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Pure Michigan Road Trip: Driving to American Thanksgiving

My husband and I recently packed the car with some late November woolies and lots of reading material and headed west along the 401 to the Sarnia/Port Huron Bluewater Bridge border crossing, with a final driving destination in mind: American Thanksgiving in Saugatuck, MI and a taste of Pure Michigan in the Fall.

Summer isn’t the only time to experience the shores of western Michigan where ice cream, fudge stores, family dining, unique antiques, lovely beaches, quaint B & B’s and a well established Artists Community await those who hop in their cars and do the 6.5 hour drive from Toronto to this undiscovered and virtually unknown to Canadians, part of Western Michigan. Unlike those mid-summer bathing togs and sun hats, Michigan’s fall harvest flannels, coveralls and snow pants can be a bit more unkempt and rustic. But don’t let that stop you from heading west along I-69 to Flint, flanking to the north of Lansing before merging onto the I-96 toward Grand Rapids and experiencing this unique part of Western Michigan.

Michigan’s Little Bavaria

Head north from Flint to Frankenmuth, known as Michigan’s Little Bavaria, made more famous by Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland or stop for some outlet shopping at the Birch Run Premium Outlets just south of Frankenmuth. Enjoy some downtime from the road at Lake Fenton, the Village of Holly, where, for winter-lovers, Holly’s lakes are ideal for ice-fishing. Mt. Holly on the Dixie Highway is Southeast Michigan’s premiere ski resort. The Ortonville State Recreation area offers some of the finest fall hiking in Michigan should you wish to rejuvenate your car-weary bones.

Grandly, Grand Rapids

With your Christmas and designer outlet shopping complete and rejuvenated by a lovely hike, head to Grand Rapids with a stop at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market and a nosh and lunch at Kate Leeder and Amy Ruis’ Aperitivo. Kate welcomes us personally at Aperitivo’s communal table and we feast on white sardines, artisinal cheeses, 3 cheese grilled cheese sandwiches, muffallatta-type Italian sandwiches and a lovely bottle of chablis to wash down our lunch. We visit the Thanksgiving and Christmas-themed stalls purchasing some tea and spices from the Spice Merchants, (who conviently also have a Butler Street location in Saugatuck) fresh fish from the Fish Lads as our 9 year old buddy devoured a S’mores Sweet Crépe from Penelope’s Creperie . Summer offers a very busy outdoor market where you can discover (and devour) the best in Michigan produce. Still in Grand Rapids, The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is a wonderful stroll in any season so bundle up and take a winter-white walk through the Sculpture Park to view works by renowned sculptors Rodin, Moore and Roxy Paine or move inside for its latest exhibitions.

Onto Dutch Settled Lands

Continue into Dutch settled lands that include Holland and roll down your windows to breathe in the late fall, wet-leafed beachy smells of Lake Michigan and Saugatuck located just another 20 minutes further south west. Lunch at CityVū in Holland is pizza-centric with a focus on flat bread and New York Styles and is a popular lunch spot buffet for many Michigan Ladies who lunch and enjoy the lovely city view from the 5th floor of the trendy City Flats Hotel. Downtown Holland seasonal shopping on east 8th Street should include a stop with the kids at the Holland Peanut Store for sweets and treats of all sorts. Move away from downtown and visit the under-visited Washington Square, centrally located between 18th & 19th streets, known for its salons, art galleries, restaurants and many other quaint shops and purchase wonderful organic meats at Montellos Meat Market (Holland hosts 2 Pop-Up Meat Lockers) and chat with the very happy Tony and his equally happy wife Tina (Montellos main shop is located at the very popular Grand Rapids Farmers Market). Pereddies Bakery and Deli offers everything Italian: coffee, cheese, wine, condiments with a wee resto attached.

