Marquette, Mich., a Superior destination

Outdoorsy and artsy Marquette, Mich., was "Fan Favorite" among the National Trust's Distinctive Destinations.
Outdoorsy and artsy Marquette, Mich., was "Fan Favorite" among the National Trust's Distinctive Destinations. (Aaron Peterson/Alamy)
The Washington Post
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Last in a month-long series spotlighting the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Distinctive Destinations for 2010.

The exhibit at the Marquette County History Museum tried to dispel any misperception of "yoopers" as uneducated people. In fact, according to "Anatomy of a Yooper," literacy rates in Marquette, the best-known city in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, are higher than the state average.

Curious, I asked a guest at a cocktail party in the northern Michigan college town whether she considered herself a yooper, the word often used to describe Upper Peninsula residents. "Of course," she said. "We're proud of it."

Touring the history museum, I could understand why. Yoopers' ancestors came from Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark and eked out livings by mining, logging and fishing. And although the sun was shining during my visit -- and the beaches along Lake Superior resembled Miami's South Beach with all the bikini-clad women lying around -- the cold winters have certainly tested the yoopers' survival skills. As I learned from the exhibit, many a yooper was known to make snowshoe bindings out of tire treads.

Marquette's residents have another reason to be proud. Not only did this city of about 21,000 make the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Dozen Distinctive Destinations list for 2010, it also scored the "Fan Favorite" award. The reasons are many, as I could see one morning as I ran along Lake Superior from downtown to a point just before the picturesque Presque Isle Park. Along the way, I passed the Lower Harbor Ore Dock, which extends 969 feet into Marquette's harbor and was once used to load iron ore onto ships; the red Marquette Harbor Lighthouse, listed on the National Register of Historic Places; McCarty's Cove, a popular beach with a volleyball net; Shiras Park, where you can sit on a bench and gaze out at the Picnic Rocks in the middle of the lake; and Northern Michigan University's Superior Dome, the largest wooden dome in world, which covers a five-acre sports facility.

Despite their reputation for toughness, the people of Marquette, it turned out, are highly hospitable. Longtime resident Deidre Mering, whose nephew was my seatmate on the flight out, took me under her wing after he introduced us and asked me to accompany her to a party celebrating Lake Superior Theatre's summer season.

The theater, the DeVos Art Museum on the university campus, and the many small art galleries that dot the charming downtown once prompted John Villani, an author who travels around the country in search of the best art towns, to include Marquette among his top 100. "You'll find art anywhere," said Phyllis Wong, wife of the university president. "The presence of art is not just in a gallery the way we think of galleries. It's in many different places."

She was right, of course, but I still didn't expect to find works of art hanging in a fudge shop. After I tried a chocolate caramel at Doncker's, a candy store and restaurant founded in 1895, the clerk suggested that I check out the second-floor dining area. The walls were adorned with paintings by local artist Michael LaTulip, including a beautiful one called "Superior Sunrise."

Another hidden gem was the Peter White Public Library. The lobby is occupied by the Huron Mountain Club Gallery. On display was Marquette photographer Andrew Gregg's bicycle furniture -- tables and chairs made from bike tires. (Tires have apparently inspired quite a bit of innovation in Marquette.) In the basement was the City of Marquette Arts and Culture Center, which was showcasing its "Butterflies Galore" exhibit: oil paintings, watercolors and more depicting butterflies in various colors and at various stages of life.

The DeVos Art Museum is a much more traditional venue for displaying art, but that doesn't make it any less interesting. I especially liked NMU alumna Nita Engle's watercolors of the U.P. and other spots. Engle is known for a technique that involves throwing, squirting, spraying and pouring paint onto paper. "She's one of Marquette's famous people," said Layla Wright-Contreras, a friend of Deidre's who had just moved to Marquette from Washington and was accompanying me on a tour around town. (Deidre was determined to make sure I wasn't lonely during my visit.)

Since Marquette is a lake town, I was eager to hit the outdoors. And also to find the best outdoor eating spot, of which there are plenty to choose from. At an American cafe called L'Attitude, I dug into my Cobb salad while sitting on the patio enjoying a great view of the ore dock, the boats and the lighthouse. (The Friday night Fish Fry at Northland Pub in the historic Landmark Inn was a much better culinary call, though. Try the whitefish, a U.P. specialty. Elsewhere in town, you can try the meat-and-rutabaga-filled pasty, which looks like an empanada. Just don't call it that in front of a yooper.)

To make up for the food indulgences -- and one lazy morning sunbathing at the beach at McCarty's Cove -- I took a hike up Sugarloaf Mountain. Layla and I chose the difficult path, stepping on rocks along steep inclines for part of the way. "Difficult," however, was a relative term; the city has built a stairway near the peak to take you the rest of the way, plus a deck with benches at the top. After our 20-minute climb, we sat for another 20 minutes admiring the vast lake before us and the lush green forests behind.

We finally pulled ourselves away and drove to Presque Isle, a small peninsula with some of the oldest rock formations in North America. During the summer, the park is popular with hikers, while skiers take over in the winter. Because only 15 of its 323 acres have been developed, it's a great place for wildlife viewing. Several residents had told me to expect to see deer. But we had no luck.

We made our way to the place known around town as "Black Rocks," a site popular with thrill-seeking teenagers. Sure enough, a small cluster was there, daring one another to leap off the rocks into the water far below. One bikini-clad girl had just made the jump and was urging another to join her. Fear of the cold water and the long drop made the second girl hesitate, but she eventually jumped. As we moved on, the boy who was with them was taking even longer to work up the courage to make the leap.

I would have liked to enjoy the water myself, but since the lake's water temperature was in the low 50s at best, we decided that sitting on a boat was a better idea than swimming. So we drove to the marina, where Capt. John Tomczyk and his wife, Jamie, both Northern Michigan University alumni who recently started a charter-boat company, were waiting to take us on a two-hour cruise around Presque Isle and the harbor. Now I could see even more of Marquette than I had during my run. My most amusing discovery: Marquette has its own South Beach. Take that, Miami.

After our long day, I was getting tired. But we were so far north that the sun wasn't ready to go down. At nearly 8 p.m., it was still beaming strong. How fitting, I thought. The sun just doesn't want to set on beautiful Marquette.

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