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.
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.)
We saw major Michigan celebrities on the Heritage trail in Glen Haven, Mi today — big burley young men in Michigan Wolverines shirts who turned out to be U of M football team players. Other mere mortal tourists watched them and tried to avoid being seen gawking. This was perhaps the most unexpected sight on the trail, which we rode for 20-some miles (round trip) from Glen Arbor to Empire.
It’s a really nice wide paved trail that winds mostly through the deep green woods (with the occasional white birch) but offers a few glimpses of Lake Michigan (at Glen Haven, which has some old historic buildings with big old boats on view and a hotel in the making) and Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, past the Dune Climb, a wide steep mountain of sand that many tourists were huffing and puffing their way up and then running down, arms akimbo. The heritage trail is largely flat until just past the dune climb when it becomes hilly, often steeply so, much of the way to Empire.
Lunch was a sublime chocolate milkshake and Sour strawberry sorbet shared with dirck and newly available at the venerable GrocersDaughter chocolate shop. There’s also gelato and baked goods in a new building that opened last Saturday. Why bother with a mediocre sandwich when you can have a chocolate milkshake instead? It’s a little confusing figuring out where to get what. The gelato / bakery is in a separate new building, also including the milkshakes but the well-reviewed fudgesickles are sold at the original chocolate shop.
In Glen Arbor we rode about 10 miles north along another segment of the trail, this one on a road through the woods along Glen Lake but there were few cars. We got a few peeks through the woods to get a glimpse of big summer houses perched on the lake.
I should add too that in Glen arbor, Anderson IGA is now an upscale market with everything from local cherry jams to Dots pretzels. A branch of Lchaimdeli, based in Beulah, just opened. The bagels are good. And there’s a new store with well-chosen charcuterie fixins called Inn and Trail Gourmet. Old standby Cherry republic is good for meals and snacking on free samples of dried cherry everything. And Esch beach is a sandy swath of beach that kindly welcomes dogs. Our lab Millie plunged in, waves be damned, twice in what looked like an attempt to rescue dirck who did not need rescuing. But she didn’t plunge in when I was swimming. Hmmm….
We gladly returned to the Weko Beach area in Bridgman, Michigan for a family get together at the end of a holiday weekend so Weko Beach was more crowded but still lovely. And the day after the 4th, we had more of the hot sandy beach and refreshing Lake Michigan water to ourselves. With my sisters house at capacity we stayed overnight at an Airbnb in Berrien Springs, a farming community (where produce sold at the green market in Chicago’s Lincoln Park comes from) that is due west. We took a pretty rural road (snow road) back to Bridgman about a 25 minute drive that appeared to be a bike route. (Good to know.)
It was hazy this morning so we explored St. Joseph and Benton Harbor as well as the Red Arrow highway south which is dotted with antique stops, restaurants and produce stands. We had good sandwiches at the Whistlestop, ready-made not the made-to-order because a storm overnight knocked out power for awhile. Excellent chicken salad sandwich, turkey club and lavender lemonade, light on the lavender. On our way out of the area, we stopped at Oink, a cheerful ice cream shop with kooky decor (ice cream scoopers hang down from the rafters) and excellent flavors (Michigan pothole, as my sister recommended, chocolate with small Reese’s pieces; lemon cheesecake bar).
We did learn that many stores are closed on a Tuesday (and probably Monday too) so we’d like to return on a day when ARC, a gallery in Benton Harbors “arts district” is open, as well as the shop Alchemy on red arrow.
Word has it things Benton Harbor is becoming a hipster outpost among the small charming lakeside communities here in southwest Michigan, an easy 90 minute drive from Chicago.
My sister Jill, who moved here from Chicago, was excited to show us all the cool stuff she’s found here, which would take several days (more time than we have this trip) but we got a good start. We had a very good lunch at the lively, art-infused Mason Jar cafe in Benton Harbor (excellent sandwiches, burgers, scrambled egg concoction and fresh lemonade).
Weko beach in the small town of Bridgman is a broad expanse of perfect sandy beach lining Lake Michigan, great for swimming, with a sandy bottom, long stretch of shallow water and surprisingly not-frigid water. (Is it a bad thing climate-wise that the frigid Lake Michigan of my childhood is no more?) Beyond the beach are wooded dunes, what looks like a primo campground and more densely green Michigan woodland. Just south of this beach is Warren Dunes State Park where we hiked up at dune, through the woods, up an even steeper dune (hand and foot style) and then across and down the dunes with the dazzling blue lake and sky in front of us. (Note to self: next time wear hiking books, not sandals. The sand was hot on our feet and we could have used more treds going downhill in the woods on packed sand). We returned to the park later to take Millie, our lab, to the dog beach, which she enjoyed. Busy place with lots of sunbathing humans and frolicking dogs.
Lunch was at Full Circle Cafe, a popular local spot in Stevensville with a good cobb salad and sandwiches below a high stamped tin ceiling and an old-fashioned counter. We did a little shopping at local farmstands including Alex’s Veggies in Stevensville and Michigan Local Harvest on the Red Arrow Highway in Sawyer, picking up some fresh strawberries, asparagus and rhubarb and other fruit from other places (not yet fresh in Michigan). We hit a little traffic returning to Chicago on a Friday late afternoon but nothing terrible and was such a nice rural/beach getaway from the city.