Nestled amid the soaring sand dunes along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the twin resort communities of Saugatuck and Douglas have developed steadily over the years into the preeminent gay beach destination in the Midwest. These charming Michigan towns, which are also highly popular with artists, families, boating enthusiasts, and the like, have a combined year-round population of about 2,100 and are just a 2.5-hour drive from Chicago, a 3-hour drive from Detroit, and a 3.5-hour drive from Indianapolis. The nearest airport served by most major carriers is in Grand Rapids, just a 45-minute drive northeast.
Saugatuck has a long and beautiful public beach (called Oval Beach) on Lake Michigan as well as a dapper, historic downtown a couple of miles inland along a wide stretch of the Kalamazoo River known as Lake Kalamazoo. Just south, the little town of Douglas also fringes much of Lake Kalamazoo and has a smaller but no-less-charming downtown. For visitors, the border between the two communities isn't terribly noticeable - most folks move back and forth between the two, and you'll find a number of inviting, gay-welcoming (and in many cases GLBT-owned) inns, B&Bs, and smartly renovated motels in both communities, along with the Midwest's largest gay resort, the Dunes, in Douglas. Additionally, a few miles inland to the south and east, the small village of Fennville has a handful of lodging options, including one of the Midwest's larger LGBT campgrounds, Campit Outdoor Resort.
Saugatuck-Douglas is a decidedly warm-weather destination, busiest - and with the highest rates - in summer, particularly on weekends, when even fairly basic accommodations start typically start around $120 nightly. Once the flowers bloom in spring, and then well into fall (this is a beautiful part of the state for watching the leaves turn), the area remains very popular, but you'll notice fewer crowds and more affordable hotel deals. In winter, some businesses do close for the season, and others greatly reduce their rates. It can get very cold and snowy here, but Saugatuck-Douglas can be surprisingly romantic and cozy even off-season.
Here's an alphabetical guide to some of the top accommodations among LGBT visitors in the Saugatuck-Douglas region. Also, you might want to check out the full list of area lodgings that are members of the area's LGBT chamber of commerce.
One of grandest and most distinctive accommodations in southwestern Michigan, the stately Belvedere Inn (3656 63rd St., Saugatuck, 269-857-5777) lies just off Blue Star Highway, near exit 41 of I-196, about a 10-minute drive northeast of downtown Saugatuck. The proprietors, Shaun Glynn and Pete Ta, moved here from Chicago (Shaun is originally from Galway, Ireland, and Pete from Saigon, Vietnam) and bought this gracious 1913 mansion, designed with a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style, in 2005 - Shaun is also the chef of the inn's stellar restaurant, an upscale, sophisticated venue with 6 and 8 pm seatings year-round as well as 6 pm seatings most other evenings during the summer months (rates packages that include dinner are available). Even if you don't have dinner here, your stay includes a delicious breakfast each morning. Overnight guests have use of the grand library and other common areas, and can stroll the 5 acres of verdant grounds and enchanting fountains and gardens (you can hear a bit of highway noise outside, but the Belvedere feels otherwise cloistered from the hubbub of downtown Saugatuck). The 10 guest rooms are stunningly appointed with old-world antiques and artwork, and all have fireplaces and private bathrooms (some with whirlpool tubs) - the Belvedere Suite is especially popular, with its private balcony and separate sitting area. This plush and regal retreat is a top choice for same-sex weddings, too. The owners also rent out a three-room vacation rental, Bellevue Harbour House, in downtown Saugatuck, right on the waterfront.
