The tulip gardens and Dutch attractions of Holland, along with the cultural treasures and craft beer scene of Grand Rapids, highlight a trip to Southwest Michigan.
Rows and rows of tulips, basking in the warm spring rays, create a rainbow effect in the fields. People decked out in Dutch attire line the streets.
For me, however, the idyllic springtime image was difficult to imagine during my February trip. Come May, however, that’s the sight that awaits travelers during Tulip Time in Holland, one of Michigan’s most anticipated festivals.
Despite a completely different scene presented to me on my winter visit, residents’ obvious passion for the event is tough to miss. And it’s not just Tulip Time. Everyone from Holland to Grand Rapids eagerly shares his or her favorite attractions, restaurants, outdoor spots and local brews. Perhaps it was this friendliness, or the sheer number of activities, which made me fall in love with the beautiful simplicity that is Western Michigan.
My journey began in Holland, located on the shores of Lakes Michigan and Macatawa. This quaint, historic town was founded by a Dutch minister back in 1847 and continues to embrace its Dutch roots with landmark attractions such as DeZwaan, the authentic windmill still operating today.
The largest celebration of Dutch traditions is Tulip Time, a week-long festival that includes three parades, Dutch dancers, loads of entertainment, a Dutch market, fireworks, dinner shows and, of course, tulips—literally tens of thousands of them scattered throughout the city.
One of the best ways for groups to experience everything the festival has to offer is to snag a Dutch-costumed step-on guide who leads a three-hour excursion that includes Holland’s historic areas, Tulip Lanes, Pillar Church, city parks and a glimpse of the windmill ($100/coach for up to three hours). Interested in more tours? You’re in luck. You can take in the breathtaking views of Lake Michigan and see the most photographed lighthouse in Michigan, “Big Red,” on a State Park Tour ($65/coach).
While in town, be sure to visit Nelis’ Dutch Village, a themed park with Dutch architecture, canals and gardens, not to mention traditional performances and food from the Old Country. Sign up for a pastry-making class, learn some easy folk dance steps and see costumed staff create artisan cheeses, carve candles and shape wooden shoes. Take a ride on Zweefmolen (a Dutch swing ride), Draaimolen (a restored carousel) or the new Ferris wheel. And no visit is complete without a stop at the Dutch Chocolate, Candy and Cookie shop.
The fun continues over at Windmill Island Gardens, a 36-acre park where the 260-year-old windmill from the Netherlands still grinds winter wheat into flour. Your group can tour the historic structure, climb up five stories and overlook the manicured gardens that hold over 100,000 tulips in the spring and summer. Listen to the antique street organ and enjoy traditional Klompen dances performed by ladies in wooden shoes.
At the end of the day, enjoy a meal at Alpen Rose Restaurant and Cafe, Boatwerks Waterfront Restaurant or New Holland Brewing, the city’s very own craft brewery (also open for tours).
Grand Rapids is a 30-minute drive from Holland. Lonely Planet has named it the No. 1 destination to visit in 2014.
The botanical adventure continues in Grand Rapids with a stop at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, with 132 acres of indoor and outdoor gardens and one of the country’s most significant sculpture collections. It hosts horticulture exhibits, summer concerts and the largest temporary butterfly exhibition in the country.
Grand Rapids is known as an arts destination, as evidenced by its many displays of public art sprinkled around town. Stop by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), a well-respected attraction with collections that span three floors. In the Division South neighborhood, you will find the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA), Michigan’s largest contemporary arts center. For something truly special, arrange a Grand Rapids visit during ArtPrize, an event where artists from all over the world showcase their works and the public votes for its favorites.
Tour groups also visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Take a stroll through the Oval Office, see the original Watergate burglar tools, attend a White House state dinner and visit the burial site of the president and First Lady Betty Ford. Across the street is the Grand Rapids Public Museum, a state-of-the-art center with interactive history and natural science exhibits.
Toast the day with a pint of cold, locally made beer. Microbreweries dot the streets of downtown and surrounding neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, which won the Beer Cty USA poll in 2013.
Founders Brewing Company has ranked among the top breweries in the world and hosts a variety of beer festivals throughout the year. (Try the Breakfast Stout.) A few blocks away is HopCat, rated the No. 3 beer bar in the world by Beer Advocate magazine and No. 2 beer bar in the U.S by craftbeer.com. Brewery Vivant, housed in a former funeral home, is the nation’s first LEED-certified microbrewery.
Snow piles lined the streets as I made my way out of Western Michigan, but the sun shone bright in the sky, a subtle promise of the warm, vibrant season ahead. Despite the cool February weather and the gardens hidden under white powder, this trip left an impression. Needless to say, I will be back, preferably when I can witness the grandeur of the tulip fields.