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Beline Obeid

Rush to west coast for peace and relaxation

June 12, 2008
It's hard to explain Saugatuck, said city manager Kirk Harrier.

It is a beautiful place with a diverse community. A special feeling exudes from this town that offers a relaxed atmosphere with upscale dining, shopping and fine art. It is home to more than 1,000 and a summer home to another 3,000.

In brochures and travel magazines, Saugatuck is described as the Cape Cod of the Midwest located on the Art Coast of Michigan. Gov. Jennifer Granholm named Saugatuck one of the state's 19 "Coolest Cities." Saugatuck and nearby Douglas herald a thriving artist community and tourist trade.

Located three hours west of Detroit, it takes a half a tank of gas to arrive in this quieter, less schedule-driven part of the state.

Visitors from Chicago and St. Louis discovered the scene in the early 1900s to escape the heat and in the case of those hailing from St. Louis — the malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

The Native Americans discovered its clear waters and sheltered harbors.

The original welcome sign for Saugatuck is now housed in the city's historical museum. Photo by Ann L. Fouty
"The Indians knew Saugatuck was unique and had powwows here," Harrier said.

Lumber barons settled the area and founded Singapore. Its saw mills turned out barrels and lumber to rebuild Chicago after the 1871 fire. Singapore eventually disappeared and all that remains are large sand dunes.

After the lumber was gone, the coast was perfect for orchards, particularly peaches. Saugatuck became a shipyard and haven for ship captains.

In the 1880s, the cottage industry began to grow and Ox-Bow was established in the early 1900s as a summer retreat for artists. Today, Ox-Bow, affiliated with the Chicago Institute of Arts, boasts studios specializing in paper making, glass and ceramics, among others.

It remains, Harrier said, quaint and caters to a population which swells to 4,000 in the summer.

"It's a fun resort. It's geared to retail to the tourism market," he said from his office which overlooks the main corner of the city at Allegan and Butler streets. "It's like a walk back in time. And not by accident. This is not a cookie cutter (city). We have old growth trees which make the streetscape different. Saugatuck has character. You can be who you are here."

The retired, highly-educated and wealthy live side by side with the natives and the gay and lesbian community. It's harmonious and draws its lifeblood from Oval Beach — ranked as one of the top 25 beaches in the world by Conde Nast and one of the top two in the USA by National Geographic Traveler, said Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck/Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Red statues draw visitors into a harbor-side park and marina. The park is across the street from the Saugatuck Center for the Arts and the downtown shopping district. Photo by Ann L. Fouty
The Chicago Tribune rated it No. 1 out of the Midwest's top five beaches.

Oval Beach is backed by high grass-covered dunes and fronts Lake Michigan. To the north is Dunes State Park where visitors can bask in the sun, swim in the lake or picnic on the sand.

Boating, of course, is an integral part of the economy.

"Boating is a huge part of the industry, being so close to Lake Michigan," Harrier said.

Sergeant Marina, with a limited number of transient slips, is within walking distance of the city.

"This is where it happens. There is something special; part of it is the natural resources. Oval beach is pristine and natural. There is a certain feel to it. It's hard to explain, but it's the reason people keep coming back," he said.

As gas prices nudge $4.50 a gallon and the state dependent on tourism dollars, exploring the great state of Michigan's natural wonders and cultures is the beginning of a memoriable vacation. This Lake Michigan scene shows an old Army Corps of Engineer structure built to allow boats to go from Lake Michigan into the Kalamazoo harbor. Photo by Ann L. Fouty
Additionally there are 287 steps which lead up Mt. Baldhead and its World War II radar tower. Visitors can take a trip across the river in North America's only hand-cranked chain ferry, ride the WWII Duck between Saugatuck and Douglas or paddlewheel boat to view the cottages, million dollar homes, forests and the shoreline. There are boats, kayaks and jet skis to rent or sailboats to charter and fish to catch.

"There are a lot of beautiful parks and atmosphere. Memorial Day weekend — there was a certain energy that radiates here. There were people everywhere. The town was alive," he said.

"It was the busiest we've had in a long time."

Harrier and business owners are hoping that gas prices will keep people vacationing closer to home; staying in Michigan.

"It's a combination of what makes Saugatuck Saugatuck. It's the memories; the heritage. It's a summer holiday.

"The world is so big and this is one piece of the world. We will hold on to it and not over develop it. We are trying to keep Saugatuck unique, quirky and not slip away. As long as people believe that, we will put up a good fight."

And while the city officials are keeping Saugatuck Saugatuck, one must eat. There are no chains here but rather five-star restaurants to be enjoyed, jazz to be heard, honkytonks to stomp feet in and nightlife to be experienced.

"There are so many things to explore," he said. "It's a fun place to go. You want to become a part of the family." And the bottom line for Harrier is "a day away from Saugatuck is a day wasted."


Matt Balmer is the owner and chef of Everyday People Café in downtown Douglas, population 1,214.

Douglas Mayor Matt Balmer over sees the city of 1,214 and his restaurant Everyday People Cafe in a newly renovated downtown. Photo by Ann L. Fouty
He is also in his fourth year as mayor.

Balmer casually leans against the bar and talks about his adopted city with passion.

"It's quieter in Douglas and it has foot traffic," he said. "There are no parking issues. It's quieter and more relaxed."

On an early morning hosting a bright sun and a brilliant blue sky, Balmer recalled the recent Memorial Day weekend during which there was a slight upswing in business from the previous year — 10 people visited his restaurant. And he is optimistic about the summer trade, due in part to renovation efforts that began in the downtown about 12 years ago.

"We've grown so much. There are art galleries, jewelry stores, ladies apparel. We are branching out."

