This is the Around Lake Michigan Drive. It can be a good one.
Attitude is the key to enjoying it. Unless you catch some fall color, the roadside scenics for the most part are not spectacular. When you can't see the lake--and most of the time, you can't--it's essentially a drive that connects places with OK school systems, low crime rates and faded downtowns.And yet . . .
When you can see Lake Michigan--and from time to time you can--that changes everything.
Even non-sailors can appreciate the loveliness of a full spinnaker against deep blue.
Everyone loves beaches.
It's the surprises, on both shores, that surprise.
It begins in Chicago, where it's cooler near the lake . . .
Chicago-Sheboygan Falls, Wis.
There are things to see along Sheridan Road up and out of the city. There are even beaches, some of them free.
We want Wisconsin, and we want it now. We take the big highway. And a right turn off Interstate Highway 94 at tighter Wisconsin Highway 50 brings us to Kenosha.
This is a town still trying to recover from lost industry. HarborPark--marina-view condos plus greenery and paths--is helping. Here, too, is the 2-year-old Kenosha Public Museum. Top billing goes to a pair of wooly mammoths unearthed nearby. One is a pile of real bones. The other is fully assembled--but it's a replica. The real mammoth? "That one's in storage," says a museum person.
Meanwhile, the first-year Kenosha Mammoths of the Frontier League averaged 636 fans this summer in New Deal-era Simmons Park (capacity 3,000). Extinction is not out of the question . . .
And speaking of
: Carthage College is just up the road to--Racine.
This is another downtown in transition. For now, Racine's draw remains
's SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower. It's open for tours but, these days, only on Fridays, and you'd better have a reservation (262-260-2154). "They're usually pretty full," says a guard.
Today is not Friday. I settle for a picture from a remote parking lot.
Milwaukee as seen from the Interstates is the standard urban mix. That's what we see en route to a ballgame at Miller Park.
But staying closer to Lake Michigan on Wisconsin Highway 32 up from Racine we discover a Milwaukee many of us have never seen: downtown renewal brimming with life--then, farther on, a succession of amazing mansions facing handsome lakefront parkland.
We knew about the brats (with the Secret Stadium Sauce) and Al McGuire, even about the art museum. No one ever told us about this . . .
Port Washington has aged well. Its downtown still has places to buy warm clothes and cold beer. Fishing charters launch from here; Capt. Nick Waranka is cleaning some of the 17 chinook salmon landed that morning. Largest: a 23-pounder.
"And that," says Capt. Nicky, "was a small one."
You can still buy mustripen at Bernie's Market--a sausage made of pork, cabbage and . . . other good things. Bernie's doesn't sell them cooked.
"You've got to have enough guts to buy one and try it," insists Jan Salchert, the owner's wife. I have the guts. I don't have the refrigeration.
Port Washington, like that sausage, has roots in Luxembourg; there are traces of other heritages along this route, with place names like Belgium and Oostburg.
Sheboygan Falls? It's the kind of cute little Wisconsin town that'll make you want to open a beer joint and sponsor a softball team.
Sheboygan Falls-Peshtigo, Wis.
Like Racine and Kenosha, downtown Sheboygan is transitioning. Parks and beaches help make the city a good place in which to grow up. Not far up the shoreline is a miracle of a golf course.
Whistling Straits, part of Kohler's American Club empire, looks and plays exactly like an Irish or Scottish links course (Ireland's Ballybunion was the inspiration), especially when there's wind, which there usually is. For atmosphere, Irish caddies have been imported. If that isn't enough: The course is also home to 50 free-roaming black-faced Irish sheep.
Would play, but can't risk missing Manitowoc.
They don't build ships here anymore, but they did. In the 1940s, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co. built 28 submarines. Four of the 28, and their crews, didn't survive.
Docked alongside the Wisconsin Maritime Museum here is the U.S.S. Cobia. It was born in Connecticut, not Wisconsin, but the sub saw action at Iwo Jima, and today it sees inaction in Manitowoc as a tourable attraction.
A nice drive out of Manitowoc along the lakeshore--lots of open beach visible from the road--leads to the town of Two Rivers. Here, the ice cream sundae was born. In 1881. That's what the state historical society's sign in the town square says.
Don King, a genial volunteer, makes them in the Washington House (1850), a former "immigrant hotel," now a museum, that resembles the originating parlor.
I mention to him that Evanston has always claimed the sundae was born down the lake in Evanston.
"Well," he says, "the historical society, they gave it to us. But I imagine there are different stories . . ."
Then, the subject changing, he says something else.
