Travel

This Tiny Michigan Town Is One of America's Best LGBTQ+ Destinations

The Midwest's greatest gaycation spot is also a destination for the arts and star-caliber dining.

Saugatuck/Douglas
Saugatuck/Douglas
Saugatuck/Douglas

Arrive in Saugatuck for the first time, and it hits you almost immediately: This is not your average small town USA.

Downtown, the streets are lined with impeccably preserved, century-old storefronts that house locally owned boutiques, renowned art galleries, and star-caliber dining. Surrounded by lush forests and farmland to one side, and the stunning sandy shores of Lake Michigan to the other, it’s easy to see why Saugtatuck earns its spot as one of America’s best beach towns

Yet this Michigan outpost of 850 residents (twice as many if you include neighboring “sister city” Douglas, as most locals do) is more than just good looks. The charming resort town is also one of the country’s most inclusive, as much beloved by the LGBTQ+ community and its allies as it is by the Midwestern families who return each summer.

“Saugatuck is hard to describe. It’s a little bit of magic,” explains Mike Jones. “We’re right in the middle of Dutch Christian West Michigan, and yet one of the largest LGBTQ+ resorts in the country sits right here.”

The iconic Dunes Resort, of which Jones is a co-owner, is one of the longest-running LGBTQ+ resorts in the country-a gay haven that, for the past 40 years, has helped transform Saugatuck into the accepting, dynamic destination it is today. 

“There’s no shaming. There are no odd looks,” Jones says. “People can truly come here and be whoever and whatever they want to be.”

The Dunes Resort, Saugatuck MI
The Dunes Resort, Saugatuck MI
The Dunes Resort, Saugatuck MI

Where to stay and play on a visit to Saugatuck

Since 1981, the Dunes Resort has been the beating heart of Saugatuck’s LGBTQ+ community. The 81-room resort sprawls on 22 acres with an outdoor pool, restaurant, game room, nightclub, cabaret theatre, and covered patio known as the “Tea Deck.” Following pandemic-related restrictions for the past year, Jones says things are finally getting back to normal. 

That means the return of a packed events calendar that includes karaoke, live piano, DJs, and more. Dunes Cabaret features drag divas and lounge acts every Saturday night at their storied Show Bar theatre, while the infamous “Tea Dance” Sundays, open to the public, bring the uninhibited vibes of a Vegas dayclub to the Midwest.

For a different kind of LGBTQ+ resort experience, the Campit Outdoor Resort is a 33-acre wooded property ten minutes from Saugatuck/Douglas catering to the LGBTQ+ community, friends, and allies. The rustic retreat offers space for drive-in tent camping and RVs, as well as log cabins and vintage trailers for rent. Campit also hosts the Saugatuck LGBT Music Fest, slated this year for June 18-20.

If the party resort vibe isn’t your, well, vibe, consider one of the private retreats at Hidden Garden Cottages, an LGBTQ+ owned boutique experience in the heart of downtown Saugatuck. And if you’re all about luxury, check in at the European-style Belvedere Inn and Restaurant. Built in the early 1900s, it was once the Gilded Age summer home of wealthy Chicagoans.

ROAN & BLACK
ROAN & BLACK
ROAN & BLACK

Explore the “Art Coast” of Michigan

Michigan’s premiere gaycation spot is also a destination for the arts and antiques. The Ox-Bow School of Arts and Artists’ Residency helped establish Saugatuck’s reputation as “the art coast of Michigan” over 100 years ago when the Art Institute of Chicago began offering summer classes here. Today, it is the country’s oldest continuously operating artist community, offering workshops, studio spaces, artist retreats, and events.

Dozens of artists and creative professionals call this area home. Spend a day exploring galleries like the LGBTQ+ owned Amazwi Contemporary Art Gallery, dedicated to amplifying the voices of African artists and artisans throughout North America. Another LGBTQ+ owned gallery not to be missed is Roan & Black, run by partners Doug McIntosh and John Newland. An attached store sells carefully curated, hand-made accessories, where every item has a unique story behind it. (While you’re at it, LGBTQ+ owned Kindel & Company has a gorgeous assortment of lifestyle items, from leather-bound journals to Art Deco table clocks; for authentic vintage furniture and home decor, head to Upscale Mercantile.)  

