Sultry Saugatuck: haven for artists, art lovers

For a town whose population is just 1,065, Saugatuck sure knows how to get around.

One way is to ride North America’s only chain ferry, a hand-cranking operation that cuts across the Kalamazoo River, from Wicks Park to the Historical Museum. After the bleat of a horn and the clank of a bell, it’s less than five minutes, shore to shore.

Then there’s the Harbor Duck, a World War II land/water vehicle that looks a lot like the Wisconsin Ducks back home in the Dells. The Star of Saugatuck, a paddlewheeler, is yet another way to see the area, plus a sunset while out on Lake Michigan.

And it costs nothing to ride the Saugatuck trolley, which bounces from one piece of public art to the next and heads to nearby Douglas, a sister city and rival, population 1,115. Among the tour guides is Saugatuck Mayor Henry Van Single; there are more than 40 outdoor sculptures for viewing and for sale during “Art Around Town,” an endeavor that ends in September.

“We are one cool city,” the mayor says, and he means it literally. This month Saugatuck was one of 20 to receive Cool Cities grants of up to $100,000 from Michigan’s governor. The money will help turn an old pie factory into a performing arts center.

“Art Coast of Michigan” is the nickname for this area, about an hour south of where the new Lake Express carferry pulls into Muskegon from Milwaukee. Dozens of boutiques, art galleries and trendy eateries fill Saugatuck’s downtown; Douglas also has a niche of home décor shops.

What else, besides shopping and eating, is there to do here? The ambitious can climb 282 steps to the top of Mt. Baldhead, for a panoramic view. The idle can laze on Oval Beach, rated as one of the 25 best in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.

More than two dozen bed and breakfast inns are in the area. I stayed at The Belvedere Inn on the outskirts of town, is a country estate with fine dining orchestrated by Chef Shaun Glynn, a native of Ireland. He and Pete Ta are the inn’s proprietors; they accommodated 22 weddings on the spacious and manicured grounds in 2003.

The inn is notable because it is both plush but lacking in the frills and lace that typically define this type of accommodation. Style is subdued and colors lean toward earth tones. Rates range from $136-295, which includes a hot breakfast and decadent, homemade bakery at other times of the day.

Dinner was exquisite and leisurely paced. Entrees include pecan encrusted catfish, pan seared trout, rack of lamb, steaks and chops. It is an ala carte menu; expect to pay about $35 for a three-course meal.

That doesn’t include alcoholic beverages because the inn is in a dry township. But patrons bring their own, and there is no corkage fee.

For more, go to www.thebelvedereinn.com or call (877) 858-5777. For more about Saugatuck, go to www.saugatuck.com or call (269) 857-1701.

Less than an hour east of Muskegon is Michigan’s second largest city, Grand Rapids, which has enough unique urban diversions to fill a weekend easily.

The most notable is the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, whose fun and extensive children’s sculpture garden just opened this month. Geared toward ages 10 and younger, it’s also a great way for adults to stay entertained. The 5 acres are big on interaction; there are treehouses to climb, nooks to explore, noises to make, fragrant plants to sniff.

The Great Lakes Garden has miniature versions of each of the lakes and adjacent states, plus a giant sundial that teaches how to tell time by looking at a shadow.

Elsewhere, hedges become a maze shaped like a butterfly. A labyrinth made of bricks tests patience and memory. There are plants made for touching, dirt for digging, a giant dragonfly whose wings can be maneuvered, a giant nest with eggs big enough to sit on.

Children learn about wildlife as well as plant life. They also learn trivia, like “you’re never more than 10 feet from a spider.”

The 20 outdoor sculptures here are in addition to another two dozen by renown artists – Auguste Rodin to Henry Moore – that rest on 30 of the park’s other acres. The collection is big on variety: playful, dramatic, abstract, huge, delicate works.

For more, go to www.meijergardens.org or call (888) 957-1580.

I felt obligated to visit the Gerald R. Ford Museum, but what I encountered was a nice surprise: This was almost as much a tribute to the baby boomer era as it was the documentation of a president’s life.

The mood of a divided nation during the 1970s, post-Vietnam and full-tilt Watergate, is evenly recorded. Ford presents his perspectives candidly and humbly.

It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is; this native son’s museum is worth visiting. For more, go to www.ford.utexas.edu or call (616) 254-0400.

Adjacent to the Ford museum is the Van Andel Museum Center. There is an operating carousel from 1928, a comprehensive look at how furniture production helped Grand Rapids prosper, a study of Native American history. “Collections A to Z” is an imaginative presentation that is not limited to local history.

The best reason to visit now, though, is the “Gratia Dei: A Journey Through the Middle Ages” exhibit that’s on until Aug. 15. Visitors can see how it feels to wear heavy armor. Artifacts help make the past feel real. Video and audio explanations personalize the triumphs and traumas of the era.

Most major touring exhibits come with their own specialty gift shop. This one also has a specialty buffet. Medieval fare includes Cornish hens stuffed with dark-meat chicken, cabbage in broth with saffron and breadcrumbs, porridge made with red cherries and white wine. Use of utensils is optional.

For more about the museum, go to www.grmuseum.org or call (616) 456-3977.

Both museums are a part of the city’s easy-to-walk downtown, which is big on outdoor sculptures and variety in dining. The B.O.B. is an old warehouse that is a hub of nightlife and casual to fine dining.

Lodging includes the pricey Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, plus intimate inns in the Heritage Hill Historic District, which contains more than 60 types of architecture, including the Meyer May House by Frank Lloyd Wright; it can be toured.

I spent a peaceful night at the Fountain Hill Bed and Breakfast (www.fountainhillbandb.com and 800/261-6621), an Italianette style house in the historic district and near downtown. Breakfast included a coddled egg. Television chef Graham “Galloping Gourmet” Kerr gave innkeeper Carol Dubridge pointers about that recipe when he was a guest there.

Another nice and unusual touch was “wake up room service,” the delivery of coffee or tea at a prescribed time, before the serving of breakfast.

“I don’t think I want you to see me that early,” was my response.

“Try it. I’ll just knock on your door and run away before you open it,” Carol replied.

She did just that, and it was a smooth way to ease into another day. For more about Grand Rapids, go to www.visitgrandrapids.org or call (800) 678-9859.