Beaches, Boats and Beer: Finding Pure Michigan

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For months, a vacation destination that we could agree on eluded us.

Then it came to me … almost too close to have been previously considered …

Michigan.

Michelle had never been, but I didn’t have to convince her. Tim Allen had been working on it for years in those saccharine Pure Michigan commercials. The ones where he earnestly paints a picture of natural beauty, relaxation and fun that was impossible for Michelle to resist.

I’d been to Michigan on vacation when I was little, and several times for work, but I’d never explored the western side of the state or visited the state’s world class breweries. There was even a Pure Michigan commercial about Michigan’s craft beer scene.

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A Car Ferry, a Riverboat and Chicken Dinner: Day One

Michelle had always wanted to travel on the Lake Express high speed ferry. I was less enthusiastic, however a couple weeks before our trip, I went to Michigan for work and rode the Lake Express. It was awesome.

So when I floated the possibility of taking the ferry a few nights before our trip while walking Ralphie, Michelle wasted no time when we got home making our reservation.

We arrived at the dock, less than 10 minutes from our house, at around 5:30 a.m. in the chilly morning.

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I drove the car on and then we settled in for the two-and-a-half hour voyage in the spacious cabin. Michelle couldn’t resist heading atop the ship and watching Milwaukee disappear beyond the western morning horizon.

Midway though the trip, I went and stood atop the boat, myself. I was the only one out there. Being outside in the middle of the lake overloads the senses. The bright sky and water in all directions. The lake breeze in my nose. The hum of the boat and sound of the waves. It was like riding on a cloud, or something. So surreal.

The voyage was over before we knew it, but it was still another three hours to our first destination, Frankenmuth, Michigan’s Little Bavaria, a charming little tourist town that I’ve spent a lot of time in for work. Tim Allen loves Frankenmuth.

As an aside, we brought four albums on the trip with us, Mumford and Sons’ “Wilder Mind,” Brandon Flowers’ “The Desired Effect,” Vance Joy’s “Dream Your Life Away,” and Milo Greene’s “Control.” The Mumford record was the only one we could both stomach after the four days. Poor choices.

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One of our vacation criteria was that we went somewhere neither of us had been before. I think Michelle allowed for the bending of that rule just so she’d see Frankenmuth and I’d shut up about it. I couldn’t help but being charmed by the city and all of the awesome people I’ve met there, though.

Anyways, we rolled into Frankenmuth in time to do a quick visit to Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, the largest Christmas store either of us had ever been to. No matter what weird, crazy thing you love, chances are they have an ornament for it at Bronner’s. It was so big that Michelle didn’t even feel like looking for something so we just cruised through.

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Then we drove through the heart of town on Main Street. All of the buildings; the cheese shop, the sausage shop, the chocolate shop, the bank, the pharmacy and all of the hotels restaurants are built in the Bavarian style. We parked near the famous covered bridge and hopped aboard the Bavarian Belle steamboat for a one-hour cruise on the Cass River.

The trip was enjoyable, though all you can really see is the back of buildings and some turtles … well, turtles if you’re lucky. And we were.

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Then we stopped at the Frankenmuth Brewery for a quick bite and a flight. The flight was memorable for the sheer fact that they didn’t have a good organization system for bringing the beer out so our waiter basically sniffed our beers to determine which was which. Not good. One of the beers was incredibly sour, despite them not having a sour beer on the menu, so we ended up sending it back and eventually our waiter told us he’d had the brewer taste the beer and I was correct, there was something wrong with the line. I normally like their beers, but this experience was less than stellar. My favorite was probably the Hot Rocket Jalapeño Blonde, which carries the taste of the pepper without any of the bite.

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Then we checked into our hotel, and after a nap, we stopped in at the Bavarian Inn, where they have the most incredible beer menu. It showed the name of the beer, the brewer, the style, the ABV, the IBUs, the glassware it comes in, the price and, when it is hooked up correctly, how much beer is left in the barrel. Pretty amazing. I had a DRIPA from Kuhnhenn Brewing, one of the best double IPAs I’ve had.

