Tome of the most notable treasures of the Great Lakes can be found in unexpected places.
Though waterfront cities get much of the attention from travelers, there are plenty of quaint, historic and beautiful small towns on the Great Lakes worth a visit. Here is a selection of small waterfront towns group travelers might want to add to their itineraries.
Port Clinton & Marblehead, Ohio
If beautiful beaches, picturesque lighthouses, island hopping and water sports are high on your to-do list, the North Shores of Lake Erie are a destination you shouldn’t miss. Port Clinton and Marblehead offer everything from group fishing expeditions and sailing adventures to quick ferry passage to Ohio’s beautiful Lake Erie islands, like Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island and Kelleys Island.
Ferries in both Marblehead and Port Clinton can take groups on day trips to the islands. They are a “nice jumping-off point if groups also want to see the shore,” said Amanda Smith Rasnick, director of group accounts for Lake Erie Shores and Islands.
Group travelers staying in the area should make a stop at the Marblehead Lighthouse, one of the most photographed lighthouses and the oldest continuously operated lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It began operation in 1822 to protect ships from the rocky shores and shallow waters along the Marblehead Peninsula.
The Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton enlightens groups about the history of aviation. The museum’s showpiece is a vintage World War II North American B-25 Mitchell Bomber called “Georgie’s Gal.” Port Clinton is also home to the drive-through African Safari Wildlife Park, where groups can have live encounters with different animals.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Mackinac Island in Lake Huron is “the jewel of the Great Lakes,” said Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism.
What makes Mackinac Island special is that no cars are allowed on the island, and they haven’t been since 1895. “It was the most genius marketing decision ever made, and it is what sets us apart,” said Hygh.
The historic Victorian-era town makes visitors feel like they are stepping back in time. Horses are the main mode of transportation on the island. The Grand Hotel, a 400-room wooden hotel built in 1875, is a must-see. It has the world’s largest front porch — 660 feet long — and overlooks the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Huron to Lake Michigan.
There are 35 other lodging facilities on the island that offer a total of 1,600 rooms. Food comes in from the mainland by boat, and horses pulling drays deliver it to the restaurants and hotels on the island.
Many groups take group carriage tours of the island. Without the noise of cars and the hectic nature of the automobile, the island is a peaceful place to visit. Groups can tour Fort Mackinac, which played a role in the War of 1812, or take a Sip N’ Sail cruise aboard the Isle Royale Queen III for a 90-minute cruise around the island with live entertainment. When the hordes of day trippers leave, those staying on the island have it to themselves, which offers “a whole other realm of relaxation, of experience of quiet and serenity,” Hygh said.
Bayfield, Wisconsin is best known as the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on Lake Superior, which includes 21 protected islands. Visitors to Bayfield get the best of both worlds. They can stay onshore and partake of everything the community has to offer, or take a water taxi or ferry to the islands.
Bayfield has a beautiful downtown with great local shopping, said Paige Rautio, marketing director for the Bayfield Chamber and Visitor Bureau. It also has excellent farm-to-table restaurants and lots of food that can only be found in Bayfield, like wine bread — a doughy dessert that is filled with a mixture of fruit and cream cheese — white fish livers, apple pie sticks and apple cider doughnuts.
All of the lodging in Bayfield is locally owned. There are about 400 lodge rooms available.
Groups can take a three-hour private cruise around the Apostle Islands, where they can see sea caves and shipwrecks through the crystal-clear water. They can also rent a sailboat for a sunset cruise and take a guided kayak tour through the sea caves. Many of the islands have lighthouses, parks and beaches that make for a fun day trip. Groups can also take a day trip to Madeline Island, the largest of the Apostle Islands and the only one not included in the National Lakeshore. It has shops, restaurants, lodging, a marina, swim beaches and hiking trails.
Two Harbors, Minnesota
Two Harbors, Minnesota, is a port city on the north shore of Lake Superior. Visitors to the area come to see the lake and to take advantage of the 310-mile Superior Hiking Trail, the extensive mountain biking trails, the beaches, the state parks and the waterfalls; they also hope to score a peek at the northern lights.
Groups enjoy sitting on the deck at the Castle Danger Brewery and watching the 1,000-foot iron ore ships coming into port, or walking along the Two Harbors Breakwall pier, where they can get so close to the ships that they can almost touch them.
There are three state parks within 20 minutes of Two Harbors with waterfalls, lighthouses and water-based activities. The Split Rock Lighthouse State Park features a historic lighthouse that sits on a 130-foot cliff overlooking Lake Superior. The structure’s 1,000-watt bulb has guided ships away from the lake’s rocky shores since 1910. Visitors can walk up the spiral staircase to the top to get a close-up look at the light as well as unparalleled views of the lake and park. Guests can also tour the original fog signal building, the oil house and one of the original homes occupied by a lighthouse keeper.
Gooseberry Falls State Park is a big draw for groups because of its three spectacular waterfalls that travel through a rocky gorge and an ancient lava flow that leads down to Lake Superior. Silver Bay, with its black sand beaches, is a short drive from Two Harbors and “is gorgeous,” said Janelle Jones, president and CEO of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce. Fall leaf peeping is also “a big deal,” she said.
Sackets Harbor, New York
In Sackets Harbor, New York, the War of 1812 looms large. The small town sits on Lake Ontario and is home to the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site. It also is close to the St. Lawrence River and its 1,000 islands.
Group travelers love to take advantage of the Sackets Harbor experience, a three-hour group tour that takes visitors through the 1813 battlefield site, the visitors center and a driving tour of the area. Visitors spend about an hour and a half touring several buildings on the site and learning about Sackets Harbor’s integral part in the War of 1812, said Constance Barone, site manager for the battlefield.
“Sackets Harbor is the only naturally protected harbor in the area, so the military selected us as their headquarters,” she said. The Navy built a large fleet of ships at the site, which became a major target for British-Canadian forces, which launched an attack on May 29, 1813. The Americans managed to fend off the attack, and Sackets Harbor remained under Navy control until 1955.
The Village of Sackets Harbor has numerous downtown restaurants that can accommodate large groups. Its main streets are lined with boutiques, galleries and inns. Groups also like to tour North Harbor Dairy at Old McDonald’s Farm, where they learn about animal care and the technology that keeps today’s modern farms running. Another popular spot is Farmhouse Maple, a 170-acre farm right on Lake Ontario that has a 50-acre sugar maple forest, where groups can see how maple syrup is made.