SAUGATUCK, Mich—City fathers in this Lake Michigan community know exactly what visitors think of the town. They send e-mail.
"I think of Saugatuck as a summer fun town," one visitor wrote, "with lots of stores to shop in and lots of boats to walk by." Another electronic missive compared Saugatuck to coastal New England. A third summed it up as "peaceful, peaceful, peaceful."Those comments paint an accurate picture of Saugatuck, which lies just off Interstate Highway 94 a few miles from the Dutch-themed resort of Holland on the route from Chicago to Grand Rapids. One other visitor's e-mail fills out the town portrait: "We come here to purchase paintings every time we visit."
Art is a way of life here. The town entrance sign takes the form of an artists' palette, and the exterior of the public restrooms in Wicks Park is painted in the style of French Impressionist Georges Seurat.
Saugatuck, with a population of about 1,000, has more than 40 art galleries, including the Joyce Petter Gallery, biggest in the Midwest outside Chicago and Detroit. The prestigious Art Institute of Chicago has conducted the Summer School of Painting at Ox-Bow Lagoon here since 1910, several art events are staged in summer, and every year the Art 'Round Town Committee mounts a changing set of outdoor statuary in various downtown locales.
But colorful Saugatuck has much more on its canvas. It's a resort town, after all, with so many bed-and-breakfast inns (38) that it's sometimes called the B&B capital of the Midwest. Most people come here to wind down, especially those from such urban imbroglios as Chicago, 141 miles away, or Detroit, 189 miles to the east.
They'll stroll on downtown's shaded sidewalks, perusing the upscale offerings of pretty shops nestled in Victorian buildings. They duck into such venerable establishments as Wilkins Hardware, which still has a hand-cranked elevator, or Saugatuck Drug Store, whose vintage soda fountain prepares ice cream sodas the old-fashioned way.
Not far away, Tucks, a Christmas store, is open the year-round and does an enormous mail-order business from every state in the nation.
At Dockside Marketplace, one-of-a-kind shops like My Favorite Dish are the lures, and one can take lunch here al fresco on the Mermaid Bar's wooden dock. A few yards away stands Coral Gables, a landmark waterfront building with several restaurants and a popular sports bar.
For golfers, Saugatuck offers three courses, one of them (The Ravines) designed by Arnold Palmer. If you want to get the kids into the game, sign up at the HillTop Golf Center, billed as the nation's largest year-around golf education center.
"Dune schooner" rides on the coastal sand dunes are another family favorite. A few miles away, Oval Beach offers fabulous sunset vistas.
Dining runs the gamut, except that you won't find a single chain restaurant in Saugatuck or in the neighboring smaller but increasingly trendy town of Douglas. Great burgers are served up at Wally's, a local hangout, and you'll get English pub food and imported ales at Chequers.
Further up the culinary scale, try Toulouse, a French restaurant housed in an old livery stable, or Clearbrook, which has continental cuisine. Chaps, in Douglas, also is known for fine dining.
With its protected natural harbor, it's not surprising that Saugatuck possesses the last of the many passenger vessels that cruised the Great Lakes a century ago. The SS Keewatin can be visited but stays moored. The sternwheeler Star of Saugatuck, however, paddles past the downtown waterfront and the trophy homes on the Kalamazoo River and even ventures out into Lake Michigan if conditions permit.
A real relic--and the only one still operating in the United States--is Saugatuck's chain ferry. With no engine or sails, it is drawn across the river by chain.
Newly notorious is the former motel where Tom Hanks last year filmed "Road to Perdition," a movie set in the Capone era. Hanks' presence in Saugatuck caused quite a stir, and people still gawk at the old Packard sedan that's parked at the place.
Capone and his gangsters, by the way, often spent real-life weekends in Saugatuck, just as many Chicagoans do today. Maybe that's why we now call such trips "getaways."
Information: Saugatuck/Douglas Convention and Visitor Bureau, P.O. Box 28, Saugatuck, MI 49453; 616-857-1701 or www.saugatuckmichigan.org.