"I always bet against
," he says. "I'm a Packer backer . . . "
In that instant, despite the known existence of a "hall of fame" there, it is decided Green Bay will get along without Chicago money on this drive.
It goes, instead, to Peshtigo.
Peshtigo-St. Ignace, Mich.
Peshtigo has no "
's cow" legend. No cartoons. Nothing cute.
"Farmers were clearing land," says Ruth Wiltzius, a curator/guide in the Peshtigo Fire Museum, "and they always had little brush fires and peat fires. Well, that night a tornadolike wind came up . . .
"In one hour, the whole town was gone."
It was Oct. 8, 1871. Down Lake Michigan, about 300 people lost their lives in the
. In this little settlement on the Peshtigo River near the arm of Lake Michigan called Green Bay--on that same day--fire killed 1,200 of the town's 2,000 residents.
Photographs of the ruins of Chicago fill books. Of the four surviving photos of post-fire Peshtigo--that's all, just four--one shows nothing but a dead deer in a fire-stripped forest.
The lone fire remnants in the museum: a few pieces of broken dinnerware, a ledger that had been protected by safe, a scorched Bible and a blackened 2-by-4.
Steps away is a mass grave.
U.S. Highway 41 glides north from Peshtigo through Marinette's shell of a downtown. Then it crosses the Menominee River into Menominee, Mich., which has a shell of its own. The shells have charm, but most of the business is out on U.S. 41, including Schloegel's Restaurant, where the trip's first Upper Peninsula pasty costs $4.65.
(For the uninitiated: A pasty is essentially a hot meat pie for one. They are everywhere up there. Fillings vary. The essential condiment is ketchup. Always.)
Michigan Highway 35 branches off 41 and turns woodsy in a hurry as it leaves Menominee. A few miles up, a crude sign alongside a pickup truck says "bear bait." It is outside Hubert's Auto Body.
"What," I ask Mike Hubert, "is `bear bait'?"
"Stuff to feed the bear," says Hubert. "This is mostly syrups and candy."
Prospective hunters, says Hubert--a delightful guy with a great laugh, and I'd say that even if he didn't own firearms--set the stuff in designated areas and hope a bear or two comes by and likes it. Eventually, when hunting season begins and the bears come by looking for a refill . . .
"Sometimes we'll put the whole bear on a spit," says Hubert, "drink some beer and talk stupid."
For the moment, I do not want to take a walk in the woods.
Escanaba's Sand Point Lighthouse was operated by Mary Terry from its opening in 1868 until 1886, when she was found mysteriously dead there after a mysterious fire. No charges were ever filed, but Bud Stegath, who has been welcoming folks for 19 years, has his theory.
"I think the handyman did it," says Stegath. "It was a robbery that went awry." And Mary went away. This lighthouse isn't haunted. It is one of the few.
Seventeen miles down the Garden Peninsula (gateway is a dot called Garden Corners on U.S. Highway 2), Fayette was a smelting town of 500 founded just after the Civil War and largely abandoned by 1891. Today, partially restored but much left as is, it's maintained by the state.
It's especially wonderful late in the day, when it's just you and what's left.
And it is late in the day. The last ferry to Mackinac Island leaves at 8:30 p.m., but there's time.
Then outside the Dreamland Restaurant in Gulliver is a sign . . .
"It's our secret recipe, been around for 40 years--same woman--handed down from her mom, who worked the lumber camps," says owner Bernadette Trotter.
Cabbagey pasty but very good.
I can still make the ferry.
The Lake Michigan shoreline comes back into view along U.S. 2 past Naubinway. There are scenic overlooks. They are irresistible. And places to walk along the shore. And more overlooks.
I miss the last ferry.
No problem . . .
St. Ignace-Traverse City, Mich.
The driver on the carriage tour--it's more a horsedrawn bus than a carriage--directs the passengers' attention to the right.
"There's the only `deer' on the island," he says. "Good old
. . . "
Yet people seem to like Mackinac Island. I need to know why.
"Relaxation," explains a woman from Indianapolis whose travels have taken her and her husband to Africa and China. From a younger woman on the return ferry to St. Ignace: "We rented a carriage yesterday for a couple of hours--you almost have to get away from the town to appreciate it . . . "
Next time, that's what I'll do. For now, after a third visit, fudge in hand and horse-poop dust in my lungs, once again I can't wait to get off Mackinac Island.
I do like the bridge.
Back on the Lower Peninsula. The map shows a backroad shortcut to the shoreline--County Road 66--and I head for Cross Village, thinking it's only a name. Then, when I see a sign, I remember I've been here before.
