July 11, 1998

ÖAnd Thatís My Opinionã

by Sandy Goldman

Beyond Rogers Park

There is a world beyond Chicagoís Rogers Park. There is Milwaukee, Wisconsin; there is Merrillville, Indiana; there is Des Moines, Iowa and even South Bend, Indiana Ė in Notre Dame country. But none compares to the other side of the Lake Ė Berrien County and in particular St. Joseph, Michigan.

"A biased opinion", those who know me will say, because my wife grew up in the St. Joe area. But then, this is ÖAnd Thatís My Opinion.

There is much about the Harbor Area Ė Union Pier to South Haven, Michigan Ė that is conquering, captivating and consuming. A holiday retreat in the 1940ís and 50ís the area attracted thousands of tourists to its sandy shores and restful resorts: Sunnybrook Farm and Fidelmann Resort and dozens of Mom and Pop retreats open for the summer. Only 90 miles from Chicago and 125 miles from Detroit, many mothers would stay there with the children during the summer weeks and the fathers would come only on the weekends. In those days, the drive was long and Dad always took a nap to recuperate. So did Mom!

In time, Florida, Arizona and Hawaii and even international travel silenced the siren song of Southwest Michigan. It virtually faded away for about 20 years.

But like old soldiers, good territories never die; they are reinvented. Yuppies have found refuge, retirees have found contentment and entrepreneurs have found enterprises. Southwest Michigan is now the Michigan Riviera.

Brand new modern boat docks have been built, as well as hotels, condos, quaint B & Bs, wonderful little snack shops and upscale restaurants. Some venerable old favorites such as Shulers, Tosiís and Grand Mere Inn in Stevensville, Hyerdahls in Bridgeman famous for great Swedish Pancakes, Hannahís in New Buffalo, Millerís in Union Pier, to name a few. Now, they are joined by Clementineís in St. Joseph (also in South Haven), a new Cracker Barrel/Old Country Store adjoining the expressway, the Mansion Grille By The Lake alongside the Red Arrow Highway and the American Bistro in the Boulevard Hotel. There is a brand new microbrewery in a former Coast Guard armory building at the St Joseph River entrance to Lake Michigan.

Every year there is the Venetian Festival (July 16-19 info. 1-616-429-7917) in St. Joseph, the largest affair of itís kind in the area offering a wide range of carnival amusements, music stages, food, fireworks and a floating parade of decorated boats. The events attract over 250,000 visitors Ė a miniature "Taste of Chicago". There is the annual Discover Stevensville (July 22-25, info 1-616-429-1804) and the Pickle Festival in Berrien Springs (July 3rd and 4th).

Since 1906, the oldest, biggest and best Blossomtime Festival accompanied by the Miss Blossomland Pageant (1-616-982-6739) is held in the spring, in the twin cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor.

If you want to shop, there are scores of stores along Route 49, Route 12/20 and the Red Arrow Highway, from Porter, Indiana to South Haven, Michigan. Of course, the largest is Lighthouse Place Outlet Center in Michigan City (1-800-866-5900) with over 130 stores covering the entire retailing gamut.

Today, St. Joeís Whitcomb Hotel, built in 1928, is now a retirement residence. Once it was a "Grand Dame" where the gentry met to socialize and soak in the sulfur baths fed from a mineral well discovered in 1887. Some came by the ferry which operated daily from Chicago. It is worth a stop to soak in the aura of an era gone by. Also gone by are any vestiges of the historic and sometime histrionic House of David, a religious cult in Benton Harbor (famous for its bearded baseball team) and the pre-Six Flags amusement park called Silver Beach.

Today, there are the gentrified homes (summer and permanent) of former residents of Chicago and upscale Michiganders who look to escape the hubbub of city life. Thirty miles north of South Haven is Saugatuck a delightful mingling of boats, people, restaurants, antique shops, cozy B & Bs and the best bars in SW Michigan. Saugatuck is a place to visit and a place to stay a night.

In the 40ís, when I was a boy riding with my parents in our pre-air conditioning Pontiac along two lane Route 12/20, the trip would take 5-6 hours or more (depending if Dad wanted to stop and eat or if Mom could convince him that we should). When I was a young man, controlled by hormones, it seemed to take even longer. There were, you see, delicacies in store. I donít mean cherries and blossoms! Although maybe I do! Today, traveling the expressways, the journey takes about 90 minutes.

Try it out! Itís worth the trip.

ÖAnd thatís my opinion.

And Iím Sandy Goldman

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