Hello, Harbor Country
Published: June 2009
By Libby Morse
Good-bye, cares and worries— this is Michigan at its most restful
You can drop a bundle in a boutique and battle for a parking spot at a hot restaurant, but don't be fooled by those big-city distractions: Michigan's Harbor Country is still a place that insists you apply your inner brakes. "My whole body relaxes the minute I get here," says one of the area's many second-home owners. A marketing conceit dreamed up about 20 years ago by the chamber of commerce, "Harbor Country" is rarely used in everyday parlance, but it's still a convenient umbrella term for the lakefront communities north of the Indiana border. Ninety minutes from Chicago, three hours from Indianapolis, and four hours from Detroit, Harbor Country offers a pastoral autumn escape with panache. The laid-back life awaits: Leaf-peep, pick apples, prowl shops, dine on everything from burgers to artichoke-and-porcini risotto. Just don't ask where the nightlife is— it's the sunset, stupid.
Running parallel to and west of I-94 is Harbor Country's main artery, Red Arrow Highway; many of the area's stores and restaurants are along this four-lane road. The picturesquely rutted Lakeshore Road threads through the woods between Red Arrow and the beach; this is where you'll find many of the area's guest accommodations as well as the splashiest vacation houses. Street addresses won't be of much help in locating something; when you ask for directions, always find out the nearest landmarks.
"Michigan time"— a.k.a. Eastern Time— is in effect, but vacationing Chicagoans stubbornly cling to Central Time. Whether you're making dinner reservations or setting up a rendezvous, make sure your watches are in sync.
where to stay
Bauhaus on Barton 33 N. Barton St., New Buffalo; 616/469-6419; doubles from $95, including breakfast. One block from the town's main street, the pink stucco Bauhaus— whose 1948 exterior really was inspired by German Modernism— is, on the inside, a meticulous and witty salute to American postwar prosperity. All four rooms borrow their names from the TV shows that brainwashed the baby boom generation (the Ozzie and Harriet Suite has twin beds, of course), and no stone of Eisenhower-era nostalgia has been left unturned, from the chenille bedspreads and boomerang-patterned curtains to furniture that packs more curves than Gina Lollobrigida.
Inn at Union Pier 9708 Berrien St., Union Pier; 616/469-4700, fax 616/469-4720; doubles from $125, including breakfast. If chintz makes you wince, this airy, 16-room Scandinavian-style inn just across the road from Lake Michigan should be the perfect antidote. Eleven rooms have a functioning Swedish kakelugn (pronounced "kock-uh-loon"), which sounds like something Liv Ullmann might have consumed between bouts of neurasthenia in Persona but is in fact an antique ceramic wood-burning fireplace.
White Rabbit Inn 14634 Red Arrow Hwy., Lakeside; 616/469-4620, fax 616/469-5843; doubles from $90, including breakfast. What was once an old roadside motel is now a woodsy couples getaway. For optimal snuggling, try to book one of the two "birch" rooms, which have handcrafted twig beds, two-person whirlpools, and gas fireplaces.
Pebble House 15093 Lakeshore Rd., Lakeside; 616/469-1416, fax 616/469-0455; doubles from $110, including breakfast. For innkeepers and collectors Ed and Jean Lawrence, it's an Arts and Crafts world, and they'll let you live there for the price of a room. The couple's stunning array of 150 genuine British and American pieces is distributed throughout the eight period-inspired rooms in the inn's three buildings. Devotees of the style swoon here, while others will simply find it a tranquil, homey place, much like a summer house owned by a beloved, slightly eccentric aunt.
Pine Garth Inn 15790 Lakeshore Rd., Union Pier; 616/469-1642, fax 616/469-0418; doubles from $125, including breakfast. This sunny former private estate lays claim to a lake-bluff setting and its own beach. All seven rooms (save one) front the water, with windows and private decks, and the view is jaw-dropping, especially at sunset. The rambling lawn has shady nooks perfect for reading or daydreaming. Just across Lakeshore Road the inn operates five cottages (where children are allowed).
