Grand Rapids, Michigan isn’t fancy, exotic, or considered cultured by many, and I can’t ever recall anyone on my Lonely Planet forum ever soliciting information. But it is my home and Michigan’s second largest city, so worth of some acknowledgment from a former local. Perhaps I’ll convince someone to visit Michigan’s “West Coast”, or reassure them to stay the hell away. Either way, some observations from my recent weekend back home for the armchair traveler.
Regarding chairs: The business reasons for visiting Grand Rapids are plenty: Perhaps you’re the big shot office manager and Herman Miller and Steelcase are competing to woo you for that hefty purchase. You’ll be treated to the factory tour, AND be put up in the elegant Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. Yes that Amway. Jay Van Andel and Richard DeVos, founders of Amway, own much of the town, hence you’ll see their names splattered across various infrastructure.
Maybe you’ve climbed to the top of the Amway pyramid and are visiting the headquarters personally choosing which new soaps to sell, and have your associates sell, and those associates to their associates. (In which case ask for a discount at the Amway Grand Hotel).
Perhaps as the pastor, deacon, or elder of your church you’ve been selected to attend a week long theological conference on an irrelevant yet overly debated issue like women or gays in ministry. Between excruciating discussions of rigid 15th century arcane catechisms you may want to unbutton your collar and explore downtown. The old homes and mansions of East Grand Rapids are well cared for and beautiful to walk by on a nice summer night. The cobblestones streets of Easttown date back to the last century. Not interested? Ok, Sensations showclub is conveniently located near Calvin College by Woodland Mall. Oh THAT type of club? Yes Grand Rapids has two! Diversions is the largest, located on Fountain Street downtown. Club 69 is on Division.
As you’ll see perusing Saturday’s “Religion” section of the Grand Rapids Press, theology plays a big part in West Michigan’s atmosphere.
The city has retained its Puritan Dutch Reformed roots from the Netherland immigrants ariving in the late 1800s, who escaped the perils of immorality that threatened Holland at the time. For that reason the Grand Rapids maintains a conservative nature, and you’ll see tidy looking brick “Christian Reformed Churches” planted on many corners around town. Despite the Christian leanings, the Protestant and Dutch Reformed maintain a healthy distance from other religious denominations such as Pentecostals and Baptists, who consider themselves quite different from other denominations, all while falling under the umbrella of Christianity. Keep and ear open while visiting a Beaner’s Coffee franchise, and you’ll overhear spirited discussions on Calvinism, free will, or the effect religion plays on global events. If there are kids nearby the chat will skew lighter – such as whether or not your Golden Retriever will be waiting for you in Heaven. Yes, it’s actually called Beaner’s coffee.
If visiting Grand Rapids the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel is the place to stay. For views of the river or downtown stay in the tower. For a more historic setting pick the older building in the old Pantlind Hotel. There’s a Day’s Inn opposite the river near the Gerald Ford Museum, and a Courtyard by Marriot near the Van Andel Arena. All are within walking distance of all downtown sights, and close to restaurants and bars. Most hotels and motels outside of downtown, (Plainfield or 28th Street), are bland chain motels along busy arterials, so unless you’re weekending at the nearby shores of Lake Michigan, stick to downtown for the best experience.
Like many cities large and small Grand Rapids has been doing an excellent job of revitalizing its city core, building condos and encouraging people to shop and spend after regular business hours. Last week while frequenting one of the afore mentioned clubs I was surprised to see a LOT of people downtown bustling about and waiting in lines at other clubs despite the frigid temperatures. The Bob is a large bar/restaurant popular with many locals.
A couple miles east of downtown are the Heritage Hill and Easttown neighborhoods. Easttown is considered the most eclectic and liberal enclave. A walkable area with old homes large and small and old trees, the hub of activity is at the corner of Lake Drive at Robinson, (a few blocks south of Fulton). Here you’ll find the Kava House Coffee Shop, and Wolfgangs, a perpetually popular eatery. This last visit I ate at Bombay Cuisine at 1420 Lake Drive, (pictured above), in Easttown, and surprisingly good Indian food.
My favorite diner restaurant is Bill’s Diner (pictured), at Michigan and Fuller, just east up the hill from the Spectrum Health Complex. Bill’s is a simple, no nonsense family restaurant with friendly staff, a regular local crowd, (picture a United Auto Workers meeting), and prices that don’t get any cheaper. If you’re looking for an upscale restaurant on a warm summer, (ok sticky summer night), go to Charley’s Crab, a fine seafood restaurant on the banks of the Grand River.
