Michigan: Close by, but a world away

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Michigan: Close by, but a world away

I book-ended my summer with two visits to St. Joseph, Mich. Tourism literature refers to the scenic lakeside town as the Riviera of the Midwest. At only 177 miles from my driveway, it is a world away from the central Illinois prairie. My June visit marked a reunion milestone with high school friends. In August my daughters Allison and Meg made the trip with me.

The county beach, Silver Beach, is at the bottom of the bluff where the town sits. Parking is $8 a day. We chose to schlep our things down from the free, all-day parking lots above. Another beach, Tiscornia, is less populated, features $3 parking where we strolled down the long pier watching people fish and walked past St. Joseph's two automated lighthouses.

Several marinas hug the St. Joseph River, which ends at the lake.

We watched the boats from the riverside park below or from the city park on the bluff above. It's especially entertaining to see the highway drawbridge open and close above the river and the Amtrak line trestle rotate to allow the high-masted sailboats down the river and out to the lake.

St. Joe's downtown features cobblestone streets, numerous shops and an old-fashioned dime store, G & M Variety. It stocks everything from $40 Catalina bathing suits to food items to souvenirs. The St. Joe visitors center has clean restrooms, pamphlets about area activities and bicycles to rent by donation. You will find trails to ride both above on the bluff and below along the lake and river.

Pony cart rides are available and the town band shell features Wednesday noon and Friday evening concerts. In June my friends and I caught the first Sunday antique market on the bluff. Every Saturday morning you will find a farmers' market set up there as well.

We took a side trip 16 miles up to Coloma where we visited two wineries, a large vegetable stand and several chocolate and gift shops. The family favorite is the Karma Vista vineyard, where we stocked up on the reasonably priced Starry, Starry White and Cherri Amour wines. We did not follow the wine trail which will take you to 13 vineyards in the southwestern portion of the state.

Restaurants abound. A Jimmy John's is open late downtown. The cozy area also offers Chinese, Middle-Eastern and Italian choices. If you're looking for higher-end dining, try Schu's, which features patio dining on the bluff. We also enjoyed Clementine's along the river and waited more than an hour for pizza at the very popular Silver Beach Pizza company that is located inside the old train depot.

The girls and I spent most of our time outside. But among indoor places to see are the Curious Kids' Museum, the Krasl Art Center and the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. Next summer the new carousel and fountain should be completed at the entrance to Silver Beach. That construction will be reminiscent of the amusement park at the same location during the early 1900s.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and the Candlewood Suites. The latter cost about $110 a night for the three of us. It was equipped with a full-size refrigerator, a cook top, microwave, cookware and dishes. For an elegant stay try the Boulevard Inn that overlooks Lake Michigan.

Though summer is over, fall would be a delightful time to visit. Oktoberfest, a Harvest festival and chili cook-off are set for the first two weekends in October. Hardy souls who brave late fall weather can participate in downtown Halloween activities and later, the Luminaria festival Nov. 20.

Carol Thilmony is a News-Gazette correspondent from Paxton.

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