Sweethaven Resort 9517 Union Pier Rd., Union Pier; 616/469-0332, fax 616/469-7664; cottages from $135. It's the only lodging that welcomes both children and pets— but if that conjures up images of concrete living quarters furnished in ripped Naugahyde, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Run by artists Chuck Garasic and Liz Thomas, four of the five cottages have polished wooden floors, handcrafted furniture (made by Chuck), fireplaces, modern kitchens, and an exuberant, witty style that Liz has dubbed "Wild Midwestern" or "Loud Lodge." On the eastern side of Red Arrow Highway, it's not as close to the lake as the others, but you'll find plenty of compensation tramping through Sweethaven's six acres of woods.
RSVP/Rentals 616/469-0012, fax 616/469-5525. Renée and Greg Gardner have the most extensive list of rentals in Harbor Country, ranging from a contemporary duplex to a 1923 seven-bedroom Tudor-style lakefront estate. The properties are fully equipped and reasonably priced ($250 to $600 for a weekend, though in summer you must rent by the week; prices range from $750 to $5,800). Procrastinators will find that the Gardners usually have something available even on those not-infrequent weekends when all the inns have hung out No Vacancy signs.
Note: Most accommodations require a two-night minimum stay on weekends.
where to eat
Jenny's Restaurant 15460 Red Arrow Hwy., Lakeside; 616/469-6545; dinner for two $70. Jenny Drilon brought a cosmopolitan inventiveness to Harbor Country cooking, her Thai-style Chilean sea bass earning her a cult following. The restaurant moved to larger digs on Red Arrow Highway last winter, and while the ritzy decoration seems more appropriate for café society than the cargo-shorts-and-Teva-sandals crowd, Jenny's is still packing them in. Cocktails are whipped up at a stylish bar created by noted woodcrafter Floyd Gompf.
Miller's Country House 16409 Red Arrow Hwy., Union Pier; 616/469-5950; dinner for two $50. Charbroiled favorites (such as New Zealand rack of lamb), a casual-chic setting, and the crispest service in the area make this a long-standing favorite.
Red Arrow Roadhouse 15710 Red Arrow Hwy., Union Pier; 616/469-3939; dinner for two $25. Popular with families in the early evening, the genial Roadhouse later becomes the closest Harbor Country approximation of a hot spot. The schizo menu mixes the familiar (burgers, chili, broasted chicken) with the more adventurous (roasted butternut squash stuffed with wild mushrooms and barley).
Brewster's Deli & Café 11 W. Merchant St., New Buffalo; 616/469-3005; dinner for two $26. The name— and the colossal coffee cup painted on the exterior— may lead you to believe it's a Starbucks clone, but Brewster's is actually Harbor Country's great little Italian place. With only 12 tables, seating inside can be cramped; if the weather is cooperative and the yellow jackets aren't swarming, enjoy your wood-fired pizza or gnocchi verdi in the courtyard that surrounds a fruit-laden quince tree. A small deli on the premises specializes in Italian cheeses and meats. The owners of Brewster's recently branched out with their new LaDuke's ice cream parlor (16109 Red Arrow Hwy., Union Pier; 616/469-8227), serving Key lime shakes, cappuccino floats, upside-down banana splits, and other confections made with much-loved Petersen's ice cream.
Redamak's 616 E. Buffalo St., New Buffalo; 616/469-4522; dinner for two $10. It was 1946 when George and Gladys Redamak first began serving up their fresh-ground, pan-fried hamburgers to Red Arrow motorists in this authentic knotty-pine roadhouse. The menu lists about 120 items now, and the restaurant has tripled in size over the years, but there's still no china (sandwiches are served on wax paper), no milk (much to kids' delight), and no lettuce or tomato for your burger (George believed such toppings are for wusses).
Ramberg's Bakery 9811 Towline Ave., Union Pier; 616/469-1010. The doors open at 7 a.m., and a line quickly forms of bleary-eyed dads who have been dispatched to pick up light-as-a-cloud doughnuts, coffee cake, apple fritters, and the heart-stopping, glaze-topped specialty called a cinnamon fry.
