In Saugatuck, life's a beach--and much more

In a personal and strictly unscientific observation, the world of weekend getawayers seems to be divided into two groups: Chicagoans who have been to Saugatuck, Mich., and Chicagoans who have not. Upon hearing that I was going to Saugatuck, their reactions became predictable: Group A: "It was great!" Group B: "I know people who went there. They said it was great!"

I may now join the first group. Hey, what's not to like? This popular resort town along Lake Michigan boasts gorgeous beaches nestled against pristine sand dunes, an intriguing mix of art and commerce, and enough (but not too much) to do.The biggest hurdle, in the peak summer season anyhow, is booking a room. (See If You Go.) But once you get past that hassle, it's time to immerse yourself in this charming town.

Bordering the Kalamazoo River, Saugatuck dates back to the 1800s when it began life as a lumber town. The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 proved a little too good for business: Saugatuck and its neighbor, Singapore, cashed in on helping Chicago rebuild, then ran out of trees. Singapore eventually disappeared--literally, under sand dunes--but Saugatuck redefined itself through tourism. (The trees came back too.) Wealthy Midwesterners long had summer homes here, but soon Saugatuck began drawing less affluent vacationers for shorter stays. Significantly, some of those visitors were artists, many of whom stayed and some of whom in 1910 founded Ox-Bow, a summer art colony that is now affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago.

All of these riches--natural, financial, artistic and historic--have wielded their influences in a positive way.

Saugatuck is becoming a year-round destination, but its summer charms are considerable. An earlier trip to South Haven impressed, but two Saugatuck beaches made an even greater impact. Oval Beach is the popular spot of choice for sun and sand. You can take the Chain Ferry across the Kalamazoo to Oval Beach Road, or you can drive. My mom, my sister and I drove to the mile-long white sand beach with lifeguards, concessions and public restrooms. Even with a large Sunday afternoon crowd, we had no trouble finding a spot to call our own. You can sidestep the parking fee if you visit after 6 p.m.; you might not get a suntan, but you'll be treated to a highly recommended sunset. Healthier for you, anyhow.

Another beach worth visiting--provided you can reach it--is at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. Parking is free, but there's a different kind of price to pay. To get to the beach, you have to take a rather arduous hike through the park. Actually, I'm not sure whether the trails--which serve cross-country skiers in the winter--are arduous because I kept getting lost, or because, well, they're arduous. They're marked, sort of, with colored posts that we were unable to decipher.

Fifteen minutes into the first foray, a passing hiker informed us we were on the "long trail." He directed us to the "short trail." (The shortest trail, according to the Visitors Guide, is 2.5 miles, but somebody else told me it was 1 mile. It felt like 5.)

We've since talked to others who said they gave up before finding the beach. But hang in there: The payback is considerable. The soothing power of this trek, where black squirrels and all manner of birds are the only company you may have, will linger in the memory. It's a remarkable walk, though it may prove too much for some, especially if you're loaded with beach and lunch gear. But when you make it past the last of the towering trees to the lake beyond, you'll be amply rewarded. This majestic beach stretches for miles. With its rugged backdrop of forest, its unbroken stretch of white sand and the pristine vista of blue water beyond, it inspired memories of Maui's Makena (Big) Beach.

A less taxing way to appreciate the water, with a bit of history thrown in, comes courtesy of the 80-foot Star of Saugatuck II, an authentic sternwheel paddleboat. The 1 1/2-hour narrated cruise gives you just enough information to retain it, and plenty of quiet time to enjoy conversation or reflection--and a beer or soda, both sold on the boat. Seating is available on an enclosed lower deck and covered top deck, with tables and chairs provided for the leisurely ride. The boat cruises the Kalamazoo River and, conditions permitting, Lake Michigan. It also passes many of the area's palatial summer homes and, consequently, inspires a sudden desire to buy lottery tickets once you're off the boat.

Another marine vessel worth mentioning is the Saugatuck Chain Ferry, a barge that takes passengers across the Kalamazoo River. Launched in 1838, it's the oldest and last remaining hand-cranked ferry in the world. Kids will probably get a kick out of riding on this while watching the "driver" crank it across the river.

And what's a vacation without shopping? Not much, judging by the crowds here. (Attention Alan Greenspan: Consumer spending is alive and well in Saugatuck.) The business district is compact--about 8 square blocks--and easy to navigate. You'll have your bearings within an hour or so of strolling.

We rambled into dozens of shops and happily found a variety of ways to part with our cash. The stores stock unusual, interesting items we haven't seen anyplace else, with "Saugatuck"-emblazoned paraphernalia kept to a minimum.

To keep rampant commercialism in check, pop into one of the dozens of art galleries sprinkled throughout the mix; exhibiting artists (some of them the gallery owners) are often inside and, in some cases, hard at work.

All of this, though on a much smaller scale, can be found in the neighboring village of Douglas. (The two towns share a tourism bureau and business association.) We were charmed with the quaint and clean business district along Center Street. To complement Saugatuck, Douglas' stores emphasize interior design, with items for home and garden.

Art doesn't limit itself to the indoors. Twenty-one sculptures, part of Saugatuck's annual "Art 'Round Town" exhibit, are situated throughout the business district. (Walking tour maps are everywhere.) Less publicized but equally enchanting, for gardeners anyway, will be the myriad examples of creative and lush landscaping, whether formally presented in Mize Rose Garden at Butler and Mason Streets, or complementing the exterior of a shop. Plants are taken seriously here.

As is food. We didn't have one bad meal. We asked for recommendations, but because everyone kept giving us different favorites we finally gave up trying to follow the critics and let expediency be our guide. Enough options at enough price ranges will satisfy visitors.

