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Kalamazoo, MI

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Kalamazoo, about 150 miles northeast of Chicago, is the midway point between our town and Motown. Taking I-94 the whole distance makes for a quick trip, but switching at Benton Harbor to the I-94 business turnoff leads you onto the scenic Red Arrow Highway--slower but good for segueing into an out-in-the-country mood. You can also make the trip without going anywhere near a gas pedal. Amtrak will drop you off at the old Gothic train station in downtown Kalamazoo, a short walk or $5 cab ride from lodgings. A decent public bus system will help get you around town.

Kalamazoo has about 78,000 residents, a number that doubles during the school year, when students arrive to attend five colleges, Western Michigan University the largest of them. The Upjohn Company, producer of pharmaceuticals and chemicals, is the area's largest employer. Paper mills were big business here in the early 1900s, and a few large companies remain. In the summer you'll see flowers everywhere. Kalamazoo County's bedding-plant agribusiness brings in $25 million every year.

Things to do: Celery Flats Interpretive Center, 7335 Garden Lane in Portage, immediately south of Kalamazoo, presents the area's history as the celery capital of the nation. The center is part of the Portage Creek Bicentennial Park, a linear walking and biking trail, and includes a little museum, a tiny working celery farm tended by retired local farmers, an 1856 one-room schoolhouse, an old grain elevator, a canoe launch, and a gazebo for picnics.

A taste of fresh celery will be offered during Celery Fest on Saturday, September 15, when traditional celery-harvesting techniques will be demonstrated. Running from 10 AM to 2 PM, the festival includes live music, carriage and pony rides, clowns, a special appearance by "Crispy," a six-foot-tall walking celery stalk, and a celery-recipe contest judged by the Portage mayor and council members. Other annual events include planting day in early May, an arts-and-crafts fair in June, and a small harvest in July. Regular hours are 10 to 6 Saturday and noon to 6 Thursday, Friday, Sunday, and holidays. The center closes for the season on September 30 and opens next year on May 1. For information call 616-329-4518 or 616-329-4522.

In downtown Kalamazoo the little quadrangle called Bronson Park boasts pretty landscaping, a fountain, and sculptures. It's bounded by stately old churches, a theater, and a museum. Horse-drawn carriages from the Black River Carriage Company (616-637-4397) loop around the park and through nearby historic districts; in the winter there are horse-drawn sleighs. Bronson Park, with its famous "floral peacock," blooms all summer and is the center of Flowerfest, a big-draw event every July that includes concerts, art shows, and bus tours of county gardens; for information call 616-381-4003. On December 31 the park hosts a nonalcoholic New Year's Festival, featuring food, entertainment, and fireworks at midnight; call Jan Dancer at 616-375- 5291 for details.

Lots of beautiful restoration is going on in the city's historic areas. To take a one-time-only tour, on September 29, of Henderson Castle, an 1880 mansion recently restored to its original condition, call Stuart Avenue Inn, 616-342-0230.

The Kalamazoo Brewing Company (616-382-2338), a laid- back micro-brewery at 315 E. Kalamazoo Ave., welcomes visitors for tours and tastes of Third Coast Beer and other flavors. No need to call in advance, unless you have a group of eight or more. Hours are 9 to 6 Monday through Friday and noon to 5 Saturday.

The Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum (616-382-6555), next to the airport at 3101 E. Milham, has nifty working World War II aircraft in vintage condition. Car lovers will find vintage cars, trucks, and horse-drawn carriages at Gilmore Car Museum (616-671-5089), 6865 Hickory Road, northeast of Kalamazoo in Hickory Corners.

Sports: Kalamazoo County sports 83 lakes, two rivers, and dozens of streams. You can get your sailboat or powerboat onto many of them. "Fishing opportunities," as the state's promoters put it, are plentiful. For a list of boat launches and campsites in county parks call 616-383-8778.

Tennis players will find 64 tennis courts throughout the city of Kalamazoo, which was recently named "City of the Year" by the Tennis Hall of Fame. Every August spectators are welcome to watch 16- and 18-year- old boys compete in the U.S. Tennis Association's championships, sponsored by Kalamazoo College. Call 616-383-8615 for information.

The Kal-Haven Trail offers hikers, bicyclists, and cross-country skiers 34 miles of linear park that runs along old railroad beds all the way from the western edge of Kalamazoo to the shore of Lake Michigan at South Haven. Call 616-381-4003 for a map.

In the winter you can join a pickup game of hockey or just rent skates and twirl around on the ice at the Annex, a regulation-size hockey rink connected to the Kalamazoo Wings stadium, 3600 Vanrick Drive, within sight of I-94 at the Sprinkle Road exit. Call 616- 345-1125 for open-skating information, 616-345-5101 for Wings ticket information.