The restaurant is pretty good as well, in fact, I’d been there the week before. It serves the famous Frankenmuth chicken dinner that is also served across the street at our dinner spot, Zehnder’s. The size and magnitude of both of these restaurants is only matched by the plethora of food that comes in family-style buffet.

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Waiters and waitresses in Bavarian dress carry heaping trays through myriad grandiose ballrooms. Sure there are other things on the menu, but chicken dinner is the only real choice. The first course includes unlimited helpings of salads, breads, spreads and chicken soup. As a veteran, I advised Michelle, despite how good some of these things tasted, it would be necessary to just lightly sample the offerings and save that valuable stomach space for dinner.

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The lightly eaten sides disappear and shortly, the chicken dinner and another helping of delicious sides arrives including mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing (or dressing), buttered noodles and veggies. Then, you basically eat until you can’t eat anymore. I stick to the things I like, my staples are chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and stuffing. Maybe it is because I talked it up so much and Michelle naturally dialed down her expectations, but she really enjoyed chicken dinner and thought everything was delicious.

We both opted to skip ice cream dessert, and instead, tried to walk our fullness off around Frankenmuth. Then we stopped into a Prost Wine Bar, a relatively new place in Frankenmuth, serving high-end cocktails with a nice outdoor patio with tables with built-in fire. We enjoyed a drink.

We wound down the night by swimming in the hotel pool. This is dumb, but it was a bit surreal for me to be in the pool with my wife after spending so much time in there solo on my various trips to the city. We were full, tired and it was an awesome first day.

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Founders, Bikes and New Holland: Day Two

Part of our plan was that we’d spend the afternoon on Friday in Holland doing outdoors stuff. During our two-and-a-half hour ride across the state that morning, we looked at the map and called an audible. We decided to stop at Founders Brewing in Grand Rapids since it was on the way to Holland, and that would open up the afternoon on Saturday.

I was excited about this shift in plans because I was so eager to get to Founders, which I think is Michigan’s best brewery. The sun was shining brightly when we pulled up in front of the giant brewery. They had a large, beer hall-style restaurant with a sizable outdoor patio/beer garden, where we sat at a long communal table.

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We ordered lunch there and they gave us a checklist with available beer. I ordered taster glasses of the ones I hadn’t had before. That turned out to be 14, and when our waitress came out with the beer, despite how Michelle’s face looks in the photo, SHE. WAS. PISSED. She was certain there was no way either of us would be up for outdoor activities after all those beers.

We enjoyed our sandwiches and slowly made our way through the beer, which really wasn’t that much for two people if you think about it. My favorite was Untombed Ale, which incorporated herbs and spices instead of hops, along with dates and honey, inspired by ancient Egyptian beer recipes.

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Much to Michelle’s shock, we pointed the car towards Holland State Park and drove 45-minutes to get there. Our first stop was Mount Pisgah, where we climbed 150 feet of stairs to view a beautiful vista … giant sand dunes rolling laconically down to Lake Michigan, blue skies and the bright sun shining overhead, I could get used to this vacation thing, I thought. We took a short hike through the woods around the dunes, and then headed back down the steps.

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We drove a short distance to Oak Grove Resort, where we rented bikes for a really affordable rate and rode back into Holland State Park to Ottawa Beach. It was fun being on the bikes. When we got to the beach, we walked to the end of the long boardwalk. Despite the sun, it was windy and verged on a bit chilly, no one was in the water. It was funny to see half the people on the beach in beach gear and the other half in long-sleeve shirts and light jackets.

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We hung out on the beach for a while, throwing the frisbee in a fight with the wind. You might be shocked, but Michelle is pretty great at frisbee. She throws it really well and is pretty good at catching. Typically we’ll throw it back and forth, counting consecutive catches without a drop until she gets bored, which is usually about 20 minutes.

