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TRAVEL Saugatuck and Grand Rapids: Pristine and progressive
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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"I can't believe this is your first time here."

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that during a recent writers' excursion to the Michigan enclaves of Saugatuck and Grand Rapids, I felt I could've purchased a home there. However, all those people did have a point: These places are basically a hop, skip and a jump from Chicago ( with my flight being all of half an hour )—and they do provide the perfect getaway.

Dune and no gloom

The trip started with lunch at Zing Eat Drink ( 310 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas; ), a snazzy place that serves some incredible sweet-potato fries. The petite Maryland crab cakes were pretty impressive as well—and I had to sample some of the Michigan cherries, of course. ( The state is known as the cherry and blueberry capital of the United States. ) Sitting on the patio was wonderful, as the weather was absolutely perfect that day.

Then, we traipsed on over to Saugatuck's Oval Beach ( Perryman Street and Oval Beach Drive; ). No less than Conde Nast Traveler has ranked it as among the top 25 beaches in the world—and it's easy to see why. There are pristine sand dunes and, of course, Lake Michigan, but there are also secluded spots, tall grasses, wildlife ( I spotted several deer ) and much more.

It was then time to explore the dunes courtesy of Saugatuck Dune Rides ( ). I wasn't quite sure what to expect—but basically more than a dozen people were strapped inside a giant dune buggy as our personable driver took us over sand hills at what seemed like a high rate of speed. The 45-minute ride was extremely informative ( I learned what a "dead dune" is ) and, although there was some corniness ( rubber snake, anyone? ), it was the most fun I had that day.

Of course, no trip to this area is complete without checking in at the "straight-friendly" The Dunes Resort ( 333 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas; ). This complex offers everything from lodging to entertainment ( karaoke, tea dances, dance floor, bar, large pool )—and this place is ( justifiably ) hoppin' during the big summer holidays. ( Labor Day is an extremely popular time ).

The suite I was in was extremely comfortable. While no trip can go perfectly, it speaks to the establishment that the minor problems I encountered ( e.g., tricky shower ) were handled expeditiously.

We concluded our evening by visiting the Everyday People Cafe ( 11 Center St., Douglas; ). From the heady Sour Cherry Smash to the unforgettable S'more to hunky owner/chef Matt Balmer, this restaurant warrants a return.

An uncommon day

The following day began with a visit to Uncommon Ground Roasters ( 127 Hoffman St., Saugatuck; ). I dare you to leave here without picking up a pastry. Note: It until I traveled around a sleepy Saugatuck and visited this cafe that I released this was supposed to be a getaway—and that it was fine to be laid-back. Sometimes, it takes a while to get out of Chicago mode.

This was followed by a delightful breakfast at Ida Red's Cottage ( 645 Water St., Saugatuck ). The place is beyond cute, and the food was more than satisfactory.

We then toured a few of the delightful resort inns in the area. The Blue Star Motel ( 167 Blue Star Hwy, Douglas; ) is practically next door to The Dunes

Resort and downtown Douglas. While some may look down on the word "motel," don't be fooled by this establishment. It is effortlessly chic, and coupled with a beautiful area in the back that includes a sun deck and hot tub.

The Saugatuck Motel ( 6190 Blue Star Hwy., Saugatuck; ) and Starlite Resort ( 3353 Blue Star Hwy, Saugatuck; ) are delightfully retro. Built in the early 1950s as the Shangrai-La Motel, the five-acre Saugatuck Motel area resembles a park. Starlite is decked out in colors of "aquamarine and tangerine," according to the owner. What owners of both establishments stressed to us is how inclusive these areas are, with people of all stripes getting together ( especially by the pools ) while swapping food and stories. I could easily see myself in any one of these motels.

For those who might not know, downtown Saugatuck has an amazing art scene. I learned this thanks to a tour courtesy of extremely knowledgeable artist Jim Brandess ( 238 Butler St.; ). Among some of the spots we hit were the Jeff Blandford Gallery ( 240 Butler St.; ), which specializes in raku, among other art forms; Amazwi Contemporary Art ( 249 Culver St.; ), which sells African art; and Discovery Art Center ( 347 Water St.; ), a unique art co-op.

After this, we had certainly worked up an appetite so we sashayed across the street to the Mermaid Bar & Grill ( 340 Water St.; ). Sitting outside while dining on mahi-mahi salad, with a view of the river, was just so relaxing.

Later that evening, it was time for dinner—so we went to Hercules Bar and Grill ( 236 Culver St.; "Hercules Bar and Grill" on Facebook ), which serves Mediterranean cuisine. I'm going to go with the name being connected with the food—and not with the very muscular ( and friendly ) server Richard. This place, like so many others in the area, has my kind of outdoor seating—secluded, with a few tables. It was just a wonderful experience.

