Out of Town - Michigan Vacation: Saugatuck, Ann Arbor & Detroit
September 30, 2011
As the cooler weather of early autumn settles in, southern Michigan becomes a particularly enchanting spot for a vacation. Here’s a look at three very different communities in this part of the state: artsy and coastal Saugatuck, collegiate and progressive Ann Arbor, and scrappy and culturally rich Detroit. Each makes an appealing weekend destination, or you could easily visit all three of these places as part of an extended road trip through the region.
Here’s the skinny on what these three Michigan destinations have to offer, from friendly gay bars and stylish restaurants to some of the Midwest’s most acclaimed cultural attractions.
The charming town of Saugatuck (www.saugatuck.com), in combination with the neighboring village of Douglas, offers a bounty of urbane restaurants, handsome B&Bs, funky boutiques, and high-quality art galleries, as well as some of the most picturesque beach frontage on Lake Michigan.
The towns are separated by a wide expanse of the Kalamazoo River, which empties into Lake Michigan. From one village center to the other, it’s just a mile’s drive or stroll, and it’s also a mile from either community to the sweeping Oval Beach (gays and lesbians tend to congregate more at the northern section of this sandy sunbathing mecca). If you’re in an outdoorsy mood, consider paddling around town in a kayak - Running Rivers Kayak Rentals offers tours and rentals. For a little more exercise, climb the 282 steps to the top of the area’s highest sand dune, Mt. Baldhead, which affords stunning views.
Worthy dining options in Saugatuck include Wicks Park Bar & Grill (www.wickspark.com), an attractive gastropub that presents live music many nights, and convivial Uncommon Grounds (uncommongroundscafe.com) coffeehouse, a good place to pick up an over-stuffed sandwich, slice of carrot cake, or espresso. In downtown Douglas, the outstanding Everyday People Cafe (everydaypeoplecafe.com) serves beautifully prepared contemporary fare and has a lively bar following among the local gay set. And for a light lunch or decadent snack, try Cookies on Call (www.cookiesoncall.com), noted for its white-chocolate-and-caramel or dark-chocolate-and-dried-blueberry cookies.
Considered the Midwest’s largest gay hotel, the Dunes Resort (dunesresort.com), is also the area’s top nightlife draw, with a large dance floor, piano cabaret, and a huge fenced-in sundeck and bar with a large pool and lush foliage. The rambling 20-acre compound has 65 hotel units, ranging from cottages to conventional rooms; some rooms have fireplaces and hot tubs.
You’ll find no shortage of historic B&Bs in the area, many of them gay-owned, including the elegant and inviting Kirby House (www.kirbyhouse.com), a stately 1890 Queen Anne on the edge of downtown Douglas. Talented gay author Salvatore Sapienza (Seventy Times Seven) and his partner Greg operate Saugatuck’s wonderful Beechwood Manor (www.beechwoodmanorinn.com), which has three lovely rooms and a pet-friendly three-bedroom cottage. It’s close to downtown but on a quiet, tree-shaded street. A bit farther afield is the gracious Belvedere Inn (www.thebelvedereinn.com), a regal 1913 mansion designed by a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright - it’s about 3 miles northeast of Saugatuck. The Belvedere’s superb restaurant, which serves such rarefied Continental cuisine, makes a perfect setting for celebrating a special occasion.
There are also a few affordable motels around the area, including the gay-owned Pines Motor Lodge (www.thepinesmotorlodge.com), a rustic but retro-hip, pale-green motor court that’s been beautifully restored, its 13 rooms with simple but stylish decor. The owners also rent a guest house and cottages.
Ann Arbor, which is anchored by the University of Michigan (U of M), has long been a beacon of liberal politics, high culture, and vibrant campus living. For the city’s many gays and lesbians, the great sense of community and tolerance make it a wonderful place to live. The city’s human-scale downtown and spirited campus meld together almost imperceptibly.
You can get a feel for area by strolling across the campus green - known as the Diag (short for “Diagonal”). Be sure to set aside time to visit the of U of M Museum of Art, whose collections span 13,000 years; the U of M Museum of Natural History, one of the best such-museums in the state.
Ann Arbor’s downtown is characterized by brick sidewalks, old-fashioned gas lamps, diverse architecture, and an abundance of boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants. It’s a short walk to the funky Kerrytown neighborhood, where you can stop by one of the most acclaimed gourmet-food markets and delis in the Midwest, Zingerman’s (www.zingermans.com), and grab a seat on the sunny terrace to enjoy a memorable lunch or breakfast.
Other notable eateries around Ann Arbor include the contemporary West End Grill (www.westendgrillannarbor.com), which draws raves for its deftly prepared seafood and steaks. For stellar mod-Asian cuisine, consider Pacific Rim by Kana (pacificrimbykana.com). Seva (www.sevarestaurant.com) vegetarian eatery is a great spot for bountiful salads and garden burgers, and Grizzly Peak (grizzlypeak.net) turns out terrific hand-crafted beers and interesting food. If you’re in town at breakfast of brunch-time, check out Zola Cafe and Bistro (www.cafezola.com), which is also quite popular for lunch, dinner, or even just a latte or fresh smoothie.
