Grand Rapids, Michigan may not be the first place that comes to mind for an adventurous vacation or a spot for an exciting culinary weekend, but it is!
Surprisingly, the City of Grand Rapids and southeastern Michigan is vibrant, exciting and diverse. After an international exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, Grand Rapids became recognized worldwide as a leader in the production of fine furniture and today is considered a world leader in the production of office furniture. Grand Rapids led the nation in 1945 when it became the first city in the United States to add fluoride to its drinking water. Grand Rapids lays claims to the first scheduled air service, and the first publicly-funded art installation. There is no question that Michigan's economy today is suffering, due largely to the loss of market share among the Big 3 U.S. automotive companies and the ripple effects of that downturn. But the leaders of Grand Rapids have taken a proactive role in creating a diverse and vibrant economy. Over lunch at Leo's, an airy, modern restaurant in downtown Grand Rapids, former mayor John Logie told me that the city's furniture industry can be traced to German and Polish craftsmen who settled in the area and began creating high end beautiful furniture. By the 1950s, much of the furniture trade moved to North Carolina. Grand Rapids became known as the home of Amway, one of the largest home selling companies in the US. Richard DeVos and Jay Van Andel, the founders of Amway, now Alticor, Inc, bought the landmark Pantlind Hotel, renovated it and incorpoated into the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Today, the Pantlind is an art-deco masterpiece, the beneficiary of a thorough and costly restoration.
Hotel guests may indulge in the Artistry Beauty Institutes's Spa. The spa and salon are primarily designed to give Alticor distributors an educational experience with the beauty line's products. Facials, massages, makeup lessons, hair services, manicures and pedicures are offered in a serene, calming environment. Spa director Elena Aquino graciously welcomed me, providing a tour and exquisite service.
“We love it here in Grand Rapids,” she said, “and we stay busy with all the Alticor conventions that come to stay here.” She sent me home with a wonderful assortment of Artistry products, including their fabulous Time Defiance cream. In the 1990s, huge blocks of downtown storefronts were vacant. Since 1997, more than 50 have been redeveloped and more than 500 new jobs have been created. Logie and city leaders created renaissance zones, giving 15 years of tax free support to new businesses through a supportive downtown improvement district. “We promoted a layer cake style of development,” he said. “There are retail establishments on the ground floors and offices above. Leo's is the first floor of a city-owned parking garage but you can't hear a single sound in the dining room.”
By 1998, Fortune Magazine named Grand Rapids “One of the Ten Best Cities to do Business” in the US. Progressive attitudes abound in the city. The GRAM, the Grand Rapids Art Museum, is the first LEED certified museum in the world. Workers were still hammering and pounding as I got a sneak peek at the 125,000 square-foot concrete and glass building. Native son and world famous author and artist Chris Van Allsburg appeared at the museum's opening in October.
Across the bridge and just a five minute walk from the hotel is the Gerald R. Ford Museum. Ford, the 38th president, was a native of Grand Rapids. His museum is a fascinating look back at his life. Marty Allen, director of the Ford Foundation, chatted with me as we walked the exhibits. “This museum was built with private funds. It is the only presidential archive that is split, the museum is in Grand Rapids while the library is in Ann Arbor,” he said. Ford, the only president to be an Eagle Scout, was not elected to serve, but was chosen by his peers after the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. The permanent exhibits explore his life, his and wife Betty's contributions to leading the country during a tumultuous time and the years after the White House. You can see the tools used in the Watergate burglary, the steps that led from the US Embassy to the helicopter during the last evacuations from Hanoi during the Viet Nam War and a reproduction of the White House Cabinet Room. Ford was known and is remembered as a kind, honest man who found himself thrown into controversial times. “His rules to live by, which he repeated many times, were to tell the truth, work hard and come to dinner on time,” Allen said. Ford is buried on the grounds facing the Grand River. The 115-year-old John Ball Zoo recently received $30 million for expansion. It is a “boutique zoo,” says director Bert Vescolani. Set on 103 acres in a park, it includes an ice skating rink and a zipline. A new $4.1 million lion exhibit is one of the largest in the country and the Zoo Society is raising $100 million to replace all but the most recent additions.
The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park is the second most popular attraction in the state, second only to the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit. The Meijers, creators of the superstore concept, are philanthropists. They donated 125 acres they once used as a family farm to the city; Fred donated his sculpture collection and Lena helped design the extensive and art-filled gardens.
The Grand Rapids area boasts numerous progressive kitchens where chefs tout their menus filled with local ingredients. Marie Catrib's offers Lebanese specialties amid colorful, funky decorations. Journeyman, in Fennville, features outstanding entrees that are all local, organic and chemical free and “sustainably managed whenever possible.” Be sure to savor Palazzolo's Gelato, made by Fennville gelato king, Pete Palazzolo, which is freshly made from the finest ingredients possible.
We toured Crane's Farm in Fennville and spoke to Rob Crane, a fifth generation farmer, who took grows apples, peaches and cherries. Between 1990 and 2000, I planted 6000 trees a year. I didn't open the farm to the public until 2000. “You have only one chance to make a first impression,” he said. “We do two things here: entertainment and education.” When Rob's parents started the farm in 1972, U-picks were unheard of.
Crane allowed us to pick some apples and later, at his sister's restaurant, we eyed the extensive menu of apple items: cider, pie, ice cream, breads, crisps, strudels, dumplings and cakes. “We never close completely,” said his sister Rebecca, who owns Crane's Pie Pantry Restaurant Bakery and Cider Mill “We make 22-25,000 pies a year.”
Saugatuck is just one of the many upscale, boutique towns dotting the Lake Michigan coast. We parked the car and walked onto the lovely white beach. The water lay before us as far as the eye could see, a deep rolling blue. Umbrellas and merry kites dotted the skyline. Neighborhood restaurants offer water views and art galleries with affordable paintings welcome the discerning collector. Saugatuck boasts the Art 'Round Town project. Artists from across the US have contributed works of sculpture for public display. All are for sale. Visitors can walk along the boardwalk or take a ride on the Saugatuck Chain Ferry. These activities and more led to the city being named one of the "101 Best Outdoor Towns." Holland is a shopper's dream. A wise city developer renovated downtown, where unique shop after shop anchor the tree lined street, with 26 miles of warm water pipes. The sidewalk never freezes, even in the coldest Michigan winters. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, enjoy the spectacular Holland Farmers Market and Eighth Street Market Place where fresh flowers can be had for as little as $ 1 a bouquet and fresh hazelnuts are $1 a cupful. Chef demonstrations are offered nearly every hour and the Summer Concert Series hosts a wide variety of music free for all. There are free planned kids activities each Wednesday that focus on art, music and nature The Grand Haven and Holland areas tout U-Picks for blueberries, cherries, apples, strawberries, cranberries and vegetables. And antiques! The possibilities are endless.
Grand Rapids and the surrounding area offer great adventure for the entire family. Outdoor recreation is limitless while numerous opportunities away for lovers of art, music, great cuisine, U-Pick farms, museums and shopping.
Continental Airlines has two direct flights a day for as little as $375 with advance planning. There is enough to do for two or more trips – so see you there!
(This article was originally published on 4/09/08)