For information on other sports call 616-381-4003.

Nature: The best local nature trip is one to the Kalamazoo Nature Center, at 7000 N. Westnedge Ave., just a few miles out of town. This nonprofit center run by environmentalists has lush hiking trails, an arboretum, a butterfly and hummingbird garden, the restored DeLano Homestead, an Indian village, a small-animal touching room, an environmental library, and a gift shop. The annual Gathering to Sing and Play, on September 29 this year, features square dancing and crafts. During December the DeLano Homestead is done up with old-fashioned Christmas decorations. Hours are 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday; closed some holidays. Call 616-381-1574 for information.

Also very nice is the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, northeast of the city at 12865 E. C Ave. near Augusta (616-671-2511). Established by the cornflakes king and now run by Michigan State University, the sanctuary sits on Wintergreen Lake and is home to free-ranging peacocks, turkeys, swans, geese, and ducks. In September and October thousands of our feathered friends stop by on their migratory way from the Arctic Circle to southern Illinois. The nearby Kellogg Dairy Center, 10461 N. 40th St. near Hickory Corners (616-671-2507), gives milking demonstrations, and the W.K. Kellogg Research Forest, 7060 N. 42nd St. near Augusta (616-734-4597), has hiking trails.

The closest thing to a grand-scale nature site is about 30 miles northwest of Kalamazoo and well worth the drive. The 45,000-acre Allegan State Game Area has lakes, lots of campsites, and miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, even dogsledding. For information send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Game Area Headquarters, 4590 118th Ave., Allegan, MI 49010.

Eats: Kalamazoo offers a good variety of restaurants. Westnedge Avenue is your route to fast food; all the familiar signs are there. Not so fast but worth a little wait are two Bill Knapp's, one at 5135 Portage (616- 345-8635) and the other at 4315 W. Main Street, which serve surprisingly tasty food for a chain restaurant. They are famous for their fried chicken, biscuits, bean soup, and chocolate cake. Prices start at $2.99 for sandwiches.

Good home-cooked food at Rykse's Restaurant & Bakery, 5924 Stadium Drive (616-372-3838), is a hot item among locals. Sandwiches are served on a variety of fresh-baked breads. Homemade sweet rolls approach the size of a baseball mitt. Lunches start at $2.75, dinners at $4.95.

Bravo! Ristorante, 5402 Portage Road (616-344-7700), aims for fine Italian dining with interesting pasta dishes. They also serve what the restaurant manager claims is "Kalamazoo's best" Sunday brunch. A la carte dinners start at $8.95. Theo & Stacy's--234 W. Michigan, 5225 Portage Road, and 4311 S. Westnedge (616-388-5025)--makes a large Greek salad for $2.95 as well as other reasonably priced Greek meals. Wall Street and Granola, 804 W. Wine Street (616-344-5666), serves health food, as does Just Good Foods (616-383-1033), downtown in the renovated Rose Street Market, 303 N. Rose St., just north of Michigan Avenue.

Overnight: About 31 places want you to sleep in Kalamazoo. The Stuart Avenue Inn (616-342-0230) offers extraordinary bed-and-breakfast accommodations at 229, 237, and 405 Stuart Avenue, in the Stuart Avenue historic district. The inn has a stately flower garden and four turn-of-the-century guest homes restored to authentic perfection. There are standard rooms plus suites, the latter featuring private Jacuzzis, VCRs, fireplaces, and state-of-the-art stereo systems. Breakfast baked goods are prepared from scratch by the owners. Rates run $45 to $120.

In the heart of downtown is the Kalamazoo Center Hotel, 100 W. Michigan Avenue, the city's main east- west street (616-381-2130). Undergoing renovation until next summer but still open, this modern nine-story structure contains restaurants, retail stores, and an indoor lap pool. Nightly rates run from $32 to $215.

The Holiday Inn, 3522 Sprinkle Road, within hopping (but not hearing) distance of I-94 (exit 80), has a really nice outdoor pool plus an indoor pool, as well as a restaurant and a lounge. Rates run from $49 to $90 (616-381- 7070). Lees Inn, 2615 Fairfield (exit 78, Portage Road, off I-94, 616-382- 6100), is new and clean. It has giant in-room television sets and serves complimentary breakfast; rates are $44 to $62 per night.

Enroute to the Allegan State Game Area is the lovely Winchester Inn bed-and-breakfast, 524 Marshall St. in the tiny town of Allegan; it offers a wonderfully peaceful night's sleep, pleasant breakfast, and friendly owners (616-673-3621). Nightly rates run from $45 to $75.

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