Health fact: Did you know Grand Rapids was the first city in the world to use fluoride in its drinking water in 1945?
During my recent visit I revisited the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum, a place I haven’t been to since grade school. The museum was renovated a few years back, and is a bright airy facility along the banks of the Grand River. The museum highlights Ford’s childhood in Grand Rapids, and a detailed history of Betty Ford, (who was a successful fashion merchandiser for local department store). During your walk through history you’ll view a primer on the Vietnam era, and some wonderfully kitchy 70s memorabilia, making me appreciate the technology my iPod provides.
The museum details Ford’s accomplishments as a state representative, and his relationship with Nixon in events leading to Nixon’s resignation and Ford’s brief presidency. Did you know Gerald Ford helped initiate the electronic funds transfer, leading to development of the ATM? Thank Gerald Ford you can withdraw money 24 hours a day, and not rush to the bank by Friday at 5pm for your weekend cash. What exactly did people do on the weekend if they had no cash prior to 1974?
Ford is buried on the museum grounds opposite the museum inside a tomb that looks like a miniature version of the Norad Mountain. I believe there’s a secret lever buried in the shrubbery somewhere opening the vault.
One of the best reason to go to Grand Rapids is to explore Lake Michigan’s waterfront, and continue north to the vast woodsy upper peninsula. The city makes an excellent starting point for a road trip north or around the great lakes. Spend a night or two in Grand Rapids, then head north to see the fall colors, lighthouses, and maritime history of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. Be sure to download “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to your iPod and stop along a the road for a meat filled “pasty”. You’ll probably be stopping to buy mosquito spray anyway.
Some of my best memories as a child are loading up the wood paneled station wagon, (towing the pop-up camper of course), while camping and exploring the upper pensinsula’s wide open spaces. 175 miles north of Grand Rapids is the Mackinac Bridge and Mackinac Island. Mackinac Island is a car-free island with the standard tourist fare and shops. For a unique experience stay at the historic Grand Hotel. You won’t be disappointed.
The Soo Locks are near the Mackinac Bridge in St. Ignace. While not the Panama Canal it’s interesting to watch the freighters pass through from the St. Lawrence Seaway en route to Chicago and other midwest ports. Tahquamenon Falls, the Porcupine Mountains, and the Pictured Rocks round out a perfect trip to the upper Peninsula.
Airport fact: It’s difficult to check arrivals and departures when there’s an enormous prayer circle in front of the display!
West Michigan is served by the Gerald Ford International Airport on the southeast side of the city. Nearby interstate 96 connects to the Gerald Ford Freeway, providing easy access to downtown, (and of course the Gerald Ford Museum). Amtrak’s station is downtown, and the Pierre Marquette train provides daily service to Chicago.
For a few years now the Lake Express ferry has been providing service across between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Muskegon, Michigan. If your road trip takes you across Michigan to Wisconsin and points beyond, the 3.5 hour trip across Lake Michigan is an excellent alternative to driving south through Indiana and Chicago.
With the long winters the suburbs of Grand Rapids aren’t known as being that bike friendly, however the Kent Trails traverse a large part of Kent County. Most other outdoor recreation activities in West Michigan take place on the lakeshore, about 25 miles west of Grand Rapids. Grand Haven is a popular town for young people and boating. South of Holland and Zeeland is Saugatuck, a picturesque village on the shores known for being gay friendly.
Did you know: Kent county had 2,169 vehicle/deer accidents in 2005? 4.9% were classified as “other vehicle” including snowmobile and moped!
If shopping’s your game the two major malls are Woodland Mall in Kentwood and Rivertown Crossing’s in Grandville. Both have movie complexes, although none can complete with Studio 28 on 28th Street. Although Studio 28 remains popular, unfortunately the length retail stretch of 28th Street cutting through Grandville, Wyoming, and Kentwood is now deteriorating into a typical midwestern “inner ring” suburb. The chains have moved to the more fertile pastures near new housing developments (and new money) leaving the shells of their stores to by taken over by check cashing joints and garish cell phone stores.
Departing Grand Rapids this past trip the sky was blue and sunny, a rarity for February. As the regional jet banked steeply and arced around downtown I watched the modest skyscrapers become smaller and smaller in the haze before we were swallowed up in the clouds over Lake Michigan. It’s interesting to see a place in which you spent the first 18 years of your life reduced from the air to a small geographic parcel. I realized that in this normal mundane midwestern town in which people only hear tales of unemployment, a holier than thou population, and unholy frigid winters – you can still find some special places, people, and gems that Grand Rapids has to offer.