Meet Muskegon: Lake Michigan’s wilder side

Here are signs that you’re not on our side of Lake Michigan anymore:

* Billboards advertise blueberry farms and dune buggy rides.

* Menus contain yellow lake perch and one-pound marinated pork chops, smoked whitefish dip and sweet potato fries.

* “Free sand” signs tilt atop windswept mounds, in the yards of beachfront homes.

* Asparagus is everywhere, for as little as $1 per pound until the supply dwindles later this month.

The new Lake Express carferry gives Wisconsin and Michigan a new reason to get acquainted. First lesson: It’s not just more of the same on the other side of the lake.

I spent three nights in Western Michigan this month, and it was a getaway filled with surprises and variety.

My lodging: a classic, urban bed and breakfast inn; an isolated and laid-back lakeside resort; a comfortable country estate on spacious grounds.

My most memorable meals: a medieval buffet, a dinner that matched courses with beers, the gourmet work of a European-trained chef, lighter fare nibbled while following the bobbing of sailboats and canoes.

This week, let’s stay in Muskegon County, where the Lake Express pulls ashore. Next week, we’ll go to nearby Grand Rapids and Saugatuck, both less than an hour from Muskegon.

After eyeballing the dozens of vendors at the Saturday farmers market in Muskegon, I did business with Seth Leutzinger, who loves asparagus. He ate one pound in two minutes last year, which made him the National Asparagus Festival champion.

“Some of those boys were 15,” notes grandma Maggie Leutzinger. Seth was 10.

About 50 acres on their Shelby farm have asparagus; Leutz’s Fruits & Veggies sells about 300 pounds at this market each week. Sweet and sour cherries are in season next month, Maggie says, plus apricots and peaches in August.

The blueberries? That’s a mid-summer harvest, and the National Blueberry Festival is Aug. 12-14 in South Haven, less than 90 minutes south. Go to www.blueberryfestival.com or call (800) 764-2836.

Pickled asparagus, asparagus guacamole and asparagus salsa were among the items that I was told about but couldn’t find during my short visit.

Kate and Dave Perry of Oconomowoc were the first people to board the Lake Express with backpacks and just their bicycles. This was a 35th wedding anniversary celebration; as newlyweds they had sailed from Muskegon to Milwaukee on the SS Milwaukee Clipper.

That was in June 1969. The once-grand Milwaukee Clipper has since gained National Historic Landmark status, is being restored and is open for tours but not sailing. The Perrys passed it, USS Silversides (a submarine that can be toured) and the modest Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum during their bicycling of the city.

They also could get to local parks and beaches, by biking the Lakeshore trail system (some parts under development). Nearby are two other bike trails, each paved and about 25 miles: Musketawa heads east, through wetlands and farmland, ending in Marne. Hart-Montague starts about 30 minutes (by car) north of Muskegon; bikes can be rented in the area.

Muskegon County is an outdoor lover’s dream, with a half-dozen state parks (most bordering Lake Michigan), plus several sparsely patronized county/municipal parks on expansive stretches of shoreline. Cooler by the lake? Yes, but the air and water both tend to be warmer here.

I spent a pretty night at the Lakeside Inn Resort, on White Lake and near Duck Lake State Park, a half-hour north of Muskegon. Large steamboats used to dock here because of the quick drop-off to 20 feet from parts of shore.

Todd Groessl is the fourth generation of his family to operate the sprawling, airy property, which is one of the few seasonal resorts still around. He and wife Jodi rent lodge rooms as well as cabins, $90-140 per night or $775 to $1,100 per week for units that can sleep up to eight people.

Expect cable TV but no remote, an alarm clock but no phone, soap but no shampoo. It is rustic, and it is a piece of paradise. Almost everybody has a great view of the lake.

The remoteness of this location is one plus. So is the quiet lakefront that seems private. It’s all knotty pine walls, cozy couches, white wicker, huge enclosed porches, down-home dining.

The resort presents monthly wine dinners, although the one I attended matched food with beer from Arcadia Brewing Company. It was fun, leisurely and reasonable ($29 even includes tip); many of the diners were locals who are longtime fans of the resort. Go to www.lakesideinn.net or call (888) 442-3304 to learn more.

The Perrys had high praise for Muskegon’s Langeland House, a bed and breakfast operated by Elizabeth Sherman (www.langelandhouse.com; 231-728-9404). She also is the author of Beyond the Windswept Dunes: The Story of Maritime Muskegon, published in 2003, and thus has a lot of stories to tell.

OK, it’s a small town. Elizabeth’s sister is Helen Sherman, who gives tours of the historic Hackley & Hume houses, built by a couple of lumber barons in the late 1880s. (The city used to have 47 sawmills and 40 millionaires.)

The Hackley building is remarkable for it excesses, particularly the ornately carved doors, moldings, stair railing – you name it. “A lot of craftsmanship, but not a lot of taste,” notes Helen, who is the great-granddaughter of Thomas Hume, owner of the other house.

The same architect designed both buildings, and the styles are vastly different. “The stenciling looks like it came off of a ”60s VW bus,” Helen notes of the Hume wall décor. The Hume house furnishings are extensive; many were gathered by relatives and donated to the ongoing restoration project.

For more, go to www.muskegonmuseum.org or call (231) 722-0278.

What else? Worthy restaurants include City Café, downtown; and Dockers, in Harbour Towne. (See if you can tell the difference between yellow perch and “our” perch.) Many businesses are closed on Sundays, which can be irritating, and this is not a city known for its shopping.

Eight miles north is Michigan’s Adventure, a waterpark and amusement park that contains Shivering Timbers, an acclaimed wooden roller coaster that goes 65 miles per hour; go to www.miadventure.com or call (231) 766-3377.

Land in Muskegon without a vehicle, and you can ride one of three county trolley routes for a quarter. Ride length is 90 minutes to three hours; hop on and off. Tourism officials also say a shuttle service will take visitors anywhere in the county for no more than $10 per person, one way.

Prefer having your own wheels? I paid $15 per day through Enterprise (ask for the Muskegon car rental office on Peck Street) instead of the $118 roundtrip rate for taking a car on the ferry.

For more about the Muskegon and White Lake areas, go to www.visitmuskegon.org and www.whitelake.org or call (800) 250-9283.