Big cities (Chicago, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Buffalo) skirt this five-lake chain, as do smaller cities built on lake-based trade and manufacturing (Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo, Ohio; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Duluth, Minnesota; and Rochester, New York). The area offers mile after mile of undeveloped, quietly scenic lakefront and time-stopping resort islands. Total shoreline (islands included) measures 10,210 miles.
Glaciers gouged out the Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario). They touch eight states―Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York―plus vast Ontario, Canada. Superior has the largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world. Even the little guys, Erie and Ontario, are so large (871 and 712 miles of shoreline, respectively) they feel more like seas than lakes.
Water sports rule, particularly in summer. Damaging waves and erosion are rare compared with ocean coastlines.
Known for its Midwestern and Canadian friendliness, the region also offers easy travel between the United States and Canada.
Excellent wine-growing exists, especially at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; Pelee Island on the Canadian side of Lake Erie; northwest Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula; and southwest Michigan.
Dozens of classic lighthouses dot the shore. Parks include Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (sand dunes, North and South Manitou islands) and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve (more than 100 shipwrecks), both in Michigan; the Indiana Dunes National Seashore (dunes, beaches, wetlands, wildlife) in Indiana; Apostle Islands National Seashore (hiking, paddling, nature) in Wisconsin; Presque Isle State Park (boating, beaches) in Pennsylvania; Gooseberry Falls State Park on Lake Superior's North Shore (waterfalls, history, cross-country skiing) in Minnesota; and Point Pelee National Park (unusual mix of plants and wildlife), jutting into Lake Erie in Ontario.
Winters are bitter, and storms can be ferocious, especially in fall and winter. Isolation discourages some would-be residents from considering Michigan's Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, Lake Superior's North Shore, and many Canadian lakeshore areas.
A few industry-based cities have been experiencing economic stress. Many local economies slow dramatically during colder months.
In and near the cities, you'll find everything from high-rise condos to modest single-family homes. Some commercial waterfront buildings are being converted to loft-style housing. Areas within commuting distance of cities have started to acquire very upscale homes, though there's still a tendency to retain a rustic feel. Not many high-rises exist outside the cities. In small towns and rural areas, housing consists of rustic cabins, vacation homes, and unassuming lakefront single-family houses. Much land is available to build what you want.
What It Costs:
The few available historic homes on Kelleys Island off Sandusky, Ohio, sell for $200,000 (though work will be needed) to $1 million. Two-bedroom waterfront condominiums in Toronto run $200 Canadian ($150 United States) per square foot. Lakefront condos in Erie, Pennsylvania, start at $325,000. Waterfront homes in St. Joseph, Michigan (with views across Lake Michigan to Chicago), go for $350,000 and up.
Your Next-door Neighbors:
City-dwellers, including white- and blue-collar, retreat to second homes on or near the water. Almost everyone seems to be an avid hunter, fisherman, or both. Not all retirees abandon their snow shovels to flee south. Tourists flock here in summer. Especially in tourist areas, people tend to multitask as, for example, a combination hunting guide/antiques shop owner/volunteer firefighter/county commissioner/bartender.
How You'd Spend Your Free Time:
Most folks end up on, in, or near the water: fishing (including ice-fishing), boating, swimming, waterskiing, diving, and in the winter snowmobiling or dogsledding on the ice. You can even surf―Sheboygan, Wisconsin, hosts a surfing tournament every Labor Day.
Historical, cultural, and entertainment attractions call folks to the metropolises. For a strong dose of French culture, visit Montreal or Quebec City, along the St. Lawrence Seaway. Lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, affords a taste of British culture, wonderful theater (the Shaw Festival, April through December), and ice wine (an intense dessert wine that's a specialty of most of the more than 40 area wineries). At Niagara Falls, the boat tour's awesome up-close look is worth the drenching.
Take a cruise on one of several small to medium-size ships that ply the lakes during warmer months. Or explore the many resort islands, such as the Lake Erie islands near Sandusky, Ohio, and the Thousand Islands where Lake Ontario becomes the St. Lawrence Seaway (birthplace of Thousand Island salad dressing). Or see Manitoulin Island and its neighbors on the Ontario side of Lake Huron, Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands on the Michigan side of Huron, and Beaver Island and its compatriots on Lake Michigan. There's also the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin and Isle Royale off northeastern Minnesota.
For birding, visit such feather-friendly spots as Ohio's western Lake Erie shore and Whitefish Point in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Explore all the rustic charms of the "U.P.," as the peninsula is known in these parts.