This is a guest post by my friend and former colleague at ABC7, Karla Oselka Walsworth of expatmama.wordpress.com.
Homecoming: New Buffalo
Everyone is from somewhere. But like myself, who’s lived in nine different cities on two continents since becoming an adult, I’m not sure many folks even identify with the idea of a hometown anymore. When you’ve spent more years away than you have home, the concept of hometown sometimes gets lost. Although I still do identify with the area of Southwest Michigan and look forward to the vacations I get to spend there as an adult.
Harbor Country, as it was named thirty-some years ago, describes the area of Michigan’s Southwestern-most area of the state. Bordering Indiana to the south and Lake Michigan to the west, it has always been known for the beautiful beaches, marina and lakefront activities. Specifically, I grew up in New Buffalo, MI, and as a teenage kid I spent my summers scooping ice cream at Oinks Dutch Treat, pumping gas at Oselka’s Marina, and lifeguarding at the New Buffalo Public Beach. Still beautiful as ever, I love being able to take my family back to this lakefront that I enjoyed as a kid.
In the last five years, there has really been a resurgence of families deciding to travel locally. Some motivated to save money, others wanting be closer to aging family members, perhaps. Regardless of motivations, many are (re)discovering Harbor Country’s small area charm. Vanessa and Chris Thun, local owners of the rental company Beachcombers, whose small business is booming, credit the slower economy. “Maybe families don’t want to travel as far from home for vacation,” says Vanessa. “They are finding the beaches of the Midwest, rather than Florida since they can get there faster, they can stay longer, and spend less money.”
New Buffalo is unique. You can drive your boat (or even take the Amtrak train) over from Chicago, and walk to the downtown to some of my favorites: dine at Brewster’s Italian Café, grocery shop at Barney’s, and grab a cappuccino at David’s Deli, a local coffee house and sandwich shop. Get a good burger at Redamak’s, and then sip cocktails and watch the sunset over Lake Michigan at The Stray Dog’s rooftop deck.
Head north on Red Arrow Highway to discover numerous beaches, including Warren Dunes State Park, also with camping, and one of the largest dunes in the area. And in addition to the beaches, an entire winery trail now exists from Bridgman to Baroda; two new microbreweries have opened in the last few years, and add to that a distillery, and a casino, and we have instant adult activities to accompany the family environment. I admit gambling is not really my thing. But Harbor Country’s Four Winds Casino attracts world class talent, and spending an evening there, fine dining or listening to Sheryl Crow perform? (Yes, I said Sheryl Crow. In my little town.) This is my idea of a great night out!
In nearby Sawyer, MI, moms can stock up on all things garden and gourmet foods at Sawyer Garden Center while dads (and all microbrew enthusiasts) find Greenbush Brewing Company just around the corner, or Tapistry Brewing, a few miles up the road. Or, if wine is your thing, catch the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail and go “from the lake to the grapes”– beginning in Bridgman, extending eastward to Baroda. My four sisters, Mom, and I gathered for the youngest 30th Birthday last summer and spent an afternoon of wine tasting, with stops at Gravity, Tabor Hill, and Round Barn wineries, to name a few. And ending at Round Barn was a perfect place to also taste a few of their spirits and brews.
Speaking of spirits, a unique experience exists in nearby Three Oaks, MI, in the old Featherbone factory. What used to be a maker of corsets and buggy whips, I remember as a child being the local haunted house venue for many Octobers. But Featherbone has transformed into Journeyman Distillery, one of the country’s few distilleries, crafting their own spirits, and has a complementary food menu. You can make a night of it, as the other end of the oblong old factory is the regionally known Acorn Theater with live entertainment.
But really it is the natural beauty of Harbor Country’s miles of sandy Lake Michigan shoreline which keeps travelers coming back. It’s no surprise that Lonely Planet has recently named Western Michigan one of the Top US Travel Destinations for 2014, while Familyvacationcritic.com credits little New Buffalo as one of the 10 Best Beaches for Families. And new for 2014 is the Galien River County Park, featuring a 300-foot canopy walkway over the Galien River.
As the story goes: 50 years or so ago, a hardworking, blue collar laborer recognized this beauty and naturally configured “Snug” harbor on the shores of New Buffalo. With a used dump truck and the dream of “if you build it, they will come,” he began to build a few boat slips, gas dock, and a ship’s store. Over the years this grew and grew into many boat slips, condos, and even a waterfront hotel. Today, populations triple in the summer time, as many Chicagoans make the 70 mile trek around Lake Michigan for part or all of the summer to our little slice of heaven. I’m proud to say thanks to that hard working man…my grandfather. While he isn’t with us anymore and much of the original property has changed hands, thinking of him reminds me to dream big, encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in my children, and always be looking for that natural beauty which is all around us. And maybe that’s what coming home is really all about.
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Karla Oselka Walsworth is a freelance writer/blogger, born and raised in the great state of Michigan. She has lived abroad twice, most recently in London, and keeps a blog on Expat living and traveling with children, expatmama.wordpress.com. Living the last five years in four different cities, her writings tend to focus on challenges of moving/living with children while exposing them to all this planet has to offer. Karla, who has her MBA from the University of Illinois, and is also a certified 200 hour yoga instructor, has settled (for this moment) in the Indianapolis area. As a recovering accountant and budding writer, she is actively raising two children with her husband Eric, hoping to give them as global a perspective as one can, at ages 7 and 4.