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The Middle Coast
An Ocean Lover Finds a Haven on the Banks of Lake Michigan

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 28, 2002

once, for reasons beyond my control, found myself living in Detroit, where several native-born colleagues extolled their fair city as the Paris of the Midwest.

Is it any wonder, then, that I didn't believe their proclamations about the almost-sacred beauty of the shores of Lake Michigan? For seven years, every time I needed a beach fix, I'd spend the bulk of my disposable income flying to Washington or New York, renting a car for a traffic-clogged drive and booking a high-rise along the eastern shore of my mid-Atlantic homeland.

What an idiot. No wonder much of the country considers Easterners parochial snobs.

Unfortunately, I discovered Lake Michigan years after moving away. Now, for several years running, I've made my beach-week trek in the opposite direction, from Washington to the heartland, where the sand really is the texture of sugar, where towering dunes look like something out of "Lawrence of Arabia," and where broad beaches are bordered by forest on one side, and on the other by Caribbean-colored water that stretches to the horizon.

The sand, like the lake, is the byproduct of massive glaciers that gouged out continental bedrock, reducing quartz rock to tiny white and yellow grains. The sand that covers the beaches and creates dunes as high 300 feet is 90 percent quartz.

As always, I base myself in Berrien County, in the southwest corner of Michigan near the Indiana border, about 75 miles from Chicago. The area stretches from the Indiana border up through Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, ending at Paw Paw Lake. The county includes 40 miles of largely uncrowded beaches, several rivers and smaller lakes, and winding country roads bordered by farms and vineyards. My family and friends settle into a cottage in the town of Harbert, which adjoins Lakeside and Union Pier.

The area is what I imagine Ocean City, Md., may have been like just prior to World War I.

There is not a single high-rise. Not one fast-food chain.

One minute you are on I-94, with its monster trucks, billboards, factory towers and dismal high-rise apartment blocs. Then you exit onto the Red Arrow Highway, a two-lane country road along railroad tracks, and are transported back 100 years.

Those who have sampled the Great Lakes might protest that the water is unbearably cold. Not so in Berrien County, in an area locals call Harbor Country, where this ocean lover has found a ocean-like beach haven on the lake.

Thanks to prevailing winds from the southwest, the water here is warmer than other areas of Lake Michigan, and warmer than the other Great Lakes.

Of course, winds do shift. While warm water in summer is the rule, a wind out of the north can change the water temperature and the character of the water overnight, making each new day there an adventure.

Our first day on this trip in early July, for example, I could imagine I was lying on a beach in the Caribbean: The lake is completely calm, and the temperature of bath water. Even timid and cold-blooded swimmers dive in without hesitation. It remains equally warm the second day, but with three-foot swells that get kids dragging out boogie boards.

The wind shifts overnight, bringing Atlantic-sized waves. While air temperatures remain in the high eighties, the water is freezing, living up to its usually undeserved reputation. This, I decide, is a good day for visiting some of the dozen or so art galleries nearby.

Then, in something that seems akin to the miracle of the seas parting for Moses, the cold water disappears. Our final day, we are back in calm, tepid waters.

Although the area is just 90 minutes or so from Chicago's bustle, it has so far escaped the claws of massive development. The Red Arrow Highway is lined with small, single-story antiques shops, fruit stands, ice cream stores and signs for U-Pick-It farms.

Visitors stay in cottages or in small inns built in the early part of the 20th century -- inns with rocking chairs on broad porches, and stone fire-places in the lobby.

Poet Carl Sandburg once made his home here; athlete Jesse Owens had a summer place; mobster Al Capone visited frequently. Harbor Country was once the in place to be.

Wealthy Chicago residents starting coming by train in the 1890s to summer here, drawn by air that was cooler than in Chicago, and ironically, water that was warmer.

During Prohibition, Canadian bootleggers would beach their boats in front of the Lakeside Inn, and guests would wade into the water to help unload cases of whiskey.

The Lakeside Inn is still in operation. In fact, it has changed little. And with 37 rooms, it's the biggest hotel in the town of Lakeside.

Spend time on any beach, and you'll find grandparents who say they first came to the lake as children with their own grandparents. And those sets of grandparents had come when they were children, staying in cottages owned by their grandparents.

The area for generations remained a sleepy little hideaway, thanks in large measure to the suburbanization of Chicago, to the west.

"People of a certain class once had apartments in the city and a cottage in the country," explains Devereux Bowly, owner of both the Lakeside and Gordon Beach inns. "Once there was mass migration to the suburbs, one property filled both needs."

