By David Witter
Sitting on a bar stool, air conditioning blasting, a game on the big screen, music on the PA, colorful decorations and a line of taps as far as the eye can see. A beautiful sight to behold, no doubt. But for many summertime revelers, the ideal way to enjoy a beer involves playing Frisbee, sipping a cool one and watching bikini or boxer bottoms bouncing in the surf.
Drinking is illegal and strictly enforced on all Chicago beaches, and, with limited exceptions, the only way to see the beach from a Chicago bar is with binoculars. As for the northern suburbs, alcohol is not only outlawed on the beaches, but in many of the towns as well. Yet there are still some Chicago locations where you can enjoy a clandestine six-pack or a romantic bottle of wine. Also, nearby spots in Wisconsin and Indiana offer beaches with unlimited free parking and lakefront lounges, so you can have a cooler/beach party just like they have on “One Tree Hill” and “The OC.”
The closest thing we have to Margaritaville may be the North Beach Oasis, off Highway 20 at Harborview Drive in Racine, Wisconsin. Sitting along a half-mile stretch of beach a hundred feet from the water, you can sip your drink in rhythm with the sound of the surf. The drink menu includes the standard domestic and imported beers. But for the real beach feel, why not try one of the many ice-machine “slurpee” drinks like blue or strawberry daiquiris, Bahama Mamas, margaritas, Green Machines or Liquid Haze. On many nights you can hear live entertainment, usually oldies bands or reggae. Don’t be scared by the one-hour drive. There is almost unlimited free parking twenty feet away, so if you include the Chicago beach experience of crowds, parking and walking, it comes out about even.
The city of Kenosha and its many beaches are even closer. The largest and coolest is Simmons Island Beach. Located nearby are trolleys, museums and a strip of bars and restaurants along Sixth Avenue, a short walk over the bridge from the beach itself. The closest and wildest of these is Captain Mike’s at 5118 6th Avenue. Adorned with paintings of nude mermaids and brass fittings from old lake barges, Captain Mike’s features “happy hour,” or all mixed drinks and beers for $1.50, from noon until 7pm.
As for the beaches themselves, drinking is technically illegal, but remember—this is Wisconsin, beer capital of the world. If you bring a cooler (cans only) and mind your own business you will probably be okay. If you act like an idiot you deserve to be kicked out anyway. Either way, you’re on your own with this one.
Heading into Indiana, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore offers a set of beaches that could almost double for Southern California. The west side of Lake Street Beach, just east of Gary in Miller, Indiana (Route 20 to Lake Street to the lake) is technically part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It offers $10 parking, and allows everything from jet skis to kayaks. There are no lifeguards or rangers so this may be one of the ideal places to have your beach cooler party. Heading east, there is a string of sand spots in the Dunes area, including Wells Street Beach in Miller and Central Beach near Michigan City. Drinking is not encouraged but as long as you do not have bottles it is not illegal either. In fact, drinking is allowed at all beaches in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore with the exception of West Beach and Porter Beach.
In Chicago, there are still areas where you can enjoy limited amounts of clandestine alcohol, but do so at your own risk. Stay away from the big downtown beaches—North Avenue, Oak Street etc. The rocks between Belmont and Irving are a bit of a hike but the areas behind the bird sanctuary and the Waveland Golf Course are still no man’s lands. Many of the smaller street-end beaches in Rogers Park, including Pratt Beach, are small enough so that they are not usually patrolled. Going south, the rocky areas between McCormick Place and the Museum of Science and Industry offer a nice view of the lake and skyline. But discretion is always advised, since drinking is illegal on Chicago beaches except in licensed establishments.
Maybe the best way to enjoy alcohol “Thoreau style” is in the Chicago Forest Preserves. Patterned after the “emerald rings” surrounding many German cities, they were basically incorporated as outdoor beer gardens so that German and Irish immigrants could let off steam. Drinking (no bottles) is completely legal as long as you are 100 feet from the parking lots. Some advice—stay away from the groves and large fields which often feature loud family picnics and ethnic soccer outings. Instead, hike a ways into the woods. There are many areas along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Perhaps the best is Indian Boundary, off of Cicero near Peterson. There aren’t a lot of singles there, but the deer that almost always come around are as cute as anything you’ll see in a bar.