Out of Town: Gay Fun in Saugatuck, Michigan

Relaxing on the Kalamazoo River in downtown Saugatuck.
Photo: Andrew Collins
Relaxing on the Kalamazoo River in downtown Saugatuck. Photo: Andrew Collins

Relaxing on the Kalamazoo River in downtown Saugatuck.
Photo: Andrew Collins

By: Andrew Collins*/Special to TRT

Although it maintains a relatively low profile outside the region, the charming and artsy “twin towns” of Saugatuck and Douglas are the most significant gay resort destination in the Midwest. A little more than two hours from Chicago and three hours from Detroit, this laid-back area offers a bounty of urbane restaurants, handsome B&Bs, dapper boutiques and antiques shops, and more than 25 high-quality art galleries, as well picturesque beach frontage on Lake Michigan. The pace here is pretty chill – it’s not a nightlife-driven singles destination but rather a picturesque, all-American community that affords visitors the opportunity to get away from it all while still enjoying access to plenty of great diversions.

Generally, when people mention Saugatuck they’re also referring to the neighboring village of Douglas, which share the same very helpful tourism office; the Saugatuck-Douglas Visitors Bureau (www.saugatuck.com) is actually where many of the area’s gay-owned businesses and homes are. The towns are separated in part by a wide expanse of the Kalamazoo River, which forms a large lake that’s popular for boating and kayaking. From one village center to the other, it’s just a mile’s drive or stroll, and it’s also a mile from either community to Lake Michigan.

Historically, Saugatuck claimed more of the area’s shopping and dining, but Douglas’ smaller downtown has gentrified rapidly in the past few years, and now the main drag, Center Street, is lined with interesting businesses. In Saugatuck, you’ll find most of the shops and restaurants clustered around a roughly eight-square-block area along the waterfront, which is lined with boat slips. The two-town region is highly compact and accessible, although a handful of gay-owned accommodations are in outlying areas, a 10- to 20-minute drive away.

The prime tourist season runs from May through September, although most businesses operate year-round. Fall is beautiful when the foliage is changing, and winter offers a quiet and romantic (if chilly) respite, so don’t count out the off-season for a visit. Along the sweeping, sandy Lake Michigan shoreline, Oval Beach is the main area for lazing in the sun. Gays and lesbians tend to congregate more at the northern section of the beach. Lake Michigan’s surf packs a wallop, and the strong winds have formed huge dunes, covered with shrubs.

There are a plenty of other fun things to do in the area. You can make the 20-minute drive to Fenn Valley Vineyards (www.fennvalley.com), which has been producing award-winning wines since 1973 – the Dry Riesling and Capriccio (a red wine) are particularly well-regarded. Or stop by Fennville’s Virtue Cider (www.virtuecider.com), the maker of artisan farmhouse-style hard ciders that have gained a following throughout the Midwest. Outside the tasting room, there’s a lovely garden patio to while away an afternoon sampling wine. In a handsome space in the center of Saugatuck, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts is an exceptional resource, presenting nationally known musicians and comedians, and first-rate professional musicals and plays, through its Mason Street Warehouse theater company (there’s also a farmers market held on the grounds in summer on Monday afternoons). And if you’re in an outdoorsy mood, consider paddling around town in a kayak—Big Lake Outfitters can set you up with rentals. For a little more exercise, climb the 282 steps to the top of the area’s highest sand dune, Mt. Baldhead, from which you’ll enjoy stunning views of Lake Michigan.

Downtown Saugatuck has no shortage of noteworthy dining options. A major favorite for breakfast, Ida’s Red Cottage is as much fun for people-watching as it is for enjoying the fluffy pancakes and hearty omelets. Phil’s Bar and Grille (www.philsbarandgrille.com) is a great spot for a well-prepared lunch or dinner; the kitchen specializes in upscale versions of Midwestern American fare, like potato-crusted walleye with Dijon cream, and double-cut lamb chops charbroiled with a pomegranate gastrique. Marro’s Italian Restaurant (www.marrosrestaurant.com), serving authentic Italian fare and superb thin-crust pizzas, is another local favorite. Enjoy live music in the piano lounge most nights.