Indeed, in the quiet morning standing on the newly paved street, the shop fronts are freshly painted and the harbor is a glance away. There is no litter on the streets and "quaint" is the best word to describe this town nestled between Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo Harbor.

"Lake Michigan has benefited us, as has the great beach," he said.

Due to its location, Douglas — and its sister city, Saugatuck — both are home to marinas. Boaters can dock at the city's largest marina, Tower, with 150 slips. A five minute walk brings guests into Douglas for shopping or dining.

In a small waterfront park, at the foot of the business district, a family of Canada geese head out for a day in the water. They could become subjects of artists who are spending the summer at Ox-bow.

Ox-bow is affiliated with the Chicago Art Institute. Founded in 1910, it was a retreat for artists and is now called "The Art Coast of Michigan."

Today there are six studios featuring ceramics, glass, drawing, painting, papermaking and print making.

It is the berth place of the SS Keewatin — a Titanic-era steamship built in Scotland, cut in half for transport and is now a museum. Douglas also boasts a micro brewery, a do-it-yourself Art Barn and western Michigan's largest Antique Pavilion. A Duck (a former military style transport boat) offers harbor tours.

Obviously to Balmer, Douglas is a dining destination with menus changing seasonally.

"I make everything from scratch and in-house and buy from local farmers," Balmer said.

The combination of fine dining, good wine, relaxed atmosphere, safe environment and proximity, the town lives up to a local slogan, "The best things in life are Douglas."

Bed & Breakfast Valentine Lodge, under the ownership Allan and Margaret Boutin, offers a quiet respite minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Douglas and Saugatuck. Photo by Ann L. Fouty

Park the car by the edge of the lawn under the canopy of trees nearly as old as the B&B which they protect.

Stepping from the car onto the thick grass and walking up a narrow path surrounded by the greenest of green ground coverings, the guest has immediately left behind metro Detroit's life of schedules and details.

The porch is spacious and invites the guest to sit, rest and relax. The old oval door knob turns silently. The door opens to a sitting room with a pink and white striped overstuffed couch. A sigh of gratitude slips from one's lips.

The oval door know is one of the first antiques seen at the Valentine Lodge. Photo by Ann L. Fouty
Welcome to Valentine Lodge.

Margaret and Allan Boutin are the third owners of the Douglas B&B. Set across the road from Lake Michigan and surrounded by large stately trees, the three-story home has 10 guest rooms, each decorated in pastel colors, filled with antiques, comfortable beds and Margaret's paintings.

"Painting is a good outlet for me," she said, noting her husband has a studio behind the house where he paints.

The rooms on the second and third floors are named after the Boutins' four daughters and granddaughter. Many have private bathrooms.

Looking out the back windows on a deep-set backyard, Margaret said it has been the site of destination weddings. Today it is ready for guests to enjoy the early summer evenings.

However, it's a continental breakfast that brings Margaret and her three guests to the table where she serves homemade breads and muffins and locally grown, in-season fruits. A heartier breakfast, she said, includes an egg casserole with in-season vegetables.

The Valentine Lodge was built at the turn of the 20th century by the John Campbell family, early settlers of Douglas, for St. Louis, Mo. families, who were escaping the hot summers and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. She said the family was originally farmers and had a large orchard. To keep his young children "busy," the father, a ship's captain, had the lodging house built with wide halls to accommodate the trunks guests would bring for the summer.

Each of the three owners would add their own "furnishings," she said, including she and her husband who are retired New York teachers. Before retiring, they kept the lodge open only two months a year. Since retirement, it reamins open six months where 60 percent of their customers are repeats coming from Chicago, Indiana, St. Louis and Michigan.


Blake Hotz and Dave Gregerson mix it up in their bowling alley, the Lakeview Lanes, in Douglas which specializes in martinis. Photo by Ann L. Fouty
A bowling alley where martinis are routinely served is an off-beat combination.

However, it is working for Dave Gregerson and Blake Hotz and their Lakeview Lanes in Douglas.

"It's a strange combination," Gregerson admits. "I like to mix things up just for the fun of mixing."†

Since the opening eight months ago, the bowling and the martinis are drawing in customers year round — a goal set by the duo.

"There is a sophisticated clientele in this town and the bowling alley was one of the few businesses doing well in the winter," he said.

They purchased the building in 2007 with the idea of increasing summer business.

"We wanted to do something for the summer business, attract the summer customers. It seems to be working," Gregerson says.

Additionally, the two rescued a building in disrepair from being torn down.

"We saved the building from becoming condos."

Prior to Gregerson and Hotz purchasing the building, it was a typical bowling alley. It was dark, smoke-filled and existed on seasonal trade and summer rainy days.

Gregerson emphasized he didn't want to see yet another condo unit built when he and Hotz purchased the building in July 2007. They remodeled it to include an outdoor patio with a panel of windows.

As described in the brochure, it is an upscale, smoke-free bowling club with a chef, lounge, patio, porch and eight lanes. The doors opened in November and Curt Baas joined the team as chef.

"It was hard to get past the bar-style food," Gregerson said.

Pizza is the house specialty accompanied by shaken martinis with ice crystals and cosmos.

Baas does prepare a mean thick hamburger with cole slaw that hits the palate with a little zing. He makes his own sausage, salad dressings and sauces.

Gregerson was an Oakland County resident with a background in design work before taking on Lakeview Lanes.

He declares, "Saugatuck has been delightful. The friendships I've made; they come from all walks of life. It's comfortable. There are trades people. There are families."

Combining people from all walks of life with bowling and martinis is another way Saugatuck makes a statement.

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