Resources set stage for flourishing tourism industry.
Sand, green spaces, forests, waterways and Lake Michigan are among the gems that put Northern Indiana on the map.
It’s these natural resources that provide the perfect backdrop for visitors to enjoy engaging experiences as part of their recreational getaways, according to tourism officials and rental accommodation owners.
“What sets us apart and is defining for our area is our location at the southern tip of Lake Michigan,” says Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism. “We have the Indiana Dunes with the national and state parks.
“You can create manmade attractions, but natural attractions … you can’t produce the dunes somewhere else. It’s part of our uniqueness.
“We have a diverse landscape with tons of different things to choose from especially in nature,” adds Erika Dahl, director of communications at South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority. “You have the lakeshore, marshes, bogs, prairies and forests.”
Natural beauty is on display at Kankakee Sands, which includes nearly 25,000 acres across Illinois and Indiana, including in Newton County. The Nature Conservancy and partner organizations are working to restore the prairie-savanna complex to a pre-settlement state.
“The largest natural body of water used to be there,” Dahl says. “They are trying their best to get it back to where it used to be before the settlers came here. They just got a herd of bison to help restore the land. It’s one of our newest things in the region.”
The longstanding pillar of the tourism industry is the beach experience and Lake Michigan, Weimer says.
“People traveling with families and grandparents come here because of the dunes. We are a big family destination,” she says. “Today’s travelers will repeat a beach location where they can chill out and have fun.
“Visitors from the East Coast or West Coast are really shocked by the magnitude of the Great Lake. We have fresh water so there’s no salt or sharks to worry about.”
A beach location is a major component of Ari and Stephanie Killian’s DunesWalk Inn at the Furness Mansion.
“We are the closest accommodations to Lake Michigan in Porter County and are a little over a mile from the beach,” Ari says. “We’re on 3.5 acres and right across from the Indiana Dunes.”
The boutique hotel and vacation rental is a rehabilitated piece of Porter County history. Edwin Leigh Furness, the first postmaster of Furnessville, built the three-story brick house. The Killians purchased the property in 2010 and brought the home back to life as a place for vacationers, with two suites and three guest rooms that sleep a total of 19. Individual rooms or the whole building are available for rent.
“What differentiates us from other types of accommodations is our history,” he says. “Our building was built in 1881 and is still standing. It’s like time stood still in some respects. Some of our neighbors who have been here for many years know the old farm families who helped settle in Northern Porter County.
“We understand our water tower (circa 1910) is one of the oldest water towers in Porter County. Furness built it to water his gardens. Getting it up and running is on our to-do list.”
Ari says the boutique hotels’ visitors are an indicator of the area’s appeal.
“We’ve had guests from all over the world–England, Australia, Japan, France, Switzerland,” Ari says. “It’s amazing the traction the area has internationally.
“I think our natural resources are attractive with open land, lots of green space and the dunes. I think we will continue to be such a popular destination as we have the green space to get away.”
The Indiana Dunes offer not only sun and sand, but also hiking. The 3 Dune Challenge was launched a few years ago and is popular with all age groups. The challenge prompts participants to climb the three tallest sand dunes at the Dunes State Park and then to stop by the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center on State Road 49 to pick up a free sticker or purchase a Challenge T-shirt or hoodie.
“We are seeing 3-year-olds doing it and the older generation doing it for bragging rights,” Weimer says.
Visitors can also tap a range of outdoor activities that are showcased through the area’s other bodies of water. Weimer says, “Another one of our big strengths is fishing. We have Chinook salmon that make their way into our streams. It’s amazing that people literally have fishing in one of the Great Lakes on their bucket list.
“Our powerhouse is truly our outdoor recreation and not just summer; we are truly seasonal.”
For the birding enthusiast, there are more than 350 bird species that live or migrate through the area. From the Indiana Dunes to Kankakee Sands, there are opportunities to spot birds in their natural habitat.
The Indiana Dunes Tourism has various guides available online or at the Visitors Center, including a birding guide that highlights which birds live in what areas across the whole region. The Backpack for Birders program allows visitors to borrow a backpack filled with equipment needed to get a glimpse of the area’s birds. The backpacks are available at five locations in Lake and Porter counties.
Down the road, Weimer says, tourism officials are looking at supplementing fishing and birding booklets with the availability of personal guides.