As coffeehouses go, Uncommon Grounds (www.uncommoncoffeeroasters.com) is a truly stellar operation, and a great friend of the local LGBT community. It’s a good place to pick up an over-stuffed sandwich, smoothie, light breakfast or delicious carrot cake, in addition to all sorts of espresso drinks made with high-quality, house-roasted beans and homemade syrups. The sunny deck out front is nice for ogling passers-by.

In downtown Douglas, the outstanding Everyday People Cafe (www.everydaypeoplecafe.com) is an unpretentious neighborhood eatery, but the kitchen turns out superb, creative contemporary American fare with global influences—Korean-style braised pork cheek with Michigan maple and Meyer lemon confit. There’s a great wine list, too. Gay-owned Zing Eat Drink (www.zingeatdrink.com) is a stylish spot with a hip bar up front, two different romantic outdoor seating areas, and an art-filled dining room. It’s a hot spot early in the day for house specialty Maryland crab-cake Benedicts and cranberry-walnut French toast. In the evening, enjoy a glass of wine or a cocktail, and tuck into a plate of cedar-planked salmon or grilled meatloaf with caramelized onion jam. Lots of LGBT revelers stop in here for happy hour or drinks before continuing their partying just down the street at Dunes Resort.

Craft-beer lovers should stop by Saugatuck Brewing Co. (www.saugatuckbrewing.com) to sample the expertly made local brews, such as hoppy Singapore IPA and crisp Oval Beach Blonde, while relaxing on the expansive patio and nibbling on tasty pub fare. In the historic part of downtown, Respite Cappuccino Court (respitedouglas.com) is another great little spot serving first-rate java, tasty breakfast bowls and salads, and tempting baked goods.

When it comes to nightlife, the only game in town is the 20-acre Douglas Dunes Resort (www.dunesresort.com), which has a large and fun disco, a cocktail lounge and video bar, a game room, a huge private sundeck and bar with a large pool and lush foliage, and a piano cabaret. The largest gay resort in the entire Midwest, this highly popular resort has a great range of accommodations options, including large two-bedroom cottages, simple and contemporary standard rooms in two motel-type buildings, and even bargain-priced “bunk rooms” ideal for singles. The accommodations are nicely maintained, and some rooms have fireplaces and hot tubs.

One relatively recent development has been the transformation of some of the area’s old-timey motor courts into smartly furnished, mid-century-modern boutique inns. Innkeepers Steve Laughner and Rob Goeke have done a wonderful job with a pair of these properties, the Pines Motorlodge (www.thepinesmotorlodge.com) – which is more centrally located in Douglas and is right near Lake Kalamazoo—and The Saugatuck (www.thesaugatuck.com), which enjoys a quieter setting nestled beneath pine trees a short drive from town. Also gay-owned and highly recommended is the Blue Star Motel (bluestardouglas.com), which is within walking distance of Douglas shopping and dining, and their newest accommodation, the Starlite Resort (www.starliteresort.com), which opened in spring 2015.

You’ll find no shortage of historic B&Bs in the area, too. A stately 1890 Queen Anne on the edge of downtown Douglas, the Kirby House (www.thekirbyhotel.com) is one of the region’s most elegant properties. After closing for a time, the inn was recently sold and completely revamped with a more contemporary yet still classic design. With five fireplaces and fine oak detailing distinguish, the inn retains its architectural prowess but now feels more airy and urbane. Additionally, there’s a new restaurant and wine lounge on the ground floor, J. Paul’s, which serves tasty tapas and cheese-and-charcuterie boards.

One exceptionally gracious property in this part of the world is the Belvedere Inn (www.thebelvedereinn.com), a regal 1913 mansion designed by a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright—it’s about three miles northeast of downtown Saugatuck. Innkeepers Shaun Glynn and Pete Ta run this spectacular hideaway, tending carefully to guests’ needs (they also operate a lovely three-room vacation house, called the Bellevue Harbour House, overlooking the riverfront in Saugatuck).

Inside the Belvedere, you can choose from among 10 richly furnished rooms and suites, and rates include an opulent breakfast as well as afternoon tea. Glynn is also the chef at the Belvedere’s superb restaurant, which serves such rarified Continental cuisine as roasted butternut squash and crab bisque, and pan-roasted, lightly curried monkfish with saffron risotto. If it’s a romantic getaway or a special-occasion dinner you’re celebrating, the Belvedere is your answer.

*Andrew Collins produces the site GayTravel.About.com and contributes to many other travel magazines and websites. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.

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