Michigan’s Harbor Country—the 15-mile stretch of charming small towns from the state line north to Sawyer—is known for its white sand beaches and excellent antiquing. But lately the hottest game in town is food and drink. A recently opened industrial-chic distillery and tasting room in Three Oaks (see “Hot Hood,” below) joins farm-to-table bistros and nifty markets along the Red Arrow Highway. Take this tree-lined, sun-dappled route for a drive that runs parallel to Lake Michigan. Stop often and take the side roads—straight to the water.
The beach in New Buffalo, complete with antique lighthouse
The resort village of Harbert, 12 miles past the Michigan-Indiana border, is only a two-hour drive from Chicago, so hold off on a full breakfast until you reach Luisa’s Cafe (13698 Red Arrow Hwy., 269-469-9037; entrées from $7.95). The light-filled spot is nestled in the first floor of a house on the shoulder of Red Arrow Highway, about a mile from the beach. In honor of Harbert’s pioneering Scandinavian settlers, order the Swedish pancakes. Every buttery, lingonberry-syrup-drenched, crêpey bite will be a happy one. The 80-year-old Harbert Swedish Bakery, which shares the property, is where you’re likely to wait when Luisa’s is slammed during the summer months. Buy an elephant ear ($2.25), baked twice instead of deep-fried. The sugar-crusted pastry, flat and two palms wide, practically shatters on contact.
The region’s Scandinavian roots are also reflected in the clean-lined antiques in its first-rate design and decor shops, and this stretch of the highway is home to some real gems. Instead of taking a postpancake nap, check out Marco Polo (13565 Red Arrow Hwy.; 269-469-6272), which stocks a refined selection of primitive, midcentury, and new furnishings, and Sojourn (12908 Red Arrow Hwy.; 269-426-4247), a year-old source for cheery vintage-modern objects.
After antiquing, pull back onto the highway for a jaunt northward to Sawyer, a sparsely populated yet sprawling town with a critical mass of eateries, breweries, and bars. Your lunch at Soe Cafe (12868 Red Arrow Hwy., 269-426-4878; entrées from $9), a stylish American bistro, should include the fish and chips (delicately battered fillets served with hand-cut fries); if dinner is your plan, make a reservation. Then take advantage of Sawyer’s proximity to Warren Dunes State Park (12032 Red Arrow Hwy.; 269-426-4013) with a brisk hike through wooded trails to a three-mile stretch of public beaches tucked below tree-covered sand hills the size of cliffs.
If you take Sawyer Road east, you’ll encounter Infusco Coffee Roasters (5852 Sawyer Rd.; 269-213-5282), a new microroaster of single-origin coffees. A café is in the works, but you can call ahead for a schedule of tastings. Across an adjacent gravel lot, Sawyer Home & Garden Center (5865 Sawyer Rd.; 269-426-8810), in addition to stocking the usual gardening provisions, maintains a kind of mini Whole Foods, offering organic milk and eggs, snacks, and locally farmed produce.
Enjoy your afternoon beer at the nearby Greenbush Brewing Company (5885 Sawyer Rd.; 269-405-1076), built in a former mechanic’s shop. Drafts from the brewery and pub can be found in Chicago at Girl & the Goat and the Map Room, but drink them here at the source. A flight of six 6-ounce pours is $12 and can help you decide which beer to take away in a growler (from $16). We picked Greenbush’s Dunegräs, a hoppy IPA that doubles as a beach joke. The brewery’s next-door neighbor, Fitzgerald’s (5875 Sawyer Rd., 269-426-3489; entrées from $14), serves a delightful croque monsieur and other bistro-inspired fare. The kitchen stays open late on weekend nights, when locals drop in for dancing or live jazz over the tavern’s signature martinis.
Travel down the coastline, waving at Union Pier and Lakeside as you pass, until you reach the harbor town of New Buffalo. Pick up freshly butchered and smoked bacon, charcuterie, and sausage at Local (424 E. Buffalo St.; 269-231-5138), a meat market and grocery run by the husband-and-wife team Pat and Ellie Mullins. New Buffalo is also home to Redamak’s (616 E. Buffalo St., 269-469-4522; items from $5), a local institution known for its menu of build-your-own-burger options that top out with a triple-patty monster. Or go to David’s Delicatessen & Coffee (30 N. Whittaker St.; 269-469-7177), a relaxed sandwich shop that ribs Redamak’s by claiming that its piled-high Reuben ($8.50) “made New Buffalo famouser.”
If you happen to be in New Buffalo on Saturday, June 16, head to the New Buffalo Railroad Museum (530 S. Whittaker St.; 269-469-5409) for a heaping homemade sundae at the museum’s first ice-cream social. Or take the DIY dessert route: Pull into Mike’s Blueberries (11160 Farina Rd.; 269-469-2509), a well-run pick-your-own operation, and fill a plastic bucket with berries that beg to be baked into pie, folded into whipped cream, or turned into milk shakes back at the beach cottage.
Photography: Clayton Hauck