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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

In Grand Haven, trails take you along the beach. For most of the ride to Saugatuck, the lake is invisible. (PHOTO: Paul Williams)

Milwaukee to Saugatuck by bike


Saugatuck, Mich. is a bicyclist's haven that doesn't yet realize that it is. Nestled on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, the artist colony-turned-vacation village has nearly everything a cyclist needs, and getting there is half the fun.

Driving to Michigan (with bikes in tow) requires either a potentially traffic-ridden journey through Chicago or a ride across on the Lake Express ferry. We wanted to be truly adventurous and decided to travel sans car, making the journey via Lake Express and bicycle. I should probably explain that "we" included a somewhat seasoned cyclist who participates regularly in spin classes and triathlons (me), and my buddy Paul, who, when I asked what kind of bike he had, wasn't even sure where his bike was stored.

The Lake Express ferry runs two or three times per day from May to October. We opted for the early morning trip. After hanging our bikes on wall racks next to the autos making the trek, we settled into our seats for the 2-hour high-speed ride across the lake. Food and beverage service is available on the ship, along with ample restrooms and an outdoor viewing deck.

Arriving in Muskegon, our 50-mile bike journey seemed daunting, but Google maps had selected a route a mere four hours in duration. The first few miles of the trip were on Muskegon's city streets with no marked bicycle facilities, but once outside of town, we picked up a paved, separated bike path that took us nearly all the way to Saugatuck.

The first major city along the route is Grand Haven, and we rolled in just in time for lunch. The downtown area is less than a mile off the path, so to speak, and worth the diversion to take a break and fuel up. Taking the trail along the shoreline was reminiscent of south Florida, with spindly fingers of sand from the beach reaching across the bike path, seemingly pulling the shoreline closer to land.

South of Grand Haven, the paved Lakeshore Connector path began, keeping us apart from traffic nearly the entire way to the next big stop: Holland. The path hugs the lakefront most of the time, although unlike our own Oak Creek trail here in Milwaukee, it's just far enough from the lake that you don't even know the water is nearby.

Holland is set in about five miles from the lake, with Macatawa Bay extending from the shore toward the downtown area. With no road crossing over the bay except for downtown, the ride shifts away from the lakefront for a while. Holland is home to the conservative Hope College, and the charming downtown seems to offer more ice cream shops than bars, which was perfect for our purposes. Although dominated by chains rather than local businesses, the ice cream was a welcome treat, and the unique recycled metal sculptures along the bike path made good conversation starters. From Holland, it's a straight shot down to Saugatuck, only about an hour away on bike.

Our entire trip down, which included a lengthy lunch break, ice cream break and a few other breaks along the way (including a few navigation checks), took around eight hours. The trip back, by comparison, with only one lunch break, took five. Google's four-hour benchmark is a little unreasonable, even for seasoned cyclists, and those concerned about their ability to complete the trip would be well advised to break it up with a night in Grand Haven and/or Holland (hotels and campgrounds between the two cities are extremely limited). A GPS-enabled phone is also a handy device to have, although we relied just as much on good old printed maps and directions as we did modern technology.

Compared to Holland and Grand Haven, Saugatuck is a small town. Originally named Singapore, the town was founded along the lakefront at the terminus of the Kalamazoo River in the hopes of developing a shipping port worthy of its Asian namesake. The founders' dreams came true when the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 sparked a demand for lumber, and Singapore helped fulfill that need.

Widespread deforestation around the town, however, led to a severe erosion problem. The sandy dunes, lacking tree roots to retain the sand, began sweeping inland, and the town of Singapore slowly became buried in sand. Many of the structures were moved further inland into Saugatuck, some of which still survive today.

While lumberjacks made up one portion of the area's early inhabitants, artists made up another. Ox-Bow art school, founded over 100 years ago, is still a popular arts destination in Saugatuck, and draws artists and teachers from around the country. The combination has given Saugatuck a hip sensibility, oftentimes progressive and liberal but still possessing a small town vibe.

Lodging in Saugatuck is dominated by small boutique motels and vacation house rentals. Lakeshore Lodging helped us find a three-bedroom townhome overlooking the river on the north side of town. Lakeshore acts as an agent for homeowners who want to put their property into a rental pool. As such, each property is unique and feels like home, yet still maintains standards of quality that can be relied upon.

Despite being a small town, Saugatuck has retained a reputation for being very gay-friendly. LGBT travelers are especially welcomed at many vacation home rentals, though some may prefer to stay at The Dunes, a gay resort in Douglas, just a short distance from downtown Saugatuck.

After a celebratory glass of wine on our porch, we headed out on bike to grab a bite to eat before collapsing from the 50-mile ride. Restaurants are plentiful in town, though tend to be quite crowded on weekends. We enjoyed Little Lucy's Kitchen, with its outdoor patio, precise menu and ample supply of freshly made health drinks (think cane sugar juice and coconut water).

A good place to start exploring Saugatuck by bike is the Saugatuck Center for the Arts. The center, in addition to providing galleries and theatrical productions, offers free Wi-Fi, a relaxing sitting area, clean bathrooms and a weekly farmers market. That's where we met David Geen, operator of Hungry Village Tours, which provides a walking tour of the stores and foods of Saugatuck, as well as a bus tour of local farms that source food for many restaurants in town.

Like he does in his tours, David took us to some of the best spots in town, all within walking distance of the Center. Uncommon Grounds Café is the local morning hot spot, offering hand drip coffee and delicious blueberry coffeecake muffins. For a bit more of a kick, Fenn Valley offers a tasting room downtown (their vineyard is also available for visits, but is miles away). Fenn's Michigan Awesome white wine blends Pinot Grigio and Riesling into a crisp, refreshing wine. And for snack time, we enjoyed cookies made from scratch from Cookies on Call.

In between snack stops, we perused the assortment of art galleries that dot the downtown Saugatuck landscape. Saugatuck is still known for art. Even its iconic city entrance sign features an artist's palette. Paintings, sculptures, clothing and other memorabilia are available from countless shops.

In addition to art and food, the Saugatuck area is well known for its beaches. Conde Nast Traveler and MTV both rank Saugatuck's Oval beach highly and with good reason. The ample soft sand and warm water temperatures (relative to our Milwaukee side of the lake, at least) make swimming appealing, and who doesn't enjoy a sunset over the water?

Getting to the beach is actually easier by bike than by car. A quick ride on the charming chain ferry, a small boat hand-cranked by a local high-school student, gets you and your bike across the river for $1. It's then just a short ten minute bike ride over the dunes, and the lake suddenly reveals herself.

Despite being so accessible by bike, Saugatuck hasn't yet realized the full potential of bike culture. With naturally slow traffic, a short distance between town attractions, and bike lanes on the busier roads, the town is made for bikes. However, it's virtually impossible to find bike racks in town. We noticed only three, even though many tourists were out on bike during our visit. Even longtime residents of the town were surprised when we told them nearly 50 miles of paved off-street bike trails connected the town to Muskegon.

And perhaps that's part of the charm. As tourists, we like to think we've stumbled upon something undiscovered and special – a secret that has yet to be permeated by mass culture. For bicyclists, Saugatuck just might be the place.

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