Several restaurants offer musical entertainment, but we limited our nightlife to the Red Barn Playhouse, one of five converted barns-to-theaters in the country. Judging by "Suds," a musical revue that played in June, the theatrical product is city-slicker quality.

We aren't golfers, so we can't critique the courses and other amenities available here. But they're considerable enough to mention, especially HillTop Center, a golf learning center with indoor and outdoor play. You can't use your drivers inside the 8,500-square-foot facility, but you'll be able to putt, chip and pitch, courtesy of greens, sand traps and bunkers. A two-story driving range outside has heated tees to extend the season. Saugatuck-Douglas also has several golf courses, including Ravines, designed by Arnold Palmer.

There was more to do that we didn't get around to. Next time we'll visit the S.S. Keewatin, a Great Lakes luxury liner built in 1905 that is now a steamship museum. We'll sample wine and take a tour of Fenn Valley Vineyards and Winery. We'll hitch a ride on a dune schooner. We'll check out all those shops and galleries there wasn't time to visit the first time around.

Or maybe not. Maybe we'll just park at the beach and call it a weekend.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Saugatuck is about 140 miles from Chicago. (And, don't forget, on Eastern Time.) Take Interstate Highway 94 east toward Detroit. Exit at Interstate 196 North to Exit 36.

LODGING

The major hurdle in the summer: finding a place to stay. During high season (May through October), most places have two- or three-night minimums on weekends, and many of their regulars book months or even a year in advance. I went with two adults for a Saturday-Sunday stay in June. There was no room at any of the B&Bs I called in early May, but we finally got lucky at AmericInn, a national motel chain with a new location in neighboring Douglas. But there was a catch: No single rooms with two double beds; just a two-room suite with a jacuzzi we never used. At more than $200 a night, it was steep, though on par with some of the higher priced B&Bs in Saugatuck. Lower-priced and equally charming options are available--if you can book them. The Saugatuck-Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.saugatuck.com) has a Web site that lists availability for upcoming weekends to help latecomers. Accommodations loosen up after Labor Day.

Although this column is titled "Weekend Getaway," two points are worth noting: Though Friday-Saturday night stays can be tough to find, all the innkeepers we talked to had rooms available Sundays through Thursdays. And the fact that Saugatuck is only 2 to 2 1/2 hours from Chicago makes it a worthy day-trip too.

AmericInn Motel & Suites (2905 Blue Star Hwy., Douglas; 269-857-8581 or 800-634-3444) is not within walking distance of downtown Saugatuck. What it does have: a respectable continental breakfast, indoor pool with whirlpool and sauna.

If you must have a B&B, we peeked into two beauties:

The Newnham SunCatcher Inn (131 Griffith St.; 800-587-4249) is a charming B&B that has lots going for it, not least of which is the attractive outdoor pool and hot tub. Seven rooms.

Wickwood Inn (510 Butler St.; 616-857-1465; www.wickwoodinn.com) is a sumptuous B&B owned by "Silver Palate" cookbook author Julee Rosso and her husband, Bill Miller. 11 rooms.

ACTIVITIES

Star of Saugatuck boat cruises (716 Water St.; 269-857-4261; www.saugatuckboatcruises.com) offers 90-minute narrated cruises on an authentic sternwheel paddle boat from May through October. $17 adults, $8 children 6-12; $5 children 3-5; free ages 2 and under.

Oval Beach is reachable via the Chain Ferry or by car--you drive around Douglas to get there. Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.; parking fee in effect 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. is $6. Lifeguards, concessions, restrooms.

Saugatuck Dunes State Park is north of Saugatuck off Blue Star Highway. Parking is free. Restrooms and picnic area, no lifeguards. The trails to the beach are cross-country ski trails--a map is available in the Saugatuck-Douglas Visitors Guide or on its Web site, www.saugatuck.com.

Red Barn Playhouse (63rd Street and Blue Star Highway; 269-857-5300) is a professional summer theater that presents shows at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays through Sept. 28.

HillTop Golf Center, 6069 Blue Star Hwy., 269-857-1044. Buckets of golf balls for the outdoor driving range and indoor rental rates for the short game are available.

DINING

Coral Gables Restaurant (220 Water St.; 269-857-2162) was not mentioned by anyone we talked to, but we're glad we stopped there. Its harborfront location makes this a super spot for lunch or early dinner. We enjoyed a terrific meal, served by a pleasant waitress. Indoor and outdoor dining; lunch and dinner.

Pumpernickels (202 Butler St.; 269-857-1196) is known for its breakfast, deservedly so (try and sit in the cozy screened-in porch). We also took home a loaf of wonderful, fresh-baked bread (pumpernickel, of course). Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served.

Everyday People Cafe (11 Center St., Douglas; 269-857-4240) offers a pleasant venue for fine dining, with a creative and sophisticated menu in a charming, pretension-free atmosphere. Dinner is served nightly except Wednesday; breakfast and lunch also offered.

For a short respite and a jolt of energy, Uncommon Grounds Coffeehouse (127 Hoffman St.; 269-857-3333 ) makes a mean cappuccino, as well as other coffee and juice drinks.

For something sweeter, try a sundae in the old-fashioned ice cream parlor in Saugatuck Drug Store (201 Butler St.; 269- 857-2300), complete with vintage Coca-Cola signs and red stools. And when we say old-fashioned, we mean old-fashioned: the soda fountain opened for business 75 years ago.

INFORMATION

Contact the Saugatuck/Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau, 269-857-1701, or visit its comprehensive Web site at www.saugatuck.com.

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