One of a handful of very successful and attractive motel makeovers that members of the local GLBT community have undertaken in recent years, the natty Blue Star Motel (167 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas, 269-348-0199) is right along the main road in Douglas, a short walk from several restaurants and shops (as well as the famed gay resort, the Dunes), and a short drive from downtown Saugatuck. This snug hideaway is a real find, its nine affordable rooms bathed in white and blue, with high-quality linens, playful mounted faux-moose heads, small refrigerators, flat-screen TVs, well-equipped bathrooms with standing showers, and small patios with Adirondack chairs in behind each unit, overlooking a quiet, tree-shaded lawn with a wooden deck, hot tub, and guest grill. Rooms are compact, with each containing a queen-size bed, but the owners have done a great job configuring the space wisely, and the staff at Blue Star is helpful and friendly. Note that the owners recently purchase another older, dated motel, the Timberline Motel & Suites, which will also receive a complete transformation and rebranding (with the new name Starlite Resort). Expected to be rechristened by the end of 2014, this 29-room motel with an impressive pool and sunning area is along Blue Star Highway in Saugatuck.
Situated about a 15-minute drive south and slightly east of Saugatuck/Douglas in the small and fairy rural town of Fennville, Campit Outdoor Resort (6635 118th Ave., Fennville, 269-543-4327) is one of the largest LGBT camping venues in the Midwest. You'll find a variety of lodging options here - tent and RV sites, a bunkhouse containing five rooms, 20 log cabins, and several old-fashioned Sunline, Avion, and classic Airstream trailers. This 23-acre property is completely secluded but easy to find, and it's an easy drive to the beaches, shops, and dining of Saugatuck and Douglas. Guests are a mix of women and men, but the resort offers several regular events expressly with female guests in mind, including social mixers on Friday nights. The resort is open from mid-April through mid-October, and amenities include a large outdoor pool, showers, game room, clubhouse, and a camp store that carries plenty of goods for overnighting as well as toys, erotica, leather gear, and the like. Pets are also welcome.
If you're a social butterfly, swimming-pool enthusiast, or nightclubbing aficionado, look no further than the Dunes Resort (333 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas, 269-857-1401) as your home base for your Saugatuck and Douglas vacation. This legendary gay resort - the largest in the Midwest - has a fun and friendly vibe, from the enthusiastic staff to the crowds, especially on weekends, who congregate in the property's lively nightclub, cabaret, game room, and huge outdoor patio. This highly social complex spreads out over 20 acres in Douglas, within walking distance of downtown bars and restaurants and a short drive or bike ride from the beach.
Accommodations range from basic dorm-style "bunk" rooms with shared bath to fully equipped one- and two-bedroom cottages with kitchenettes and plenty of room to spread out (some of these sleep up to six guests). To be clear, the very inexpensive "bunk" rooms have a decided bathhouse atmosphere, or at least they can - and they're close to cruise-y outdoor area on property known as "the woods." The vast majority of rooms at the resort are in either of two motel-style buildings and are standard-size with a king bed or two double beds, cable TV and VCR, a/c, and a clean and simple Ikea-esque aesthetic. The most popular (and slightly pricier) rooms are on the upper levels, which have the best views of the expansive pool area, while the cottages are great for friends traveling together or if you'd rather be set back a little from the pool and nightclub areas.
Keep in mind that there are plenty of fun events throughout the week at the Dunes, from the weekly Sunday Tea Dances to first-rate performances in the cabaret. In summer, it's hopping from the afternoon through the evening, with the outdoor patio bar and pool area a great spot to mingle and check out the crowds. The nightclub - open year-round - consists of a large dance bar, an upper-level bar with pool tables and comfy seating, and a cabaret that hosts wide range of entertainers and events, from Southwest Michigan Idol to karaoke. The crowd at the Dunes is a true mix of gays and lesbians from throughout the Midwest, not to mention the increasing population of GLBT locals who have moved to the area permanently or part-time.
As a lodging option, the Dunes isn't fancy, but it is very well run, the rates are extremely reasonable, and the close proximity to the gay social scene can't be beat.
