LUDINGTON, MICH. -- It looks more like Morocco than Michigan. But the dunes, which can grow as tall as 180 feet, aren't home to countless camels. Rather, these impressive amber sand mounds are traversed by Jeeps, motorbikes, hikers and tourists. These are the dunes that line the east coast of Lake Michigan, and they're one of the most impressive sights to be found in the Ludington area.
Adventurous visitors can traverse the dunes in their SUVs, but one look at these mammoth mountains of sand told us our Honda CRV couldn't hack it. No worries, though. Travelers can rent a jeep for $70 an hour (Sandy Korners Jeep Rentals, 1762 N. 24th Ave., Mears, 231-873-5048, sandykorners.com) or join a dune buggy charter for a mere $12.50. With so much to consider when it comes to driving on the dunes yourself, the charter is an economical and easy alternative.
We took a tour with Mac Wood's Dune Rides (629 N. 18th Ave., Silver Lake, 231-873-2817, oceana.net/dunerides), and it was probably the single most exciting part of the western Michigan excursion. The dunes cover 2,000 acres, and the tour bounces over eight miles in 40 minutes. Tour guides are knowledgeable and witty, and the four-wheel vehicles effortlessly traverse the steep sand hills. At $12.50, the tour is a steal.
Also near Silver Lake is the Little Sable Point Lighthouse, a sleek, brick beacon located on a pristine beach perfect for romping in the surf or catching some rays.
Little River Casino
With a casino like Potawatomi just minutes away from most of us in Milwaukee, it's hard to understand what a small Indian reservation casino like Little River (US 31 & Michigan Hwy. 22, 888-568-2244) could offer. But here's a hint: seats at the tables.
Unlike Potawatomi, in which potential players must wait up to half an hour for a blackjack table, the lines aren't much to complain about in Manistee. Plenty of good seats are available at the casino, which also offers roulette, Let it Ride and Pai Gaw poker, none of which you can find at the Southeastern Wisconsin casinos. Little River also serves alcohol, but be prepared, the drinks are cheap but not free.
And the casino -- open 24 hours -- isn't close to the ferry, either: it's on the far end of the charming town of Manistee, which is nearly 45 minutes away from Ludington. However, the trip to the casino is relatively effortless -- traffic isn't much of an issue out here -- and Manistee is a lovely little river town with a picturesque main street lined with century-old brick buildings.
Ludington State Park
Just eight miles north of town, Ludington State Park offers miles of pristine beach, plenty of camping and, of course, sand dunes.
Big Sable Point Lighthouse (bigsablelighthouse.org) is a park highlight, accessible from the beach or by trail. Built in 1867, the Coast Guard automated the station in 1968. Now the lighthouse is mainly a tourist attraction, and for $2, visitors can climb its 130 steps to the top. Big Sable is the first lighthouse built in the area, and a gift shop with friendly and helpful guides make the landmark a must-stop while at the park.
The Inn at Ludington
Ludington is a small town, and the bed and breakfasts outnumber the bars downtown. One of the best is The Inn at Ludington (701 E. Ludington Ave., Ludington, 800-845-9170), a Victorian-style home located on the edge of downtown. It's gracious owners, David and Diane Nemitz, give their guests plenty of privacy and a plentiful, tasty breakfast. The Inn has six rooms with bathrooms that range in price from $80-100 per night. Our room had a sitting room and two double beds, complete with a full bathroom -- which one doesn't always find at older B&Bs.
The inn is decorated in homey Americana: country-style knick knacks, and it feels a little like staying at Grandma's place. At breakfast, we feasted on a sausage quiche, potatoes, fresh fruit, cereal and coffee, tea and orange juice. The couple's miniature dachshund, Emily, craves attention and is a guest favorite.
Voted one of the nation's best waterfront restaurants, P.M. Steamers (502 W. Loomis St., Ludington, 231-843-9555) serves a great swordish steak, and the filet mignon is top-notch. The restaurant also has a good wine selection and a tempting dessert tray.
Dinner is served Tues.-Sun., 5-10 p.m., 10:30 p.m. on weekends and there's a Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Reservations are accepted and casual attire is welcome.
A sister restaurant, Scotty's, is located on the opposite side of town, on a shopping strip at 5910 E. Ludington Ave. (231-843-4033). This favorite among locals gets a two-star rating from Mobil Travel Guide and AAA and was recently voted the best restaurant in the county.
Jamesport Brewing Company
(410 S. James St., Ludington, 231-845-2522). Brew pubs are no longer the rarity they once were, but Jamesport Brewery Company stands out as a modern dining and drinking option in Ludington. With a number of homebrewed specialties and just blocks from the ferry, the restaurant is one of the better restaurants in Ludington. Try the four cheese pasta with grilled chicken as an entrée; the IPA and their dry stout are two of the more distinctive beers. Prices are moderate, and the atmosphere is casual.
Other points of interest
Ludington is a small town, and those looking for a hopping nightlife may want to keep looking. But in its own charming way, the town keep locals and guests sated at the James St. Station (320 S. James St., Ludington, 231-845-7263). With outdoor seating in the summer, the bar serves a nice mix of microbrews and bottled beer. Locals say the hot spots on weekends are the Tiki Lounge dance club and Michael's, both on Ludington Ave.
Nearby Mears has Silver Lake State Park -- home to those giant dunes -- with ample parking and souvenir shopping. Mears resembles Minoqua, a town with go-karts, ice cream stands and t-shirt shops galore.
Ludington is also known for its fishing, and the port town is home to the most fishing charters in Michigan. Gnat's Charters (6934 W. Illinois St., Ludington, 231-845-8400, gnatscharters.com) brings you aboard the Equalizer, a 27-ft. Tiara Open, for some serious sport fishing. Those who prefer renting their own boats can check out Barnhart's (6006 Barnhart Rd., Ludington, 231-843-8246, hamlinlake.com/barnhart).
Western Michigan is on the far west end of the eastern time zone, so expect to see glorious sunsets as late as 10 p.m. in the summer. For more information about how to get to Ludington, click here to read about the S.S. Badger car ferry. For more information about Western Michigan, visit the Michigan Dept. of Tourism Web site.