Ann Arbor is a good time! This college town in southern Michigan is home to about 110,000 people, a third of whom are university students who fiercely enjoy its charms. It absolutely blasts with music, art, great restaurants, galleries, wineries and locally grown products, and if you have ever wondered where all the make-peace-not-war, love-is-all-you-need hippies went, they moved to Ann Arbor. They are all grown up now, and much more serious, but the free-spirited, now-entrepreneurial set has taken root.
Ann Arbor is home to both Borders Books and Domino’s Pizza. Sports is a big deal here, especially since the University of Michigan is part of the Big Ten Conference.
All those hippies have contributed to a definitive, far left political air, so much so that Ann Arbor is often slyly referred to as “The People’s Republic of Ann Arbor.”
What to do: Ann Arbor offers a lot for a city of its size: theater, wine tastings, art galleries and museums. The University of Michigan sponsors many cultural events including the Ann Arbor Summer Festival. What once was a classical music event has grown into a rich variety of musical performances. Two venues are offered: the indoor Main stage and the Top of the Park, an outdoor festival that runs daily for nearly three weeks, featuring more than 100 events. See the babies swaying, the teenagers carousing, the after-hours socializing of local bankers and business leaders. Robb Woulfe, the Festival director, said the name comes from the original festival site – the roof of a nearby parking garage. “The personality of the event changes every night due to whoever is playing,” he said.
The Ark is a classic folk club – 300 nights a year, 400 patrons enjoy live performances in a classic hall where the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, Bonnie Raitt and thousands more have played. Dig it!
The Nichols Arboretum is home each summer to Shakespeare in the Arb. The “stage” is the arboretum grounds – the audience follows the actors as they appear from behind trees and vanish around bushes.
Tom and Cindy Hollander, owners of Hollander’s Decorative Papers & Bookbinding Supplies, offer a dazzling array of more than 1,500 gorgeous papers. Take a class downstairs and make your own paper wallet or origami. The Gerald Ford Library is located on the campus of the university and it seems ironic that one of the country’s most revered conservatives hailed from the same town that served as one of the crucial hubs for Leftist thinking and anti-war sentiment in the 60s and 70s. Ford is the only president whose library and museum (located in Grand Rapids) are separate. Millions of items are stored here. The staff has opened only 55 percent of the library’s documents; 45 percent are still to become available.
Where to eat: Eat anywhere in this city and you are almost sure to be happy. Ann Arbor’s website touts the city’s distinction as home to more than 250 unique restaurants. Don’t miss walking down Main Street where hundreds of al fresco diners sip wine and dine on locally produced dishes every day. The area has become a leader in CSA (community supported agriculture). Growing, distributing, cooking and even eating farm-to-table produce, meats and dishes is a revered badge of honor. It is the ‘cool’ thing to do – and the Kerrytown Market & Shops is a fantastic place to buy, sample or just admire the bounty of products, all local, including vegetables, cheeses, honey, maple syrup, meats, baked goods, jams and breads, fresh cut flowers and all the Mother Earth accoutrements you can imagine. Molly Notorianni, manager of the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, said the market is 91 years old, with second and third generation vendors offering wares.
Almost 30 years ago, friends Art Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw started Zingerman’s Deli. These friends have seen their once small sandwich shop grow into a family of businesses that they have nurtured. Today, there is a bake shop, a mail order company, a creamery, and a booming coffee business. They also have a company devoted to giving a hand up to entrepreneurs. Zingerman’s Roadhouse Restaurant is incredibly tasty and fun, set in an eclectic atmosphere. Alex Young, the head chef and partner, has recently been named one of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chefs in America for 2009 (Great Lakes Region). Young tends a garden whose bounty is often served in the restaurant. “We enjoy highlighting local food providers,” he said.
Vinology was my favorite. Chef Jim Leonardo turns out CSA dishes which owner John Jonna lovingly pairs with a vast selection of wines. More than 50 wines are offered by the glass in a historic restaurant in downtown. Be sure to bop downstairs to see the Bubble Room where 400 hand-blown glass balls decorate the ceiling.
The Common Grill in Chelsea is a fun, affordable restaurant with a great staff. Conor O’Neill’s Traditional Irish Pub & Restaurant won “Best Dessert” during last year’s Taste of Ann Arbor Festival. For a delightful meal, make reservations at eve - ;The Restaurant.
Ain’t Muffin Like the Real Thing Baby: Take time to visit the Chelsea Brewing Company, home to Jiffy Mix. This family owned business turns out more than 1.6 million boxes of Jiffy Mix a day. They are a complete manufacturer, milling their wheat, preparing their mixes, making their own “little blue boxes.” There are now 22 different Jiffy mixes with corn muffin mix the most popular. CEO Howdy Homes, whose grandmother started the baking mix business, joined our tour. “We’re pretty low profile and don’t do advertising,” he said. “It is our personal joy to provide a service and high-quality food at an affordable price.”
Where to stay: It is a small city and filled with value chains like Holiday Inns, Candlewoods Suites and Hampton Inns. The Bell Tower Hotel is across the street from the University of Michigan. Stop at Mercy’s Restaurant on the ground floor and say hello to owners Mercy and Steve Kasle. Great food in an elegant atmosphere. For more information or to request a visitor’s guide, visit www.visitannarbor.org.
Photos courtesy Ann Arbor Area CVB