The Art Coast

Known as The Art Coast of Michigan and nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River, the towns of Saugatuck and Douglas provide a rare opportunity to observe pre- and post-Civil War Greek Revival and Italianate architecture, together with later structures in the Arts & Crafts and Colonial Revival manner, in a uniquely relaxed and beach town atmosphere. At the same time, both villages offer much in terms of first class lodging, restaurants, recreation, cultural opportunities and proliferation of art galleries including some outstanding Art and Glass Galleries with the Roan and Black Contemporay Gallery standing out as a personal favourite. Saugatuck is defined by steep, rolling dunes to the west and lush orchard country and farmland to the east and south; the climate is blessed by the moderating effects of Lake Michigan, which provides cool breezes on warm summer days and lake effect snow on cold winter days. Even in the off season, Saugatuck is busy with seasonal offerings and Butler Street is lit up in all its holiday finery and is a popular retreat for both the gay crowd and families alike. Skip the attitude and off-season breakfast lines at IDA Reds and opt for the more familiar, friendly atmosphere of Pumpernickles on Butler street. Breakfasts are served up in homey skillets and quickly ward off the chilly Thanksgiving air. In the summer, Pumpernickles has double-decker screened porchs where you can enjoy your breakfast and people-watch the busy Butler Street. Stop and linger over some uncommonly good coffee at Uncommon Grounds where friends from outside Saugutuck swear by their small-quantity, fresh-roasted, fair trade coffee and routinely make the hour+ drive to stock up on their beans. Off season dining options abound and include Hercules Bar and Grill, the welcoming old theatre Marquee at Phil’s Bar and Grill and the very traditonal and golf-clubby casual dining of The Grill Room at the Clearbrook Golf Club .

On your way to Douglas, stop for a locally brewed beer and a bite at the Saugatuck Brewing Co. Maggie’s Irish (a nitro beer) and Pumpkin Chai were our favorites over a snowy lunch of one of their unique Pizza cum Pub Pies. Douglas offers quaint shopping and lovely seasonal strolls and is home to many small businesses, art galleries, restaurants and much more. Get your java jive on with the lovely ladies at Respite Cappucino Court but don’t stop there: from vegetarian, to vegan, their Pure Michigan-based healthy menu includes something for every taste, including fresh wraps, breakfast bowls and gorgeous salads. If you are still hungry, stop for lunch at The Wild Dog Grill for some un-pubish pub food. Cross the street and enjoy a Bubbles and Bites Lunch at Everyday People Cafe , but fair warning: they do not accept reservations and the line ups are long, especially at the height of the summer tourist season. Continue to browse the main street for any last minute Thanksgiving provisions or plan ahead and do some unique and personal Christmas shopping.

15 minutes further south, Fennville offers unique shopping, browsing, coffee and dining options with Salt of the Earth a local favourite for great food, (vegetarian options!) and live music. Make sure you take away one of their salty artisinal loaves. We couldn’t get enough of the Solte Seedy: fresh out of their wood fired ovens, the sour dough is flavoured with aromatic poppy, flax, sesame, onion and fennel seeds and then dusted with a gracious crown of grey sea salt. Yum! Our Michigan hosts are fans of hard cider so we hop over to Virtue Farms and endulge in a tasting at Virtue Cider. We spent a good hour of the late Thanksgiving eve afternoon, discussing and tasting everything Michigan hard cider and grabbed bottles of Percheron, Ledbury and Lapinette to serve with our Turkey the next day and to sip and share with friends over Thanksgiving Day food prep and pre-dinner cocktails.

What ever the season or the reason you are driving to or from this bucolic part of Western Michican, always check the Bluewater Bridge Border Crossing at Sarnia/Port Huron for customs and bridge delays before heading out.

Pure Michigan-well, my friends, what ever the season!


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World Traveler, Writer and Blogger, co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of the travel blog and contributer to @thesceneinTO and @WeRAddicted. Am a former Actor, current shower-singer and non-hipster foodie. Love my week-end house in St Marys, Ontario, Canada.

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