Froehlich's 26 N. Elm St., Three Oaks; 616/756-6002; lunch for two $15. An unexpectedly snazzy deli and bakery where Colleen Froehlich churns out a gamut of sublime breads. Her terrific soups, sandwiches, salads, and desserts are available for eat-in or takeout.
Oink's Dutch Treat 227 W. Buffalo St., New Buffalo; 616/469-3535. The place you promise to take the kids if they stop squabbling/behave in the restaurant/don't break anything in the nice lady's shop. Fifty-five flavors of creamy Sherman's ice cream are on tap and indulgently scooped.
Fanny's 1620 Lakeshore Rd., Union Pier; 616/469-0900; dinner for two $35. Waves of nostalgia are crashing over the Gordon Beach Inn these days. To fill the dining room vacated by Jenny's (see above), inn owner Devereux Bowly has installed a veritable re-creation of Fanny's, the Evanston, Illinois, restaurant that epitomized fine dining for many of the area's baby boomers and their families. The fifties-style cuisine may no longer be everyone's cup of tea— Fanny's signature spaghetti sauce, for example, is all butter and meat. Those not seeking the Midwestern version of Proust's madeleine should opt instead for the lighter Italian-style whitefish. The generous portions are reasonably priced.
Kent's 203 W. Buffalo St., New Buffalo; 800/964-6255 or 616/469-6255; dinner for two $60. The husband-and-wife team of chefs Kent Buell and Kathy de Funiak already had two of the most impressive résumés in the business. Now they've branched out on their own, serving eclectic, assured cooking in a pretty, buttery room that glows at sunset. There's something for everyone, whether you favor Pan-Asian, Italian, or comfort food; those eschewing meat altogether will find a good selection of vegetarian dishes. De Funiak has few rivals when it comes to desserts, so leave space for something, whether it's the warm berry crisp or the bittersweet chocolate pavé.
Sole Mio East 16038 Red Arrow Hwy., Union Pier; 616/469-9636; dinner for two $60. For years, Dennis Terczak's Lincoln Park trattoria was one of Chicago's favorite date spots. Now he's moved Sole Mio way, way east, to a handsome space that's double the size of the original. But the fundamentals haven't changed: the jaunty Terczak still presides over the kitchen in his baseball cap, and the menu still focuses on Italian dishes (like little pizzas with Parmesan and béchamel, and seafood risotto). The place buzzes on weekends, albeit in a congenial, low-key sort of way.
Shop To It
The shopping in Harbor Country is defined by the sophisticated tastes of an urban, moneyed clientele. If you're looking for a tacky T-shirt, go to Key West.
Harbor Country has many antiques malls and shops, but if you don't have unlimited time or patience, here are three places that reflect a consistent connoisseurship. Lakeside Antiques (14866 Red Arrow Hwy., Lakeside; 616/469-4467) is a multi-dealer, two-barn concern. Among the many star tenants in the complex is Jim Toler, one of the nation's top sellers of sleek, blond Heywood Wakefield furniture. Frog Forest Findings (16100 York Rd., Union Pier; 616/469-7050), tucked away from the road in a grove of trees, is actually three stores. In one sunny, three-story room, Kathy Grebetz presides over furniture and collectibles from the 1920's through the 1950's. In an annex, her husband, Les, runs Phil's Service Station, specializing in automobile and gas-station memorabilia and vintage toys. The third store in the complex, Antique Wannabe's, stocks whimsical works by contemporary artisans. The clutter quotient is considerably higher at Kalamazoo Antiques (13701 Red Arrow Hwy., Harbert; 616/469-3511). A wealth of stuff from the Deco era onward is packed and stacked in an actual garage, living room, kitchen, and bedroom; a sly sense of camp lurks just beneath the surface.
