(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2005)
If you could fill an empty canvas with a painting of the most soothing and elegant fall weekend, the brush strokes surely would sweep across southwest Michigan. They would start on the boardwalk along the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck, where a couple watches sea gulls and sleek yachts glide toward Lake Michigan. And they would end atop a glamorous hotel in Grand Rapids, where guests indulge in gourmet dinners while the sunset softens the city into a pink blush.
In between, a portrait emerges of communities devoted to art, just 130 miles from Chicago. In Saugatuck, visitors observe nature's own handiwork during strolls along Lake Michigan's Oval Beach. Both here and in neighboring Douglas, galleries and shops celebrate creativity, while restaurants offer dishes fit for photographs. In Grand Rapids, nature-lovers walk quietly beside sculptures set among woods.
The communities' love of art is rooted in the area's heritage. More than 90 years ago, the Chicago Art Institute founded the Ox-Bow School of the Arts in Saugatuck. This summer endeavor, which flourishes today, brought artists who fell in love with the area's natural beauty. Many stayed.
A morning stroll among golden, skittering leaves in downtown Saugatuck could lead you past one of them. Visitors on their way for a cup of cappuccino at Uncommon Grounds on Hoffman Street might mistake Jim Brandess for a village worker. He's painting an alley wall next to the coffee shop and wearing a knit cap to keep the colors out of his hair. But he's not a workman. Jim is one of the town's top artists, and he's creating a seascape mural. This gift to Saugatuck is just around the corner from his James Brandess Studios & Gallery on Butler Street. Visitors chat with him there as he creates glorious flowers in oil and portraits of people-and even the dogs-who inhabit this town.
Jim's gallery is one of dozens in Saugatuck. They feature paintings, pottery, mosaics, sculpture, photography and much more.
But art's influences in this lakeshore community aren't limited to galleries. A leisurely trip down Saugatuck's boardwalk leads browsers to Good Goods, where sunlight makes vases, bowls and other orange glassware sparkle. Nearby Koorey Creations sells its own flashes of light: handcrafted jewelry created from precious gems set in gold and platinum. At R.C. Fulwiler's Photo/Graphics Gallery along Butler Street, this local photographer displays and sells his pictures of moody lake scenes and whimsical works.
After your morning coffee and stroll along the boardwalk, plan a crisp, fall-day cruise to Lake Michigan on the Star of Saugatuck. Board the paddleboat from the boardwalk. The narrated cruise sweeps past fabulous summer homes with walls of shining windows. Soon, the river's brown waters meld with Lake Michigan's blue, and the jaunt reveals tempting beaches along the shore. Make a mental note to explore Oval Beach before the weekend is over; it is nearly deserted this time of year, and considered one of the most beautiful shorelines in the world. Wind and water sculpt its wide sweep of smooth sand along Lake Michigan.
Evening brings a palette of dinner options. In Saugatuck, a pistachio-and-goat-cheese fondue accompanies Restaurant Toulouse's pork fillet in a softly lit romantic setting. The casual Coral Gables Restaurant along the waterfront joins a river view with steaks and sandwiches.
After dinner, it's time to relax near a fire with a good book. Little inns and bed and breakfasts, often former 19th-century homes, take pampering to an art form. Whirlpools, gardens and a lake breeze soothe in the evening at the Rosemont Inn Resort on Lakeshore Drive. Breakfast might include egg roulade with asparagus and hollandaise. Along Butler Street, the Maplewood Hotel, a white-pillared Greek Revival, has a TV tucked in each of its 15 rooms, but guests aren't quick to tune in. They'd rather nestle amid antique beds and armoires and settle into cushy sofas to plan the next day's adventures.
Owner Catherine Simon, who also serves on Saugatuck's city council, believes the artistic approach to serving visitors throughout the area is what brings them back. "Keeping the arts alive is vital to us," she says. "Our businesses depend on it, and, on a deeper level, it's a link to our heritage."
A visit to Douglas and Saugatuck alone easily fills a weekend. But an ultimate ode to art awaits just an hour inland in Grand Rapids, Michigan's second-largest city: Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Retail giant Meijer and his wife, Lena, launched this 125-acre oasis in 1995. The botanic site includes an outdoor sculpture park, a gallery, an amphitheater and conservatory.
"I learn something new every time, and it deepens my appreciation of art," resident Betty Thompson says of her frequent visits as she rides a narrated tram with out-of-town guests.
Even blind visitors can experience the park's hallmark, The American Horse, created by Nina Akamu. Leonardo da Vinci envisioned the concept 500 years ago but couldn't build it. (Metal at that time in war-ravaged Italy was used for cannonballs, not sculpture.) "Visitors with impaired sight feel a small replica, and then go touch the hooves," the tour guide says of the 24-foot-tall bronze horse. "They say then, they can see it perfectly."
During a visit to this graceful city on the Grand River, take in the nightlife at the Big Old Building (B.O.B.). The renovated 1903 warehouse is home to restaurants, a comedy club and a nightclub.
But a most fitting finale is an overnight at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, overlooking the river and its lighted bridges. Even though clothing can be fairly casual, you'll see couples dressed up a bit to dine and take in the view from the Cygnus restaurant on the 25th floor. They linger over a glass of wine and a toast to this ultimate weekend.