116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
SAUGATUCK, Mich. — I came here for a wedding, and fell in love with all that the Douglas/Saugatuck area has to offer.
Separated by a bridge, Douglas is a leisurely arts enclave, while Saugatuck feels more like a resort town, with waterfront restaurants for pricey dining worth every penny, wild sand dune rides that cost half as much as my lunch, and best of all, amazing beaches along Lake Michigan that make you feel like you’re at an ocean.
And it all lies just 6.5 hours east/northeast of Cedar Rapids, via Interstates 80, 90 and 94, and an hour ahead of Eastern Iowa time. Online maps will say it takes 5.5 hours to get there, but traffic around the southern edge of Chicago can slow things down. I also wasn’t prepared for a couple stretches of toll road, so create an account at illinoistollway.com to pay by plate automatically. If you forget, you’ll have 14 days afterward to create an account.
Familiar faces from the Corridor arts community traveled there for the Sept. 25 wedding of Jim Kern, formerly of Cedar Rapids, and Dennis Konarski. Together, they operate Taste on the Lakeshore, opening three guest spaces in their home, via Airbnb and Vrbo. Their property actually overlooks the Kalamazoo River, which flows into nearby Lake Michigan, but Kern quipped that “Taste of the River” didn’t sound very appetizing.
Plan your trip: saugatuck.com/
The weather was perfect for their waterfront wedding and reception in their backyard. Everything was decorated with the artistic flair friends would expect from Kern, well-known in Corridor theater circles. For the dinner tent, he even made a chandelier, valued at $600, which he has donated to Theatre Cedar Rapids to grace the upcoming “Cinderella” ballroom.
We also were treated to amazing cuisine and conviviality from Konarski, previously a professor of culinary arts, hospitality and tourism for 42 years at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich. His program served as the prototype for the Kirkwood Community College hospitality and culinary studies in Cedar Rapids, Kern noted.
When we weren’t indulging in wedding festivities, a friend and I spent an action-packed three-day weekend in Douglas and Saugatuck, jamming in as much sightseeing, exploring and photo snapping as possible. I can’t wait to go back for an even longer stay. As one wedding guest said, it feels like you’re on another planet.
Both towns are picture-perfect, with well-manicured lawns, parks, public art, historic homes, harbors, and business districts just made for leisurely strolling, dining at sidewalk cafes and shopping for artisan wares and culinary keepsakes — with no big-box stores or chain restaurants in sight.
Another huge plus is the welcoming atmosphere for singles, couples and families of all identities — LGBTQ+ and straight. And if you’re looking for a wonderfully warm place to worship on Sunday morning, the Douglas United Church of Christ, 56 Wall St., embraces everyone with open arms, masks and pandemic-packaged Communion elements.
“In many ways, Douglas/Saugatuck exists because of the gay residents who are great philanthropists, supporters of the arts, innovators and entrepreneurs,” Kern said. “You go up and down the streets here, and you can point to that pet shop — two women own it, and that market — two men own it, The Dunes Resort — place after place after place. There’s a new park in the middle of Douglas that was built as a tribute to the LGBTQ contributions to the area. We would not exist without it.”
He described the two towns as sister cities with separate identities.
“Douglas wanted to be like Saugatuck, and then decided, you know what, we don’t,” said Kern, who even though the couple’s address is Fennville, their home is closer to Douglas. “We want to be more charming. We don’t have maybe the beautiful harbor that Saugatuck has, but we’ve got more art galleries, we’ve got more homegrown restaurants on the higher end, our housing is more spread out. We’ve got all kinds of amenities going on, and in many regards, Douglas is more attractive to live in than Saugatuck.”
Together, the cities are touted as Michigan’s Art Coast.
Sand, sun, surf
Lake Michigan: Technically, this is a lake, not the ocean, but you’ll feel like you’re at the ocean at Oval Beach. Located at Perryman Street and Oval Beach Drive, it’s just a short jaunt from the west side of the harbor in downtown Saugatuck, and is the town’s main beach.
We were there on a warm and windy Sunday, where families were gathering to toss flying discs, one woman was reading and another was getting ready to head into the water. The wind was whipping up waves that rolled onto the beach, ocean-style.
With the dunes as a backdrop, it’s easy to see why Oval Beach has been hailed as one of the top five beaches in the country and among the Top 25 beaches in the world. I could have stayed there all day. For more accolades, details and amenities, go to saugatuck.com/business-listings/oval-beach/.
Dune rides: Put this at the top of your must-do list. Grab your sunglasses, secure your purse and phone, and hold onto your hat as you hop aboard a Dune Schooner at Saugatuck Dune Rides, 6495 Blue Star Hwy., Saugatuck.
I grinned from ear to ear throughout a 40-minute wild ride up and over the dunes and down through a forest on 8 miles of track winding through 350 acres of private land. The schooners hold 17, and ours was full.
Tip: Online reservations open one week ahead of the rides. I waited too long, and all of the Sept. 25 slots had been snapped up. Konarski, however, told me to just show up at the 10 a.m. opening time, and we should be able to snag a ride. Sure enough, two slots were open at 10:20 a.m., giving us plenty of time to go for the ride, grab lunch in town, then get ready for the late afternoon wedding.
