Guide to Gay Saugatuck, Michigan
At first, most wouldn’t think of Western Michigan as an LGBT hotspot. Allegan County, in particular, is reliably conservative and recently voted for Trump over Clinton by 30 points. But Saugatuck, MI (saw-guh-tuck) hasn’t been shy of its artistic attitude – or its gay past.
Here’s what you need to know for a modern-day visit to gay Saugatuck, Michigan.
Saugatuck’s Gay History
Saugatuck has more than a century of gay history. As early as the 1890s, Oval Beach was a destination for nudity. In 1910, the Ox-Bow, an artist’s retreat, attracted all types of gay men and women from Chicago and Detroit. And by the 1960s, a jazz bar known as The Blue Tempo became the area’s de facto gay club (Jazz being the devil’s music, of course).
At that time, liquor laws prohibited the serving of alcohol to gay men – something The Blue Tempo ignored, and authorities allowed. The club burned down in 1969, but one of its bartenders went on to open The Dunes Resort in 1981 – which became the largest LGBTQ resort in the Midwest and still operates today.
Gay Bars in Saugatuck
The Dunes Resort
The Dunes is the Saugatuck gay bar. On Friday and Saturday, it attracts a full-spectrum of gay men, often coming in from Detroit, Chicago, and Grand Rapids. We saw a drag show here on the weekend, which featured a performer out of New York. And it was on par with some of the better drag I’ve seen.
If drag isn’t your scene, there’s a sizeable outdoor patio – and additional space indoors for chatting or dancing. For having no competition, this is a great gay bar.
Gay-Friendly Hotels and Resorts
Lodgings in Saugatuck and Douglas are almost universally gay-friendly. But here’s a few noteworthy choices.
The Dunes Resort
Saugatuck’s gay bar and resort are one and the same. Overnight stays usually attract an older male crowd. But anyone eager for quick access to a pool and bar will feel comfortable in one of the resort’s rooms or cottages – some being more private and well-equipped than others.
Certain weekends attract different audiences (lesbians, younger guys, etc.) – so check their site for the best idea on when to book. Do note, that like most lodging in the area, the feel is more like a woodsy bed and breakfast than a luxury hotel.
Blue Star Motel
Blue Star Motel enjoys a cozier, boutique setting just down the road from The Dunes. You’ll find some more modern amenities here like free Wi-Fi, snacks, and a continental breakfast. And it’s well within walking distance if you’re planning to come home from the gay bar.
Hidden Garden Cottages
This gay-owned bed and breakfast puts you in the heart of Saugatuck. It’s an excellent choice for a more romantic, private getaway that still keeps you close to restaurants, shopping, and the water.
The Best Restaurants in Saugatuck
Go to Pennyroyal. I cannot stress this enough. Because I had no idea that pancakes could be juicy – until I went to Pennyroyal. It’s just so damn good, guys. Come on, don’t make me spell this out for you. The chef won Chopped for god’s sake. Just go.
Salt of the Earth
A Fennville favorite that specializes in woodfired pizza but cooks up a great steak. Cocktails are a highlight as well. Tell a local you’re eating at Salt of the Earth to hear audible sighs of jealousy.
This high-end, minimalist dinner spot specializes in seafood from shores around the world. The Jamaican Smoke cocktail is a well-mixed introduction to mezcal if you’ve never had it. And every table is served flash-fried chickpeas from the get-go.
A great takeout choice if you’re on the move and packing lunch for the beach. The bread is the highlight – and they have gluten-free options for the intolerant.
Gay-Friendly Things to Do in Saugatuck
Uncommon Coffee Roasters
This gay-owned coffee shop has been flying a rainbow flag since 1994 and you’ll find their beans all over Michigan. It’s a little place and gets busy on the weekend, but don’t miss the garden patio out back.
Saugatuck’s Butler Street is the town’s main walking and shopping district. The majority of businesses here are gay-owned – and stock all you’d ever need in shirts, soaps, and stuff to take home.
Of the area’s six beaches, Oval Beach is the most popular – especially when the water is high. It used to be a nude beach (emphasis on “used to”). Now it’s heavily trafficked by families. If you’re facing the water, the right end of the sand is the traditional gay area, but it’s mostly integrated these days.
