The Mitten State is perfect for summer getaways
By Glenda Winders
Chances are if you’ve been to Michigan you’ve already seen Detroit with its automotive, music and art museums. Or maybe you took in a college football game in Lansing or Ann Arbor or honeymooned at the Grand Hotel on the Upper Peninsula.
But the state offers many other character-filled locations to discover and explore, so next time you head north why not consider some of these destinations? You’re in for some delightful surprises.
Nicknamed “the mitten state” because of its shape, Michigan gets its actual name from the Ojibwa word for “large lake” — Michi Gami. That’s not surprising since four of the five Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie — touch its shores. Several cities enable you to take part in lake activities and enjoy their beauty while also offering indoor attractions when you need a break from all that fresh air and sunshine.
“There is no better place to escape and recharge than here in pure Michigan — whether you are looking for a vibrant city offering cultural attractions and culinary delights or a community that builds recreation and outdoor escapes into its DNA,” says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan. “Destinations like Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Alpena and the Great Lakes Bay Region all offer completely unique experiences with a common thread of building lifelong memories and discovering hidden gems along the way. And with long days of comfortable temperatures and the nation’s longest freshwater coastline, Michigan is a summer destination like no other.”
What to do
This sophisticated city on the west side of the state provides close-by access to Lake Michigan.
“Grand Rapids offers visitors a surprising experience, delighting people of all ages,” says Janet Korn, senior vice president, Experience Grand Rapids. “Visitors can explore the awesome public art and museums, enjoy fantastic food and world-class craft beer, and get outside on miles of trails and area parks.”
While the actual lake is 30 minutes away, the Grand River that runs through the city (along with several lakes and river tributaries) offers plenty of local opportunities to enjoy the water. Take a cruise on the Grand Lady Riverboat, kayak, canoe or paddleboard. Go fishing right downtown, or watch migrating fish flip themselves up graduated steps at Fish Ladder Park. Whitewater rafting is coming to downtown, too. Bringing your own boat? You’ll want to know about the nine public spots where you can launch.
A 40-minute drive will get you to beautiful Holland and its rich Dutch history, tulips and windmills. Another short drive will take you to the quaint beach town of Saugatuck and Saugatuck Dunes State Park, a secluded slice of coastline where you can climb or ride on sand dunes. Orbitz named Saugatuck one of the country’s hottest gay destinations in 2019.
Grand Rapids is also known as a city that embraces art in a big way. Art Prize will return this fall for its 11th year, engaging participants with a scavenger hunt that will lead them to unusual and thought-provoking art installations before they vote for the best creators.
Here also you can visit the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts on the campus of Kendall College of Art and Design. The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which includes Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory, indoor themed gardens and sculpture galleries, is one of the state’s most-visited attractions. Also not to be missed are the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum (the library portion is in Ann Arbor). Animals enter the mix at the John Ball Zoo, which this summer is also offering an exhibit of animals made from bricks.
Where to eat
Start with a made-from-scratch breakfast at the Brown Butter Creperie and Café. Just reading the menu will make you swoon. How about cinnamon roll crepes with cinnamon, sugar, sweetened cream cheese, toasted pecans, caramel sauce and whipped cream? Royals is a retro diner that serves morning classics with a modern spin and offers a variety of breakfast cocktails to go along with its eggs Benedict or Belgian waffles. (Hey, you’re on vacation!)
Field & Fire combines artisan breads from its bakery with offbeat lunches, such as Buddha bowls and falafel sandwiches. While some meat is on the menu, vegetarians and vegans will especially appreciate what’s on offer. If you opt for a taco lunch at Donkey Taqueria, finish it off with a Mayan chocolate churro.
The city is sometimes called Beer City because of its many craft breweries, so you might want to stop for some suds on the way to dinner. Watering holes include Founders Brewing Co., Creston Brewery, Brewery Vivant and many others, and they all have good food, so you may want to stay put once you arrive.
If you decide to move on, however, many other choices await your attention. Reserve is a foodie’s dream, with a cozy ambience, a wide selection of cheeses and a good wine list. Menu choices range from duck to seafood, pasta to beef with ethnic and vegetarian options.