On to Grand Rapids

So it was time to ( sadly ) bid a temporary farewell to The Dunes—and head to the relative metropolis of Grand Rapids.

On our way there, we stopped off at the European-style The Belvedere Inn & Restaurant ( 3656 63rd St., Saugatuck; ). Shaun Glynn and Peter Ta, a Chicago couple, took over this spot—and have made it a secluded masterpiece, in my opinion. The lawns are perfectly maintained, and the interior is beyond stately. ( I keep telling people it gives a Downton Abbey feel, and that I expect the Dowager Countess to show up any minute. ) Rooms are unique ( in a good way ), with some employing that European theme of having sinks outside the restroom.

In Grand Rapids, the first place we hit was the impressive Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park ( 1000 East Beltline Ave.; ). Situated on more than 150 acres, the sculpture collection alone is worth the price of admission, featuring works such as Roxy Payne's "Neuron," Jonathan Borofsky's "Male/Female" and Nina Akamu's "The American Horse" in a variety of natural settings. However, we were also treated to The Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden manages to project beauty, tranquility and even fragility through items such as sculptures, bonsai garden and even a teahouse.

After a pleasant lunch at CitySen Lounge ( 83 Monroe Center St. NW; ), it was off to GRAM: The Grand Rapids Art Museum ( 101 Monroe Center St. NW; ). Director/CEO Dana Friis-Hansen provided a lot of intriguing information about a variety of items and exhibitions—of which one of the most interesting is "T.J. Wilcox: In the Air." Now running through Aug. 30, this is a panoramic film exhibition of New York City's skyline. Being a fan of modern art, I was also captivated by "Modern Design at GRAM: 20th-Century Furniture." However, it's safe to say that there's something here for every taste.

Then it was time to see the various neighborhoods of Grand Rapids. Experience Grand Rapids took us on a trip that included everything from the Medical Mile to North Quarter to East Grand Rapids. One of our stops was at the hot-dog place Yesterdog ( 1505 Wealthy St. SE; ), which is probably most famous for being the setting in a scene in the original American Pie movie. Chicagoans can think of this as Grand Rapids' counterpart of The Wieners Circle—for example, patrons are encouraged to throw tips. By the way, the hot dog was outstanding.

However, don't leave Grand Rapids without visiting The Cakabakery ( 1436 Wealthy St. SE; ), which has cake pops, cupcakes, pies—and the best chocolate-chip cookie I think I've ever had in my life. A stop by Founders Brewing Co. ( 235 Grandville Ave. SW; )—which offers seasonal, specialty, year-round and year-round drafts—proved to be very refreshing.

I like the JW Marriott hotel in Chicago, and the one in Grand Rapids ( 235 Louis St. NW; ) is just as nice, of course. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the staff is pretty good-looking.

After checking in, we checked out Reserve Wine & Food ( 201 Monroe Ave. NW; ). As someone who regular profiles restaurants for Windy City Times, I can say ( or write ) without hesitation that Reserve has some very fine items to offer—and I thoroughly enjoyed my confit pork shoulder. Next time, I'll be sure to try dessert. ( I was actually too full from the appetizers and entree to try any more food. )

Our night concluded at The Apartment Lounge ( 33 Sheldon Ave. NE; ), one of two ( ! ) LGBT bars in Grand Rapids. ( The previous high had been five. ) Although it was my first time in this spot, I felt a very welcoming vibe—and it features a cool DJ in addition to the nonstop music videos.

Wrap it up

Unfortunately, as the phrase goes, all good things must come to an end. We wrapped up the Michigan visit with a visit to the Meyer May House ( 450 Madison Ave. SE; ), a Frank Lloyd Wright building. Initially designed for a Grand Rapids clothier, Steelcase purchased and restored the Meyer May House, opening it to the public in 1987. For me, there are definitely many similarities between this impressive structure and Robie House ( another Wright building on Chicago's South Side ). It was also astounding how far ahead of his time Wright was.

Lastly, after that tour, we hit the Downtown Market ( 435 Ionia Ave. SW; ). Fortunately, it was Saturday, so there was an outdoor market as well—where I got some absolutely amazing Michigan blueberry donuts. The inside offers a cornucopia of offerings, from meats to bakery items to a kombucha booth.

Thanks go to Pure Michigan, PR firm Weber Shandwick ( which provided our guide, Alyssa "Mama A." Bronikowski ) and Experience Grand Rapids for arranging this trip. My eyes have been opened.

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