Lake Michigan car ferries make fun Midwest getaways

A spin around Lake Michigan easily exceeds 1,000 miles and 18 hours of road time when following shoreline instead of interstate. That’s no vacation for the driver, or travelers low on leisure time.

Another option: Shorten the loop by using two car ferries to cross the Great Lake, which turns the getaway into more of a one-tank trip and adds maritime adventure while exploring smaller chunks of Michigan and Wisconsin.

That strategy kept intact what I expect from a Lake Michigan excursion — quality beaches, sand dunes, lighthouses, nautical museums, waterfront dining — and made it easier to notice unique attractions, generations-old businesses and places loved by the locals.

Sail one way on the SS Badger, a National Historic Landmark that is the nation’s last coal-fired passenger steamship. Play bingo, watch movies, nap in a stateroom or roam the onboard museum and gift shop while cruising four hours between Manitowoc, Wisconsin — just over 2½ hours away from downtown Chicago — and Ludington, Michigan.

The route is a nautical extension of U.S. 10. The floating giant (with room for 600 passengers and 180 vehicles) began work in 1953 as transport for railway cars.

Lake Michigan’s other car ferry is the sleek, high-speed and businesslike Lake Express, introduced in 2004 to link Milwaukee and Muskegon, Michigan, in 2½ hours. Sailings on the 250-passenger and 46-vehicle vessel usually are more frequent than the SS Badger.

When ashore, sticking to coastal parks and beaches is fine, but there’s plenty to explore in the waiting towns beyond.

A 15-minute drive from Ludington’s port is Bortell’s Fisheries, a rural, sixth-generation family purveyor of smoked fish and fried fish sold by the pound. Seating is outdoor picnic tables; one right turn away is lakeside Summit Park, where I savored a half-pound of smelt with fries as the sun set — and I was far from alone.

My bed for the night was a smartly converted stable at Cartier Mansion, built for a lumber baron in 1905. The Ludington inn’s woodwork-rich decor is largely unsullied. On the breakfast plate: sausage made with the chef-owner’s 22-ingredient spice blend.

How else to spend your precious time until the ship home comes in? These unusual possibilities caught my attention:

In Michigan

Members of Sable Lighthouse Keepers Association are eligible to tend a Lake Michigan lighthouse for one or two weeks. Membership, which costs $60 for one person or $100 for a family, includes free admission to four lights — Big Sable, Little Sable, Ludington and White River — the nonprofit serves.

Dip into fresh-as-it-gets ice cream at House of Flavors. Next to the downtown location is the third-generation factory that produces 25 million gallons annually.

New and spot-on at historic White Pine Village is the Value of Sports Museum, where artifacts and stories of extraordinary athletes are more about character and life lessons than competition results. South of Ludington.

Mac Wood’s Dune Rides, in its 92nd year, provides open-air and up-close views of Michigan’s sand dunes. Or rent a vehicle in Silver Lake — aka “Dune Town” — to explore on your own. ;

Cheeseburgers at four-generation Country Dairy, near New Era, are made with the farm’s meat and cheese. Orders come with a free pint of milk. Café and market carry a Christian theme. Farm tours are offered.

Olympian Frank Masely designed banked, curved tracks at Muskegon Luge Adventure Sports Park to introduce average folks to lugeing during all seasons. Wheels are attached to the bottom of a luge sled that follows a 320-foot track. A longer course is for lugeing in winter.

The growing Social District in downtown Muskegon is a 12-block blend of restaurants, bars, cottage boutiques and public art. The area’s historic buildings make for a lovely walk. Take note of Courses Restaurant and The Sweet Spot, Culinary Institute of Michigan teaching outlets.;;

The Deck on 2½-mile-long Pere Marquette Beach, Muskegon, is a huge draw for drinks, dining and music during summer — so popular that a 90-minute limit applies at the main level.

In Wisconsin

Travelers gravitate to lakeside Milwaukee Museum of Art, whose winglike design is a city icon. One mile inland is roomy and engaging Grohmann Museum and its sculpture garden at Milwaukee School of Engineering. Art depicts the realities of blue- and white-collar work.

Especially laudable among Milwaukee restaurants this year is Solly’s Grille, a 2022 America’s Classics honoree. The James Beard Foundation’s lifetime achievement award notes that Solly’s, in a nothing-fancy house, introduced butter burgers in 1936 (and uses 130-some pounds of butter weekly).

Art Preserve, near Sheboygan, is the world’s first museum devoted to artist-built environments. Most were made without formal art training. Closest outdoor example: James Tellen Sculpture Park, near lakeside Kohler-Andrae State Park. ;

Whistling Straits, site of golfing’s 2021 Ryder Cup, stretches 560 acres along Lake Michigan, near Haven. Tee off or simply dine at the golf course restaurant; the rustic-cool setting with an upstairs pub has gorgeous views.

Rural and nonprofit Farm Wisconsin Discovery Center, near Manitowoc, is all about field-to-farm heritage, production and diversity. There are interactive exhibits, a gift shop and café. Admission includes a dairy farm tour.

Get spooked at Dead by Dawn in downtown Manitowoc, and don’t expect a restful night. Innkeepers turn every “dead and breakfast” stay into a Halloween-style haunting. The 1851 building has a paranormal history; reserve a seat at Shrunken Head bar to learn more.

Admission is free to West of the Lake Gardens, 6 acres and on a former streetcar right of way in Manitowoc. It’s a pretty and peaceful place to while away an afternoon.

When’s the last time you held a vowel? Hamilton Wood Type and Printing Museum in Two Rivers, studies, preserves and prints with type made from wood. No other museum is devoted to wood type, and Hamilton Manufacturing was the nation’s largest producer of it.

If you go

Sailings on the SS Badger and Lake Express are seasonal, mid-May to mid-October. Frequency and cost depend on the ship and time of year. Expect to pay a per-passenger fee in addition to the cost to transport a vehicle. Reservations advised.

Save by bringing a bicycle instead of a vehicle. SS Badger offers a discount when traveling without a vehicle and returning within 48 hours. The dock-to-downtown area is walkable in Manitowoc and Ludington.