Chillicothe Times-Bulletin - Chillicothe, IL
  • On the Road with Mark H. Bradley — Pure Michigan: South Haven Harbor Festival by the Big Blue

  • I grew up along the banks of the Illinois River in Rome on Riverbeach Drive and was fortunate enough to enjoy the beauty of Upper Peoria Lake on a daily basis. 

    I passed the lazy, hazy summer days of my youth along its banks under the giant cottonwoods and among the willows, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to explore the Great Lakes.

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  • I grew up along the banks of the Illinois River in Rome on Riverbeach Drive and was fortunate enough to enjoy the beauty of Upper Peoria Lake on a daily basis.
    I passed the lazy, hazy summer days of my youth along its banks under the giant cottonwoods and among the willows, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to explore the Great Lakes.
    Of course, I had taken in glimpses of Lake Michigan’s awesome beauty on recent trips to downtown Chicago and Milwaukee and had even dipped my toes in its southern tip at Indiana Dunes, but had never explored its eastern shore in Michigan.
    So, when an invitation to visit South Haven, Mich.,’s Harbor Festival arrived in my inbox, I decided to take in some “Pure Michigan” at its 18th annual Harbor Festival.
    The drive from Central Illinois passed quickly, and after a stop at the Michigan Welcome Center on the state line with Indiana, I found myself only 50 miles from South Haven.
    This town of just over 5,000 claims to be the Blueberry Capital of the World. Its annual National Blueberry Festival each August is its biggest event of the year.
    In fact, you can find some sort of festival there almost every weekend (go to www.southhaven.org for a complete listing).
    But this weekend, the Harbor Festival saluted the town’s maritime heritage with Lake Michigan or, as the locals call it, “The Big Blue.”
    The town of South Haven is located at the confluence of the Black River and Lake Michigan, and, from this port, schooners once carried lumber, fruit and eventually tourists across the 50 miles of lake from Chicago and Milwaukee.
    This beach community was once dubbed the “Catskills of the Midwest” by city dwellers from Detroit, Chicago and Indianapolis who found it a refreshing refuge from the summer heat of the city.
    I chose to stay at the Hotel Nichols located in the heart of the historic downtown and within easy walking distance of the harbor.
    This European-style boutique hotel is celebrating over a century of hospitality, and each of its 13 rooms is uniquely furnished with antiques.
    Apartments are also available here for large families. Pictures of every room are available on www.hotelnichols.com.
    I checked into my comfortable room and then followed the Harborwalk on a self-guided historical tour along the Black River featuring interpretive signs highlighting the community’s maritime, lumber, shipping and tourism industries.
    This informative walk led me to the stage along the Black River near the marina where Great Lakes singer/storyteller Lee Murdock would perform.
    Page 2 of 3 - Murdock’s life work of singing, playing guitar and recounting stories of the vast Great Lakes watershed were something I was looking forward to that evening, but not before I headed back uptown to Clementine’s Restaurant and Bar for a quick bite.
    Clementine’s is family owned and is a favorite stop for tourists and locals alike. Located in the old Citizens Bank Building, I bellied up to their bar and placed an order for the pan-fried lake perch — a Clementine’s classic.
    They claim to have served over 11 TONS of lake perch last year, and when the lightly dusted, golden brown fillets with a side order of cole slaw arrived and I dug in, I could believe it. They might even give our local crappie or bluegill a run for their money!
    Back at harborside, I enjoyed a pleasant evening of Murdock’s acoustic set as a gentle breeze blew off the lake.
    His musical journey around the Great Lakes was only interrupted by the sound of a beating drum and the command “stroke” as the dragon boat racers practiced on the Black River for their races over the weekend.
    After the concert, I followed the Harborwalk signs along the river and past South Beach to the end of the pier, where the sun was about set.
    Sailboats bobbed up and down on the gentle swales waiting for the sun to sink into the Big Blue beyond the horizon, and fisherman dropped their lines from the pier in hopes of catching one more keeper.
    It was as calm and peaceful a place as anyone could ask for, but as I fell asleep back at the Hotel Nichols, a storm was brewing across the lake.
    I awoke in the early morning hours to the sound of thunder and lightning lit up the sky.
    After an early breakfast, a steady rain began and I chose to go back to sleep, but when I awoke, the rain persisted.
    The friendly folks at the South Haven Visitors Center had suggested a visit to the Michigan Maritime Museum, and so I stopped by their treasure trove of nautical artifacts.
    Their crown jewel, the nineteenth century schooner “Friends Good Will,” which is usually anchored just outside, was away in Detroit, but the U.S. Coast Guard exhibit and other boats on display gave me a feel for the vessels and the brave men who manned them.
    A classic boat show was planned for the weekend, but with the rain pelting down, I chose to duck into one of the most popular local watering holes, Captain Lou’s, for lunch.
    Located adjacent to the museum at the foot of the drawbridge over the Black River, it’s a great location for watching the boats pass on their way to the lake.
    Page 3 of 3 - I asked a family at an adjoining table if they were local and what they liked, but to my surprise, they told me they were actually from Flanagan in Central Illinois and had been coming to South Haven for the past 20 years.
    “What’s the attraction?” I asked.
    “We have family here, but really, it’s just a great place for us to relax on the beach and do nothing but plan our next meal,” he laughed.
    “So, what do you recommend?”
    “The perch, what else!” he said. “But save room for some Sherman’s Dairy ice cream on your way out of town.”
    I smiled and told him about my dinner last night, but the waitress convinced me that Captain Lou could match any mess of perch in town.
    So, I ordered up their perch basket with fries and enjoyed them just as much as the previous night, saving just enough room for dessert.
    Sherman’s Dairy Bar makes their own ice cream, and the specialty of the day was a raspberry/hot fudge sundae.
    I slurped it down and left South Haven with pleasant memories and a pledge to return for another visit by the Big Blue.
    Plan your trip to South Haven or any of the many charming beach towns in Michigan’s Harbor Country by going to www.puremichigan.org or www.michiganbeachtowns.com.
    Click here for more information about the author, Mark H. Bradley.
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