Thinking French cuisine? Mertens Prime is another place you must try if your holiday fun includes fine dining. It is in the lobby of an old hotel, and the staff invites you to feast on such dishes as chateaubriand for two, ratatouille-stuffed peppers and shrimp beignets served with a selection of French wines.
The staff at Butcher’s Union wears T-shirts that say “Meat. Whiskey,” and that about sums up what they serve. Locals say they do both extremely well. For authentic Haitian food, visit Chez Olga, where a mother and daughter serve their native cuisine. Just stepping inside their unique building is worth the trip.
Where to stay
CityFlats is a chic city hotel that focuses on being environmentally friendly, and every room is different. But if you’re here to relax, maybe one of the city’s many bed-and-breakfast inns will be more to your liking. The mansion that is the Leonard at Logan House appears to be straight out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel. The first occupants were the owners of the Leonard Refrigerator Co., one of Grand Rapids’ oldest businesses — 108 when it dissolved in 1952. The rooms are luxurious, and the gourmet breakfast is hot. Insomniacs would like to know the snack bar is open 24 hours a day.
The Lafayette House was built in 1874 but has been transformed by its young owners, Todd and Skyelar Hoort, who love to travel and saw the potential in the house where they moved to welcome visitors. Now it is light and airy, filled with artwork and rugs to make it a true home away from home. If you stay at Peaches, you might just help to save the planet. The elegant Georgian manor is beautifully appointed, but rooms are pristine and clutter-free. The state of Michigan has certified the inn to be a Green Lodging, thanks to the fact that they dry the sheets outside, use cloth table linens, save rainwater in a barrel, grow a kitchen garden, recycle everything they use and much more. Far from being austere, the home is full of art for guests to enjoy.
“What makes Kalamazoo great to visit is the combination of urban and natural,” says Dana Wagner, director of marketing and communications for Discover Kalamazoo. “We have the bigger-city vibe with small-town charm. You can enjoy plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities while being minutes away from exceptional dining, arts and culture, world-class attractions and, of course, the great craft beer experience Kalamazoo is known for.”
What to do
Also on the west side of the state, this bike-friendly city beckons with lots of riding opportunities. The Great Lake-to-Lake Trail that runs from one of Michigan’s coasts to the other is one possibility, and so is the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail. The river itself accommodates kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, swimming and fishing. For a quieter day on the water enjoy Ramona Park’s beach and playground or stroll through Bronson Park. The city’s oldest green space, this 3.5-acre park and its statues, fountains and flower beds sit in the heart of the city.
At the W.K. Kellogg Bird Sanctuary you can observe the avian occupants, take pictures and have a picnic. The Kalamazoo Nature Center will introduce you to more creatures, and at Gull Meadow Farms you can pet animals, pick apples and walk through a 6-acre corn maze.
Art lovers will want to spend time at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, whose emphasis is on American paintings and sculpture. The more than 4,700 fine artworks in its permanent collection and exhibitions in 10 galleries will make for an enjoyable visit.
If your interests lie elsewhere, head to Air Zoo Aerospace and Science Museum. This world-class Smithsonian-affiliated museum is home to more than 100 air and space artifacts, inspiring interactive exhibits, full-motion flight simulators and indoor amusement park rides. The Gilmore Car Museum, one of the largest car museums in the country, is situated on a 90-acre campus that also includes a re-created diner, 1930s Shell gas station and train depot.
Is shopping your thing? The nation’s first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall, the Kalamazoo Mall, was constructed in the heart of downtown in 1959 and today especially supports small and women-owned business. Stroll the pleasantly landscaped mall and downtown to discover bookstores and other shops that feature vintage, thrift and antique items. Stop in at the Kalamazoo Candle Co. to buy candles, make your own or just enjoy sniffing the aromas. For more good smells, discover or create your own personal scent at Aroma Labs.