It's been two years since Lovell & Whyte (14950 Lakeside Rd., Lakeside; 616/469-5900) opened in what was once Lakeside's general store, but the buzz won't let up. "My God!" exclaims one otherwise jaded resident of Harbor Country. "People just walk in and say, 'Fill up my second home!'" Owners Jim Fitzmaurice and Doug GeBraad are happy to oblige with Mitchell Gold furniture, Boda Nova tableware, and Churchill Weavers throws, to drop just a few names. At Hearthwoods at Home (110 N. Whittaker St., New Buffalo; 616/469-5551), Andy Brown salvages Michigan hardwoods from construction sites and tree-trimming operations and turns them into gracefully rough-hewn sofas, chairs, beds, and tables. Classic Galleries (430 S. Whittaker St., New Buffalo; 616/469-6281) is unabashedly baroque: there are escritoires, Neoclassical-style dining sets, ornate chandeliers, and formidable-looking statuary. You can buy at retail, or wait for the auctions held several times a year.
PRIME OUTLET-Michigan City (601 Wabash St., Michigan City, Ind.; 800/980-7467) is about 20 minutes south of Harbor Country, but no visit to this region would be complete without a stop. If you don't mind shopping in the shadow of two ominous-looking power-plant cooling towers— and what self-respecting shopaholic would?— you should come away sufficiently bag-laden. It's home to outlets for Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, the Gap, Oilily, Timberland, Burberrys, Crate & Barrel, and Hanna Andersson, among others. Shop carefully: some retailers peddle flimsier goods made exclusively for the outlet market.
Pleased to Meat You
The sawdust on the floor of this tiny wood-frame butcher shop may seem a tad theatrical, but Drier's Meat Market (14 S. Elm St., Three Oaks; 616/756-3101) is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its premium meats— especially the ring bologna and smoked hams— have been renowned for more than a century. It's debatable whether Drier's can make "vegetarians renounce their vows," as a cheeky sign outside the shop proclaims, but there's no doubt that the lean, tender bratwurst will turn just about anyone into a believer.
Dry, Nutty . . . Very Michigan
California vintners aren't looking over their shoulders yet, but the three vineyards about 20 minutes northeast of Harbor Country have been turning out increasingly respectable wines. Stop by and sample a few while sitting on a sunny terrace.
TABOR HILL (185 Mt. Tabor Rd., Buchanan; 800/283-3363 or 616/422-1161; lunch for two $35) is the biggest and most commercial of the trio, with its own restaurant.
LEMON CREEK (533 E. Lemon Creek Rd., Berrien Springs; 616/471-1321) and HEART OF THE VINEYARD (10981 Hills Rd., Baroda; 800/716-9463 or 616/422-1617) are family-owned establishments known for their innovative wine making and chummy atmosphere. Heart of the Vineyard recently expanded to include a brandy distillery, housed in an Amish-built round barn.
Michigan's lakefront dunes are the state's most beautiful and distinctive geographic feature— and all the better appreciated when the summer beach crowds have melted away. At Warren Dunes State Park (near Sawyer; 616/426-4013; $5 entry fee per vehicle), you won't have to go far to find a big heap of sand: a 240-foot-tall dune looms over the parking lot, daring you to scale it. For inspiration, hum the theme from Lawrence of Arabia as you struggle up the tawny, satiny precipice. If your appetite is whetted for more exertion, the park has six miles of hiking trails.
Keep On Riding
An extensive network of quiet roads that wind gently through pastoral landscapes— what more could a cyclist want?Three Oaks Spokes Bicycle Museum (616/756-3361), housed in a turn-of-the-century train depot, serves as Harbor Country's cycling nerve center: it publishes a map of 12 trails ranging in length from 5 to 60 miles, runs a bike-rental concession (even stocking special tandems for child-adult duos), and displays a modest collection of vintage bicycles. Local bicycling fever reaches its zenith every year on the last Sunday in September, when thousands converge on the area for the Midwest's biggest touring event, the Apple Cider Century (this year's dates are September 26 and 27).
I was always a little dubious about apple picking as a weekend pastime, consigning it to the same category of ersatz agro-experiences as Marie-Antoinette dressing up as a shepherdess. But a few miles east of Red Arrow Highway is the southernmost tip of Michigan's famous fruit basket, and it's funny how the sight of country roads flanked with bushy battalions of apple-laden trees can change your mind.