For many years, the now wonderfully spiffy and Mid-Century chic Pines Motorlodge (56 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas, 269-857-5211) was one of a handful of drab motels along Blue Star Highway in the Saugatuck-Douglas area. In 2001, a couple of Indiana transplants, Steve Laughner and Rob Goeke, bought the motel and over several years undertook an ambitious and complete renovation of the entire property, adding completely new bathrooms, high-quality bedding and beds, Amish log furniture, handsome knotty-pine ceilings, individual climate control, ceramic tiles, and more. The property is set just back from the busy main drag, in the heart of Douglas - close to locals shops and restaurants. All units in this striking lime-green, wood-sided property have drive-up parking, outdoor entrances, king or two queen beds, refrigerators and microwaves, and TV/DVD players; Continental breakfast is included on weekends in spring and fall, and daily in summer. Off the lobby, you'll also find a fun little shop, Groovy Groovy, that carries cards, retro gifts, and offbeat accessories. The grounds of this moderately priced motor lodge also feature a large, shaded picnic area with a common deck and gas grill. Other lodging options affiliated with the property include the Maple Ridge Cottages, which are in Saugatuck proper (within walking distance of downtown) and have two bedrooms, full kitchens, Jacuzzi, private deck, and fireplace - these are great for families, friends traveling together, or special occasions. And in Douglas, there's the luxurious Center Street Guesthouse, which comprises both a four-bedroom, two-bath house and a two-bedroom, one-bath unit (weekly rates are available). Also, keep in mind that the same owners also operate a similarly inviting renovated motor lodge a few miles north called the Saugatuck (see below).
A nice choice if you'd like to be close to Lake Michigan and Saugatuck's popular Oval Beach, which is just a five-minute drive north, the century-old Rosemont Inn Resort (83 Lakeshore Dr., Douglas, 269-857-2637) contains 14 beautifully appointed, upscale rooms, among the most romantic in town. Several of these warmly appointed rooms have whirlpool tubs, and all have four-poster king or queen beds, gas fireplaces, a/c, CD players, and free Wi-Fi access. The grounds here are part of the draw - there's a waterfall and pond with filled with koi fish, lovely gardens and pathways, and mature trees, and guests also enjoy use of a large pool, hot tub, and dry sauna. The innkeepers also provide free use of chairs to take to the beach, and bicycles. Not surprisingly, the gay-friendly getaway has become a popular venue for weddings, commitment ceremonies, and special-occasion vacations.
The same team behind the smartly restored Pines Motorlodge (see above) also created the Saugatuck (6190 Blue Star Hwy., Saugatuck, 269-857-8888), a cozy early 1950s motel known formerly as the Shangrai La. There are 20 rooms in this quiet compound nestled beneath tall trees and anchored by a lovely pool and patio with comfy outdoor furniture - beadboard-paneled walls, wood-paneled ceilings, whimsical Mid-Century-inspired duvets, sleigh beds, new carpeting, framed black-and-white photos of international cities (London, New York City, Paris) above the headboards, flat-panel TVs, individually controlled a/c units, and fridge and microwave. These are among the most stylish and cleverly decorated rooms in the area, although they are quite compact, too (hence the very reasonable prices). Also, the motel is a little outside the downtown Saugatuck area and about a 15-minute drive to Oval Beach. It's ideal for guests seeking a slightly quieter alternative to some of the more centrally located but bustling accommodations right in the center of Saugatuck and Douglas. Most rooms have one queen bed, but there are a few larger ones with two queens. Rooms open to an attractively landscaped parking area, and all have a pair of Adirondack chairs and a small table right outside the front door.
Friendly innkeepers Sherry Forbes and Lisa Stafford are the hosts of Twin Oaks Inn (227 Griffith St., Saugatuck, 269-857-1600), a charmingly appointed B&B with six guest rooms and an ideal location if you're keen on strolling around bustling and picturesque downtown Saugatuck - the inn is just a block off the main drag, Butler Street, a stone's throw from dozens of inviting eateries and smart boutiques. The rooms in this clapboard house with three gables are appointed with antiques, floral-print bedding and curtains, and plenty of thoughtful touches - some have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs. A full breakfast is served each morning.