When people think of Port Austin, they likely conjure an image of a seemingly gravity-defying rock formation. Skinny at the bottom, wide at the top, and covered in trees — the massive rock is named for the vegetable it resembles: a turnip. And though the local chamber of commerce says some callers seem to think Port Austin may even be called Turnip Rock, the small beach town at the tip of Michigan's thumb is much more than the glacial relic for which it's known. Year-round, Port Austin is home to a tight-knit, laid-back, and extraordinarily friendly band of locals, who are ultimately responsible for the welcoming spirit that draws tens of thousands of visitors to the area each summer.
"The people here are so supportive," says Pam Gabriel-Roth, a longtime Port Austin restaurant owner who grew up in metro Detroit. "I'm so happy I moved here. It's taught me a lot about how to be a good person, you know, more thoughtful. Just simple things — like someone gives you a pie with a pan, and you return the pan to them with something else in it."
The local spirit shines through particularly in the off-season, when Port Austinites are left alone in the blistering cold. On a visit there last February, a pair of us city folk walked into the local watering hole, the Landing Tavern, as outsiders, and left with new friends. They told us about life in the small town (there are about 600 full-time residents, and, yes, everyone knows each other), gave us recommendations of where to go during our short stay, and even invited us to eat some deer with them in neighboring Caseville. Mostly though, people were baffled as to why we were there with temperatures in the teens, and told us to come back in the summer.
If you, like most people, elect to venture up to Port Austin in the summer, naturally the rock is a can't-miss. Described as one of the "natural wonders of Michigan," Turnip Rock is chief among the draws of Port Austin, with the area's chamber of commerce reporting that three-fourths of incoming calls are inquiries about it. To us, the rock looks more like an oyster half-shell than a turnip, but in order to see it up close and draw your own conclusion, you'll have to rent a kayak or gain access to a boat, as Turnip Rock is not visible from shore (the area closest to it is private property). The kayak trip is a sportive one — the waters of Lake Huron are no joke, and pending the chop, the seven-mile round trip journey from a nearby kayak rental can take more than two hours.
"It's a bucket-list item for many people, and if they're not over-exhausted when they get back they're smiling and extremely happy they went out there," says Chris Boyle, owner of Port Austin Kayak.
But the trip is worth it for more than just the one rock — there are additional rock formations to check out, including the also top-heavy Thumbnail Point, and a sea cave you can hop out of your kayak and explore. The clear waters of Alaska Bay and the ritzy, rural vacation community of Pointe aux Barques are also worth a look.
Further off the coast of the thumb, there lies a diving experience unlike almost any other in the world. Shipwrecks dating back to the 1800s sit on the bottom lake floor, and are so well-preserved they're said to look just like they did the day they went down. The wrecks are a big draw for deep sea divers from around the globe, and a new Michigan Diver outpost in town helps facilitate their journeys 200 feet underwater.
"Seeing these shipwrecks is extremely rare and only possible because of the freshwater of the Great Lakes," says Michigan Diver co-owner Michael Lynch. "If you had these same wrecks in the ocean, the salt water and the sea life would deteriorate them, so it's one of the only places in the world that you see these — especially the old wooden schooners from the 1800s."
Once back on land, you can take a hike through the woodlands and sand dunes of Port Crescent State Park or relax on one of Port Austin's several beaches. Port Crescent has three miles of sandy shoreline prime for a stroll; Bird Creek park is huge, with a wooden boardwalk and roofed picnic shelters overlooking the water; and Veteran's Waterfront park, just off the city's quaint downtown, has a small sandy beach, grassy areas for a picnic, and a long break wall to walk. The wall is worth a visit any time of year, really. In the winter, the frozen waves of Lake Huron cling to its concrete ledges, creating elegant ice formations.
When you've had your fill of outdoor adventuring, you can enjoy some shopping or dining in the city's small downtown. You can shop for trinkets or get ice cream at the Lake Street Emporium, enjoy a meal at The Bank 1884 restaurant, or sit down for a pizza at the equally popular Joe's. And if you're there on a weekend, Port Austin's farmers market is a must-visit. The market spans several blocks, with vendors from across the state hawking everything from produce and jams to barn art and other handcrafts.
For a quality dinnertime meal away from the action, consider the Farm. Situated on farmlands about five miles from downtown, the Farm is owned by Gabriel-Roth, who crafts her evolving menu based on high-quality, locally sourced ingredients. The white fish is caught on a bay 45 minutes away and delivered to the restaurant four times a week. As of this printing, it was being prepared with a pretzel crust and a grainy mustard sauce — adding a little salt and crunch to the taste of the delicate fresh fish. Another popular dish is the farmer-style braised beef — a short rib drizzled in a red wine demi glaze with sides of carmelized sweet onion and carrots. The restaurant is homey and comfortable, with vintage mismatched table cloths and fresh flowers on each table. There are plenty of windows through which to take in the view, and in the chillier months they light a wood stove.
Notable lodging options include the retro Beachcomber Motel, the adorable Little Yellow Cottages, and bed and breakfasts like the stately Garden Inn. If you're hoping to visit at the height of tourist season, be sure to book in advance. The owner of the Little Yellow Cottages says she's already getting bookings for next year.
From our 2018 Made in Michigan issue.