As you may have read elsewhere in this issue, you can get to Ludington over water, on the last of the Lake Michigan ferries, but to make that trip you have to drive to Kewaunee, Wisconsin, first, and from that point on the scenery, though rare, is rather predictable. (The ferry will take your car. See page 7 for details.) The more conventional route goes around the lake via I-94, I-196, and U.S. Highway 31. Ludington is halfway up the mitten of lower Michigan, about 240 road miles from Chicago.
If you come in on old 31, instead of its new four-lane replacement, you’ll see right away that this place is not your usual tourist stop but a real town with smokestacks, factories, old docks, and blue-collar back streets. A real place inhabited by real people who do real things that often have little to do with you, the tourist. And if you, like so many of us, grew up in just such a small town, if you remember Main Street shopping and the Eagles hall and the Masonic temple and the Friday-night football games, you’ll find something in Ludington that touches your spirit. You could call the feeling nostalgia, but it’s not the kind you can wrap up and put on sale in a gift shop. Ludington isn’t exactly Door County.
Going from Chicago to Ludington there’s always a chance you won’t get there–not because the trip is so long and arduous but because it’s so much fun. You don’t get off I-94 until you get to Benton Harbor, so already you’ve missed Michigan City, New Buffalo, Union Pier, and the Warren Dunes State Park, where people go hang gliding off the steep bluffs. Already you’ve missed several worthy wineries, any number of major farm stands, and a free tour of the Cook Nuclear Plant at Bridgman. Never mind. We’re heading north, north! But here, at least, are a few suggested rest stops.
Saugatuck for lunch: Saugatuck is to Ludington what Lincoln Park is to Logan Square–it’s pricey, pretty, and short on parking. Saugatuck is a sure-enough tourist town full of antiques shops, art galleries, quaint boutiques, and trendy restaurants where you can rub elbows with people who look as if they’ve stepped out of a Land’s End catalog. For waterfront ambience there’s Ilforno (220 Water St., 616-857-2162–or a half-dozen other spots within walking distance). And yes, they serve French onion soup in a little crock with melted cheese running down the sides. (More Saugatuck information may be obtained from the Saugatuck/Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 28, Saugatuck, MI 49453, 616-857-5801.)
Next stop, Holland–where they really do have tulip farms (and a tulip festival every May), a 200-year-old windmill with 80-foot sails that actually grinds grain, a wooden-shoe factory, and lots of people with real Dutch names. This is a good spot to drop off your mother-in-law. She’ll be as happy as a bug with all the gift shops and shopping malls. Pick her up on the way back, and when Christmas rolls around, prepare to try on your wooden shoes. (Holland information can be obtained by calling the Holland Convention and Visitors Bureau, 616-396-4221, or the Chamber of Commerce, 616-392-2389.)
North of Muskegon, the town that stole our submarine (the U.S.S. Silversides), is the Muskegon State Park (3560 Memorial Drive, 616-744-3480), where they have a luge run and some fantastic cross-country ski trails you might want to check out once the snow falls. The beach here will pop your eyes, miles and miles of it with no tall buildings looming behind you. Actually it’s the same beach you’ll see in Ludington, the same beach you’ve been following all along. West Michigan is beach, beach, beach, acres of clean, inviting sand that you can walk in bare feet, with secluded spots for sharing a blanket. And you can swim, even quite late in the season if you’re brave. The prevailing winds cross Lake Michigan from west to east, so the water that piles up along this shore is that nice, warm top water we so seldom encounter at North Avenue.
OK, you’re in Ludington.
Main Street here is Ludington Avenue, also known as Highway 10. It runs straight through town and ends at the dock, where ferryboats will still take you across the lake. Ludington Avenue has both the new and the old, the quaint and the historic; strip malls and tire shops on one end, Lake Michigan, the lighthouse, and elegant inns on the other. You can drive the length of it in less than five minutes and park without problem wherever you please. You’ll see gift shops and motels, B and Bs, and the dentist’s office with a patient jacked up behind a picture window publicly getting his teeth cleaned. You’ll see tall, turreted homes with gables and wraparound porches and white paint that doesn’t seem to peel the way it does here in Chicago, and one green lawn after another manicured to a fare-thee-well.
