Just forty minutes northwest of Grand Rapids lies Muskegon, the largest city along the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. This spunky city is intermixed with a laid back beach town vibe, which is perfect for city slickers looking for some relaxation. However, this is definitely not your average beach town!
I started the weekend off with a calm drive around Muskegon Lake to North Muskegon to get the lay of the land. The timing was perfect for my view of Muskegon from Custer Park, as the falling sun illuminated a pastel sky that was beautifully mirrored by the lake.
The sun just began to touch the horizon as I pulled up to the USS LST 393. This LST-1 class tank landing ship is one of only two surviving ships still in their original configuration that was built for the United States Navy during World War II. Currently under restoration, this ship serves as The USS LST 393 Veterans Museum, which is a non-profit created to restore and preserve this ship.
I found my way onto this ship because of their free event called Movies on Deck. Now in its 10th year, this free outdoor film series on the top deck of such a historical landmark is one of the most unique places I’ve ever had the chance to watch a movie. As the sky darkened over North Muskegon, the top deck filled with families and movie lovers alike ready to watch “Back to the Future: Part II.” With a slight breeze coming off of Muskegon Lake, a sky full of stars, and the low hum of the city behind us it made for an incredible summer movie experience.
Known for being one of the best coffee shops in Michigan, I could not resist popping into Drip Drop Drink for a dose of java goodness. Conveniently connected to Unruly Brewing Company, this coffee shop boasts a cool factor that is absolutely undeniable. The subtle rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic combined with the deliciously high-quality and handcrafted drip-style coffee makes it easy to understand why Michigan seems intrigued by their “slow coffee” movement.
After finishing my tasty drink, I headed around the corner to indulge in Taste of Muskegon at Hackley Park. Designated as a National Historic Park and dedicated to the memory of Civil War veterans, this beautiful space is anchored by an 80-foot tall soldier’s monument in the center. The 10th Annual Taste of Muskegon not only featured popular restaurants in the city but also included a car show and live music. I was lucky enough to catch Ruxy Muzik’s and Chris Cordle’s performances. Although, the main event was the appetizing food! Out of the twenty-one restaurants my favorites were Rootdown’s Beaches in Mind smoothie, Hennessey’s Irish Pub’s chocolate covered strawberry cheesecake, Bella Maria’s mini cannoli, and The Lake House Waterfront Grill’s blackened Mahi Mahi tacos. Each of these were outstanding and unforgettably scrumptious.
Following the round of appetizing samplers I tried at Taste of Muskegon, I headed to Dockers for lunch. With breathtaking views of Harbor Towne Marina, I could’ve spent the whole day watching the boats drift by. This casual restaurant is only steps from Pere Marquette Beach and boasts easy access for all boaters. Whether you’re looking for somewhat formal dining, casual dining, patio dining, or just to grab a drink, this restaurant has you covered. With an indoor bar, main dining area, three outdoor patios, and an outdoor Tiki bar you can’t possibly have a bad time at Dockers. Not to mention, the food is top notch with an extensive “From the Water” menu.
After watching lots of boats pass by Dockers, I wanted in on the action. It was time to take on Muskegon by boat! I headed over to Port City Princess Cruises for their Power Boat Viewing Cruise. As part of Muskegon’s Powerboat Weekend, our cruiser would help lead The Parade of Power with the Lake Express high speed ferry. This parade featured all boaters who came to take part in the weekend’s festivities of power boat racing.
It was a beautifully hot day with temperatures close to 90 degrees as we made our way across Muskegon Lake. And even with most of the lake’s surface covered with boats, we still saw a brave lone kayaker making his way across the water in all of this organized chaos. As we entered the channel out to Lake Michigan, the Lake Express was already half way down the channel with power boats flanking it from every side. It was a tight fit as we squeezed into the channel with the hundreds of other boats making their way out to the big lake. It was overwhelmingly exciting to try to keep up with seeing every power boat that was drifting by us, we were completely outnumbered.
The further down the channel we got, the more engines started to roar as boaters became more excited. A poker run race had gone on most of the day on Lake Michigan, but power boaters were encouraged to see if they could keep up with a race to Grand Haven immediately following The Parade of Power. By the time we reached Muskegon’s Lighthouse, hundreds of boaters took off out of the breakwater into a full on race for glory. Gusts of wind on Lake Michigan had me running to find my sweatshirt as it was easily ten to fifteen degrees colder on the big lake. Although this was an exclusive cruise featuring Muskegon’s Powerboat Weekend, Port City Princess Cruises does offer daily scenic, lunch, and dinner cruises on Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan. After such excitement on the water, I was ready for a relaxing dinner.
My next stop was The Lake House Waterfront Grill, a secluded restaurant looking out over Terrace Point Marina with a main deck, a dock to give boaters easy access, and one heck of a bar. When I arrived, pastel skies illuminated the marina. Even though this was a casual restaurant, the beautifully designed décor felt very upscale and one of a kind. After a delectable Veggie sandwich, I cleansed my palate with fresh Lime-Avocado Gelato and an Adult Chocolate Milk.
To fully unwind after dinner, I traveled back to Pere Marquette Beach for the free Movies on the Beach showing of the ’80s classic, “The Princess Bride.” Now in its fourth year, this community-driven event has become quite popular with locals. As the sky turned into a deep orange sunset, I grabbed a lawn chair and blankets from my car and ventured through the crowd to find a good spot for the movie. As the sunset intensified and slowly began to disappear, I waded through pure white sands to dip my toes into Lake Michigan. I was surprised that this stunning beach was public, but Muskegon is known to have some of the most accessible public property on the lakeshore with their variety of parks and beaches similar to Pere Marquette Beach.
