Great Lakes retirement location advice…

We’d like to retire to somewhere on the Great Lakes. We’ve looked at the Alpena, Mi area. We’d like to be within 3-1/2 hours of the Northwestern suburbs of Detroit. We are thinking that the Lake Huron side of Michigan may have less big-water days than does the Lake Michigan side. Thinking that the normally Westerly winds will create bigger waves coming across Lake Michigan than they will coming across the lower peninsula. We are also roughly considering the Benton Harbor area. We would like to be near a decent sized (but not huge) city - for access to quality health care. Small towns are ok as long as they are large enough to have a grocery and a library. We currently live in Ohio - but so far feel that Lake Erie has more expensive housing costs and is more crowded and developed then Lake Huron. We aren’t ready to deal with the Winter weather (both intensity and length) found around Lake Superior. Lake Ontario is further away from family than we’d like to be. We’ve roughly considered the West coast of the thumb of Michigan - but aren’t real sure of the mining/mineral areas that may be near Sebewaing.

Any general thoughts, discussion, experiences would sure be welcome. I’m sure that I left out a lot of criteria - so please post any pertinent questions also. Thanks!

We do want to stay in the U.S.

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I grew up on Lake Michigan and I’m not sure you can go wrong. Personally, I’d look farther north than Benton Harbor. I would check out Grand Haven or Holland or even Muskegon. Nice towns and close to Grand Rapids for anything the small town doesn’t have.

Great. Thanks for sharing your experience. We are just getting started considering different areas and sure appreciate some other areas to look at.

What are the advantages of further North than Benton Harbor? Different water, less developed, more affordable home prices?

Further north is cleaner air and water, less traffic, and lower crime rates.

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We’re in St Joseph township, adjacent to Benton Harbor. We love it here and decided to stay when I retired. Nice small town feeling yet lots of things to do including other fun towns nearby. In this area I suggest that you look just south of Benton Harbor in St Joseph or Stevensville. Both are great towns. But as mentioned it’s all good going north along the coast.

You’re aware that the west coast of Michigan is called the Sunset Coast right?


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Florida. Aka NY and Joisy south.

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Thanks for the link Rookie. Just looking at house pictures, prices and proximity to the lake doesn’t tell the whole story related to the desirability of living at a particular location!

Yeah, trying to decide sunrise versus sunset coasts :thinking:

Some of it is just my familiarity. Although, as @Rookie 's post showed there’s some non-paddling reasons to avoid Benton Harbor specifically. Muskegon does have some of those issues too, but not to the same degree.

I’m more of a small town guy (hometown is Montague), and enjoy the less development of farther north. I personally would even go farther north, but I don’t have the time/travel constraint of getting to SE Michigan. Additionally, as much as I love Lake Michigan, I’m more of a canoeist and the rivers of the northwest lower peninsula are great paddling.

I live in SE Michigan so no actual experience living in your candidate areas, but I’ve visited many places many times.

Alpena’s Thunder Bay and Presque Isle are great places to paddle and as you say the prevailing winds are from the right direction. South of Harrisville the shoreline is pretty much solid vacation cottages. Don’t ignore the Au Sable though.

The Lake Michigan shoreline is long beaches and dunes. There are a few parks that break up the solid ranks of cottages. The towns are on river outlets that widen into pretty big lakes. Some of these are great paddling, and the rivers are great too - don’t leave them out of your itinerary. But be warned that waterfront property does not come cheap on the Sunset Coast.

I’ll share my experiences with the Mitten State (if you love Michigan you may want to skip this, but I am including things I wish I had knows before briefly moving there 25years ago) .

My family (both sides) settled in southcentral and southwest Michigan nearly 200 years ago and most of the clan is still there – my own family lived there when I was a small child, I spent most summers with grandparents and cousins there growing up after we moved to the East Coast and, as an adult, I moved back from 1996 to 2004 to take job in the Grand Rapids area.