At the cultural heart of town lies the multi-disciplinary Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which boasts a 400-seat theatre where every year they stage ambitious productions, such as In the Heights in 2019. This summer, they’ll bring two shows to their outdoor stage: SHOUT! The Mod Musical and an original production called Just Too Big, featuring show-stopping numbers from hit musicals that are “just too big” for their theatre.

Pennyroyal Cafe & Provisions
Pennyroyal Cafe & Provisions
Pennyroyal Cafe & Provisions

Eat your way through West Michigan’s farm-to-table offerings

“Honestly I think this is one of America’s best-kept secrets,” says Kristin Armstrong, the Executive Director of the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. Along with the town’s robust arts community, it’s the food scene she raves about. 

“There’s a billion restaurants here that are all Chicago-good,” Armstrong says. “You could rattle off a dozen places that I could say ‘oh yeah, that should be in Chicago’ but it’s not-it’s right here, at half the price and with free parking.” 

Thanks to its location in the middle of Michigan’s fruit belt, Saugatuck’s farm-to-table scene is particularly impressive. Pennyroyal is helmed by Executive Chef Melissa Corey, a Chicago transplant with an extensive James Beard pedigree, and a previous champ of Chopped. Inventive seasonal cuisine and whole animal butchery is her forte.

Locals have flocked to Everyday People Cafe for over 40 years. “If you come into town and can only eat once, this is where to go,” says Mike Jones. For more casual eats, Isabel’s Market + Eatery and the Farmhouse Deli & Pantry both come highly recommended for their house-made baked goods and deli-fresh sandwiches. The Southerner is a popular spot dedicated to preserving the cooking traditions of the American South.   

Check out LGTBQ+ owned businesses like Uncommon Coffee Roasters for your morning coffee, Guardian Brewing for house-brewed beers and vegan options, and Coast 236 for a globally inspired fish-focused dinner menu.

Photo courtesy of the Saugatuck Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau
Photo courtesy of the Saugatuck Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau
Photo courtesy of the Saugatuck Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau

See what makes the Great Lakes so great

One of the things that make Saugatuck so special is its location on the stunning shores of Lake Michigan, a lake so vast it might as well be an ocean-in fact, you can even go surfing. Spend the morning exploring rugged wilderness areas like the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, where you can climb coastal dunes over 200 feet tall. Or skip the cardio workout and just lounge the day away on the world famous white sugar sand Oval Beach.

If you’d rather explore the water by motor, Retro Boats is a new addition in town that offers pontoon boats, “donut” boats, and more launching from the Kalamazoo River. If you want to let someone else do the driving, the Star of Saugatuck is an authentic sternwheeler paddleboat and “a beautiful way to spend an evening,” says Armstrong.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Nicole Rupersburg is a freelance writer covering food, travel, arts, culture, and what-have-you. She winters in Las Vegas and summers in Detroit, as does anybody who’s anybody. Her favorite activities include drinking beer and quoting Fight Club.

Travel

13 Reasons to Drive to Palm Springs

Rest, relaxation, and happy hour await you in the desert.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

SoCal winters may not cause locals to flee toward warmer weather, but it does remind us that now is a good time to visit Palm Springs. This time of year is the sweet spot where it’s not too hot during the day and the nights are perfect for a dip in a hot tub. Covered in kitsch, with a culture that encourages you to day drink and lay by a pool all day, it’s no wonder that the desert town has long been a refuge for weekend warriors looking for an escape. Bonus: You can pack up and drive, and be there in less time than it takes to binge a new Netflix series.

