Lovely to be in southwest Michigan in March: when the weather cooperates. It didn’t on day one. It was cold, damp, blustery with occasional furious snow squalls. Perfect day to get my hair trimmed (for about a third of what I paid in Chicago) at Paparazzi salon in the quiet little town of Stevensville, where we had excellent salad and sandwiches across the street at Full circle cafe that we took to eat at WatermarkBrewery a block south.
We’ve passed by Emma Hearth & Market in Bridgman many times and today we finally stopped. It’s well known for its pizza and prefix Italian dinners but I was stunned to find amidst the small selection of gourmet cheeses my fav, Cottonwood River Cheddar from Kansas! I’ve been trying to get the cheese woman at DOM’S market in Lincoln Park to stock it and had just asked our daughter if she could bring some from gateway market in Des Moines when she visits. No need now! The Emma variety (“reserve”) is a little sharper than the kind I’ve had before and without the little white crystals that give the cheese a slight crunch but all good!
On Sunday morning, there was sun and warmer temperatures. Perfect for a walk with the dogs on Weko beach, past fishermen in waders with poles stuck in the sand, catching lots of coho salmon. Otherwise few other people and nothing like the summer crowds.
Beautiful washed out colors along the shore, sandy beach, pale blue water, pale blue sky with moments of yellow sun. Lovely until some uptight woman scolded us for walking the dogs on a section of the beach where we could get slapped with a fine for doing do. Karens everywhere.
Early January (at almost 2 pm) proved an easy time to get a table for lunch at The Stray Dog, which is usually packed during peak summer tourist season here in southwest Michigan. Cute place, decorated with dog pictures and dog commands (SIT, STAY), good service and well cooked burger.
Many restaurants are closed in early-to-mid January in these parts, including froelichs in Three Oaks. Viola’s was open but not at 2 pm. Fair enough.
We continue to enjoy visiting southwest Michigan and shopping/dining in the little village of Three Oaks. This time, we went to a concert in the intimate little Acorn Theater, next to the Journeyman whiskey distillery, which has also offers some rentals in town (see journeyman.com/lodging).
In the shopping department, we visited some new places including Bella Amici, which has fun Michigan stuff, and Mazet Antiques, which has gorgeous, one-of-a-kind and very pricey rugs from foreign lands (the kind you hand on your wall, not throw on your floor). We also visited old favorites including Alapash (where we did buy a less-expensive rug to throw on the floor) and had a good brunch at Froelich’s.
For future reference: The gas prices in southwest Michigan are significantly lower than in Chicago but our best bet was in northwest Indiana, off I-94, at exit 16, where we found gas for $2.99 ($1.50 less than in Chicago.)
Iowa spoiled us when it comes to biking, offering so many great trails hidden in the woods, lining rivers or along former rail lines, away from the cars and pickups that rumble down rural backroads, kicking up dust and occasionally causing heart palpitations.
But here in SW Michigan, in the absence of designated bike trails, we are getting into biking the backroads (aka “secondary roads”) around Three Oaks, with help from handy brochures with 9 routes to the north and 9 to the south. We found the brochures at the Dewey Cannon Trading Co./three oaks bicycle museum which also offers rental bikes.
The routes are charted by Three Oaks Spokes, a nonprofit bike touring club, the same folks hosting the annual “apple cider century” bike tour this weekend (last September Sunday), offering 15, 25, 50, 75 and 100 mile rides. I also found slightly different routes online at applecidercentury.com.
We rode most of the “Dayton Lake Trail” and learned the hard way that improvising can be tricky.
We tried a few alternate roads to shorten the 28-mile ride (due to daunting headwinds that slowed us so much that I wondered if my bike had a flat tire) and occasionally found ourselves on a scary highway (route 12) with huge trucks speeding by, way too close, or bucolic dirt and gravel roads lined with tall browning corn or yellowing soybeans, dotted with an old barn or farmhouse. One very scenic and empty paved road (Buffalo Road) turned suddenly into an “un-improved road,” according to the official sign. Too unimproved to ride safely.
The young stylish couple dressed in expensively non-showy casual wear in front of me in line at A. V. Granor Farm, an organic farm market with specialty foods as well as organic fruit and veg, racked up a $313 tab before soaring off in their Tesla into the otherwise unassuming rural countryside. Is this The Hamptons? No, it’s southwest Michigan. Who knew? (Many, other than us.) Open during the week only on Friday, the farm also has farm-to-table summer dinners that sell out way in advance.
