Michigan Tourist Towns Not Just for Summer Anymore

An eerie quiet hangs over the long, curving boardwalk alongside the frozen-over Kalamazoo River late one recent afternoon in this small Lake Michigan harbor town.

A public restroom - the outside walls painted to resemble a famous Seurat painting - stands nearby with "CLOSED FOR SEASON" signs hanging above its entrances.

Snow covers the ground, the temperature is in the teens, and the busy summer tourist season still is months away. While a number of downtown shops and other businesses are closed until then, there's still plenty to do during a wintertime trip to Saugatuck and the neighboring harbor town of Douglas, both of which are better known as summertime getaway spots.

Most of their restaurants and inns are open this time of year, as are many of the area's slew of art galleries. There are plays, concerts and festivals to attend all year.

"When you come here, it's not like your typical tourist town," says Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck/Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's real. What we have here is real - it's not contrived. We don't have waterparks and things like that."

To those who have vacationed in the two cities during the summer, a wintertime stay would be a very different experience. There are smaller crowds, shorter lines and a slower pace.

"You can shop better here in the wintertime because you're not jostling to get down the aisles," says restaurant and bar owner David Barton.

The people who live in Saugatuck and Douglas have less going on, so they have more time to talk with visitors. People who don't live in the area can take longer to discover the out-of-the-way restaurants and pubs haunted by the locals.

"The offseason here is a different pace, a different atmosphere," says Barton, who converted an old house into The White House Bistro and Capitol Lounge and lives upstairs. "It's just very laid-back and very relaxing."

Customers can listen to live music, mostly classic rock, every week of the year.

"You can come here in February to rock," Barton says.

With its many fine inns and bed-and-breakfasts - several of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places - the area even becomes "a little more romantic" in the winter, Fairchild says. "It's a nice place to come for couples."

Outdoor enthusiasts can cross-country ski at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, ice skate at public rinks or, as Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier has done, climb the 280-plus steps that lead to the top of his city's Mount Baldhead, one of the tallest dunes in southwestern Michigan.

"There's a lot of resting spots on the way up, and I used every one of them," he says with a laugh. The snow on the steps makes for an even more challenging hike than during warmer weather to the top of the dune, where there is a large observation deck and a bird's-eye view of the area's scenic beauty.

The Saugatuck-Douglas area's reputation as a special place to visit received a boost in January when the National Trust for Historic Preservation selected it as one of its "dozen distinctive destinations" for 2009.

Each year since 2000, the organization has chosen communities from across the United States that offer cultural and recreational experiences different from the typical vacation destinations. Selections were based on such qualities as architecture, downtown vitality, cultural diversity and commitment to historic preservation.

Saugatuck has a population of about 1,100, and Douglas about 1,200 people. Both cities boast some fine examples of 19th-century architecture, and the area's old-fashioned small-town feel is an important part of its considerable appeal.

"That's what I like about Saugatuck," Harrier says. "It looks like a little small town out of time."

The mayors of both cities own local businesses that might appeal to visitors during any season. Saugatuck Mayor Barry Johnson operates the Saugatuck Brewing Co. in Douglas, with its 100-seat tavern section dubbed The Lucky Stone Club. Also in Douglas is the Everyday People Cafe, owned by city Mayor Matt Balmer, who went to culinary school and is the executive chef.

The area has long been known as an art community. Artist-owned galleries in Saugatuck and Douglas offer paintings, sculptures, pottery and glass creations.

At James Brandess' art gallery, it's not unusual to see him painting portraits in his front-window studio, although he's just as likely to be outside somewhere painting a local landscape.

"It's beautiful and peaceful," Brandess says of the area. "It's a peaceful respite from the big city."

The walls of his gallery are filled with small, colorful portraits, most about the size of a post card, that he has created since about 1993 in his attempt to paint every Saugatuck resident who is willing to sit for him. He estimates that he has completed between 200 and 300 of them so far.

Each small portrait takes him two to three hours to complete. In return for their time, he gives each subject a dozen greeting cards with the portraits printed on them.

"Winter gives me ample opportunity to work on this project," Brandess says.