Michigan visitors find that Saugatuck has turned into an upscale kind of town

August 07, 1994|By Rick Sylvain | Rick Sylvain,Knight-Ridder News Service

What a transformation is washing over the one-time Beach and Six-Pack Capital of the World!

You can feel it while browsing the high-end shops and galleries of Butler Street. Cruising the Kalamazoo River past white forests -- not of birch trees but of yacht masts. Paying for your room and feeling pangs of sticker shock.

Saugatuck, Mich., is going upscale.

Seventeen shops have opened in the past year. Designer labels hang from more racks than you can count.

Where 10 years ago there were eight bed and breakfasts, now there are 26 in a town of fewer than 1,000 residents.

The new, more gentrified Saugatuck owes it all to art, says Felicia Fairchild, who does bed and gourmet breakfast at the fetching Fairchild House on Butler, steps from downtown.

"There's around 14 galleries. Plus, we're attracting more high-end professionals, more people with more disposable income."

Sun 'n' fun revelers from the '60s and '70s won't recognize this southwest Michigan resort town.

There are coffeehouses. Some businesses, like the tony Joyce Petter Gallery, spell out their addresses. Broward Marine builds yachts -- for $1 million and up.

With their Victorian charm and natural endowments of dunes and water, Saugatuck's tourist pleasures are still its raison d'etre.

Mainstreamers can still find saloons and dance halls. But Saugatuck is marketing to a more liveried clientele. "There's still room for the T-shirt shops," Ms. Fairchild said, "but we're definitely moving in the opposite direction."

A few options in Saugatuck:

Star of Saugatuck: Saugatuck's dreamy setting is best savored from the decks of the Star of Saugatuck, a stern-wheel tour boat.

"Now here we are in Kalamazoo Lake," said Capt. Bob, "which is little more than a wide spot in the Kalamazoo River."

Capt. Bob pilots us past cottages and condos, forests and wetlands, sand dunes and sleek yachts.

A 90-minute ride serves up plenty of Saugatuck, such as Wicks Park, popular for riverside concerts, and Coral Gables, a good-times emporium for dining, dancing and live music. Weather permitting, Star also sails out into Lake Michigan, where, to the chorus of a foghorn, passengers take in the dunes panorama.

A sandy crest called Mount Bald head is crowned by a proud (if paint-peeling) Saugatuck landmark: an old radar dome. Take the wooden stairs up Mount Baldy only if you want to climb 282 heart-pounding steps for a view mostly obliterated by trees.

Singapore: Singapore, Mich., won't show up on highway maps, but it's there, all right. A mid-1800s lumber town beside Lake Michigan, Singapore boomed until there were no trees left to cut.

Now Singapore lies under shifting sand dunes. For tour-boat captains cruising the canal from the Kalamazoo River out to Lake Michigan, Singapore rates a few lines of narration. But no one focuses for long on a bar ren, wind-swept mound, and Singapore is left to sleep in its sandy tomb.

S.S. Keewatin: Maybe Michigan's best-known Canadian retiree, this Canadian Pacific Railway steamship carried passengers and freight between Georgian Bay and the north shore of Lake Superior until 1965. Now the last of the Great Lakes steamers rests on a far bank of Lake Kalamazoo as a floating museum.

To go aboard is to float back in time to the turn of the century, when a Great Lakes cruise epitomized unhurried grace and elegance. Carpeting, Italian windows, mahogany trim and hanging plants recall the gilded era of steamship travel.

The telegraph is set on "Stop." Don't believe it. Thanks to entrepreneur Roland Peterson, who saved her from the scrap yard, the Kee lives in happy retirement.

Saugatuck dune rides: Is it the nostalgia that seems to pour from every tree-shaded park, every white clapboard house? Something about Saugatuck creates urges to do the things you did as a kid -- like that cherished Michigan vacation tradition known as the dune-buggy ride. Saugatuck dune rides have been around for 40 years, bringing wide-eyed wonderment to kids -- and tremulous anxiety to grown-ups.

Aboard the converted pickup truck we swooped around curves, fishtailed in the sand, flew up and down hills -- and stalled a few times. But mostly we learned about vegetation, wildlife and -- under that dune -- Singapore.

Our 35-minute scamper got the highest praise possible from Ashley Aspiranti, 8, of Sterling Heights, Mich. "It's more fun than Cedar Point [amusement park]," she said.

IF YOU GO For more information: Saugatuck-Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau, Box 28, Saugatuck, Mich. 49453; (616) 857-1701, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.

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