Three Oaks felt different on a Friday in August, compared to Wednesday. Lots of city folks. Bet they appreciated the $3.99 gas. It’s $5.48 in Chicago. And we thought $4.15 in Bridgman was bargain. We saw $3.97 in Indiana, just over the Michigan border.
On a Friday, more galleries, furniture and home good stores catering to tourists also were open. 3ArborArts has contemporary artwork, all by women currently; Alaplash has cool curated home goods and furniture; 3 trilogy has retro furniture and artwork; Froelich’s has two stores across from each other on the main drag,a sweet bakery and a cavernous restaurant and retail shop with good food (excellent muffuletta, salads) and rows of jars containing Froelich’s homemade dill pickles, jams, tomato sauce, chopped olives, with helpful recipes posted beside each.
Last night, we joined a small crowd on Weko Beach here in Bridgman to watch the sun set and as my sister promised, just as the red sun disappeared from view, a lone trumpeter played Taps…apparently this happens every summer night here and it was a lovely, evocative moment, reminding me of my lost youth summers spent at a girls camp in northern Michigan’s Elk Rapids.
This morning, we braved another hike in the Warren Dunes, on a unmarked trail at Grand Mere State Park in Stevensville, a contrast with yesterday’s well-marked trail further south. It was very buggy in the woods after a night of rain but we managed to do a 1.5 mile (or so) loop and not get lost.
Fortunately we had dowsed ourselves with bug spray pre-hike but we should have brought it in our pack. The hike began as a flat, wide, wooded nature trail hugging the edge of a swampy area with lots of cattails, sprinkled with bright red wildflowers, then went up across the dunes to the lake shore and along the beach, which was blissfully unpopulated except for a few hardy souls swimming and sunbathing. They appeared to be townies who have kept this secret beach to themselves. So be it.
Lunch was fish and chips, perfectly crispy local white fish, from flagship specialty food on Red Arrow Highway in Lakeside. We ate at a picnic table outside the small store set back from the highway. The fish was delish, albeit expensive.
Fennville was only about 20 miles out of our way on the drive back to Chicago from Empire and proved to offer a welcome alternative to the Farmhouse Cafe in Douglas that had a 45-60 minute wait for sandwiches on our trip up north. Instead, we waltzed in and out of the Root Cafe in downtown Fennville in a matter of minutes with great food and service to dine on a dog-friendly patio. Perfect! It has a broad menu – we tried the Cuban sandwich, the turkey sandwich and the mixed salad greens with pulled chicken and bacon. It also has excellent homemade lemonade (pulp and all)! We stopped in Fennville maybe 10 years ago en route to up north and ate at the Blue Goose Cafe, which was fine. Roots Cafe is an even better option.
The cafe also shared space with a gallery with lots of local or near-local ceramics, (kuilema pottery in Grand Rapids) so I did a wee bit of shopping too. It also sells rustic bread from the well-regarded restaurant /bakery(dinner only) a few doors down called Salt of the Earth, which serves new American cuisines made with seasonal fare from local farmers and producers.
We noticed there is also a cute little Children’s on the small main drag, that looked like a good stop for our grandchildren, next trip!
My best friend from high school PJ lives in the Empire/Glen Arbor area and introduced me to it when we were teenagers in suburban Detroit, visiting her parents cottage on Lake Michigan in Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes. So a highlight of the trip is catching up with her and her family, which we did during a lovely afternoon at her beach gathering and cookout with about 15-20 people that stretched into the night, complete with swimming, Petosky stone hunting (no luck, as usual), grilled corn, brats and s’mores, stargazing in the dark, dark sky.
My visit also happened to coincide with the biennial Empire house tour benefiting the impressive contemporary Glen lake community library in Empire so PJ and I visited four homes in Empire and two perched on Glen Lake. Each was very unique and stunning, from a converted 1910 apple barn transformed into a 3-bedroom home to a 1912 arts & crafts bungalow, as well as an ultra modern site-specific architects’ home (“net-zero energy construction,” polished concrete floors inlaid with local beach sones, loft-style great room, native vegetation garden with non-native outdoor pizza oven) and lovely new-construction 12-year-old cottage (“scandi-modern meets cozy farm house”) in the charming sleepy village of Empire to a dramatic modern home tucked into a lakeside hill with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Glen lake (the deep blue cabinets echoing the lake) and a crazy sprawling 1927 log “cabin” also on the lake, in the woods, with origami wood floor, furniture and fixtures mixed with whimsical decor that reminded me of a Wes Anderson movie, complete with collections of peace sign sculptures, stiletto sandals, felt doughnuts hanging from the wood rafters in the sleeping loft, a portrait of Jimmy Hendrix mounted on the cut-stone floor to ceiling fireplace/hearth. I had a definite case of screened porch-envy after the tour.