Harbor Country fell on hard times, and got a bit shabby. Places like the Gordon Beach and Lakeside Inns closed their doors. Prosperous families, many with working mothers who couldn't spend the summer in a cottage even if they wanted to, took exotic vacations by plane. In 1991, Bowly bought the Gordon Beach Inn at a bank foreclosure auction.

It's always hard to say when an area begins making a comeback, but locals agree it was just about the time Bowly rehabbed and reopened the Gordon Beach Inn.

The area has long been a haven for writers, but artists have more recently been discovering Harbor Country. About a dozen galleries have appeared in the last decade or so, including a half dozen in the last couple of years.

Sculptor Fritz Olsen is the creator of one. He says he and his wife, stage actress Martha Cares, had been driving a New York real estate agent crazy as they sought a property close enough to Manhattan so that Cares could continue her acting career, and large enough that Olsen could spread out with his huge chunks of marble.

Cares was performing in "Phantom of the Opera" in Chicago, and one day in the late 1990s, the couple took a drive out this way. They fell in love with the place, particularly with a tumble-down, former azalea greenhouse.

They bought the property and began a rehab project. Olsen opened a studio in the former greenhouse in 1999. The following year he opened a gallery and created a sculpture garden on four acres of land -- a garden that has drawn busloads of art lovers in trips organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Contemporary Museum of Art.

"Our friends ask us, 'What are you doing out there in the middle of nowhere?' said Olsen. "Then they come for a visit and say, 'I want to move here too.'"

"They call this the Hamptons of the Midwest," says Cares.

"That's pushing it a little," says Olsen. He says "little" in a tone that makes it clear he means a lot.

And he is right. But there is no denying the cool chic the artists have brought to the area.

You can see the trend in upscale restaurants, where menu items read like recipes from Gourmet magazine. "Alaskan Halibut brushed with brown sugar cilantro soy glaze, grilled atop a cedar plank, and finished with a tequila vanilla citrus mist."

You can still get Great Lakes perch just thrown on the grill, with a wedge of lemon on the side. But you can also have it coated in seasoned Japanese Panko crumbs.

The Pine Garth Inn is so popular with the Chicago crowd that the best rooms for popular holidays are rented a year and a half in advance. Right now, reservations are being taken for summer 2003. Only the odd weekdays are available for this summer. The area also draws sledders and cross-country skiers in winter, and romantic souls who are simply drawn by the combination of snow and warm fireplaces.

Artists are often the inadvertent harbingers of high prices -- witness places like Greenwich Village and SoHo.

But for now, Harbor Country is a throwback to another era, with natural beauty, old-fashioned ease and grace, and just a touch of sophistication.

Each night at Weko Beach, as the sun goes down, people gather to watch and hear a bugler play taps. On the stretch of beach where I stayed over the Fourth of July, cottage-dwellers play out an old tradition on the beach: They build a 10-foot high bonfire, and while waiting for the sun to set, gather in a circle to hear the Declaration of Independence read aloud.

Once the sun dies, they light the bonfire, sing old songs and toast marshmallows.

You can golf at a number of places around Harbor Country. You can reserve a space on a deep-sea fishing boat, rent a kayak or Jet-Ski, take sailing lessons, bike along winding country roads, shop and visit museums.

But the real beauty of the place is that you might find yourself perfectly content spending the days sitting beneath a beach umbrella, and the evenings rocking on a porch, waiting for the sun to go down.

Details: Lake Michigan Beaches

GETTING THERE: The lakeside towns in Berrien County, Mich., begin about 1 1/2 hours from Chicago's Midway Airport, and about two hours from O'Hare. (Take I-94 to Exit 6 and the Red Arrow Highway.) Round-trip fares to Chicago are usually about $300, but dip as low as $150. Alternately, fly to Grand Rapids, also a two-hour drive. Round-trip fares are about $170, and you can stop in to see the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum and snag a lower-cost rental car to boot.

WHERE TO STAY: The Pine Garth Inn (15790 Lakeshore Road, Union Pier, 888-390-0909, www.pinegarth.com) is my favorite lodging, and the most expensive. The charming inn sits on a hill above on the water, with 200 feet of private beach linked to miles of shoreline. Doubles range from $155 to $205 during summer high season. The inn is already taking reservations for 2003.

The Pine Garth also rents cottages, each with a stone fireplace, across the street from the inn. Nightly rates begin at $250, weekly from $1,600 to $1,900.