Stanley Smolak opened what became the Legs Inn in the 1920s. Today, still operated by assorted Smolaks (mainly George, who is Stanley's nephew, and his wife, Kathy), it is a tavern and casual restaurant serving all kinds of food--notably Polish--in an atmosphere that is best described as . . . as . . .
"My uncle," says George, "called it `a monument to nature.'"
"As corny as it sounds," says Chris Smolak, one of George's sons, "I don't think you could invent a place like this--created by a guy I wish I knew."
And it's at the northern entrance to the Tunnel of Trees.
In peak leaf-color season, Michigan Highway 119 must be astounding; in green-leaf season, after a few miles, you just want to get there. "There" is Harbor Springs, whose downtown is among the prettiest around. There is a sense that outsiders are welcome only if they behave themselves and don't get too, too comfortable . . . but that's OK.
Because down U.S. Highway 31, past Petoskey State Park (and its great beach), comes Petoskey, whose spiffy Gaslight District has spiffed away the city's blue-collar grunge. Then comes Charlevoix, which is a Harbor Springs that actually wants tourists, especially tourists with golf clubs (courses abound) and money (cheap rooms don't).
South from Charlevoix, U.S. 31--except where it tickles a couple of inland lakes--is just a farm road with some hills, some orchards and a few farm stands.
Then, in Acme: the Music House Museum. It is, mostly, a collection of music boxes and antique music-generating machines. The smallest fits in your palm; the largest--the Amaryllis Mortier Dance Organ--is, well, huge.
"This," says guide Margie Werner, "happens to be the second-largest working dance organ in the world."
And it mechanically plays a terrific "Stars and Stripes Forever," including the piccolos. The ears ring merrily all the way into Traverse City.
Traverse City-Grand Haven, Mich.
Especially seen while driving in on U.S. 31, Traverse City at first is just a congested strip of large and less-large motels. Fortunately, closer to downtown there are waterfront parks (including a beach and a zoo) and a new marina. And downtown Traverse City is a nice-enough place to visit.
The best news: The seasonal guide published by the Traverse City Record-Eagle lists 116 area golf courses.
Michigan Highway 22, picked up west of town, loops the Leelenau Peninsula. Development continues its war here with the orchards, vineyards and wineries. Suttons Bay, not long ago little more than a trading post for vacationers and local Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, has blossomed--for better or worse--into a full-service enclave complete with condos.
Just past town, there's the Indian casino. Coming up, a sign says, in the showroom:
and a Chinese circus, not on the same bill.
Northport, the peninsula's northernmost town, is like a comfortable pair of old jeans, happily faded and entirely without pretense. Near the water is a weatherbeaten shack promising "nautical gifts." Inside is a man named Marshall Collins.
"Most people call me Brother Collins," he says, and he works with Petoskey stones, the state stones of Michigan.
A retired pastor, Brother Collins began creating amulets and things from slices of these fist-size stones, actually fossilized coral. He has been working with it for 25 of his 72 years. He has been selling his work from this shop for 18.
The work is beautiful.
From Northport, Michigan 22 continues scenically down the peninsula's west side to Leland. Unlike Northport there are rooms to rent here and you can pay a lot for a meal--but like Northport, the pleasantness is intact. Still farther south, and still by way of scenic 22, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore deserves more than a quick look at the monster sand piles. The quick look, this time, is all it gets. Near Arcadia, the road climbs, and from this scenic overlook high above the water the Lake Michigan coastline is more Big Sur than Big Ten.
Past Manistee--and do at least drive through downtown Manistee (amazing what a functioning movie theater does for a traditional downtown)--Ludington State Park offers about as good a beach as there is: powdery sand, pretty dunes and lots of room. A detour off U.S. 31 through Pentwater is refreshing; our stay is only long enough to remind us how much we like the place.
We move on because there's a key lighthouse down the road in Whitehall: the White River Light Station Museum.
Karen McDonnell has been curator here for 20 years.
"We do have something that walks about," she says. "I like to believe it is the original lightkeeper . . . "
McDonnell hates sensationalism. The real history of the lighthouse, which began in 1875, is the story she truly wants to tell.
Nonetheless . . .
"When he comes it's always on the second floor, down the corridor, between 2 and 4 a.m."
The museum is full of artifacts--one from the Edmund Fitzgerald. McDonnell loves every artifact.
Still . . .
"It almost feels like a guardian watching over the place . . . "
I'd wait around, but I've already lost my chance to tour the submarine in Muskegon and I don't want to miss the Grand Haven Musical Fountain.
Dinner with old Grand Haven friends runs long. I miss the Grand Haven Musical Fountain. In fact, just about everything is closed in Grand Haven.