All the homes had lovely paintings by well-known area artists, whose work PJ took me to see at three Glen arbor galleries including The Center Gallery, part of Lake Street Studios, which has a succession of one week summer shows of various local luminaries. The current show, of rural landscapes by Margo Burian, was almost all sold after just a few days. Other artists with the gallery, which focuses on local work reflecting the local landscape and culture of the sleeping Bear dunes region/Leelanau County include: Joan Richmond, Jessica Kovan, Amanda Ackerman. Other impressive galleries: Synchronicity and ArborGallery, where the saleswoman was a former art teacher at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, my kids’ alma mater.
We took a slight detour to Pyramid Point where we parked our bikes and hiked into the woods for 20 minutes to a high clearing atop a dune looking out at the water in many shades of blue, some worthy of the Caribbean, aqua, navy, greenish, and turquoise.
Dare I say it? The Heritage trail from Glen Arbor north for 10 miles to the end at Bohemian Road was almost prettier than the more traveled portion from Glen Arbor south to Empire. The trail was mostly level and sometimes went along backroads but the backroads were quiet. It paralleled highway M-22 at times but still, not too much traffic. There were crushed gravel portions but nothing too tricky to ride on. And oh the scenery! Shaded, sun-dappled trails through the woods, wide open meadows with a sea of waving purple wildflowers and wooded hills in the distance, startling glimpses of blue lake between the green leafy trees, the odd white birch among the pines and elms, old white farmhouses, bright red wooden barns.
Lunch was chocolate milkshakes and gelato (mint and mocha) at the fabulous new gelato/bakery opened this month by The Grocers daughter, a fancy chocolate shop. Noah and dirck found a pick up pickle ball game on a court in a small park in Empire, west of M-22. My faith in Michigan cherries was restored at a stand on M-22 just north of Empire. (Previous cherries purchased elsewhere were not as good. Mushy and lacking flavor.)
Tonight we returned, as we have every night we’ve been here, to Esch Beach, just south of Empire. At 6 pm the crowd had thinned! It has a wide sandy beach and sandy bottomed lake bottom, with glorious views of the dunes to the north and the wooded hilly shoreline. It also has a designated dog area – we discovered this trip that Millie can swim and lives to go in the water if you throw her a ball to fetch. Linus and Felix both warmed to the water and beach.
I have a habit, perhaps bad, of spending much of my time when revisiting a place trying, often unsuccessfully, to remember where I went last time. Fortunately I have this blog to remind me.
Which is how we ended up in the small pretty village of Northport, while driving north of traverse city in the Leelanau Penninsula along the famously scenic highway M-22 (so famously scenic that it has inspired its M-22 bumper stickers, shot glasses, tees and stores.) The Tribune, a sweet looking restaurant in a former small town newspaper office, was closed (due to it being a Wednesday) but we found good sandwiches nearby at The Bohemian Cafe, next door to a little BBQ place, which, in turn, is next to a shop selling, oddly, beautiful kimonos imported from Japan via the internet.
Like the village of Empire, Northport has retained its small town charm despite becoming gentrified or tourist-fied. There are some high end stores but not too many and not too high-end (although a floor mat made of lobster-catching cords, thick and plastic coated, was $120 at one tasteful store.) And the place still has irreverent and idiosyncratic touches – a sign next to a bunch of old silver knickknacks at an antique/junk shop reading “dead peoples stuff ” and a vending machine with a sign boasting that it’s the worlds first (or only?) goat cheese vending machine. (There was goat cheese in the machine, which we assumed is refrigerated). The waterfront was quiet, lined with lawns, parks, flowers, a marina. The residential streets were quiet too with old cottages and lots of trees and gardens. (This is not the case in other towns like Suttons Bay or even Glen Arbor, which are bustling with tourist attractions.)