Thursday, July 25, 2024
Home Michigan Discover the Blue

Discover the Blue

Michigan’s scenic Thumbcoast is surrounded by water and dotted with picturesque small towns

By Wensdy Von Buskirk

The St. Clair Inn’s View Ballroom surrounds attendees with lake scenery || Courtesy of St. Clair Inn

When Michiganders tell people where they’re from, they hold up a hand to serve as a sort of map to mimic the shape of the Lower Peninsula. A few years ago, the Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau—also known as Discover the Blue—decided to lean into Michigan’s mitten shape and call their region the “Thumbcoast.” Offering an instant visual of its location on the eastern edge of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the name stuck.

Michigan’s “thumb” extends into Lake Huron with Saginaw Bay in its crook. Surrounded by crystal blue water, the area offers 140 miles of shoreline characterized by sandy beaches, maritime history, and sunrise views—there are over 80 beaches and parks to explore before, after, and in-between meetings.

The Thumbcoast is also dotted with quaint small towns, from Port Austin at the northern tip to Algonac at the south. Its largest city is Port Huron, located where the St. Clair River meets Lake Huron. The region’s panoramic views can be enjoyed in each of its charming communities. Standing sentinel is the Blue Water Bridge, which spans the St. Clair River. With its beautiful scenery, outdoorsy vibe, and Midwest charm, the Thumbcoast provides a one-of-a-kind backdrop for hosting an event to remember.

Town & Country

When the Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB) was looking for a spot to stage its annual Young Farmer Leaders Conference earlier this year, it chose the Thumbcoast. In planning the event that provides education, development, and networking opportunities to more than 250 farmers between the ages of 18 and 35, the MFB sought a location east of Interstate 75 that balanced downtown walkability with the opportunity to tour the countryside for hands-on agricultural experiences. The organization’s planners found the complete package at the riverfront Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron. “Our feedback was positively glowing,” says MFB’s Young Farmer Program Specialist Megan Sprague. “It was dubbed as one of our best conferences. I think attendees really got a feel for Port Huron and the many things it has to offer.”

According to Terra Damchuk, director of sales for the Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, most meetings and events drop anchor at the Blue Water Convention Center. Opened in 2015, the 34,000-square-foot facility has upped the Thumbcoast’s ability to accommodate large groups with its capacity for as many as 2,400 attendees. “It has done wonders for the meetings and events industry in our area,” Damchuk says.

From that hub, attendees can explore downtown Port Huron and take side trips to attractions all along the coast.

The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse north of Port Huron is the oldest working lighthouse in the state
The Fort Gratiot Lighthouse north of Port Huron is the oldest working lighthouse in the state || Photo by Nick Heacock

Road tripping is the best way to soak in the scenery, attractions, and recreation, and Preferred Charters, a charter bus transportation company based in Port Huron Township, can take groups anywhere they want to go. In the city, Blue Water Area Transit picks people up outside the convention center and runs several routes downtown and beyond. Attendees also can opt to take the old-timey Blue Water Trolley for a jaunt along the river, past the Blue Water Bridge and other historic points of interest. The ride concludes at the bus depot.

Port of Call

Port Huron is about an hour’s drive from both Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and Bishop International Airport in Flint, where interstates 94 and 69 converge. As it runs through downtown Port Huron, the St. Clair River features a boardwalk with waterfront views and, at night, Edison bulbs strung between historic buildings bathe the town in a warm glow.

The Blue Water Convention Center offers walkability to the restaurants, eateries, shops, and attractions of downtown Port Huron. Guests can stay in the adjacent, newly refreshed DoubleTree by Hilton Port Huron located in the former Thomas Edison Inn, which was named for the famed inventor who spent a portion of his youth in the Thumbcoast city.