The beaches and the lake are wonderful and I still regularly head there to visit cousins and enjoy the coast. But living there I found to be problematic. Housing was affordable with a lot of choices and low property taxes. Grocery selection was great especially fresh produce (SW Michigan has a lot of agriculture and food manufacturing). And there were some nice cultural features in Grand Rapids including the lovely Meijer Gardens botanical and sculpture gardens, a great indie radio station (WYCE) and a paved bike trail that I made much use of. A small but lively arts scene and it was on the tour route of some of my favorite performers but venues were rarely crowded and tickets were reasonable.

I did find little niches of friendship and pleasure during my stay there, but not enough to convince me to want to stay, even though I did love being 40 minutes from the lake. Actually less than 10 minutes to paddling since I lived in the Mulick Park section of Grand Rapids which is adjacent to East Grand Rapids (home base of former President Gerald Ford) which has Reeds Lake, a lovely multi-use recreational water feature that had some quiet natural corners where I could throw my kayak in after a work day.

But I found the place very provincial and uptight. Hard to make friends as an older single person – the culture revolves around young white Protestant families. Anyone not in that cohort is apt to feel somewhat isolated. A lot of xenophobia and class, racial, religious and ethnic bias. I had moved from Pittsburgh, PA, where even strangers are open and talkative. I was used to making random conversation with people but was viewed with puzzlement and even alarm when I spoke to strangers around West Michigan.

Friends who are still in the Grand Rapids area tell me it has improved quite a bit in the 18 years since I moved back to PA. The expansion of universities and health care and research has brought a wider variety of people to the area, many from out of state, so there is more diversity. There are now more restaurants and expanded cultural venues. And the Conservative Calvinist Republican grip of the Amway Corporation’s scions on the city has loosened, though they still dominate the Holland area.

And for a place that is surrounded by more volume of fresh water than any other on the planet, the state has a poor record of taking care of it. Pollution along the “Sunset Coast” is frequent and concerning, a lot of it biological from effluent from ill-regulated industries. I recall one year I lived there that the BilMar Mr. Turkey meat processing plant near Holland had over 3,000 citations for releasing contaminants into the Grand River and the Big Lake. Some years the beaches along the industry zone are closed to swimming more days than they are open. Paying the negligible fines was just a cost of doing business for them. I could not drink nor bathe in the public water in Grand Rapids. The local aquifers and river were so polluted that they had to shock it with so much chlorine that it made me ill to drink it unfiltered and it dried my hair and skin so badly that I had to replace my chlorine blocking shower filter every 3 months. In fact there was so much chlorine in the Grand Rapids suburb of Wyoming where I first lived that one of my coworkers said he could fill his hot tub and pool straight from the hose and his test kits would sometimes tell him he had put too much chlorine additive it! I wondered when I first moved there why all my dark laundry came out looking stonewashed.

And since I worked in the commercial electrical field I got to see how many projects we were requested to bid on that were for remediation of toxic contamination due to decades of lack of state regulation of industries. The number of small towns and even rural areas in Michigan where huge plumes of carcinogenic chemicals have spread out from dumping from factories and even dry cleaning plants was chilling. I would be working up bids from drawing showing several square miles of area sometimes with the detected plumes outlines – there were always residential water wells on those maps which were sited right in those contamination zones. In the early 2000’s Michigan had the largest number of un-remediated SuperFund sites of all the 50 states.

SW Michigan also has very high rates of cancer. This was one reason why the Van Andel research center was built in Grand Rapids.

Michigan also has a large number of right wing militia groups, most of them located in the semi-rural north central region above I-96. During the years my boyfriend and I tried to go camping and canoeing in the northern regions of the lower peninsula we had to be cautious about avoiding “training camps” and posted land. We learned to watch for tiny white crosses placed near driveway entrances in remoter areas (a sign to fellow extremists of “safe harbor”).

One challenge in finding affordable housing along the most southerly reaches of the Lake Michigan east Coast is the proximity to Chicago. Big money from Chicagoans buying or building vacation homes as far north as Ludington have affected the market. And the state has the largest ratio of any state of residents owning second homes, though most of them are small cottages or “huntin’ cabins”. That said, it is pretty easy to build there due to the flat terrain and sandy soil.

