Benton Harbor, once home to the Eden Springs Amusement Park and one of the greatest semipro ball teams of all time, is not a place one should spend any more time than necessary. I’d advise just blowing through it on Business I-94, pausing to check out the ruins of old theaters and the once-majestic Landmark Hotel (a sign outside reads “Transients Welcome”), before zooming left onto Britain Avenue.
Just past M-139, in the 1100 block of East Britain, stand the remains of the two Israelite colonies; the sect’s strict belief in celibacy has driven the membership down to a select few, who still live here. On the north side of Britain is the House of David and its three main buildings–Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Shiloh (the last–a foreboding grayish brick structure that looks like something out of The Addams Family–is listed on the Register of National Historic Places). To the south, at 1158 E. Britain, is the less impressive redbrick Shiloh, headquarters of the City of David. On this property can be seen the crumbling remains of log cabins and cottages, a money-maker for the sect, part of the area’s once-thriving resort community.
However tempting the cheap prices of Benton Harbor motels may be to the miserly tourist, staying there is not advised. A recent rash of armed robberies in motel parking lots would lead the prudent to seek shelter in sister city Saint Joseph, just over the river from downtown Benton Harbor or further north on I-94. For those too adventurous to stay at downtown Saint Joe’s Holiday Inn, with its scummy swimming pool and a brand-new meet-market nightclub, Kazooty’s, there are a couple of more desirable options.
The South Cliff Inn (1900 Lakeshore; 616-983-4881) is a quaint, homey bed-and-breakfast with superclean rooms bathed in the aroma of potpourri. Rooms range from $70-$110, but it’s worth shelling out for the gorgeous view of Lake Michigan. Owner Bill Swisher provides an ultracomfy atmosphere with an intriguing collection of soaps in the washroom and delicious homemade breakfasts, most of which seem to involve streusel. The 1924 two-story B and B the Chestnut House (1911 Lakeshore; 616-983-7413) offers cozy, romantic rooms adorned with fresh flowers. It’s in the same price range as the South Cliff–$85 to $110–but to my taste just a little too close to a cemetery: there’s one about 50 feet from the entrance.
The budget conscious might opt for the Spartan rooms of the Snowflake Motel (3822 Red Arrow Highway; 616-429-3261) on the northern outskirts of Saint Joe. Designed in Frank Lloyd Wright style and constructed by Wright’s son-in-law, this snowflake-shaped complex’s rooms range from $27.50 for a single bed to $35 for a double. The adjacent shot-and-a-beer joint, the Flake Lounge, looks like a good place to get your ass kicked; it prominently features a sign declaring “Profanity Will Get You Nowhere But Out of Here.”
Food can be a major attraction on a road trip, but you’ve got to know where to look. Ma and Pa’s Country Kettle lies about 15 miles north of Saint Joseph in Watervliet, 3 miles north from I-94’s M-140 exit. This is perhaps the best down-home, just-like-grandma-used-to-make diner I’ve ever been to. Its walls are adorned with embroidered samplers reading Good Home Cookin’, and Ma and Pa’s serves up huge platters of hot turkey and gravy with mashed potatoes and a side of fried okra for about $5. They also offer eight different types of homemade pies as well as yummy pineapple upside-down cake. The staff here is friendlier than a roomful of kittens; they’ll even give you a tub of hot water to warm up your baby’s bottle of formula.
Ice cream is a big thing in southwestern Michigan. Downtown Saint Joe features two places that serve up the homemade variety, Blue Moon Ice Cream (410 State), where cones cost a buck, and Wilbur’s Homemade Ice Cream & Sandwich Shoppe (609 Broad), which has been in Benton Harbor since 1926. Had a coffee malted at Wilbur’s. Awesome. Also recommended is Schlipp’s Pharmacy in Sawyer, Michigan (5857 Sawyer; 616-426-3487), south of Saint Joe on I-94, which boasts an old-fashioned drugstore soda fountain with the usual sorts of ice cream concoctions.
Locals highly recommend the Italian cuisine at Tosi’s (4337 Ridge; 616-429-3689), just south of Saint Joe in Stevensville. It’s been there for 55 years. Tosi’s also runs a cute, cozy, somewhat cramped Italian cafe, Caffe Tosi (516 Pleasant). We tried the cafe for breakfast–featuring a limited number of tasty specials and flavored coffees–and didn’t try the pasta, but it looked all right. Avoid downtown Saint Joe’s Chan’s Garden (310 State; 616-983-2609), a chop suey joint with soups so gelatinous we floated spoons on top of them.
