Exploring Saugatuck

All-American community with access to plenty of great diversions

Although it maintains a relatively low profile outside the north central United States, the charming and artsy town of Saugatuck is the most significant gay resort destination in that region. A little more than two hours from Chicago and three hours from Detroit, this laid-back resort area offers a bounty of urbane restaurants, handsome B&Bs, funky boutiques and antiques shops, and more than 25 high-quality art galleries, as well as some of the most picturesque beach frontage on Lake Michigan. The pace here is easy, even a bit slow – it’s not a nightlife-driven singles destination like Provincetown or Palm Springs, but rather a scenic, 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 is actually where many of the area’s gay-owned businesses and homes are. The towns are separated by a wide expanse of the Kalamazoo River, which eventually empties into Lake Michigan. It’s just a mile’s drive or stroll from one village center to the other, or 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 river, 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 main 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 handful of other fun things to do in the area. You can make the 20-minute drive to Fenn Valley Winery, which has been producing award-winning wines since 1973 – the Dry Riesling and Capriccio (a red wine) are particularly well-regarded. Outside the tasting room, there’s a lovely garden patio to while away an afternoon sampling wine. In downtown Saugatuck, the Mason Street Warehouse theater produces first-rate musicals and plays, a total of five each season. And if you’re in an outdoorsy mood, consider paddling around town in a kayak – Running Rivers Kayak Rentals can provide guided tours, instruction, and 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.

Although plenty of trendy dining options have sprung up in the area, don’t overlook one of the longtime favorites, Toulouse, which serves some of the finest French food in the state. Parisian show posters line the walls of the candlelit, antiques-filled dining room. The food at this Saugatuck institution sings, from the cassoulet of white beans, duck confit, smoked pork, and sausage, to Thai-style curry-baked sweet potatoes with coconut milk, cilantro, and cashew butter. Festive Chequers could pass for a pub in England’s Cotswolds – it’s warmly lighted and filled with bric-a-brac. A big crowd quaffs pints of imported ales and stouts. The kitchen serves up fish-and-chips, shepherd’s pie, and bangers and mash as well as salads and sandwiches.

As coffeehouses go, Uncommon Grounds is one of your best options. It’s a good place to pick up an over-stuffed sandwich, smoothie, light breakfast, or delicious carrot cake, in addition to the usual java drinks. The sunny deck out front is nice for ogling passers-by. If you’re in the mood for some serious snacking, drop by Cookies on Call for a white-chocolate-and-caramel or dark-chocolate-and-dried-blueberry cookie.

In downtown Douglas, the outstanding Everyday People Cafe looks like a cheerful down-home diner, but serves such ambitious standouts as pan-seared ahi tuna with a lemon-ginger beurre blanc, and lump crab cakes with a smoked-corn relish. There’s a great wine list, too. Chaps is one of the most consistently good restaurants in the area, serving creative American fare, from light sandwiches and salads in the bar to more substantial offerings in the attractive dining room. Sauteed pheasant with shiitake mushrooms and a citrus-butter sauce ranks among the best dishes here. Blue Moon is a beautiful space with a fireplace, long banquettes layered with throw pillows, and inventive but inexpensive food, such as barbecue-duck quesadillas, soba noodles with Asian-marinated steak, and juicy half-pound burgers.

When it comes to nightlife, the only game in town is the Douglas Dunes Resort, which has a sizable disco, a cocktail lounge and video bar, a game room, a huge fenced-in sundeck and bar with a large pool and lush foliage, and a piano cabaret. This is also the most gay-oriented accommodation in the area, and it actually claims to be the largest gay resort in the entire Midwest. The rambling 20-acre resort has 65 units, ranging from cottages to motel rooms. Accommodations are clean and simple, and some rooms have fireplaces and hot tubs.

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 is one of the region’s most elegant properties. Five fireplaces, myriad stained-glass windows, Oriental rugs, and fine oak detailing distinguish the beautiful interior. Don’t miss the delicious breakfast, which might feature white-chocolate berry pudding or baked peach-and-cream cheese French toast. Innkeepers Jim Gowran and Ray Riker are friendly and knowledgeable, always willing to recommend restaurants and help guests plan their days. In downtown Saugatuck, the Newnham Suncatcher Inn is an attractive brown clapboard inn with a wraparound porch. Everyone is welcome here, but hostesses Barb and Nancy make an especially strong effort to encourage lesbians and same-sex couples traveling with children. They treat guests like old friends, yet give them plenty of privacy. The inn is decorated with whimsical touches, such as stuffed animals, toys, and trinkets.

Wickwood Inn Saugatuck Boutique Hotel has a great location and even better food. The Inn itself is situated just outside of the main strip but within walking distance of everything. Decorations are beautiful, architecture is interesting, in a good way, and each room has its own charm. The gardens in front and back are lovely with tables, chairs and umbrellas.

A particularly gracious property is the Belvedere Inn, a regal 1913 mansion designed by a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright – it’s about 3 miles northeast of downtown Saugatuck. Innkeepers Shaun Glynn and Pete Ta have run the Belvedere since 2003, tending carefully to guests’ needs. There are 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 grilled pork chops with a celery root mash, morel mushrooms, black mission figs, and a port-wine reduction. If it’s a romantic getaway or a special-occasion dinner you’re celebrating, the Belvedere is your answer.