Palm Springs is home to a vibrant LGBTQ community-including the nation’s first all-LGBTQ city council-plus art and culture, as well as an abundance of mid-century modern architecture. A field of wind turbines welcome you to town, and once you’re there you’ll be welcomed by leaning palm trees and craggy mountain ranges that keep inspiration flowing. Here you can find warm weather, outdoor activities, and an abundance of restaurants and shops. You’ll also find plenty of opportunities to lounge poolside and do close to nothing, if that’s more your vibe. Use our recommendations below to craft your perfect weekend. You deserve it.

Editor’s note: The city of Palm Springs requires proof of COVID-19 vaccination status or a recent negative COVID test result for entry into the city’s indoor bars and restaurants. Make sure you plan accordingly.

Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire
Photo courtesy of Fleur Noire

Chill out in style

So you decided to make the good choice to spend a weekend in Palm Springs and need a place to stay. Sure, you could go the Airbnb route, of which the town has many. Or you could enjoy the luxury and amenities of one of Palm Springs’ beautifully designed hotels.

If you’re traveling with a whole posse, consider the boutique hotel, Limón. Their interiors are bright, cheery, and inspired by mid-century modern and 1960s Mexico City. The seven-room property books as one unit and can accommodate you and 13 of your pals. It includes a communal kitchen, an entertainment room, pool, and BBQ area. During your stay, let their staff take the wheel and plan your days. They can assist in creating the perfect stay, like a night out for a bachelor/ette party, a hot air balloon excursion, or a personal chef to cook for you and your crew.

For those looking for an intimate stay for two, try the adults-only hotel, Dive. It’s hard not to feel romantic in their elegant rooms inspired by the 1960s French Riviera. Personally, we fell in love at “free glass of rosé upon check-in.” During Valentine’s Day weekend they will up their complimentary glass by offering a complimentary bottle of French Pool Toy Rosé and two chocolate-covered strawberries per room.

You can’t miss Fleur Noire, with its black exterior that makes it stand out amongst Palm Springs’ otherwise brightly colored architecture. The interiors feel airy, modern, and are punctuated with wallpaper bearing large floral prints. The property consists of an array of casitas, studios, and standard rooms surrounding the communal pool. The hotel is near Palm Springs’ famed Palm Canyon Drive with shops and restaurants. However, if you want to stay a bit closer to your home-tel, you can access Sandfish Sushi & Whiskey through their back gate. Try their signature Black Mussels served with hijiki seaweed, scallions, and miso sake broth. On the Fleur Noire property, you can grab a drink at their rosé and champagne bar, La Boisson.

Aptly named Tiki Hotel is a nod to the 1950s & ‘60s affinity for tiki culture. If you don’t like kitsch and bold design, this is not the place for you. The 11-room property boasts island-themed decor, with vibrant colors and patterns galore. You can lounge by their pool or jump on one of the provided beach cruisers to explore the Palm Springs Design District and nearby shops and restaurants.

Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds
Photo by Jenni-Kate Rogers, courtesy of Boozehounds

Try out the Palm Springs food scene

At some point you might want to stop taking your food and drinks poolside and head into a restaurant. Palm Springs has something for everyone and at least one restaurant for the dogs. Boozehounds makes you wonder: is this a dog-friendly restaurant or a human-friendly dog restaurant? Either way, we’re all in! The restaurant has a large patio perfect for your pooch or if you prefer to dine sans dog, they have an indoor dining area. They serve a wide selection of food, from Japanese yellowtail to a Double Cheeseburger, all inspired by Southern California. They even have a menu just for dogs. with items like a bowl of skirt steak, steamed rice, and sweet potato. As the name suggests, they have a great selection of booze in the form of cocktails, wine, and beer. Not to leave dogs out, you can order your fur baby a weenie-teenie, a concoction of chicken broth, chicken whipped cream, and a dog biscuit crumble. Non-alcoholic, of course.

