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).