Then, we drove back towards where we rented the bikes and stopped for an ice cream. At this charming little ice cream stand just after we ordered, Michelle saw a stray dog near the busy road and tracked it down. She called the number on the tag while her ice cream melted and then the people whose house she caught the dog in front of said they would watch it until the owner got there. She’s got a heart for dogs. We dropped our bikes off and headed to our hotel.

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After a quick change, we drove to New Holland Brewing, another favorite of mine. I couldn’t help but notice as we drove through the stylish city of Holland that there was another brewery right next to New Holland. We were excited for dinner and a flight, and now another at this other place.

I know you are probably wondering, if I am such a big beer fan, why am I opting for flights rather than tours? The truth is, at this point, I’m kinda bored with tours, they are all pretty much the same … down to them giving their spent grains to either farmers for the cows or artisan dog biscuit makers. I just want to try the beer!

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While we waited for a table, we went to the gift shop and sampled a few beers and a whiskey (they make spirits too). In short order, our table was ready. The food was standard American fare. It was okay. I was excited for the flight, but underwhelmed by the small number of their beers they had on tap. I tried several I had never had, but none really caught my fancy. I did select Dragon’s Milk for my flight, which I’ve had many times before. It is probably the easiest to find bourbon barrel stout, but it is still awesome, quite a feat.

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When we walked into the brewery next door, Our Brewing Company, it felt like we were home in Bay View. This was more like it! A folk band playing tunes, a couple of televisions with baseball on being mostly ignored and great beer with great names (including, among those we tried, Stickiest of the Icky IPA, Cows With Guns and 1.21 Gigahops). We listened to the tunes and enjoyed our shared flight. Everything was perfect and wonderful. We came to Holland for New Holland, and we found what would end up being our absolute favorite brewery on the trip.

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After we finished the flight, I thought I located another walkable brewery about six blocks away, so we went, and, instead found a beautiful park bathed at twilight. We wandered around among the statues, fountains and flora and then decided, what the heck, let’s go back to Our Brewing Company. When we got back, I ordered probably my favorite beer of the entire trip, the Study Buddy Coffee Stout, a rich, creamy stout with an awesome coffee nose.

I learned long ago that the best trips leave room for adventure and spontaneous decisions and, as we sat in the hot tub at our hotel, which was open 24-hours, sipping our newly purchased beer barrel bourbon from New Holland, I knew we had unlocked that level of travel spontaneity and fun. Would it get any better? It would!

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Bell’s, the Beach and Our Boat: Day Three

When I said Tim Allen sold Michelle on Michigan, that was only a half truth. The other factor was that I had found a boat for us to stay on in Saugatuck while perusing Airbnb. The boat normally only took two-day reservations, but due to the owner traveling, we had it reserved for only Saturday.

The first thing we did is check-in at our boat, the Saugatuck Wooden Boat, which is also available for river cruises. It looked cool in the pictures, but it was awesome when we got there! The boat’s owner showed us the ropes, he was incredibly nice. I wish we could have stayed for a cruise, but were heading to Kalamazoo.

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Bell’s was the third of the three breweries that was a must-stop for me. It took us about an hour to get from Saugatuck to Kalamazoo. The brewery appeared to be an old trainstop or something that had been rehabbed and it was awesome. Not too large of a crowd when we arrived a bit after noon. They also had a cafe where we devoured some tasty sandwiches. There was also a pretty nice store where you could purchase memorabilia but also brew supplies.

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Michelle and I each got our own flight to accompany lunch. We sat in their beer garden with the sun really beating down and every bit of cool from the day before gone. In fact, after we finished we headed back into the building to beat the heat. The most interesting beer I had was the Mango Habanero Oberon. Oberon is their well-known, widely available summer pale wheat ale, and this twist on it was incredibly tasty and lightly carbonated. The spice and the sweet blended together to create a really interesting beer!

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My brother-in-law’s girlfriend is from the area and she recommended we stop at Arcadia Ales (thanks, Rachel!), what a fantastic place. It was only a short drive from Bell’s. I had enjoyed a few of their beers on my various trips to Michigan, however I had no idea it was in Kalamazoo.