Eat brunch or lunch outdoors at El Patio, a family-owned Mexican restaurant. Try the Breakfast Enchiladas that come with squash, spinach, corn, cheese, and topped with your choice of green or red sauce and two fried eggs. Or opt for the Bone-in Chicken covered with mole poblano and pipian sauces, garnished with red onion, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds. Make sure to save room for their churro cart that comes with three different dipping sauces and sprinkles.

One of the most exciting restaurants in Palm Springs right now is Bar Cecil. The culinary commander of the place is Gabe Woo, a Coachella Valley native and local celeb known for his dinner series at Sparrows Lodge and Holiday House that were hard to get into. Woo takes bistro-style foods and expands on it while using seasonal produce from local farms. We can’t promise you it’ll be easy to get a table but we can say that their bar area takes walk-ins where you can order a juicy, flavorful burger and a delicious pork chop with a hint of smokiness. Or order from their “Why Not” menu where you can find swanky items like their infamous $50 martini-Beluga vodka with a kiss of Alessio vermouth is poured tableside in a perfectly chilled glass. The drink is served on a silver tray with a Regiis Ova caviar-topped deviled egg and a bowl of sunchoke chips.

Seymour's
Seymour’s
Seymour’s

Grab a cocktail or two

Drink across decades at Truss & Twine, a cocktail bar that celebrates the history of drinks in America. The interiors may be dark and dramatic, but their staff are friendly and happy to share their knowledge on libations with you. We recommend trying one of their original cocktails like the Game Changer that comes with gin, lime, cucumber, sugar, onion brine, sea salt, and celery bitters. They also serve food that does not resemble typical bar food fare, like their Wagyu Oxtail Grilled Cheese with cheddar, caramelized onion, and green chile aioli. For a mellow night, take a trip to the local speakeasy Seymours, located next to Mr. Lyons Steakhouse. Enter through the unmarked side entrance and step into a bar with chill vibes, moody lighting, and an intimate atmosphere with extraordinary bartenders. They also offer outdoor seating. Try their Oaxcan Hemingway with mezcal, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, and simple syrup.

Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights
Photo courtesy of Fantasy Balloon Flights

Take in the scenery

September through May, Fantasy Balloon Flights will show you the world… or at least the vastness of the Coachella Valley from the sky. Rest assured, the hot air balloon company has been at it for some time (since 1981 to be exact). For those that need a bit of liquid courage, champagne balloon adventures are available.

Hop on the world’s largest rotating tramcar at the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The car takes you on a ten-minute ride up and along the cliffs of Chino Canyon for picturesque views of the desert until you arrive at your destination, Mt. San Jacinto State Park. At the top, there are places to grab food, observation decks, and over 50 miles of hiking trails. And if you go during the winter there’s a good chance there will be snow.

Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs
Bon Vivant Palm Springs

Load up on new and new-to-you goods

Look for retro wares in the land of mid-century modern majesty. Palm Springs may not have invented the style but they sure do embrace it. Go on a vintage crawl on Palm Canyon Drive and gander at shops like Bon Vivant, Modernway, and Revivals. There you can find eccentric accents and mid-century modern furniture to buy or give you major design inspo. While you’re around, you might as well spruce up your wardrobe at vintage boutiques like The Frippery, Iconic Atomic, and Bazar.

If you prefer to be the first owner of your items, check out the Mojave Flea Trading Post. Contrary to its name, the indoor department store features about 95% new and 5% vintage goods. Browse the stylish works of 40+ local artisans and find art, jewelry, clothes, natural beauty products, home goods, and more.

Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret
Photo courtesy of Toucans Tiki Lounge & Cabaret

Support the LGBTQ community

For a bar that has a mission statement that is as good as its food, try Blackbook. Named after the black book in Nevada, a list of notorious people not welcomed in casinos, owner Dean Lavine explains, “We like to think that everyone has been on a blacklist at some point in time. Gay, bullied, racially excluded, Raiders fans, etc.” The bar prides itself on being inclusive and welcoming to all, with some of the best food in Palm Springs. We’re partial to their Palm Springs-style nachos, a version they invented that ensures every chip has cheese so no one is left with a cheese-less chip when sharing. We can’t forget about their drinks. They have a full bar with the largest whiskey selection in the valley, with over 450 different bourbons, ryes, scotches, and international whiskeys, along with beers and other adult canned and bottled beverages.