The Hampton Inn Port Huron; Holiday Inn Express & Suites Port Huron, An IHG Hotel; Fairfield Inn by Marriott Port Huron; and Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham Port Huron are among options for overflow guests. The city also is home to two boutique hotels: CityFlatsHotel and the St. Clair Inn. The former Michigan National Bank building houses the CityFlatsHotel, which was refurbished using reclaimed, eco-friendly flair. Its event space, The Ballroom @ CityFlatsHotel, which holds up to 300, features grand ceilings, marble columns, 30-foot windows, and access to an original bank vault—a popular spot for photo ops.

Also on the water, a little over 10 miles away, is the newly remodeled St. Clair Inn, its View Ballroom full of flexible space and natural light. “It’s beautiful,” Damchuk says. “Every time I go in there, I get goosebumps.”

On Lake or Land

With water all around, the area is steeped in maritime history. A half mile from the convention center stands the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse, the oldest working lighthouse in the state, which attendees can explore. They can also tour the Huron Lightship and Thomas Edison Depot Museum, housed in the former train station the famous inventor worked out of on occasion as a teenage newsboy selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad.

For a less formal experience, attendees can head to local parks and beaches or grab a bench along the river to watch huge Great Lakes freighters pass by. Lakeside Beach has a sandbar that allows people of all ages to wade out from shore and also provides a splash pad and volleyball courts. In Port Austin, visitors can rent kayaks and paddleboards and adventure out to the photoworthy Turnip Rock.

To meet out on the water, the iconic Huron Lady II tour boat stages dinner cruises and private charters for up to 100 people. New owners Kristy and Dustin Walker look forward to introducing more specialty and sightseeing cruises on the boat. “When we come back to the dock, everyone’s smiling as they get off,” Kristy Walker says. “I don’t think there’s a bad day to be out on the water.”

The Huron Lady II stages dinner cruises and private charters
The Huron Lady II stages dinner cruises and private charters. || Courtesy of Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

There are plenty of things to do onshore as well. McMorran Place is a year-round gathering spot for live music, public ice skating, and Port Huron Prowlers hockey games. Meeting planners can also schedule DIY team-building activities at Foundry, which boasts a pottery studio, escape rooms, and art classes along with live entertainment. Groups can take cooking classes at Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan or bake bread and make charcuterie boards at the St. Clair Inn.

Live theater is thriving in the area with Thumbcoast Live Theaters including the Snug Theatre and Riverbank Theatre in Marine City, and the newly opened Boardwalk Theatre in St. Clair. Enter Stage Right at The Citadel Stage in Port Huron, Lexington Village Theatre in Lexington, and Barn Theatre in Port Sanilac are other options for planners and attendees.

Boats can dock in downtown Port Huron.
Boats can dock in downtown Port Huron. || Courtesy of Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

Drink & Dine

When it comes to dining, there is no shortage of options in Port Huron and the surrounding area, and many are directly on the water with gorgeous views.  “Our downtown offers over 30 restaurants in a 1-mile stretch with waterfront restaurants, diners, cafes, and brick-oven pizza,” Damchuk says. “Some fan favorites are the deep-fried cinnamon rolls at Chef Shell’s Restaurant & Catering, the burgers with the waterfront view at Zebra Lounge, brisket waffle fries from Bootleggers Axe Co., and of course, everything chicken from Chicken in the Rough. The options are endless.”

City of Port Huron Downtown Development Authority Director Natacha Hayden is another Port Huron food evangelist. Originally from Brazil, she moved to Port Huron 13 years ago and says the local food scene has thrived in that time. “Downtown used to be pretty quiet not too long ago,” she says. “We have added quite a few restaurants.” Her favorites include Cedar Sub and Salad with its Mediterranean theme and delicious shawarma. Port Huron Açaí started out as a food truck but has moved into a brick-and-mortar location where smoothies and kombucha drinks shine, she says. Hayden also recommends Raven Cafe, which she says has amazing drinks, food, and atmosphere. “Everybody has their own niche in terms of creativity,” she says of the local food businesses and chefs.

“It’s crazy in the last few years how much our area has grown,” Damchuk says. “We have definitely combined that small-town charm with big-city amenities to offer to our attendees.”