We know what you're thinking: Grand Rapids is that town in central Michigan known for office furniture manufacturing and religious book publishing. Snore.
Guess what? A heady mix of art and beer has awakened the state's second-largest city from its slumber. Hopheads in particular are pouring in to sample the wares. Afterward, Lake Michigan's 300-mile, beach-strewn coast awaits a short splash away.
The suds scene exploded in 2012, when Grand Rapids was voted best beer city in the US by the national Beer Examiner blog. It happened again in 2013. Thank the high per-capita number of craft brewers – more than 25 operate in the area – and their high-quality product for the honor.
Rock-and-roll Founders Brewing Company (www.foundersbrewing.com) started the local brouhaha, and it's a prime place for beer pilgrims to begin quaffing. Enter the rustic taproom, and check the chalkboard for the nearly two dozen beers that are flowing. Then join the burly, bearded crowd swilling in-your-face concoctions like malty Curmudgeon Old Ale and ruby-tinged Dirty Bastard Ale. They pack an alcohol wallop of 9.8% and 8.5%, respectively, but Founders' fat deli sandwiches help soak it up. This is Grand Rapids' cool-cat hot spot, especially when bands plug in several nights per week.
Brewery Vivant (www.breweryvivant.com) is another hophead favorite. Set in an old chapel with stained-glass windows and a vaulted ceiling, the atmospheric brewpub pours fruity, Belgian-style beers in tulip glasses. The family-friendly venue also serves root beer and burgers, as well as poutine and steak and frites at farmhouse-type communal tables. Across the street, the Green Well (www.thegreenwell.com) is a sustainable gastro-pub that taps hard-to-find Michigan beers from beyond Grand Rapids; a three-beer sampler will broaden your palate. Plus you can buy awesome art by local artists right off the walls.
Other top tipples include Grand Rapids Brewing Company (www.grbrewingcompany.com), one of the nation's few organic-certified beer makers, and Mitten Brewing Company (www.mittenbrewing.com), a baseball-themed, pizza-slingin' brew house.
The Grand Rapids CVB (www.experiencegr.com) has a map of all the breweries and online links to those that offer tours. Many are walkable in the city's tidy downtown.
Sipping suds at Founders Brewing Company. Image courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids.
Prized for art
Who knew Grand Rapids hosted the world's richest and most radical art competition? ArtPrize (www.artprize.org) lets more than 1700 painters, sculptors, designers, and performing artists from 45 countries display their pieces around the city for all to see. Artworks pop up everywhere - in banks, parks, bookshops, and yes, breweries. The public then votes on who wins the $350,000 in prize money - including the $200,000 top award, a whopping amount for this sort of contest. A Michigan quilter who stitched a helluva rendering of nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes won the 2013 prize. The mind-expanding fun takes place from late September through early October.
'Lights in the Night', an ArtPrize 2012 installation. Image courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids.
If you're not in town during ArtPrize, you still have options. The 118-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens (www.meijergardens.org) features impressive blooms and sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, and 30 other A-list chiselers. And the Grand Rapids Art Museum (www.artmuseumgr.org) fills a sun-drenched, Gold LEED-certified building with 19th- and 20th-century works. European and American masters such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Richard Diebenkorn take pride of place.
Sunset at the Frederik Meijer Gardens. Photo by William J. Hebert.
Gerald Ford Shrine
Downtown's Gerald R Ford Museum (www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov) is dedicated to Michigan's only president. Snore if you will, but this shrine to the Grand Rapids local is pretty darn cool. Gawk in disbelief at the low-tech burglary tools - the giant tape recorders and bulky lock picks - that launched the Watergate scandal. It was this event that put Ford into the Oval Office in 1974 after Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in disgrace. The museum does an excellent job of covering the tumultuous period in US history.
It also does an excellent job of stocking the gift shop with presidential bobblehead dolls. Herbert Hoover, John Adams, and other guys you forgot were US leaders nod agreeably from the shelves. They're fitting Grand Rapids souvenirs: clean-cut, but with a quirky edge.
Bobbleheads at the Gerald R Ford Museum. Image copyright Karla Zimmerman / Lonely Planet.
The beaches beyond
Drive 30 miles west of Grand Rapids and voila! Beaches unfurl for 300 miles along Lake Michigan's coast. Highlights from south to north:
- New Buffalo: The wee town is the Midwest's surfing hub. You heard right. You can surf Lake Michigan, and the VW-bus-driving dudes at Third Coast Surf Shop (www.thirdcoastsurfshop.com) will show you how. They rent wetsuits and boards, and offer lessons from the public beach right out the front door. They also give skimboarding, paddleboarding, and sandboarding lessons (the latter on local dunes).
- Saugatuck: The strong arts community and gay-friendly vibe draw boatloads of vacationers to the pretty little village. Oval Beach ranks among Michigan's best for its soft sand and psychedelic sunsets. For a dramatic entrance, take the clackety Saugatuck Chain Ferry from downtown, then follow the path up and over the dunes. Artists can seek out the century-old Ox-Bow (www.ox-bow.org) school in the woods for painting, glass blowing, and metalsmithing lessons.
- Sleeping Bear Dunes: There are two main ways to absorb the stunning lake vistas in this national park (www.nps.gov/slbe). One is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a seven-mile, one-lane, picnic-grove-studded loop. The other is the Dune Climb, which entails trudging up a 200ft-high sand pile. It will punish your leg muscles, but the view at the top - panoramic, Caribbean blue-hued water - is worth it.
- Traverse City: It is the region’s 'big' city, a happenin’ place with kiteboarding and sailing, music and movie festivals, and brewpubs and chic restaurants. It's also known as the Cherry Capital, so be sure to pop in Cherry Republic (www.cherryrepublic.com) to sample the cherry ketchup, cherry-dusted tortillas, cherry butter - you get the point. Vineyards blanket the nearby Old Mission Peninsula, where Chardonnay and Pinot Noir drinkers can fill glasses during tastings and tours.
- Petoskey: Petoskey is yet another yacht-filled resort town. The bonus here is the Ernest Hemingway connection. The Little Traverse History Museum (www.petoskeymuseum.org) has a collection dedicated to the author, including rare first-edition books that Hemingway autographed. Afterward, toss back a drink at City Park Grill (www.cityparkgrill.com), where Hemingway was a regular. The Horton Bay General Store (www.hortonbaygeneralstore.com) sits 12 miles inland. Fans will recognize the building and its 'high false front' from the short story Up in Michigan. Hemingway idled away some youthful summers telling fish stories on the big porch, as his family had a cottage on nearby Walloon Lake.
Gold Coast beach. Image courtesy of Experience Grand Rapids.
Don't forget to pack Lonely Planet’s USA travel guide into your beach bag, as it will lead you to the must-sees and best-kept secrets of Grand Rapids, the Gold Coast, and much, much more.