Midwest Fruit Belt
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2004)
You've heard of being in the right place at the right time. Under a springtime robin's-egg-blue sky, as your car dips and twists on roads that wind through acres of tidy grapevines and tousled fruit trees overflowing pink and white, it hits you: This is what that perfect fusion of place and time feels like.
When April tumbles over to May, this southwest Michigan region at the bottom tip of the Midwest's fruit belt -- our most prolific fruit-bearing area -- offers a postcard-perfect image. The abundance of fruit trees is the key here. Long before their branches turn harvest-time heavy, they're lit with blossoms. These beautiful byproducts alone are reason enough to jump in your car, roll down your windows, and head out for a spring day's drive on the winding two-lane roads of and around Berrien County.
There's so much happening in this region now, just after the last bit of snow has melted. Shimmering, blue Lake Michigan is always a sight (and, incidentally, its climate-moderating effect helps make the blossoms possible). Cruising among small lakeside towns and those that dot the countryside, you'll come across orchards, wineries and the historic Blossomtime Festival -- all beautiful reasons to stop and stretch your legs, while soaking in southwest Michigan's springtime beauty.
Peeling red-and-white barns and well-traveled gravel roads attest to the area's lengthy agricultural history. More than 200 years ago, the region's first apple orchard was planted on the banks of the St. Joseph River. The fruit flourished, and others followed -- peaches, apricots, plums, pears, strawberries and cherries.
This fruit industry was well underway in 1906, when the Reverend W. J. Cady blessed the blossoms and encouraged his Benton Harbor parishioners to drive their horse-drawn wagons through orchards to view them. So began the official Blessing of the Blossoms, the nondenominational service that opens the Blossomtime Festival, a weeklong celebration during the anticipated prime flowering time at the end of April and beginning of May that unites about two dozen agricultural towns.
Most of the festival happens in St. Joseph and Benton Harbor, the area's largest towns, joined by a bridge over the St. Joseph River.
Benton Harbor hosts the Miss Blossomtime Coronation and the Blessing of the Blossoms. The more visitor-friendly and picturesque St. Joe, with its lamppost-lined streets and prime Lake Michigan location, hosts a carnival at Silver Beach near the St. Joseph Lighthouse.
The big event is the Grand Floral Parade, a two-hour affair of flower-covered floats and high-energy high school bands that travel the bridge between the cities. Fresh off a parade float, last year's Miss Congeniality, Emily Eller of Stevensville, said: "This is the big festival that brings us together to celebrate the agriculture of the area, which is important to all our communities. I love spring here. So invigorating. It's just beautiful."
About 10 miles northeast of St. Joe, driving a tree-lined gravel driveway off Ryno Road brings you to Karma Vista Vineyard and Winery in Coloma. From here you'll see the beauty and the bounty that drew Joe and Sue Herman to this hilltop.
"We wanted this view, and to get as close to our vineyards as we could," Sue says. She's standing in the winery's spacious tasting room before a window that reveals grapevines, then cherry trees, then sand dunes that plunge down to Lake Michigan. Though grape-growing is a new venture for the Hermans, the family has grown fruit in southwest Michigan for six generations.
Multigenerational fruit-growing is a common theme in Berrien County. Following beautifully wavy Friday Road a few miles south of Karma Vista brings you to Jollay Orchards at the crest of a low-lying hill. During the first weekend in May, sixth-generation farmer Jay Jollay opens the doors of his white barn-turned-shop to sell jams, pies and asparagus.
Jollay is one of the few orchards open at blossom time, and Jay provides visitors plenty to do, even without produce to pick. Huck Finn-style fishing poles and bait await use on the stocked pond. Red Flyer wagons, also used during the you-pick season, let visitors haul their kids through Jollay's 140 acres. So many different fruits are planted here, including cherries, peaches, apples and plums, that there's generally something flowering all spring.
Almost any drive inevitably leads to the Red Arrow Highway, which runs near the Lake Michigan shoreline. You'll see fewer blossoms here, but the awesome lake helps. Lake Shore and Lake View roads intermittently veer off the highway, curving closer to the water. Another nice driving break: Warren Dunes State Park near Sawyer. Hikes offer some springtime blooms, as well as rolling sand dunes and Lake Michigan vistas.
Most of the area's lodgings are near the highway, too.
Often, the many coastline inns feature blossoms out their front doors and Lake Michigan out the back. A beautiful example of this is the Sandpiper Inn, in Union Pier, filled with pillowy beds, neutral colors, fireplaces and lake-facing windows. "Whenever things get hectic," says co-owner Veronica Lynch, who left Chicago for the inn and its surroundings, "all I have to do is look outside."
Places like this allow you to end your day of driving with a stroll along the lake or simply a seat overlooking it. Even without a blossom in sight, it's a striking view that confirms that you are, most definitely, in the right place.