So abundant is Mother Nature that I found it all rather intimidating. That's why Stover's U-Pic (7608 U.S. 31, Berrien Springs; 616/471-1401) was a smart choice for my first foray into apple picking. Along with 120 acres of 30 apple varieties, Stover's has a county-fair atmosphere, with hayrides, cider pressings, and lots of retail goods for sale in a 150-year-old red barn. Sure, it's commercial, but the warm welcome feels genuine, and you can drive right up to the head of the orchard rows, which seems a nice concession to city folks.
What surprised me was how much of the appeal of apple picking is auditory: the crack of the stem as I yanked at the apple, followed by a cymbal crash as the leafy bough sprang back; then, finally, the crispy crunch of the fruit itself. I was hooked.
I explained this to June Stover, expecting her to roll her eyes the way the residents of Green Acres' Hooterville did whenever Oliver Wendell Douglas launched into an ode to the joys of farming. Instead, Stover began to wax philosophical herself. She fervently believes a love of apples is hardwired into us. "The apple is two and a half million years old," she said. "You're not going to find someone who doesn't have an apple somewhere in his past."
During the fall at Stover's, you can also pick grapes and raspberries (starting mid-September), or— at its nearby vegetable U-pick— all the produce your mother used to make you eat (green beans, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower). But it's the apples that bring in the crowds. "No matter how fast things are changing, and when it feels like nothing is safe, there are always apples in the fall," says Stover.
Having visited my very first U-pick pumpkin patch on the same weekend, however, I feel qualified to argue that the apple has some pretty tough competition as the champion harbinger of autumn. In late afternoon, when the light catches the bright orange globes peeking out from the mass of dusty vines and leaves, pumpkins possess a homespun magic.
I found my patch, Dinges Fresh Produce (15219 Mill Rd., Three Oaks; 616/426-4034), serendipitously, through a hand-lettered sign stuck at the junction of Red Arrow Highway and Warren Woods Road in Lakeside. After a short, scenic drive east, I pulled up in front of Elaine and LeRoy Dinges's orange barn. Elaine was on hand, surrounded by piles of pre-picked pumpkins, as well as what seemed like every possible species of squash and gourd.
The 10-acre U-pick patch was just down the road from the farm stand. Elaine and LeRoy have cultivated pumpkins there for 24 years, growing six to eight varieties that include the Howden, which everyone would recognize as the grocery store pumpkin; the squat, coach-shaped Cinderella; and the Lumina, a white pumpkin that looks as if it's just seen a ghost. For my three-year-old son, Ike, getting in touch with the land had less appeal than pulling around one of the Radio Flyer wagons that the Dingeses provide for customers to take into the fields.
Even though Ike and I grabbed the first decent pumpkin we saw, I was inordinately proud of it— I even caught myself petting it a few times— and Elaine said I wasn't alone. Once, she recalled, she was about to cut off the dirty trailing vine from a family's fresh-picked pumpkin when she noticed the look of heartbreak on their faces. "I'll never make that mistake again," she said with a laugh. "Of course, to us, it's 'Why do you want that old vine hanging there?' "
"That male goat smells because he needs a wife"
. . . says Shelley Zeiger to a group of children touring the Zeiger Centennial Farm. The impact of this intimate detail of animal husbandry on Zeiger's audience is unclear, but there's no doubt that these junior Old MacDonalds are having a great time. They scatter the barn with feed, try milking a cow, chase the farm cats, and pose for photos inside a giant tractor wheel. The mood on the farmhand tour is hardly elegiac, but in a sense, it should be: it's a safe bet that most families who visit here live in the suburban tract houses that erased hundreds of farms just like the Zeigers'. Shelley's mother-in-law and father-in-law, who can trace their rural roots back four generations, like to think their visitors come away with an idea of what the Midwest used to be, geographically and spiritually. (Kids will especially love the cornfield maze, open from August through October.)
Zeiger Centennial Farm 5692 W. Warren Woods Rd., Three Oaks; 616/756-9707. Open weekends through October 31. Tours cost $3-$5; call for times. The maze has a separate admission of $3.