Ann Arbor has one gay bar, Aut Bar (autbar.com), a welcoming venue with a diverse crowd - it’s set inside a converted 1916 house in Kerrytown, next to the GLBT bookstore, Common Language. The city’s favorite dance club, the Necto (www.necto.com) is also fun and has a gay party on Tuesdays.
Ann Arbor contains a typical mix of chain motels and hotels as well as a handful of smaller, more distinctive properties. Right on campus, the Bell Tower Hotel (www.belltowerhotel.com) occupies a handsomely preserved building with reproduction antiques. And the Burnt Toast Inn (www.burnttoastinn.com) has seven moderately priced rooms, a great location in a historic neighborhood, and - despite the name - tasty Continental breakfasts.
The country’s 18th largest city is difficult to get a full grasp of on a short visit, but with a couple of days, you do at least have enough time to see some incredible museums, dine at some outstanding restaurants, and check out a few of Michigan’s best gay bars.
An absolute must-see is the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), whose central foyer contains spectacular Depression-era frescoes by Diego Rivera. The museum, whose collection holds 65,000 works, anchors the Cultural Center district - near the campus of Wayne State University. Nearby you can visit such notable attractions as the Detroit Historical Museum as well as the Motown Museum, which celebrates the careers of such R&B legends as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and the Jackson 5.
Walk along downtown’s main drag, Woodward Avenue, and you’ll come upon a stellar theater district, a highlight of which is the fantastically elaborate 1927 Fox Theatre. Within walking distance is the Bonstelle Theatre, where Lily Tomlin got her start; Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, home of the Detroit Symphony; and the impressive Detroit Opera House, which boasts one of the world’s largest stages.
To get a full sense of metro Detroit, venture out of downtown. A bit east you’ll find 1,000-acre Belle Isle, an urban retreat in the middle of the Detroit River - it’s home to a fine beach and good jogging and biking paths. Drive northwest along Woodward Avenue to Ferndale, a formerly working-class community that’s become something of a gay stronghold over the years. Its main drag, West 9 Mile Road, has a few cool boutiques and vintage stores. The next town north, Royal Oak, is another bastion of hip dining and retail. And still farther up Woodward Avenue, you’ll find upscale restaurants and shops in attractive Birmingham, and the acclaimed and recently renovated and expanded Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills - it was designed by modernist architectural legend Eliel Saarinen, whose nearby house is open seasonally for tours.
Head west to Dearborn, the heart of the America’s auto-manufacturing heritage, to tour the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, a fascinating 81-acre complex of historic homes and structures moved here from across the country as well as an incomparable museum that traces the development of American technological innovation over the generations.
When it comes to dining, metro Detroit has a number of highly regarded options. One of the most famous is Opus One (www.opus-one.com), set inside a former taxi garage built by Louis Kahn in 1916, and serving superb contemporary food. A funky eatery on the edge of the Cultural Center, the Majestic Cafe (majesticdetroit.com) scores high marks for its art exhibits and eclectic comfort food, while lesbian-owned Avalon International Breads (www.avalonbreads.net) is renowned among foodies for its fine coffees, artisan breads, and delicious sandwiches and salads. And Slows Bar-B-Q (slowsbarbq.com) is one of the top urban barbecue joints in the country, earning raves for its St. Louis-style ribs and sliced brisket.
In Ferndale, snag a table at the atmopsheric Fly Trap Diner (www.theflytrapferndale.com) to sample heavenly gingerbread waffles or one of the best BLTs in the area. Long-time gay favorite Como’s (comosferndale.com) is a good bet for red-sauce Italian fare. Royal Oak restaurant notables include the dapper Town Tavern (towntavernroyaloak.com), and the charming Cafe Muse (www.cafemuseroyaloak.com), which serves a delectable grilled cheese that’s been featured in Esquire Magazine.
Fans of clubbing will find plenty of options in these parts. The most popular spots include Royal Oak’s gay video bar Pronto (www.prontorestaurant.com), which adjoins the lovely restaurant of the same name; Ferndale’s sophisticated yet friendly SOHO (www.sohoferndale.com) lounge; and such Detroit mainstays as Menjo’s Complex, where Madonna used to party back in her early days; Gigi’s (www.gigisbar.com), which employs a stable of hot male dancers.
Among lodging options, consider the upscale Marriott Detroit (www.marriott.com), which is set inside the soaring 73-story main tower of the GM Renaissance Center, and - across the street - the more moderately priced Courtyard Marriott (www.detroitdowntowncourtyard.com). Also excellent is the sleek Atheneum Suite Hotel (www.atheneumsuites.com) - all of these are close to Detroit’s festive Greektown and that neighborhood’s popular Greektown Casino. A short drive from downtown, the charming and historic Inn on Ferry Street (innonferrystreet.com) offers inviting accommodations - it comprises four meticulously renovated Queen Anne homes plus a pair of Victorian carriage houses.
Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website GayTravel.About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.
www.gaytravel.about.com (my site for the New York Times-owned About.com)
www.thecountyhunter.com (my travel blog)