There was something different about that morning last summer when I walked my pup at a beach just south of Warren Dunes State Park. Clear blue skies had replaced the sherbet-colored clouds behind last night’s dramatic sunset, the cry of an occasional gull punctuated the sound of lapping waves along Lake Michigan, and I kept my eyes peeled for beach glass, a real find in these parts. Across the water, the Chicago skyline hovered low on the horizon — visible 50-some miles away because of an optical trick caused by atmospheric refraction. It was another beautiful day in southwest Michigan.

Chicagoans have long flocked to their second homes and vacation rentals here, especially since the completion of Interstate 94 in the '60s. But where once there were only Michigan basics — sweet wines, souvenir shops, and gorgeous beaches — big-deal Chicago chefs have opened restaurants with menus designed around the region’s abundant seasonal produce. Sprawling, Sonoma-like cider houses tap into a lake-effect climate that rivals the best cider-making regions of England. An influx of well-curated fashion boutiques and home good shops, many of them owned by Windy City expats, dot the main drags. New accommodations are elevating the scene, too, with wildly distinct options that didn't exist here before — or really anywhere in the Midwest.

The pandemic-fueled demand for a vacation destination closer to home has certainly played a part in southwest Michigan's transformation. You can get here from the Loop in less than 90 minutes and feel a world away.


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