In Saugatuck, you’ll hear about a nearby ghost town called Singapore. In this case, “ghost town” doesn’t mean empty – it means it ghosted. Like a Tinder date.
Founded in 1836, the people of Singapore hoped to rival the great port cities of Chicago and Milwaukee. And following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it seemed they might have their chance. The town made a quick buck cutting down the surrounding trees and shipping lumber off to Chicago.
Four years later, Singapore was buried in sand – totally gone, due to the loss of protective tree cover.
Saugatuck Dune Rides will take you on a 40-minute ride through the dunes, which can feel like a rollercoaster at full speed. The tour is family-focused and geared toward kids, but worth it just for the ride. Shoutout to Frosty, our driver.
Douglas is the smaller neighbor to Saugatuck, but just as gay. Head here for more art, rainbow flags, and a couple of great bars –including Borrowed Time, which has a sizeable outdoor space with yard games and Coastal Society, which is a combination bar, boutique store, and gallery.
Star of Saugatuck
This 90-minute cruise down Kalamazoo River and onto Lake Michigan is a good time if you’re crunched for time (or ideas). The ship sails five-times daily, including a sunset cruise. You can book online or walk-in for tickets.
This family-run farm in nearby Fennville bakes up 40,000 pies a year. So try the pie flight, because why not? Their Rieslings are a good start for wine connoisseurs, but the cider is what’ll keep you coming back – especially the Apple Cherry variety.
Created by the former head brewer at Goose Island, this chic cidery has an easy, airy feel to it. You’ll find herds of Icelandic sheep nearby, along with pigs, honey bees, and ducks – all serving a purpose in the cider process.
If you’re with a group and trying to make an afternoon or evening of Saugatack’s beverage-scene, I suggest chartering the LGBT-owned Coastal Tours. They’ll take you to all the area’s breweries, wineries, and vineyards.
Mount Bald Head
Mount Baldhead is a hill that can feel like mountain depending on the night you had. Take 302 steps up for some of the best views in Saugatuck – especially come Autumn. You’ll also have an up-close look at the Mount Baldhead radar tower. The spherical station was a Cold War installation from 1958-68.
If you take the chain ferry (see below) across the Kalamazoo River and climb up Mount Baldhead, it’s known as the “Ball and Chain” hike. I wish I came up with that.
Grand Rapids to Saugatuck, MI
If you can’t drive to Saugatuck, then you’re flying to Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR) in Grand Rapids. From there, it’s less 50 miles to Saugatuck or under an hour of drive time.
In getting from Grand Rapids to Saugatuck, your transportation options are limited. There’s only one bus or train that’ll take you to Holland, which still requires a taxi for the last leg. So I’d suggest getting an Uber out of the airport – or renting a car.
Getting back to the airport will probably require a regular taxi (contact Cyndi’s Moonlight Express or Saugatuck Douglas Taxi) because ridesharing services aren’t common in Saugatuck.
Getting Around in Saugatuck
Uber and Lyft aren’t common in Saugatuck – and parking isn’t always easy downtown. But the hella’ awesome Interurban bus can transport you (and your dozen closest friends) door-to-door as late as 11 PM on the weekends for $1. And this isn’t a stand-and-wait at the bus stop thing. The Interurban will pick you up and drop you off anywhere in Saugatuck or Douglas for a buck. Wait time is usually just 10 to 30 minutes. And after hours, a taxi will do.
Minor shoutout to the legendary Saugatuck Chain Ferry, which is exactly what it sounds like: a ferry that runs on a chain. It’s the last of its kind in the country, operating since 1838 on the Kalamazoo River. Note, it’s 100% more expensive to ride than the Interurban (but some might say 100% more fun).
When to Visit Saugatuck
Late June through August is peak season in Saugatuck. But things quiet down when school starts. This means the absolute best time to visit is the end of August through October – with the water still being comfortable in September. And say what you will about lake-effect snow, but the area gets even more peaceful in the winter.
Enjoy your trip to gay Saugatuck, MI!