For decades, Three Oaks was a town that seemed to have invented the idea of rolling up the sidewalks after dark. But all that changed two years ago, when Jon and Jennifer Vickers opened the movie theater that bears their name.
Now sleepy Three Oaks is home to a chic 93-seat anti-multiplex that offers cineastes the only spot between Chicago and Kalamazoo to catch offbeat current releases such as Hal Hartley's Henry Fool, or perhaps a revival of a classic like Battleship Potemkin (which was projected on the outside of the building while a band played the score). And movies aren't the only thing on the marquee. Jon, a Three Oaks native who developed a passion for film while studying civil engineering at Michigan State, likes to season the schedule with evenings of live music, drama, and readings, which have included appearances by David Sedaris and Chicago's anarchic Neo-Futurists improv troupe.
The Vickers Theatre today is a far cry from the tearjerker of a building that Jon and Jennifer purchased in 1994. While it had been Three Oaks' movie theater since 1911— Jon watched movies there as a kid— it had been dark and decaying for at least a decade. Two years and 3,000 hours of their spare time later, the couple had outfitted the place with elegant, handmade metal furnishings, vintage theater seats, an espresso and juice bar, sleek off-white walls for showcasing local artists' work, and an intricate lobby mosaic. Fortunately, the Vickerses had plenty of creative resources to draw from— Jennifer is an artist, and Jon comes from a family of metalworkers (in fact, he's president of his late father's machine company, Vickers Engineering).
After all their hard work, you can't blame the couple for naming their mini-movie palace after themselves. But they might just as easily have given it the traditional cinema appellation of Bijou— it's a gem in every sense of the word.
Vickers Theatre 6 N. Elm St.; 616/756-3522.
Standing in Warren Woods, you can understand why it's said that at one time a squirrel could cross the entire state of Michigan without leaving the treetops. Sugar maple, beech, and other trees that have never faced an ax or chain saw form a canopy at least 100 feet high and so thick that the sun manages to send only a few shafts of light down to the forest floor.
Warren Woods has always been a favorite Harbor Country spot— witness the graffiti, dating back as far as the teens, carved on the smooth beech trunks. But Kim Herman, who oversees the 311-acre area as coordinator of Michigan's Natural Heritage program, wonders how many who've wandered here fully appreciate what these woods represent: some of the last remaining virgin beech and maple forest in Michigan. "This is one of the crown jewels of the state," she says. "It's the southwestern Michigan landscape of a hundred and fifty years ago, before we started cutting everything down."
The woods are named for the man who preserved them— although that wasn't E. K. Warren's original intention when he bought the forest in 1878. Life wasn't easy for a pioneer shopkeeper in Three Oaks, and Warren initially hoped to use the forest's abundant hardwoods to capitalize on the growing demand for charcoal. But the venture never took off, and Warren, a deeply religious man, became convinced that the woods must be left untouched to show "the creative power of Almighty God." Folks thought he was crazy to sit on unused timberland at the height of Michigan's settlement and logging boom. But within a few years, nobody would think to question Warren's grip on reality: after he invented a process that turned turkey quills into corset stays and buggy whips, he became the town's wealthiest citizen and biggest employer.
According to Tom Poulson, a University of Illinois-Chicago ecologist who has studied Warren Woods for three decades, some of the sinewy, steel-colored beech trees are 500 to 600 years old. That makes the 275-year-old sugar maples virtual whippersnappers. Leaf-peeping is probably not the best way to enjoy Warren's largesse— most of the leaves are up so high you'll get a crick in your neck. But there's plenty to savor. Look for the pileated woodpecker, which grows as big as a crow and sports a flaming red crest ý la Woody Woodpecker. When the Galien River is running clear, you may also see salmon spawning.
One visit, clearly, is not enough— especially when you learn that the woods shelter more than 350 species of flowering plants. "If you think it's beautiful in the fall," says Poulson, "go in late April and early May, when the wildflowers are in bloom." It's a date.
Currently, there is one entrance to Warren Woods, on Warren Woods Road three miles north of Three Oaks. For information, call 616/426-4013.