To the uninitiated, the Great Lakes represent little more than the web of water that spawned hardscrabble cities like Detroit and Chicago. But these five lakes, which together form the largest network of freshwater in the world, have some incredible beach towns. "This is the best-kept secret in America," says Jerry Dennis, a Traverse City resident and the author of The Living Great Lakes. "Our beaches are better than most saltwater beaches – they're cleaner, they're bigger, and they're less populated." Out on the lakes, there's deepwater fishing for 30-pound muskie, world-class kitesurfing, and hundreds of miles of open water to paddle or sail. But what might be even more surprising is that the food and culture scenes on the northern shores – dominated by fresh-catch cuisine, craft breweries, local wineries, and an influx of musicians and artists – are booming as well.
Lake Michigan, Wisconsin
Just north of Green Bay, Door County is a refuge of lakeside state parks and sandy beaches. Its main city, Sturgeon Bay, is a historic waterfront town with lively food and music scenes. A number of wineries in the region, from Red Oak to Stone's Throw, barrel Rieslings and sweet cherry wines. But the area's essential destination is Cave Point, a series of hollowed-out rock formations on the shore of Lake Michigan. They're accessible only by water, so take a kayak along the jagged coast until you reach the outcroppings lining the cliff walls, then venture into the shallow caves and let out a primal wail.
In the evening, catch the sunset over the bay, then grab a beer in the Nautical Inn's spacious garden. "It's a different world," says Dawn Estes, the inn's owner. "The vineyards, the caves, the beaches – it's just beautiful."
Stay: Little Sister Resort at Pebble Beach, a group of cottages in a small Green Bay cove. [From $158 a night; littlesisterresort.com]
Do: Door County Kayak Tours in Cave Point. [half-day with rental/$55; doorcountykayaktours.com]
Credit: Cory Eastman / Getty Images