I'm tempted to wake Karen McDonnell . . .
When all that's moving is a few joggers, fishermen and gulls--when even Lake Michigan hasn't awakened and the sunlight is soft--walking the pier out to the Grand Haven lighthouses is truly one of life's pleasures.
No, I didn't call Karen McDonnell.
Michigan Highway 31 slows through Grand Haven for the motels, then speeds up again as it passes farm stands selling, this time of year, local blueberries, peaches and nectarines.
It's good to see Dutch Village. A town named Holland should have a big Dutch windmill on the main highway. For years, this big Dutch windmill has been the home, naturally, of a big Chinese restaurant. Days before this drive, though, the Far East Garden Buffet in the big Dutch windmill gave it up.
"We're looking for another company to go in there," says a man who works in the shop that sells wooden shoes and Delft sugar bowls. "So if you know anybody, send 'em our way "
My way is back on the highway, to visit the Wooden Shoe Factory. It has been there forever. It's where you could watch the whole process, order custom-made shoes . . .
It's closed. Shut down. Has been, I'm told, for a couple of years.
They still make the wooden shoes and Delft sugar bowls, and sell tulip bulbs, at Veldheer's, a few minutes back. Kurt Freeman is a manager there. "I was sorry to see them go," he says.
The bus tours stop at Veldheer's now. I go to Saugatuck.
Long an artists' town, in recent years it seemed in danger of becoming a fudge and T-shirt town. From all appearances, it's still an artist's town.
"More so than ever," says James Brandess, who tolerates gawkers as he completes a marvelous floral still-life in his Butler Street studio-gallery.
"We don't know if people are just traveling more locally this year," says Bill Davis, who manages Bill Baughman's gallery next door, "but we've had a good year. It's a great town."
With a great beach. Oval Beach. I walk it a bit, and later stop at Warren Dunes long enough to hear the giggly squeals of kids running down one major slope.
But I want to find this one thing . . .
The people who truly love the Northports and the Pentwaters and the Door Counties are the ones who have family cottages in these places.
We had a cottage in Lakeside. It was rented and it wasn't on the water or anything, and we were only there a few years. But the bed squeaked and my cousins and I got sticky climbing trees, and we played ball and sailed 10-cent gliders and caught fireflies there, and I remember it all.
I find Lakeside. I don't find the cottages.
Back on the road. The old Red Arrow Highway merges with U.S. Highway 12, which is nothing special but just slow enough to match the melancholy as we enter Indiana. In Michigan City, the Old Lighthouse Museum is already closed, and dark clouds have discouraged a planned early evening walk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
I avoid the Indiana Tollway and stay on this road through the stench of Burns Harbor and into Gary.
And right on that road, U.S. 12, there is a ballpark.
The second-year Gary SouthShore RailCats of the Northern League averaged 3,189 fans this summer in brand new U.S. Steel Yard (capacity 6,000). Extinction--for the RailCats, and maybe now, for Gary--is out of the question . . .
The entrance to the tollway, Interstate Highway 90, is near the ballpark, and I take it. The
is visible from the Chicago Skyway. So is Lake Michigan.
It is not visible from the Dan Ryan Expressway.
So I leave I-90 at Stony Island Avenue and stay with it as it enters
to 57th Street and past the
--than marvelous relic--and onto Lake Shore Drive.
The Drive toward that skyline. The drive home, along Lake Michigan.
Chicago-Sheboygan Falls, Wis.: 166 miles
The route: Interstate Highway 94/U.S. Highway 41 to Wisconsin Highway 50 into Kenosha; Wisconsin Highway 32 through Racine and Milwaukee, then (sometimes shared with Interstate Highway 43) into Port Washington, back on I-43 to Wisconsin Highway 28 and into Sheboygan Falls.
Overnight: Rochester Inn (a B&B), Sheboygan Falls.
Best grub: Whitefish with puffball mushrooms; Biro Restaurant and Wine Bar, Sheboygan.
Sheboygan Falls to Peshtigo, Wis.: 152 miles
The route: Wisconsin Highway 28 past Kohler into Sheboygan, Wisconsin Highway 42 back to Interstate Highway 43 north to Cleveland; backtrack on a back road to Haven, return to Cleveland and I-43 north to Manitowoc; Wisconsin 42 through Two Rivers to Wisconsin Highway 147 and onto I-43 through Green Bay to U.S. Highway 41 and into Peshtigo.
Overnight: Drees Motel, Peshtigo.
Best grub: 10-ounce tenderloin steak (including soup and salad); Bergs' Chop House, Peshtigo.