Gordon Beach Inn (16220 Lakeshore Rd., Union Pier, 269-469-0800, www.lakesideinns.com) is a lovely old inn, although its public spaces, including a gourmet restaurant, are nicer than its rather spare rooms. Doubles range from $85 to $150 in prime season. The private beach is a short stroll from the hotel.

Lakeside Inn (15251 Lakeshore Rd., Lakeside, 269-469-0600, www.lakesideinns.com), is a historic property with 32 rooms. It is unfortunately separated from the beach by a two-lane road, but it has a private beach for guests just a short walk across the two-lane winding road. Rates range from $75 to $175 in prime season and are half-price from November through May.

The Gintaras Resort (15860 Lake Shore Rd., Union Pier, 616-469-3298, www.gintarasresort.pair.com) is more a collection of cottages than a resort, but it would be perfect for a crowd of friends or a family reunion. In addition to one- and two-bedroom cottages that start at $695 a week in summer, the property has a six-bedroom log house ($2,350 a week) and a nine-bedroom "White House," with water views from most rooms ($2,975 a week).

Numerous private cottages and houses, with prices ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per week, are rented through local realty firms. One of the largest is Executive Group Realty (269-469-6892, www.e-g-r.com).

CAMPING: Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer (616-426-4013) offers camping in the woods, a half-hour hike or short drive to the beach. Other state campgrounds, including Grand Haven to the north, allow camping on the beach. Grand Mere, two miles from Warren Dunes, is a less-visited, wilder natural area. Some parks rent mini-cabins for about $35 a night. Details: 800-44-PARKS, www.michigandnr.com.

WHERE TO EAT: For upscale gourmet meals, try Timothy's (16220 Lake Shore Rd., Union Pier) in the Gordon Beach Inn. Entrees range from $17 for cherry-wood smoked Amish chicken with angel-hair pasta tossed with fresh herbs and a sweet vermouth broth, to $24 for filet mignon topped with creamy Gorgonzola and a balsamic reduction.

For a 1930s Americana experience, the Red Arrow Roadhouse (15710 Red Arrow Hwy3939) offers steaks, pasta and homemade soups. Go early if you don't like noise. Entrees range from $10.95 to $21.95. Jenny's (15460 Red Arrow Highway) has gourmet American-style food, and may be a bit overpriced for entrees ranging from $15 to $25. Miller's Country House (16409 Red Arrow Hwy., Union Pier) overlooks a garden and has good food, but be prepared for bad service. Entrees range from $15 to $25.

Consider weekend breakfast at the Lakeside Inn Cafe (15251 Lakeshore Rd., Lakeside). Entrees include French toast for $4, or $7.95 for eggs benedict and smoked salmon.

WHAT TO DO: Backroads Bikeway has mapped biking trails on secondary roads through farmland, parks and rolling hills. Bike rentals are available at a biking museum in an old railroad depot. Details: 269-756-3361, www.applecidercentury.com.

• Massages and other spa services are available at the Harbor Country Day Spa (17 W. Mechanic St., New Buffalo, 269-469-7711, www.harborcountrydayspa.com), at the Women's Wellness Center (231 E. Buffalo St., New Buffalo, 269-469-3100) and by appointment at the Lakeside Inn.

• A dozen wineries offer free tours and tastings. Tabor Hill Winery (185 Mt. Tabor Rd., Buchanan, 800-283-3363, www.taborhill.com) has a restaurant attached.

• Galleries are sprinkled along Red Arrow Highway. Fritz Olsen Sculptures is a bit off the beaten track (6914 West Holloway Dr., Sawyer, 616-426-3003). For handcrafted furniture: Center of the World (13400 Red Arrow Hwy., 616-469-5687).

• There are numerous golf courses in southwest Michigan. The closest to the beach towns, Whittaker Woods in New Buffalo (616-469-3400, www.golfwhittaker.com), has an 18-hole championship course.

• Outlet mall shopping is available in Michigan City at Sixth and Wabash streets (219-879-6506, www.premiumoutlets.com/lighthouseplace).

• Columbia College of Chicago offers classes, readings, music and dance in Harbor Country during the summer. Details: 312-663-1124.

• For fishing tours, boat rentals and gliding, contact the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council (see below).

INFORMATION: Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, 269-925-6301, www.swmichigan.org (ask for the tour guide magazine). Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce, 800-362-7251, www.harborcountry.org. Red Arrow Business Association, www.red-arrow.org.

-- Cindy Loose

© 2002 The Washington Post Company