After eating, sing your heart out at Quadz, where VJs are playing clips of beloved musical theater. You will have a great time at this lively bar even if musicals aren’t your “thing.” However, after a few of their notoriously strong and affordable drinks, you may be belting out Streisand with the best of them. Reserve a spot at Toucans and see a performance at Palm Springs’ longest continuously running drag show. Drag shows are Thursday-Monday with a different theme each night. No matter what day you go, it’s always a good time at Toucans, making it a favorite for tourists and locals alike, but pro-tip: Monday nights are free.

Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum
Photo courtesy of Palm Springs Art Museum

Get your art and culture fix

It may be hard to peel yourself away from basking in the sun, but take a break and explore the Palm Springs Art Museum. You can find modern and contemporary art, architecture, and design objects that reflect Palm Springs’ unique history, culture, and place.

Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa
Photo courtesy of Feel Good Spa

Recharge at a spa

Between work, existential crises, and living through a global pandemic, we all could use a relaxing spa moment. Book a massage at the Ace Hotel’s Feel Good Spa. Try their Rose Goodness, where a masseuse will use quartz massagers to get deep into your muscle tissue. The use of rose quartz is said to help replace toxic emotions and blockages to the heart chakra with loving energy. Release tension and stress and gain clarity through a holistic treatment at The Spa at The Colony Palms Hotel & Bungalows. They offer a wide range of services, including massages, facials, body treatments, vibrational sound healing, and acutaping.

Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours
Big Wheel Tours

Go on a tour

Cruise through the desert landscape on two wheels (or by Jeep or by hiking) with Big Wheel Tours. If your interests are more architecture than nature, check out Modern & More Bike Tours and see architecturally and historically significant homes in South Palm Springs.

If biking is not your style, hop in Palm Springs Mod Squad‘s van and take part in a mid-century modern architecture tour. Choose the martini option to learn more about the cocktail and cap off your tour with James Bond’s favorite drink. Their expert will explain why martinis are shaken and not stirred. They also offer socially distanced options for those that prefer to stay in their own car.

Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon
Indian Canyons & Tahquitz Canyon

Hike historic trailheads

If you prefer to see the desert terrain by foot, Indian Canyon Trails offer a plethora of hiking options that include cool streams and lush oases. You may even see a BigHorn Sheep. Indian Canyons is the ancestral home of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and you can learn more about their history through preserved rock art, irrigation ditches, and food preparation areas.

The Living Desert
The Living Desert
The Living Desert

Explore desert plant life

See desert animals and plants thriving at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens. The world-class wildlife and botanical park has almost 430 animals, including cheetahs, giraffes, and camels as well as creatures native to the area. After that, head to Moorten Botanical Garden aka Cactus Castle, and explore over a dozen arid biomes and thousands of specimens sourced from all over the world. Plus, see rocks, crystals, fossils, gold-mining relics, and desert tortoises. If you feel inspired to become a plant parent after your visit, Moorten’s has a nursery for you to take home your own prickly bundle of joy.

Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours
Palm Springs Windmill Tours

Take a windmill selfie

The rows and rows of wind turbines off the I-10 on your way to Palm Springs are almost as iconic to the area as palm trees. If you’ve ever been curious about what they do, reserve a tour with Palm Springs Windmill Tours to see these 300-foot behemoths up close and learn how they power the entire Coachella Valley.

The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC
The Lights at Indio GC

Tee off after the sun goes down

If you burnt too much daylight at the pool or on hikes and weren’t able to get a round of golf in during the day, The Lights at Indio Golf Course has you covered. The Desert’s only night-lit course allows you to hit the links after dark.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Keisha Raines is a LA-based freelance writer born and raised in the Palm Springs area with a tattoo of the San Jacinto mountains to prove it.

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