Benton Harbor has seen its share of well-known faces. Al Capone and his lieutenant Frank Nitti used to vacation there. Basketball star Chet Walker grew up there. And in the outlying township, minutes from downtown, Eddie Vrdolyak owns a horse farm that once belonged to the chairman of the Whirlpool Corporation.
Why not add yourself to the list? The area can be fun for a day or two.
The prime attraction is the outdoors. Both Benton Harbor and Saint Joseph overlook Lake Michigan and have beaches. Saint Joseph has three stretches of public sand; the best is 22-acre Silver Beach, below Lake Boulevard, where there is a nominal charge for parking. In Benton Harbor try Jean Klock Park, a mile- and-a-half-long strand that has gone somewhat to seed along with its home city. There's no concession stand--but lifeguards are on duty during peak hours, and you seldom face the crowds you do in Saint Joseph. Admission is $3 for nonresidents; just west of Highway M-63 north of Saint Joseph.
The Sarett Nature Center, off Red Arrow Highway on Benton Center Road in Benton Harbor (616-927- 4832), is a wildlife sanctuary consisting of bottomland that borders the Paw Paw River. It memorializes Lew Sarett, a naturalist and speech professor at Northwestern University. Five miles of hiking trail, some on raised boardwalk, enable the visitor to see the frogs, turtles, sunflowers, and gentians without the hazard of wet feet. Friendly naturalists provide trail maps. Every Saturday and Sunday at 3 they give a program (sometimes featuring a boa constrictor) and a guided tour. Closed Mondays; open 9 to 5 Tuesday through Friday, 10 to 5 Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday. It's free. The hiking trails are open every day from dawn to dusk. (Remember that Michigan time is one hour ahead of ours.)
The countryside east of Benton Harbor is filled with U-pick fruit and vegetable farms. For information on what's where--and what's in season--consult the Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, just east of I-94 (exit 29) on Pipestone Road (616-925- 6301). Through October Saint Joseph Today (a nonprofit promotional organization) runs a farmers' market, with local produce, from 9 to 1 on Tuesday and Saturday mornings on the 100 block of State Street (more information at 616-982-6739).
Saint Joseph has two museums of note. The Krasl Art Center (707 Lake Boulevard, 616-983-0271) occupies a brick building designed by the Chicago architectural firm Perkins and Will. Don't expect to see Robert Mapplethorpe here. "We have an obligation to stretch people's minds," says museum director Darwin Davis, "but not to go so far as to offend our audience." Through September 9 the Krasl has an exhibit of Staffordshire figurines, to be followed on September 15 by a wildlife show. A glassblowing show is on view in a small side gallery. The center's hours are 10 to 4 Monday through Thursday and Saturday, 10 to 1 Friday, and 1 to 4 Sunday. Admission is free.
Up the street is the Curious Kids' Museum (415 Lake Boulevard, 616- 983-2543), where youngsters can dig up "dinosaur bones" from a sandbox, feel what it's like to be disabled by negotiating a wheelchair obstacle course, and spy on people on the second floor with a periscope. A TV-news set donated by a South Bend TV station gives children a chance to announce the news. The museum is closed through September 18 (exhibits, including Indian and outer-space displays and a see-through washer and dryer, are being added). Otherwise the facility is open 10 to 5 Wednesday through Saturday, 12 to 4 Sunday. Cost: $1.50 for those under 18, $2.50 for adults.
Benton Harbor has just one museum, the Morton House, a rambling frame structure situated at 501 Territorial Road (616-925-7011), on a hill above the city. The house, built in 1849, was occupied for four generations by the Morton family, a prominent Benton Harbor clan. The colonnade was called the "Indian hotel" because one Morton used to let Potawatomi tribesmen sleep there on their way to Saint Joseph to sell baskets. The interior features rooms done out in the decor of different eras. It's open 1 to 4 on Thursday and 2 to 4 Sunday through the end of October; admission is free.
For vittles, start with Bonnie's, at 325 W. Main St. in Benton Harbor (616-926-7575). Bonnie Houck, a onetime waitress, bought the place three years ago and turned it into an oasis of home cooking. For breakfast try the plate-size blueberry pancakes or the eggs. The rotating lunchtime specials include Swiss steak and spaghetti and meatballs; the pies, even the cream ones, are made on the premises. The portions are ample ("Nobody leaves here hungry," Houck promises), and the prices are all below $5. Open from 6 AM until 1 or 2 PM every day but Sunday.
At the Establishment (311 Market St. in Benton Harbor, 616- 925-1104) the preferred fare is artery clogging. The knowing go for the prime rib or the "harbor burger," which consists of a hamburger topped with ham, two types of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and olives. Schu's Grill & Bar just opened at 501 Pleasant St. in Saint Joseph (616-983-7248). It's operated by the Schuler family, owners of several Win Schuler's restaurants throughout southern Michigan. Schu's is more casual than its older siblings, offering pizza and ribs. A sidewalk cafe affords a view of Lake Michigan; binoculars are available inside.
You have some unusual choices for an overnight stay. The Snowflake Motel (3822 Red Arrow Highway in Saint Joseph, 616-429-3261) is credited to architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Some wonder whether Wright or one of his students actually created the design, since Wright landed the commission a year before he died in 1959. Then too the plans were initially drawn for a retirement village, and later revised. In any event, the motel has many Wrightian signatures. The 56- unit structure is laid out to resemble a snowflake; consequently, every two walls come to a point. The Snowflake also has a hexagonal pool under an open dome of six tons of decorative metal girding, plus a coffee shop and cocktail lounge. Rates: $45 a night for a single, $48 for a double.
The South Cliff Inn, a red brick bed-and-breakfast at 1900 Lake Shore Drive in Saint Joseph (616-983-4881), trumpets its antiques and lake vista. The rates range from $55 to $95 a night, depending on the room's location. The Lake View Inn, across the street at 1911 Lake Shore Drive (616-983-7413), has a pool and a parade of food that begins with breakfast (hope they serve the blueberry coffee cake) and ends with petits fours at bedtime. The rooms top out at $110 for a chamber with a Jacuzzi. Both hostels are a five-minute walk from the beach.