The brewery reminded me a lot of Madison’s Ale Asylum, beautifully decorated, with a versatile space featuring comfortable indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the river. We parked at the bar and ordered a flight to share.

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Michelle and I both enjoyed Cheap Date, an American Session Pale Ale. Light bodied and lightly hopped, this is a perfect summer lawnmower beer with an awesome label to boot. We didn’t linger at Arcadia, we wanted to get back to Saugatuck and make the most of the beautiful day that was upon us.

The ride went quick with the windows rolled all the way down, sunglasses on and Milwaukee’s Trapper Schoepp and the Shades blasting on the radio.

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We arrived at Oval Beach at around 1:30 and it was packed. We’d packed our suits, but it was May and I honestly didn’t think there was any possibility we’d swim. As I looked over the crowded beach, much to my surprise and delight, I saw people in the water. Not a lot, but enough to make me believe it was bearable.

We laid out our blanket and put our sun tan lotion on and, as I looked at the beach, I wanted this moment to last forever and ever. Shortly, we waded out into the clear water and threw the frisbee for a while. With the sun beating down, I was warm and getting warmer. I thought maybe I’d only go in to my waist, but when Michelle threw a toss just out of reach, I leaped, grabbed the frisbee with abandon and submerged myself in the water. It was cool and refreshing

We played for a while. And then we went and sat on the beach. This was a moment a pessimist like me is much too negative to even hope for … yet there I was, basking in it.

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After we soaked up as much sun as we could, we begrudgingly left. We were going to stop at the Saugatuck Brewing Co. before heading to our dinner reservation. It was packed with diners, but we managed to grab two seats at the bar for our flight. All of the beers were good. Of course, we had to try the Oval Beach Blonde after enjoying the beach. I really loved the Serrano Pepper Ale, which was a light, unique chili beer. Only a slight burn. After hurrying through our flight, I grabbed a four-pack of the Serrano Pepper Ale, it is a taste I wanted to bring home and share with others.

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We also wanted to spend a little time hanging out on the boat while the sun was out. It was docked along a river and we enjoyed sitting on the roof, sipping beer and listing to some great tunes. After we finished one, we took a short walk through Saugatuck. It is an incredibly charming vacation town, with many kitschy shops and restaurants packed into a few streets and surrounded by forest and marsh. Michelle professed to like it as much as Lake Geneva and Door County, her two favorite places.

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We eventually arrived at our dinner spot, the White House Bistro, which was recommended to us by the boat owner. Although the service left a bit to be desired, the food was incredible. We split a lobster sandwich (which had bacon and was heavenly), oysters and ahi tuna sashimi. It was seriously one of the best meals I’ve had. Amazingly decadent.

We walked around Saugatuck and stopped in at a few other places, which had live music and good beer! Michelle even asked the one band to play “American Girl” at my request. They said they only knew “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Bummer. Instead of sticking around for that, we walked back to the boat.

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The warmth of the day was gone, but we bundled up and sat on the top, listened to songs we love and enjoyed one last drink for the night. We were soaking up what little was left of the trip and making the most of it.

It was a beautiful night. At one point the power went out on the boat, I magically figured out how to get it back on! It was an amazing evening and an awesome way to end a great trip.

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A Quick Stop on the Way Home: Day Four

Though we took the ferry over to Michigan, we drove home partly so we could stop at 3 Floyds Brewing Co. in Muenster, Indiana. 3 Floyds is probably my favorite brewery and makes one of my favorite beers ever, Zombie Dust. I’d been there before but Michelle hadn’t.

We rolled in for lunch and I had a delicious chicken sandwich and really enjoyed the Fraggo, a belgian blonde with a strong strawberry sweetness. We were there, so we had to get a Zombie Dust as well.

Then we got back on the road and pointed the car toward home, exhausted but with fresh memories and a trunk full of beer.

We’d discovered Pure Michigan. Thanks, Tim Allen.

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