Peshtigo to St. Ignace, Mich.: 253 miles
The route: U.S. Highway 41 into Marinette, Wis., and across into Menominee, Mich.; Michigan Highway 35 from Menominee through Escanaba to U.S. 41/U.S. 2, then U.S. 2 east to Garden Corners; Michigan Highway 183 south to Fayette, then back north to Garden Corners, rejoining U.S. 2 and east into St. Ignace.
Overnight: Aurora Borealis Motor Inn, St. Ignace.
Best grub: Beer-battered Mackinac perch; Mackinac Grille, St. Ignace.
St. Ignace to Traverse City, Mich.: 134 miles
The route: Interstate Highway 75 across the Straits of Mackinac to U.S. Highway 31, south to County Highway 66 at Levering, west to Cross Village and Michigan Highway 119, south to U.S. 31 at Bay View and continuing into Traverse City.
Overnight: Traverse Victorian Inn, Traverse City.
Best grub: Bigos (Polish hunters' stew; appetizer size); Legs Inn, Cross Village, Mich.
Traverse City to Grand Haven, Mich.: 227 miles
The route: Michigan Highway 22 north to Northport, looping south through Leland and Frankfort to U.S. Highway 31 north of Manistee; then U.S. 31 (with some minor detours) through Ludington, Pentwater and Montague-Whitehall, past Muskegon into Grand Haven.
Overnight: Khardomah Lodge (shared bath), Grand Haven.
Best grub: Tournedos Oscar (filet mignons topped with crabmeat and bearnaise sauce); Arboreal Inn, Spring Lake, Mich.
Grand Haven to Chicago: 191 miles
The route: U.S. Highway 31 (becoming U.S. 31/Interstate Highway 196; with some minor detours) through Holland, into Saugatuck, past South Haven, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph to the Red Arrow Highway into Stevensville; the Red Arrow through Herbert, Lakeside and Union Pier to U.S. Highway 12; U.S. 12 through Michigan City and Gary to Interstate Highway 90 (the Chicago Skyway); off at Stony Island Avenue and through Jackson Park to Lake Shore Drive and home.
Best grub: Double-scoop cone (Traverse City cherry and Saugatuck mud); Kilwin's, Saugatuck.
Total miles: 1,123
Miles are actual miles driven but typically include meanderings. Lodgings listed as a guide to prevailing prices and not necessarily as recommendations. Room prices are for one person, tax included; doubles are usually slightly higher. All prices subject to change.
Highlights: In Wisconsin--Kenosha Public Museum, Racine Zoo, Milwaukee lakefront homes, Port Washington, Whistling Straits golf course (Kohler),Wisconsin Maritime Museum (Manitowoc), Peshtigo Fire Museum; in Michigan--Fayette pasties, Harbor Springs-Petoskey-Charlevoix, Northport and Leland, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Ludington State Park, Pentwater, Musical Fountain (Grand Haven), Saugatuck galleries, Warren Dunes; in Indiana--Indiana Dunes; in Wisconsin/Michigan--farm stands, lighthouses and Lake Michigan beaches.
Road food: Cheeses, cheese curds, bratwurst and other sausages, whitefish, smoked fish, frozen custard, pasties, fresh fruit, lake perch, burgers, Michigan wines, ice cream and seasonal fruit pies.
Best lodging: Rochester Inn (a B&B), Sheboygan Falls, Wis.
Best meal: Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp with basil, mozzarella and balsamic vinegar; and whitefish with Door County puffball mushrooms (seasonal); Biro Restaurant and Wine Bar, Sheboygan, Wis.
Best courthouse: Menominee (Mich.) County.
Best fauna: Monarchs. Around
, just about everywhere.
Best lakeside leaf drives, if you time it right: Michigan Highway 119, from Cross Village to Harbor Springs; and Michigan Highway 22, from Northport to Glen Arbor.
Best downtowns, aside from Milwaukee's: Port Washington, Wis., and Harbor Springs, Mich.
Best public beaches: Both in Michigan: Ludington State Park and, in Saugatuck, Oval Beach.
Best Lake Michigan Drive trivia: Lydia Clarke Heston, wife of Charlton, is great-great-granddaughter of Hezekiah Hunting Smith, a founder (in 1845) of Two Rivers, Wis., on the lake. They met as drama students at Northwestern, on the lake.
Best golf address: For The Bull, a new Nicklaus-designed golf course in Sheboygan Falls: One Long Drive.
Road best traveled: U.S. Highway 2 from Naubinway to Gros Cap, Mich.
-- Alan Solomon