Tour Frank Lloyd Wright Homes and Hike Through Sand Dunes on This West Michigan Road Trip
Why has West Michigan—with its vibrant small cities and verdant countryside, its rich architectural heritage and nationally renowned beer—escaped wider notice? For one thing, self-promotion has never been part of its culture. The Potawatomi, a tribe that called the region home until the 19th century, held humility as one of their most prized virtues. And boasting was anathema to the Dutch Calvinist immigrants who settled here in the mid 1800s. (Rebuking wasn't, and still isn't—expect to be gently corrected, as I was the first time I visited, if you say "Western" instead of "West" Michigan.)
But don't be fooled: the Mitten's left side has plenty to brag about. Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo brim with breweries and distilleries and excellent farm-to-table restaurants. Bright-white beaches and picturesque dunes line Lake Michigan's eastern shore. And this heartland of the American furniture industry is home to splendid architecture and design from major names like Marcel Breuer and Frank Lloyd Wright. It all makes for a jam-packed long weekend. Here's how to explore this overlooked corner of the Midwest, from Grand Rapids to Saugatuck to Kalamazoo and back.
Crafted by an area woodworker, the gorgeous wooden bar at Littlebird, in downtown Grand Rapids, is your perfect breakfast perch. Order the all-day eatery's namesake breakfast sandwich—sunny-side-up egg, cheese, ham, and garlic mayo piled onto a brioche bun.
A block away is the Grand Rapids Art Museum. GRAM's small but exceptional collection has works by Ellsworth Kelly, Kara Walker, and Alexander Calder, but its real stars have local provenance. I was entranced by Eight-Fold Screen, a paint-and-gilt-on-walnut work by South Africa–born Eugene Masselink, who lived in Grand Rapids. A onetime assistant to Frank Lloyd Wright, Masselink created the piece in 1956 for a House Beautiful editor's Wright-designed bedroom. There's also a bold series of posters from the Herman Miller headquarters, in nearby Zeeland, and the company's Eames chairs and Nelson benches appear throughout the space.
Next, walk 15 minutes to Founders Brewing Co. Founders is a favorite among beer geeks, taking four of the top 10 spots in the latest Best Beers in America survey from the American Homebrewers Association. The taproom's sandwiches, from a classic Reuben to a behemoth of pulled pork, bacon, and beer cheese, are designed to pair with brews like the creamy Nitro Oatmeal Stout and the crisp All-Day IPA.
Spend the afternoon strolling in the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, an art-filled wonderland featuring works by Ai Weiwei, Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois, and Barbara Hepworth. A $115 million expansion of the complex, led by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, should be finished by 2021.
Dine at Grove (entrées $10–$42). The small-plates sampler offers a brilliant cross-section of its imaginative New American cuisine. Then take a cab across the Grand River to the Long Road Distillers for a nightcap. I liked its award-winning Michigin—fragrant with local juniper, mint, and fennel—and its Straight Bourbon, made with Michigan-grown grains. Home away from home tonight: the riverside JW Marriott (doubles from $269), Grand Rapids' finest hotel.
Fuel up at Madcap Coffee, a café-roastery in a beautifully refurbished auto body shop. Two blocks away, the Fulton Street Farmers Market has been the place to go for produce since 1922. In season, you'll find corn and beans—cultivated here since the days of the Potawatomis' extensive gardens—as well as year-round products, such as gluten-free lentil pasta and Michigan maple syrup.
West Michigan's forests supplied the state's famous furniture makers, including Steelcase and Herman Miller. The Main Site, Herman Miller's headquarters, isn't open to visitors, but the nearby Company Store, its official outlet, does, and the prices are extraordinary. When I visited, I found an Eva Zeisel bud vase, normally $100, for $30; Paul Smith's Maharam fabrics, typically $145 a yard, for $15; and a molded-plywood Eames chair, usually $1,009, for $500.
Saugatuck, 20 minutes south, has the postcard charm of a New England coastal village and a reputation as a haven for artists and the LGBTQ community. After lunch at Grow, wander to Saugatuck Retro Boat Rentals, which rents restored speedboats to take down the Kalamazoo River toward Lake Michigan. "Speedboat" describes form more than function: the speed limit is 4 mph. That makes for a gentle journey past waterfront homes and the ruins of Singapore, a 19th-century timber port whose founders had outsize ambitions.
Head for the neighboring hamlet of Douglas and check in to the Pines Motor Lodge (doubles from $139), a lovingly modernized, delightfully kitschy 1950s motel. Downtown Douglas is a short walk away; try Everyday People Café for an eclectic menu of globally influenced dishes like kimchi fried rice, pierogi, and duck confit.
Begin your day with a hike through sun-dappled woods, over towering dunes, and along the wide beaches at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Then drive to the Southerner for breakfast. You may not associate chicken and biscuits with Michigan, but chef Matthew Millar's stellar version tells the story of how they got here. The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist wrote his menu as a "love letter to Appalachia," honoring a cuisine brought by his forebears, who moved north in the 1950s seeking opportunity and auto-industry jobs. (You can still drive Michigan-made: we road-tripped in a Buick Enclave, made in Lansing.)
En route back to Grand Rapids' airport, choose your own adventure. Route A is for architecture geeks. Just outside Muskegon sits St. Francis de Sales, one of two churches in the world designed by Brutalist master Marcel Breuer. Circle the bulky, steel-and-concrete structure, then enter at noon, as Mass ends. (You'll find self-guided tour instructions near the baptismal font.) The forbidding exterior houses an airy nave, and the curved walls create an embracing effect, as well as optical illusions: as you move around the space, the walls seem to move, too.
Next, stop at Frank Lloyd Wright's Meyer May House, 45 minutes southeast in Grand Rapids' landmarked Heritage Hill neighborhood. Though completed in 1909, this luminous home feels of-the-moment. One of Wright's last Prairie-style projects, it was built to echo the wide expanse of America's plains, with recessed horizontal mortar lines and hedges cut to parallel the building. Steelcase, which now owns the house, offers tours on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.
Route B is for beverage lovers. Virtue Cider, set amid rolling countryside 15 minutes east of Saugatuck, was founded in 2011 by the former brewmaster of Chicago's Goose Island. Traditional European cider-making inspired its eight standard varieties and a series of single-orchard ciders celebrating local farms. After you've sampled the wares, have your designated driver escort you an hour southeast to Grayling Ceramics, a tiny pottery studio in Kalamazoo producing unexpectedly elegant growlers and beer steins.
From Grayling, it's less than half a mile to Bell's, West Michigan's other much-celebrated craft-brewing paragon—the perfect place to toast a journey's end.