We rode in the front seat by tour guide Brian “Frosty” Frost, who in a small world moment, told us he has a cousin in Waterloo. The schooner seats feel like church pews, and a long seat belt goes across all passengers on each bench. We looped our purse handles through the belt, so they wouldn’t go airborne as we flew over the dunes and zipped around the tight curves and corners.
Frosty was a font of information about the dunes, their formation, the way they swallowed up the town of Singapore, Mich., and the steps being taken to anchor the sand and gradually reforest the region. He also told really corny jokes, which dovetailed with the goofy “road” signs planted along the route.
We passed Goshorn Lake, which is 110 feet deep, and learned that the dune grass sprouting from the sand is native to the southeastern United States, not Michigan. But throughout the 1960s, Michigan State University used student volunteers to hand-plant marram grass to help stave off erosion. The grass took root and has spread up and down Michigan’s coastline, cutting the erosion rate from 15 feet per year to 1/16th of an inch. Some of the areas are beginning to reforest, as well.
Frosty shared these lessons and more during several stops along the way, including a stop atop a high dune where we could walk around and marvel in panoramic views of the breathtaking scenery.
We had to use our imaginations on the stop overlooking what used to be the lumbering community of Singapore, Mich. Founded in the 1830s by land speculators, Frosty said they hoped to turn it into “a lake port that might one day rival Milwaukee or Chicago.” Over the next 40 years, it did grow and thrive, and even had a three-story hotel. But after the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871, Singapore workers began cutting down trees and milling wood to ship to Chicago. In 10 years, the trees were gone, the sand blew in, and residents had to abandon the town. It was completely buried by 1971, even covering the top of the hotel.
Those gems, the photo opportunities and the thrill ride make this outing a bargain at just $22 for adults, $12 for kids ages 3 to 11, and free for ages 2 and under. The season ended Oct. 17, but will resume in May. Details: saugatuckduneride.com/
(My fare was less than half the price of my lunch at The Mermaid Bar and Grill, 340 Water St., in downtown Saugatuck. This was a divine dockside dining experience, but with tip, I paid $50 for a mimosa, a cup of tomato bisque, a lobster grilled cheese sandwich and savory herb-dusted tater tots. If you feel like splurging, this is the place to go.)
Overnight guests will find bed-and-breakfast lodgings in homes new and historic, as well as rooms in motels, hotels and resorts.
Captain’s Quarters Motel, 3242 Blue Star Highway in Saugatuck. It’s actually prettier in person than in the website photos, and is run by a young couple whose two dogs are most eager to say hello from behind their baby gate. A room with two queen beds ran $169 per night, plus tax. Amenities include continental breakfast in the lobby, to take to your room or to the outside seating areas during the pandemic.
Taste on the Lakeshore, 6399 Riverside Rd., Fennville. Konarski had a condo in the area in 2009, and after retiring, he bought this riverside property and built the house in 2016.
Since he wanted to teach cooking there, he made sure the house was big enough to accommodate a demonstration kitchen so guests could go to the market in the morning, bring him their fresh produce, fish or other ingredients, then create a menu. Later that day, they could invite friends over for an evening meal, music, “good wine and good company,” he said.
But when he opened his home to a man who was terminally ill, that guest suggested Konarski think instead about renting his rooms bed-and-breakfast style. That idea quickly caught on — and happily, the houseguest survived and is thriving.
Unlike at some B&Bs, Konarski, 70, and Kern, 72, live in the house, which has been open to visitors for four years. They offer an apartment and two suites for guests, complete with a full English-style breakfast and a cocktail hour. They don’t advertise or have a website, but with Airbnb and Vrbo listings and word-of-mouth referrals, they’re busy all the time, welcoming guests every weekend from mid-May to mid-September.
Kern, a Blairstown native who has lived most of his adult life in Cedar Rapids, was heavily involved in Theatre Cedar Rapids, Brucemore and city commissions. After his first spouse, Mickey Sigler, died in 2013, Kern later met Konarski, and three years ago, decided to take a leap of faith and leave Cedar Rapids.
“I just felt like, well, I don't have to stay here. If I do stay here, I know what the rest of my life is going to be,” he said. “But when I first came up here, Dennis' property is beautiful and just the beauty of being on the water and having the lake so close.
“And it surprises me — I couldn't wait to get out of a small town growing up. But now in my twilight years,“ he said with a laugh.
He described Douglas as being smaller than Mount Vernon, and Saugatuck being more like Mount Vernon in size and scope. Yet, big city amenities are a short train ride away in Chicago and even closer in Grand Rapids and Holland, Mich.
For Konarski, the best part of living in Douglas/Saugatuck is “constantly being outdoors, being able to relax and find my centering point,” and the slower pace, even with the thousands who come to Saugatuck in the summer, Kern added.
Kern’s English lab, Rudy, is now their English lab, Rudy. He’s a big hit with their guests, and served as ring bearer for their wedding. He was a very good boy, even though he shed his floral collar in short order.
“I’m telling you, guests just think he’s wonderful,” Kern said, “and many of them choose to come here just because of him.”
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