The night was still young, so I headed over to Unruly Brewing Company after enjoying The Princess Bride on the beach. Downtown Muskegon was still full of life when I arrived, with the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts illuminated with show stopping lights. In contrast, music poured out of Unruly Brewing Company flooding the streets with a folk song. Plain Jane Glory took over the brewery’s stage to celebrate the release of their second album, and they were joined by Charlie James & The Silver Tongue Devils. It was a tough decision choosing a brew from Unruly’s hilariously named selections, but I settled on an Orange Julius. Outside in their beer garden, I nestled into a spot where I could take in the night sky and still listen to the band.
Still eager for adventure, I finished my beer just in time to make it to Veteran’s Memorial Park for my last event of the day. I never thought I’d be preparing to go down the Muskegon River at the stroke of midnight, but I figured why not take advantage of such a unique experience. During each full moon from May through September, Guy’s Ultimate Kayak Service offers “Full Moon Float” for only $10. With just a life jacket, paddle, and glow stick I embarked into the darkness with our group down the river.
The Muskegon River shimmered a soft glow of silver from the full moon overhead, but the low visibility along the banks and in the water made for an exhilarating trip. As we slowly drifted downriver, the rustling of tall grass made me aware of just how lively nature was in this area. Just as we were coming up to the crossing underneath the railroad bridges, a swan darted out and swam up stream towards our group. I made long stokes to try to avoid the swan and get to our guide under the bridge, but the swan turned and began cutting across the river as I tried to race past. Luckily, it darted behind me as I paddled quickly under the bridge. When we finally made it back to Veterans Memorial Park, it was nearly 1:30 in the morning, and I was happily exhausted after such an incredible day.
I began the last day at locals’ favorite breakfast hotspot: Toast ‘N Jams. The cozy and friendly atmosphere of this ’50s-inspired diner was awesome, and you can take a road trip back in time from Chicago to Los Angeles along their Route 66 mural. I would certainly agree that this is the best breakfast in Muskegon! After trying their Chicago Style French Toast, I knew I could never enjoy French toast the same way again. With fresh bananas and pecans, this meal was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Not to mention, their Toast N’ Jam was incredible because of the homemade fresh strawberry jam they serve.
My childhood dreams came true after breakfast when I got to see The Monet Garden in Downtown Muskegon. After years of reading “Linnea in Monet’s Garden” and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago to see “Water Lillies” and “Water Lily Pond” by Claude Monet, it was surreal to be standing in a garden dedicated to his impressionist work. Roses covered most of the garden, with a small green bridge covering lily pads below. This picturesque pocket park was transformed from a vacant lot by the Lakeshore Garden Masters who were inspired by the famous Monet Garden in Giverny, France.
The retro inspiration continued when I toured the USS Silversides Submarine Museum. In honor of the brave men and women in our military, this museum strives to preserve and educate the public about military history and technology. Along the tour I got to go through the USS Silversides submarine, which is still submerged in Muskegon’s channel leading out to Lake Michigan. The SS-236 is a Gato-Class World War II submarine that was built following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. This was the first in the United States Navy to be named for the silversides fish. With a successful history this vessel is known for having the most prolific combat record of any still-extant American submarine.
While aboard USS Silversides, I did not comprehend its sheer size until I ventured below the surface and began touring the hull of this submarine. It was humbling to see what little space there was below deck. Each room was skillfully designed to accommodate as much room as possible for people and weapons. In some places, it was a tight squeeze even for my 5’3 frame to fit through. The hull was separated into sections in case of emergency flooding. In order to pass through each section, you must fit through a three-foot tall door. I also got to tour a retired Coast Guard ship, as well as a large collection of mementos in their museum. Overall, this was an incredibly unique experience that allowed me a glimpse into the totally different lifestyle of a submarine sailor.
From a submarine to a cruise liner, my retro Sunday continued aboard the oldest passenger ship on the Great Lakes: the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper. Dating back further than the Titanic, this cruise liner was built from the original hull of the SS Juniata from 1904 and has a 3,000 horsepower Quadruple Expansion steam engine built by the Detroit Shipbuilding Company. From 1941 to 1970, this ship carried thousands of passengers and automobiles from Muskegon to Milwaukee. By 1977, the Clipper was moved to Navy Pier in Chicago, operating as a floating maritime museum and convention center. After a 20-year absence, the SS Milwaukee Clipper was returned to Muskegon by the Great Lakes CLIPPER Preservation Association.
When I first boarded the ship I met Jim Plant, a retired Muskegon businessman and Director of the Great Lakes CLIPPER Preservation Association. The now 84-year-old was caught skipping school as a young 9-year-old boy to see the SS Milwaukee Clipper arrive in Muskegon for the first time in 1941. Jim’s expertise of maritime history was astonishing as he toured our group around the vessel. We began in the cafeteria that could easily seat over 100 passengers. It was amazing how easily we went back in time since the entire room was restored perfectly to its era. It was as if time stood still since all of the original furniture and appliances sat pristine and waiting for the next group of passengers. As we passed through staterooms and up to the club lounge, it was apparent that this ship has the best views anywhere of Muskegon Lake. It’s no surprise this cruise liner has been listed on the National Register of Historic Sites since all of the staterooms, grand staircase, movie theatre, ice cream parlor, and dance floor are all in beautiful condition.
Although Muskegon is noted as the location of Michigan’s Adventure, there are a variety of unique activities that characterize this spirited community much more! This lively city full of incredible maritime history is an awesome place to discover more of Michigan’s past. Come find your next adventure in Muskegon!
Is there anywhere we didn’t stop that we should have? Let me know, and I’ll be sure to check it out the next time I’m in Muskegon!