SAUGATUCK, Mich. — Pleasure boats flock here like hungry sea gulls to a picnic on the beach. When you stroll along the dockside of this fashionable Lake Michigan resort town, you'll discover why.
The yachts tell the tale. Take the Prime Time, for example. Or the Reel Affair. Or the Knot To Worry. These sleek white cabin cruisers are outfitted with all the amenities of floating resort cottages and, as their names indicate, their crews are a party-bent bunch of folks.
If you're up at dawn with the Sea Bird and Sandpiper, as two skippers have named their fishing boats, you're likely to see waves of avid anglers heading down the Kalamazoo River from Saugatuck's protected harbor out into the choppy waves of Lake Michigan in search of salmon, trout, steelhead and walleye.
At the end of the day there is usually dancing aboard Dancin', and yachts tie up four, five, even 10 deep to form a floating party pavilion on the Kalamazoo River. The revelry spreads from the deck of Afternoon Delight to Sundown and continues well into the morning.
Premier Holiday Spot
Saugatuck's reputation as the premier place for a Dock Holiday, as one skipper christened his craft, is nothing new. For years it has been attracting boaters and landlubbers from around Michigan as well as from Chicago and Milwaukee to its sheltered moorings and famous Ovan Beach.
In the last couple of years the town's popularity has boomed, and now it's Hot Stuff, in yacht lingo, up and down the Lake Michigan coast.
William McVea never realized what a potential gold mine he had in his backyard, however, when he sold 500 feet of Lake Michigan frontage in 1898 to three city slickers who wanted to turn it into a resort. The day after the deal was hammered out, he supposedly told his surveyor: "Three damn fools want to pay $500 for a pile of sand in my cow pasture and I want to close it up before they back out."
But McVea was the loser. Saugatuck, or "Belle Haven" as its 831 original residents wanted to call it in 1868, was already a flourishing lumbering and shipbuilding center. The arrival of the interurban electric trains in 1899 connected the village with Holland and launched it as a summer resort.
In the days of lake passenger steamers, vacationers traveled to Saugatuck and its sister city of Douglas aboard boats from Chicago and danced to big band music in a giant pavilion. Hotels and boarding houses were built to accommodate the visitors, and the town still retains a hint of New England with its old-fashioned bed and breakfasts and Cape Cod cottages.
If you don't own a boat but want to enjoy a cruise, you can book passage on either of two excursion boats, the Queen of Saugatuck or the City of Douglas, which offer daily narrated trips between Lake Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan.
Catch the Queen
You can catch the Queen, a red and white paddle-wheeler, at the pier on Water Street. (A 1 1/2-hour cruise is $4.50 for adults, $3.50 for children over 2.)
The City of Douglas is launched south of the Saugatuck-Douglas Bridge in Douglas. (A 1 1/2-hour cruise is $5 for adults, $2 for children. A three-hour dinner cruise is $18 adults, $10 children.)
The first half of the journey takes you upriver to Lake Kalamazoo (meaning "boiling kettle") and past the Keewatin, the last steam-powered passenger ship to sail the Great Lakes. The sturdy green and white vessel, built in 1907 in Glasgow, Scotland, was brought up the St. Lawrence Seaway through the Welland Canal. Because the Welland locks weren't long enough for its 350-foot length, the ship was cut in half, sealed with two bulkheads and taken through one part at a time.
It was rejoined in Buffalo and carried 288 passengers and 86 crew members on its route from Fort William through Sault Ste. Marie to Port McNicoll until it was taken out of commission in 1965.
Porthole to the Past
The ship is a floating maritime museum where visitors can enjoy a guided tour that takes them back into the golden age of Great Lakes passenger ship cruising when an outside room with a porthole was $35.
Great care has been taken to preserve the ship's carved mahogany railings, hand-painted Italian windows, carved oak paneling and two-level Flower Well Lounge. (Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1 for children.)
When the Queen swings back past Saugatuck on its way to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, you can get a good view of several city landmarks.
One of them, the Coral Gables, 220 Water St., opened as an inn around the turn of the century. In the 1950s it was remodeled into a restaurant, the Il Forno, and two bars, the Old Crow and the Rathskeller, which offer one of the finest views of the harbor (dinners run $8.95 to $24.95).
Another historic building is the Butler restaurant, 40 Butler St. Constructed as a gristmill in the late 1800s, it was converted to a hotel. In the 1960s the top floors were removed and it reopened as a restaurant specializing in steaks and seafood. (Dinners from $6 to $16.)
Haven for Shoppers