Where to eat
Start your day at Sweetwater’s Donut Mill, where you’ll find every kind of fresh doughnut, doughnut sandwich and muffin you can imagine and some you can’t, like the grasshopper (a chocolate doughnut with mint frosting) or the Snickers (think: a chocolate doughnut covered with caramel and dipped in peanuts). For lunch try Cravings Deli inside Pacific Rim Foods. The menu centers on Asian ramen dishes with lots of variety, and they’re happy to substitute rice noodles for wheat if your diet is gluten-free.
The centerpiece of Kalamazoo’s beer industry is the iconic Bell’s Brewery, creators of the legendary Two Hearted Ale. Start with a tour to see how the magic is made and stay on for a meal at the on-site Eccentric Café. Here you’ll enjoy great bar food that includes burgers and deviled eggs but adds a chickpea parm burger and fried tofu sandwich that will delight the vegetarians in your group.
The Kalamazoo Beer Exchange also provides unusual bar food — grilled shishito peppers with sesame oil and garlic chili sauce, curried fingerling potatoes and Mexican street corn, for example. Ditto for the Latitude 42 Brewery. Here the specialty is pizza with some unexpected options, such as white truffle mushroom pizza with gouda cream sauce and white cheddar or shrimp and goat cheese pizza.
The rustic European cuisine at Rustica is made from local ingredients in an open kitchen where you can watch the chefs whip up your dinner. Start with English pea soup and move on to fish, lamb, pork loin and more.
Meanwhile, Zoorona offers a taste of the other side of the world. The Arabic word means “come visit us,” and that is exactly what Iraqi brothers Habib and Saad Mandwee hope you will do. When they came here to study at the University of Western Michigan, they fell in love with the city and stayed on to open their restaurant. To say the menu is mouthwatering is an understatement: How about a Lebanese lamb medley over hummus, spiced beef with figs or chicken Fesenjoon, that is, chunks of white chicken mixed with walnuts, pomegranate, molasses, tahini and turmeric?
Where to stay
Sometimes called “the jewel of Kalamazoo,” the Henderson Castle Bed and Breakfast is a fabulous Queen Anne home on a hillside overlooking the downtown area. The house, built in 1890, maintains some of its original amenities, such as heated marble floors, stained- and leaded-glass windows, and crystal chandeliers. Modern additions include a hot tub on the roof and wheelchair accessibility. The owner, Francois Moyet, is a master chef who operates the on-site restaurant, Prime Chophouse, offering American food with a French flair.
Right next door to the art institute is the Kalamazoo House Bed and Breakfast with 10 luxurious rooms, some of them equipped with bubble or soaking tubs. A two-course gourmet breakfast is served each day, and in the afternoon, you can enjoy a cup of tea in the common areas or enjoy the evening on one of the porches. The rooms at Stuart Avenue Inn are beautifully appointed, but what you’ll enjoy most here are the extras they provide to make your stay memorable. If you’re arriving late, they’ll have something ready for you to eat when you get there, a snack before you go out for the evening or a nightcap and dessert when you get back.
Golfers might consider Gull Lake View Resort, with its villa suites, deluxe suites and luxury cottages that can accommodate your entire group and are all just a short walk to the course.
On the eastern side of the state — which locals call “the sunrise side” — a whole different set of experiences awaits, and a good place to begin exploring them is Alpena.
“Nestled between a vast forest and an endless clear blue bay on Lake Huron, Alpena is the place to go for relaxed outdoor recreation and unique adventures,” says Nicole Carr, marketing assistant for the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Known as the ‘Sanctuary of the Great Lakes,’ Alpena is a safe harbor, literally and figuratively, from the stressors of big-city life. With all the outdoor activities, you can keep yourself as busy as you want to be. Or if you’re looking for a place to vacation where you can relax and rejuvenate your body, mind and spirit, Alpena is definitely the place for you.”
Its population is just over 10,000, but its location on Thunder Bay and the banks of the Thunder Bay River make it ideal for swimming, kayaking and fly-fishing. Some other water activities you might not have even thought about are paddling and snorkeling over the pristine shipwrecks in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, for example, or seeing the shipwrecks from a glass-bottom boat tour with Alpena Shipwreck Tours.