Where to stay? Got money, want to feel even richer than you really are? These are downtown, on the lake, walking distance from the breakwater, the lighthouse, and the foghorn that goes whoop, whoop, whoop in the night. Most conspicuous is Snyders Shoreline Inn (903 W. Ludington Ave., 616-845-1261), no two rooms alike, private balconies, hot tubs, heated pool, canopied beds, you get the idea–$60 to $175, with off-season rates after Labor Day and special winter packages (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day for you lovers). Open all year, and right across the street, is Miller’s Lakeside Motel (808 W. Ludington Ave., 616-843-3458). A little further away, in the center of town, the historic Stearns Motor Inn (212 E. Ludington Ave., 616-843-3407), which has the Tiki Lounge & Nightclub downstairs (that should settle matters for some of you guys). Even further east, the sumptuous Viking Arms (930 E. Ludington Ave, 616-843-3441), with a romantic heart-shaped whirlpool room.
How about a bed and breakfast? There are the 1880 Inn on the Hill (716 E. Ludington Ave., 616-845-6458) and the Ludington House 1878 Bed and Breakfast (501 E. Ludington Ave., 616-845-7769), both open all year. Bringing a child? Kids are welcome at Grandma Mary’s Bed & Breakfast (809 E. Ludington Ave., 6l6-845-6577).
That should take care of the no-sand-in-our-sheets crowd. Now for the nitty-gritty. Serious fishermen will head straight for Ferwerda’s Peaceful Acres (2670 Piney Ridge Rd., 616-843-2292), just off M116, the highway otherwise known as Lakeshore Drive. This is where the good old boys come–you can see them cleaning their 25-pound salmon morning, noon, and night. And you can buy any piece of tackle you might need to join them in Ferwerda’s camp store. In summer Ferwerda will send you out on Lake Hamlin in his boats, and you can get bass, pike, panfish, and every now and then an enormous bowfin, which is the proper name for the inedible dogfish. Ferwerda will also rent you his housekeeping cottages, with kitchens, pullout beds for the extra kids, and open porches, where you can make the acquaintance of the local mosquitoes. There are fancier places on Lake Hamlin but none quite so . . . well, colorful. The Ferwerdas maintain their own zoo, which includes chickens, peacocks, goats, and Hank and Heidi, two mature Japanese macaques, short-tailed monkeys resembling chimps. Hank and Heidi have been part of the Ferwerda family for years. They used to dress up in clothes and eat at the table with the big folks and even use the potty, but now they’d as soon hang out and bum ice cream cones from visitors. No one knows how many cones they consume a year, or what their arteries might look like, but you’ll never hear them complain. Next to Hank and Heidi, the best thing about Ferwerda’s is the price. You can stay a whole week out there for what you might spend on a single night in town.
Rather camp? To the Ludington State Park, five minutes north on 116 (the road dead-ends at the park), and you’ll be right where the fish are. Huge campground, great facilities, all hookups, camp store, and that fantastic Michigan beach (second only, I swear, to Florida’s Atlantic coast). For camping reservations call 616-843-8671; otherwise you take your chances, which are pretty good off-season, terrible during the summer. There’s more camping at Cartier Park Campground, (1254 N. Lakeshore Drive, 616-845-1522, you’ll pass it on your way to the state park), right next to the old cemetery where you can visit the headstones of Michigan farm boys who fell in the Civil War.
Where to eat? For breakfast, lunch, and dinner there’s the unpretentious Old Hamlin Restaurant (122 W. Ludington Ave., 616-843-4251), equally popular with locals and visitors, all sandwiches available on homemade bread cut over an inch thick. The Old Hamlin is small, crowded, and efficient, with a solid midwestern menu. You’re looking for weird ethnic foods? Why did you leave Chicago?
For that fancy dinner: right in town and on the water, P.M. Steamers–“steamers” as in the boat, not the clams; “P.M.” as in Pere Marquette (the good father once paddled right down the river now named for him; he also had a boat line named after him and has a memorial south of town). Steamers is a little pricey–by Michigan standards–and serves the kind of eclectic menu you might expect, but they darn well know how to do fish. (This is not a given in Michigan. A lot of local restaurateurs still fry everything that swims.) P.M. Steamers is across from the Ludington marina at 502 W. Loomis St., 616-843-9555.
And the writer’s favorite: Scotty’s (5910 E. Ludington Ave., 616-843-4033; a reservation might save a wait). Scotty’s will serve you a slab of prime rib that would make your cardiologist turn pale. There used to be a restaurant like this in the town where I grew up, and I do believe all those grade-A prime cuts marbled with expensive fat knocked off an entire generation of Elks and Rotarians. They went down, as I recall, with smiles on their florid faces. For those of you who lack the courage for this kind of red-blooded living, Scotty’s does fish and chicken just fine. Shucks, you can even tangle with escargots.
