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Most Popular Cities for a Great Lakes Vacation Skip to content

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Better-Than-Great Great Lake Vacations

Guests Ride In Horse And Buggy And Roll Up To The Grand Hotel In Mackinac Islsand Off Lake Huron In Michigan, Great Lake Vacation Ideas

David R. Frazier/Alamy

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan

The Great Lakes come by their name honestly. The largest chain of freshwater lakes anywhere, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario hold a fifth of all the world's fresh surface water. come by their name honestly. The largest chain of freshwater lakes anywhere, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario hold a fifth of all the world's fresh surface water.

1. Lake Huron: Mackinac Island, Michigan

The granddaddy of Great Lakes destinations, Mackinac still delivers. Glorious Victorian architecture — including the 1887 Grand Hotel — dots this 3.8-square-mile island. Motorized vehicles have been banned here since 1898 and everyone gets around by foot, bike or horse-drawn carriage. But it's not just a quaint throwback to earlier times. More than 80 percent of the island is within the Mackinac Island State Park, a stunning preserve of high limestone cliffs, forests and lake vistas.

2. Lake Michigan: Door Peninsula, Wisconsin

Boasting 300 miles of shoreline, five state parks, 19 county parks, 53 public beaches, a host of historic lighthouses and a handful of charming towns, Door County juts like a slender finger into Lake Michigan. Fishermen come here for the walleye, pike and bass; culture vultures come for the art galleries and music venues; and just about everyone comes for the cherries, cheese, microbrews, ice cream and other locally produced treats that show up on county menus. The peninsula is also one of the Midwest's premier kayaking destinations.

3. Lake Erie: Kelleys Island, Ohio

An island in Ohio? Just a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland, Kelleys Island — "Lake Erie's Emerald Isle"— offers more than four square miles of summertime escape. This is a blissfully quiet place, by and large, where the prime pleasures are biking, fishing, boating, birding, fossil hunting and swimming in crystal-clear water at beaches of powdery sand. Some visitors bring a car on the ferry, but many leave it behind and rent a bike or golf cart on arrival.

4. Lake Superior: Port Wing, Wisconsin

A town on Superior's south shore, Port Wing retains loads of character from its earlier incarnation as a center of commercial fishing, lumbering and stone quarrying. These days you'll find galleries, boutiques and a nice little farmers market in town, along with the scenic Apostle Islands National Lakeshore just up the road. The region's back roads offer some excellent cycling, and if you're looking to experience a true Great Lakes culinary tradition, Port Wing hosts Wisconsin's largest fish boil each Labor Day weekend.

5. Lake Ontario: Fair Haven, New York

For generations, visitors came to Fair Haven by excursion train or steamboat. They're still coming, only now it's by car or their own boats. The village offers an old-time Main Street, summertime bandstand concerts in a park, and all kinds of waterborne fun, from fishing charters to windsurfing. And you won't find a finer stretch of public shoreline in upstate New York than at Fair Haven Beach State Park, where the sandy beaches are backed by rolling woodlands and dramatic bluffs

Christopher Hall is a freelance journalist who covers travel, food and architecture.

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