“Guides would know the ins and outs,” she says. “They would highlight the big hot spots for birding where you can see certain birds.”
Dahl says, “Our job is to provide those visitors with things to do. In the summer, we have lots of festivals from Whiting’s Pierogi Fest to amazing musical festivals, which showcase all kinds of music from country to rock and roll.
“We have apple orchards, pumpkin patches and places to cut down your own Christmas tree. A lot of the reason people choose the South Shore is the affordability and accessibility.”
Destination locations add to the getaway experience and help boost the region’s tourism industry. Dahl says the Shrine of Christ’s Passion is a sought-after stop for the older generation. The experience includes life-size figures and a pathway with scenes representing moments in Jesus’ life and crucifixion.
“The Theatre at the Center (in Munster) is somewhere to go and see a show and Albanese Candy Factory (in Merrillville) is a place for the older generation to get candy with their grandkids,” she says. “Crown Point is looking to add a band shell to host more special events and bring more people into downtown.”
For more family fun, Weimer highlights Zao Island entertainment center and Taltree Arboretum & Gardens, both in Valparaiso, Broken Wagon Bison Farm in Hobart and Goodrich Portage 16 IMAX movie theater.
“We have some cool iconic places to go like the 49er drive-in movie theater (in Valparaiso),” Weimer says. “I’m proud of the owners and how they take pride in the attraction and put really good energy into the guest’s experience. There’s a lot for families to enjoy–a good eclectic mix of things.”
Dahl emphasizes that a region’s residents are part of what creates that special vacation experience. “The diversity of our people is what makes Northwest Indiana Northwest Indiana,” she says. “There are those who have invested in our region, whether it’s a group of people working to protect the Dunes or those who created the Shrine of Christ’s Passion.”
“We are lucky in Northwest Indiana because of the melting pot of cultures from our ancestors who settled here. The easiest way to see that influence is in our food. We don’t just have a hamburger joint on the corner, but everything from falafels to braised lamb plus deep dish pizza.”
Past the sand and shores, vacationers can connect with nature in the middle of Amish communities. Corinna Wingard, who owns Log Cabin Hideaway vacation rentals with husband Wayne in Goshen, says, “Our region offers a variety of options for the outdoor enthusiast. We are surrounded by lakes and rivers for the avid fisherman and other water sports.”
Log Cabin Hideaway rentals feature three facilities: a traditionally built log cabin surrounded by 5 acres of woods; the Antler Lodge, which sleeps 10 to 12; and Songbird Chalet, which has three sides of windows. They’re located in the middle of Amish community destinations, such as Amish Acres in Nappanee and Shipshewana.
“It’s a great meeting spot for families for a relaxing weekend stay or for friends from near and far to catch up with each other,” says Corinna, who has operated the rental company with Wayne for 13 years. She says the setting and local attractions combine to create a distinctive getaway experience.
“The quaint, little towns offer a unique shopping experience,” Corinna says. “You have the opportunity to experience Amish communities and their unique way of life.”
Surrounded by woods and wildlife, the cabins are fully furnished and the Antler Lodge is handicap accessible.
“People appreciate just being out in nature,” Corinna says. “You can cook your own meals and not be surrounded by lots of other people. Some guests really enjoy just staying in and cooking and spending time with their family or friends.
“The Amish offer their own unique shops and bakeries to visit as well. Some families open up their homes for groups to experience a banquet-style Amish meal.”
In the future, tourism officials look to build on the area’s existing assets with one-of-a-kind experiences and events.
Weimer says, “Things need to be more experiential and engaging. Visitors are very savvy and love to learn. We are always trying to think about how we can make our nature sites more engaging.
“We are also always thinking about how we are getting visitors here and then driving them out to locations to spend more time and do more out in the communities. The dunes are the hook. But getting them out into Chesterton, Portage, Valpo … that’s when you see the true economic impact.”
Investments today can help pave the path for an even stronger tourism industry in the days ahead.
“It’s time to start thinking about where we want to see ourselves as a destination,” Dahl says. “Government investments, such as improving the lakefront, and groups who are seeking to improve walking and biking trails are making an impact … improving on land and reinvesting in communities.
“Now is the time. We have a huge hospitality industry already, and it has a positive economic impact. We can keep that trend going, and we are hoping that private and public partnerships will keep investing in our communities and improve our quality of life.”