Like any place, plusses and minuses. But I think it is telling that my mother, who grew up in west Michigan (Muskegon) told me that when she and Dad married after he came home from WW II, they “fled” the area because they did not want to raise their children in such a socially suffocating atmosphere. And when I told her I was moving out there in 1996 for a job she said she was “horrified.”

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I also grew up in Pittsburgh and lived in Eastern Michigan out side of Flint for 18 months 30 years ago. I found people very suspicious of my outgoing & friendly nature. Very nice response.

Thanks for the thoughts and info -we sure appreciate it.

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience and insights Willowleaf - it is sure appreciated. We were curious about some of the things that you mentioned but weren’t sure whether these thoughts had any merit (pollution/cancer rates and off-center political views). Not sure whether the reaction to talkative strangers is just a cultural thing.

We’d sure like to be near the Great Lakes, in an affordable, clean and not over-developed area that is not super far from family. As with most things it’s sure a balancing act to get what you like at the price that you’re willing/able to pay for it!

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Granted I have my own bias (I’m a fan of the state of Michigan), but my experience with Western Michigan is much different than @willowleaf.

I’ll avoid the political aspects because that isn’t what the board is for, although I will say that the issue with militias has not been my experience. I have paddled, camped, hiked and biked all over northwest Michigan and never had an issue.

Matter of fact, I was on a bicycle tour in the area when I got caught in a torrential downpour soaking me even through my rain gear. I came to a crossroads that had a tavern and a small convenience store. Both were closed, but as I sheltered under the cover at the convenience store the owner of the tavern passed by, stopped, and opened his tavern allowing me to spread out my gear to dry and fired up his kitchen and made me a cheeseburger and fries. Great friendly guy, which brings me to the “not friendly” point. My kids, who were raised in the South, always laugh about how us Michiganders will strike up a conversation with anyone, and shake their heads at me when I end up in a half hour conversation with some guy I met at the ice cream shop. They’re simply astounded by the talkativeness found in the area.


My experiences are much closer to @davbart than willowleaf’s. I’m a transplant from Western Pennsylvania but have been here in Michigan for ~50 years (checks yep really). No problem on the rivers & trails although I do know that we, like most every where, don’t have a shortage of ‘ducking fidiots’.

PA has cleaned up since the 50’s & 60’s but I’m old enough to remember mine drainage rivers running milky green over orange rocks and the clouds of smoke rolling out of the J&L blast furnaces.

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What were your impressions of the Alpena area? Seems like it would be beautiful and peaceful but perhaps a little more limited in things to do? I don’t know. Do they have wineries and wine trails in Alpena? :wink:

We lived in Ann Arbor for 20 years before moving to St Joseph. I go back to that area regularly…can get to Ann Arbor in 2 hrs and 15 minutes. Now we live close to the St Joseph river. Going north, South Haven (on the Black River) is a nice town on the lake (with annual blueberry festival). It’s a little bigger and more crowded than St Joseph but a very nice town. You’d have easy access to the Kal-Haven bike trail. Going north Saugatuck (on the Kalamazoo River) is next. A cool/gay/progressive/artsy very pretty town. I’d be happy to live there, it’s a lovely spot. Big harbor with big yachts in the summer. Going north next is Grand Haven (on the Grand River). Beautiful spot with big, beautiful beaches. Fairly big “little” town. Worth a look. So that’s as far north as I can comment on although I know there must be some amazing options further north. St Joseph is quieter, with more of a small town feel than the other towns mentioned. All the towns mentioned are safe with excellent schools and everything you might need and people that live there are happy to be there.

If you come out to visit I’d be happy to show you around and discuss neighborhoods.

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We were friends in the Army with a couple from Michigan. Great folks. He and I shot black powder and hiked Pikes Peak together. Both of our colloquialisms sometimes needed translation.


A lot of @willowleaf’s GR comments are still spot on. Some things have changed - great beer town and downtown GR has a reputation as pretty much the coolest place in the state now.

I’ve run across hunters but I’ve never seen (except on TV), much less been afraid of, any militias. People are generally friendly and helpful, no more or fewer… bad apples… than anywhere else. In fact I’d venture that most anyone paddling on a lake or river has a lot in common with most of the people who choose to live on said lake or river, regardless of politics.