Entertainment? You’ve been out snagging 30-pound salmon, and now you want entertainment? Watch the sun set in Lake Michigan. Can’t do that in Chicago. Go down to the Tiki Lounge & Nightclub (address above) and have a few drinks. Better yet, take your tackle over to Scottville, where the six-pack crowd keeps snagging all the long, dark night on the Pere Marquette. It can get kind of ugly over there, but Ludington has a fine hospital and emergency room that’s right on the way back into town.
Good radio station? WBLV FM 90.3, a public-radio station broadcasting from the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp east of Whitehall. Classical music all day, and the best jazz programming anywhere, period, most every night. A bonus: regular rundowns on all live jazz happenings in western Michigan.
Good things to eat: Start with the Lakeshore Fisheries at the marina at 301 W. Filer St. in a 100-year-old smokehouse that has been designated a state historical site. They sell smoked salmon, whitefish, lake trout, chubs. Try the smoked menominee, a kind of whitefish you seldom see at Dominick’s that’s cheaper than the salmon, meatier than the chubs. The people here also do custom smoking of anything you might have caught, and will arrange for a charter boat to take you out on the lake. (Call Captain Ed Stowe at the plant, 616-845-5898, or at home, 616-843-9533. It’s best to book ahead. Naturally his boat is called the Stowaway.)
Ye old candy shoppe: Every resort town has a couple of these. What Ludington has is an authentic marzipan factory (Anna Bach Candies, 105 W. Foster, 616-843-9288) several blocks off the main drag in another building that probably ought to be put on the list of state historical sites. No fancy display window here, no counter help in costumes. The Bachs brought this whole outfit here from Denmark in l949, and by the looks of things haven’t made a whole lot of changes since. In addition to marzipan the Bachs offer chocolates and bakery goods, and there are a couple of tables where you can quietly munch down whatever you’ve found.
Best farm stands: Something is always in season–asparagus, strawberries, cherries, blueberries, peaches, pears, apples, grapes, squash, potatoes, and finally huge bags of what folks up this way call “deer carrots.” (You see guys in red hunting caps buying these things, for what purpose I cannot imagine.) The best stand is the Grassa Farm Market (2442 West U.S. 10, 616-843-8020). In October, look for the local apples and the fresh cider.
Ye old-timey village and museum: White Pine Village, a restored 19th-century village complete with blacksmith shop, general store, one-room schoolhouse, costumed guides, and–not to be missed–the Abe Nelson Lumbering Museum, where you can learn why almost all the neighboring trees are second growth. The village is at 1687 S. Lakeshore Drive (616-843-4808), and is closed (except by special arrangement) Labor Day through Memorial Day.
Special adventure: canoe on the Pere Marquette. Straight east on Highway 10, at Baldwin, there are several canoe-rental services (try Baldwin Canoe Rental, three miles south of Baldwin on the west side of M-37 just south of the river, 616-745-4669). The Pere Marquette is an easy float that runs mostly through undeveloped state forestland. Avoid Saturdays during the summer, when the crashing of aluminum bottoms sounds like thunder on the river, and you should be all right.
Less exciting adventure: ride Ludington’s authentic English double decker buses, a good way to get to White Pine Village, the state park, or the village of Pentwater (see below). Operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Buses depart from various stops downtown. Fares are $1.50 for 12 and over, 75 cents for kids, seniors, and handicapped riders. Further details from the Ludington Mass Transportation Authority, 616-845-1231.
Special side trips: Pentwater, an artsy-craftsy resort town, and dune-buggy rides at Silver Lake. Manistee, another good salmon-fishing stop. Scottville–see what life in a small town is really like, get yourself an authentic barbershop haircut.
Things to watch out for: the dreaded Michigan blackfly, which during spring and summer will eagerly draw your blood. The dreaded Michigan state trooper, who does not know or care who your clout is. The ubiquitous Michigan sand, which will accompany you home and remain in certain orifices of your body for months to come.
Be forewarned, Ludington and Mason County cannot last long as they are. The new four-lane highway–31–is complete. Already there’s a Ramada Inn waiting at the exit. The power saws are tuning up. Here is a piece of America not yet gentrified. Get it while you can.
Complete information on the Ludington/Mason County area, with all the motels, restaurants, resorts, fishing charters, and car repair shops I have left out, can be had by writing the Ludington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 5827 W. US 10, P.O. Box 160, Ludington, MI 49431, 1-800-542-4600.