Nightlife in southwestern Michigan leaves a bit to be desired, but Czar’s, a touristy nightclub in downtown Saint Joe, features some decent blues and jazz acts if you can stomach the occasionally combative exchanges in the men’s room (“Hey you! Over there in the urinal! Are these jams kick-ass enough for you or what?”). A more authentic nonurban experience can be found in Stevensville’s Country Gal Saloon (6032 Red Arrow Highway), which offers a dozen cheaply priced beers on tap, pool tables, and a rough-and-tumble clientele who get rowdy whenever there’s a karaoke singer or Clarence Carter’s “Strokin”‘ blaring out of the CD jukebox. The nearby Lake Shore Roller World is a wholesome rink where local teens skate to Christian pop music. Not recommended: downtown Saint Joe’s nightclub H.I.’s Hollywood. This pleistocene singles bar, sort of a Planet Hollywood meets Tequila Roadhouse, displays costumes from Rambo III and Sister Act in glass cases. Although not exactly a hopping night spot, Monet’s in Stevensville (4272 Red Arrow Highway; 616-429-5800) is a good place to chill out, sip java, and read a newspaper in a comfortable cafe or outside on the patio.
In spring and summer, cherries, peaches, and apples are plentiful in southwestern Michigan, which makes it a great location for country drives and bike rides. One highly recommended short drive is off I-94’s exit 39 to Coloma. If you tool down Friday Road and explore the neighboring byways there are dozens of opportunities to wander through orchards and sample fresh cider. Miller Orchards (3265 Friday; 800-457-7892), with its old barn market selling 15 varieties of juices and ciders, is just one of a bunch.
The region hosts a number of charming festivals every year. From the beginning of spring through the first week of May, the area abounds in events tied to the famed Blossomtime Festival. The cities surrounding Saint Joe each crown a Miss Blossom in March, and in May there’s the Blessing of the Blossoms, conducted every year in a different orchard by a different preacher. A week or so later is the Grand Floral Parade, which inspires thousands of onlookers to line up in downtown Saint Joe and Benton Harbor to catch a glimpse of the marching bands, elaborate floats, antique cars, and of course, Miss Blossomtime and Miss Congeniality.
Locals also swear by the International Cherry Pitspitting Championship, held this year on July 2, at Tree-Mendus Fruit Farm in Eau Claire (616-782-7101). The record for cherry spitting is held by Rick “Pellet Gun” Krause, who jettisoned a pit more than 72 feet back in 1988. Tree-Mendus also features a “fastest cherry picker” contest the following week and late July moonlight hayrides. Benton Harbor’s Herb Barn (1955 Greenley; 616-927-2044), a sort of yuppie miniature Lamb’s Farm, features a small petting zoo and a wide selection of herbal incenses, soaps, and oils; it hosts an annual Spring Herb Festival in May and a Garlic Celebration on the first Saturday in August.
Very young children might get a charge out of the haunted barn at Farmer Friday’s (just north of Saint Joe on I-94–follow the signs), but older kids and grown-ups might find its 100 yards of buzzing, beeping, screeching ghoulish sights more irritating than frightening. A better bet is Saint Joe’s Curious Kids’ Museum (415 Lake; 616-983-CKID; $2 for kids under 18, $3 for bigger kids) with its dizzying array of hands-on exhibits: you can draw your own dinosaur, watch your shadow on a wall, or fiddle with musical instruments. My personal favorite: the soapy contraption in which you try to encase yourself in a bubble. Saint Joe’s Krasl Art Center (707 Lake; 616-983-0271) also offers an outdoor sculpture tour, including notably a kinetic piece by George Rickey.
Outdoorspeople, sun worshipers, and fisherpeople will delight in the Lake Michigan shoreline and the beautiful view afforded from the lighthouse at Silver Beach Park; it also has a very cool bright blue and yellow playground. Nearby Outpost Windsports (800 Lions Park; 616-983-2010) rents Rollerblades (between $10 and $15 a day), skim boards ($10 for a full day), and Windsurfers ($50 a day). And if you forgot your bathing suit, they’ll sell you one. Canoeing is possible in nearby Watervliet at the Paw Paw River Campground and Canoe Livery (5335 M-140; 616-463-5454), offering trips down the Paw Paw, Black, and Saint Joseph rivers.
On your way out of town, you can buy souvenirs at any of a number of downtown Saint Joe shops. State Street is lined with bookstores, sheet-music emporiums, and whats-it shops. State Street’s Mole Hole has a good selection of kitsch (toy cellular phones), pottery gnomes, and smelly stuff. The Toy Company provides an excellent selection of children’s books. And the G.C. Murphy Company Variety Store, at its State Street location since 1939, offers everything you’d find at your neighborhood five-and-dime only much cleaner.
You might also want to conclude your trip with a visit to one of southwestern Michigan’s wineries. Lemon Creek Winery and Fruit Farms (533 Lemon Creek in Berrien Springs; 616-471-1321) offers the usual free winery tour and fruit picking, plus an opportunity to feed the ducks. Be sure to tune in 93-FM as you head back on I-94–maybe you’ll catch the frequently featured 20 country tunes in a row. They also have great requests. On the night I was listening, 23-year-old Eddie, a divorced man with three kids, requested a song called “Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old.”