In late 2013, Lonely Planet, the travel-guide publisher, announced its Top 10 United States travel destinations. Topping the list was Grand Rapids and Michigan's Gold Coast. Lonely Planet wrote, "Beach bums, beer lovers, and art enthusiasts agree: there’s a lot to love about western Michigan this year... A mere 30 miles away (from Grand Rapids) sprawls Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast, perhaps the USA’s most unexpected beach getaway. Some argue that these shores rival Hawaii’s and Southern California’s."
Lonely Planet is catching up to what we Michiganders – especially West siders – have long known.
Lonely Planet's pick has been on my mind lately as we near August and I realize how little of this great gem – GR and the Gold Coast – I've taken advantage of this summer. It was also brought to mind a few days ago when a friend made the perceptive comment that in Michigan you don't leave the state to vacation in the summer, but rather in February. How true that is.
One of the things I most looked forward to on moving back to Grand Rapids from Washington DC was the Michigan summer: sunny, sometimes beautifully stormy, frequently cloudless and without a lick of humidity, with light late into the evenings.
Before the season slips away, I wanted to focus on some of what I consider to be the high points of Lonely Planet's top United States travel destination. I'll be the first to admit I have a lot more to explore on the Gold Coast, but I still have covered enough terrain here to have my favorites.
Starting in Grand Rapids, there are a number of key spots. Founders Brewing Company, which consistently ranks as one of the top breweries in the United States, if not the world, is a must see. The brewery recently began formal tours that include a great explanation of its history, brewing process, and success story. I took the tour with many out-of-towners.
The fairly new outdoor seating area is a great place to unwind on a summer night and the constantly changing selection of beers is includes many tat you can't find in the stores. Be prepared to wait to find a table and be sure you are willing to assert yourself at the bars and the food window. But the energy – often helped along by live music – is absolutely great.
A visit to Grand Rapids isn't complete without a stop – preferably late at night after partying – at Yesterdog. Yesterdog is a no-frills hotdog shop with old wooden tables, classic posters and advertisements, a hand-cranked cash register and staff behind the counter with personalities that always keep things interesting. The walls are plastered with photos of people around the globe sporting their Yesterdog shirts – on top of mountains and in front of famous landmarks. It is also (in)famous for its portrayal in the 1999 movie, American Pie, as Dog Years. Be sure to bring cash; Yesterdog is as old school as its décor and only takes cash.
If you can spare a night, drive just north of downtown for a minor league baseball game at Fifth-Third Ballpark where the Tigers' Single-A affiliate, the West Michigan Whitecaps, play. The silly fan contests are fun, the seats cheap, the food good, and the atmosphere great.
Moving west towards the lake shore are a number of quaint and wonderful towns and cities. The ones most familiar to me are Holland, Grand Haven, and the Whitehall/Montague area. Holland's beach is fantastic, its inland lake (Macatawa) is beautiful, but its downtown also is a destination. It has a funky hotel in the City Flats with a good restaurant and lounge and has a great brewery in New Holland Brewery. New Holland's year round bourbon-barrel aged Dragon's Milk is delicious and dangerous.
Moving north from Holland, Grand Haven is charming, with a great beach, a great pier and lighthouse, and the world's largest musical fountain that provides a nightly synchronized water and light show. It is worth going just to say that you've seen the world's largest musical fountain – or just a musical fountain! But the two places I make sure to visit when in Grand Haven are Pronto Pup and Dairy Treat. Neither is Atkins or Paleo friendly, but each is delicious.
If we continue northward, past Muskegon, we reach the joined-at-the-hip hamlets of Montague and Whitehall. Among the must-see attractions are Dogs 'n Suds Drive-in which brings you back to a scene out of the 1950s. Orders are placed through microphones and servers bring food out to your car. Just up the way is The Book Nook & Java Shop, an independent bookstore, that has been holding its own for a dozen years. It is a great place to find a summer beach read (or something more serious), get a cup of coffee, peruse a magazine or newspaper, or catch up with the staff.
None of the places I've described – except for Founders – is, in and of itself, a world class destination. But each is part of the fabric that makes Michigan, and West Michigan in particular, a destination for people from around the world. As we head into the final month of summer before school starts, it isn't too late to take advantage of these little gems and pieces of Americana. In fact, I plan on visiting some, if not all, of these places in the weeks to come.