Rockport State Recreation Area has fossil-hunting and sinkholes to explore. One of the area’s dark-sky preserves is here, and two others are at Negwegon State Park and Thompson’s Harbor State Park. In these spots light pollution is at a minimum so that you can see the stars — and sometimes the aurora borealis — like you’ve never seen them before.
Climb to the top of New Presque Isle Lighthouse for breathtaking views of Lake Huron and the surrounding forests, which are especially magnificent in the autumn. Also near Alpena is Ocqueoc Falls Bicentennial Pathway, the largest waterfall in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and the only universally accessible waterfall in the United States. Sinkhole exploration is popular here. In addition to the ones at the Rockport State Recreation Area are Bruski Sinkhole and Stevens Twin Sinkholes, but tours are self-guided and at your own risk.
Where to eat
Austin Brothers Beer Co. was started by a California family who discovered Alpena on a cross-country trip and liked it so much they moved here. Their creative pub-food menu to go along with the beer ranges from poutine fries and pork rinds to walleye sandwiches and a Cali chicken pita. The Black Sheep Pub is an English pub that serves English and Michigan beers on tap and British food such as Scottish eggs, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, and sandwiches named “The Big Ben” and “The Twiggy.”
For a pleasant change of pace try Fresh Palate, where chef Eric Peterson delivers organic food intended to make his customers healthy and happy. His interest in cooking was inspired by his grandmother, who still provides chocolate chip cookies for the restaurant. The menu includes sandwiches and wraps, rice bowls, pizzas, burritos and lots more.
The owners of the new Red Brick Tap and Barrel say their mission is to connect the community through food and cocktails. To do this they use fresh local ingredients and make a refreshing pledge to improve the lives not only of their customers but for their employees, as well.
Where to stay
Some of the lodgings here — and their names — are reminiscent of 1950s mom-and-pop roadside motels, but they’ve been renovated and offer the modern amenities you require when you’re traveling. Among these — and all locally owned — are the 40 Winks Motel and Vacation Rentals across the street from Starlite Beach, Dew Drop Inn Motel, Big Bear Lodge and Waters Edge Motel, which is also at Starlite Beach.
Cabins to rent are popular here, most with a restaurant on the property to make grabbing a bite before you take off for the day easy. One of these is The Parker House on Long Lake; another is Jack’s Landing on Fletcher’s Pond.
The Fireside Inn is a traditional B&B in Presque Isle on Grand Lake, as is Presque Isle Lodge Bed and Breakfast, whose accommodations and style would be perfect for gatherings such as family reunions. Churchill Pointe Inn on Hubbard Lake has an award-winning on-site restaurant that is worth the trip.
GREAT LAKES BAY REGION
If you’re on this side of the state, you can’t miss this cluster of small cities around Saginaw Bay, even if you only have time to hit the high points. In Bay City explore the waterways from aboard BaySail’s Appledore Tall Ships. Several downtown shops will entice you with their wares. Be sure to stop at St. Laurent Brothers for candy and roasted nuts.
Frankenmuth is a Bavarian town of 5,000 where the whole city embraces the Christmas spirit all year-round. For starters, this is the home of Bronner’s, which calls itself the world’s largest Christmas store and makes all the clever ornaments you see in its catalogs and on its website. Also here is Christmas Lane, with its more than 50,000 strings of lights. Be sure to try one of the town’s famous chicken dinners at either Zehnder’s or Bavarian Inn.
Birch Run is known for the Birch Run Premium Outlets mall that includes 145 name-brand outlet stores. After shopping, refuel at Tony’s I-75 Restaurant, home of the infamous “One Pound BLT.” Johnny Panther Quests Adventure Trips, just 30 minutes from both Birch Run and Frankenmuth, specializes in scenic boat tours through the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge and State Game Area.
In Midland visit the Dow Gardens, a forest that features 54 acres of woodlands, ponds, meadows, streams and an apple orchard. The forest includes the nation’s longest canopy walk at 1,400 feet long and soaring up to 40 feet above the ground, and it’s accessible for all ages and abilities. It’s the perfect place to finish off your Michigan holiday, even though you’ve still only scratched the surface of what this state has to offer.