who likes to wander in and out of wineries and fudge shops.
It's a great family trip because there's a beach every few miles, almost always with a playground. On the northwest side of the lake, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one big sandbox.
As far as most people know, theres nothing but sausage in Sheboygan.
This town on Lake Michigan is the bulls-eye of brats, for sure, and serious eaters go straight for a double on Sheboygan hard roll.
But serious sightseers come to Sheboygan for other reasons: for surfing, for odd sculptures, for sand dunes.
Around the Great Lakes, love for lighthouses is unlimited. Often called "America's castles,'' lighthouses are symbols of a more adventurous era, and tourists find them irresistible.
Now, the state parks and friends associations who care for them have found a way to harness all this passion: They're turning tourists into volunteer keepers.
For a week or two, volunteers live at the lighthouse, hosting visitors and doing chores. Some get to sleep under quilts in the historic keepers' quarters.
In summer, overheated tourists head for the Cool City.
Two Rivers, Wis., gets its nickname from cooling breezes that come from three sides: the East Twin River, the West Twin River and Lake Michigan.
Swimmers can cool off with a dip from Neshotah Beach, a great strip of sand, but theres an even better one five miles north, where Rawley Point Lighthouse towers over the dunes of Point Beach.
At the top of the Michigan mitten, a little village has seen a lot of action over the centuries.
Iroquois war parties, French explorers and British soldiers passed by on the Mackinac Straits, which link Lake Huron to Lake Michigan. American traders, lighthouse-builders, ore boats and tourist ferries followed.
Then the continent's longest suspension bridge went up, a link to the Upper Peninsula and an attraction in itself.
On the Great Lakes, everyone loves to see a multi-masted schooner, white sails flapping in the breeze.
They're always the favorite guests at festivals, especially on Lake Superior, which usually sees only freighters.
On Lake Michigan, these magnificent replicas of 19th-century schooners and sloops are more common, offering tours and day sails from their homes when they're not appearing at festivals.
In the straits between lakes Michigan and Huron, you can find more than one Mackinac Island.
The best-known first was advertised as "the Fairy Isle of Mackinac," and it's not quite rooted in reality. It has a tuxedo shop but no hardware store, a Victorian house called Brigadoon and a fan club that gathers every October in vintage clothing to revere the year 1912.
You get to that island in a horse-drawn surrey, driven by a liveryman in a top hat.
Smack in the middle of the Upper Midwest, Lake Michigan is irresistible in summer.
It's America's freshwater Riviera, and everyone competes for a little piece of that beautiful sand: beach bums, lighthouse buffs, campers on a budget.
A road trip around its shores is one of the world's most scenic drives, a thousand miles of lakeshore lined by state, county and national parks and two big cities.
On a summer day in Holland, Mich., all roads lead to the beach.
When we were there one June, people streamed toward this broad swath of sand until the sun fell low on the horizon, making the fire-engine-red harbor beacon glow like an ember. They ate ice cream, they strolled on the breakwall, they took a last dip in Lake Michigan.
But at 10 p.m. sharp, a police cruiser started flashing its red lights to shepherd everyone out of the park.
One Great Lake east of Superior, theres another North Shore.
It doesnt have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, theres nothing volcanic about it.
But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesnt have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.
No summer vacation is more fun than a Circle Tour of one of the Great Lakes and nothing is more of a pain than planning one.
Fans of sand and sun love Lake Michigan, which is lined by state and city parks with gorgeous stretches of sand and dunes. You cant buy a better beach vacation at any price, but you have to plan ahead.
Planning is tricky because you pass through four states, 30 state parks and two big metropolitan areas, each of which floods beaches with hordes of sun-worshippers on weekends.
If Lake Superior is the drama queen of the Great Lakes, then Lake Michigan is president of the pep club.
Its beautiful, popular and a lot easier to get along with than its tempestuous sister. Its shores are lined with sand, not jagged cliffs, and its beaches attract festive crowds every summer.
Its the only Great Lake you can circle without a passport, and if you dont want to drive around the whole thing, you can take a short cut on a car ferry.
Not many parents would think that a long road trip would be a perfect vacation to take with young children.
But the shores of Lake Michigan is one big sandbox, and on a drive along its shores, you'll hit one big playground after another.
On the east side, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is spectacular, a Disneyland of sand. But the lake also is lined with lighthouses, fudge shops, fur-trade forts and endless beaches.