Idlewild, Michigan, the once booming resort for black vacationers, is a ghost of its former self. Now a small colony of summer homes clustered around a small lake, it has no nightclubs, taverns, restaurants, or even hot dog or barbecue joints to give a taste of its past glories.
Though there's not much to do or see in Idlewild, it is in the heart of the 524,235-acre Manistee National Forest, which has plenty of attractions, particularly if you like active outdoor pursuits like hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and camping. The Manistee area is even good if you prefer something more passive--like oversleeping in a scenic inn overlooking the dunes or driving down rural roads through dunes and nearby forests or along lakes, great and small. For information about the forest call 800-821-6263.
The Manistee area, which lies some 200 to 300 miles from Chicago, is an accessible, less-traveled middle ground between better-known and more crowded vacation getaways to the southwest (the New Buffalo-Saugatuck crescent) and northeast (the Leland-Traverse City summer colony).
Here even the driving can be a treat, particularly if travelers get off the main highways and try to find the scenic local roads that border Lake Michigan from Muskegon north to Manistee. Finding these lakeshore roadways can be frustrating since roadblocks and dead ends are common, but the roads along the lake's dune-lined eastern shore can be as dramatic as stretches of California's Highway 1, which twists along the coast. And where the roadways don't go--like the protected Nordhouse Dunes area, between Manistee and Ludington--the hiking is terrific.
Biking also is good, since traffic is light and there are lakes, woodlands, and dunes galore to break up the flat, monotonous stretches of farmland. Cyclists particularly recommend Lakeshore Road from Ludington south to Pentwater; Road B15, along the lake south of Pentwater; and a stretch of Highway 116 north of Ludington into Ludington State Park. Bikers also have their own linear state park--a 22-mile bike trail from Hart, just southeast of Pentwater on the Pentwater River, to Montague, just north of Muskegon on U.S. 31. It follows the old Chesapeake & Ohio Railway right-of-way and costs $2 per adult and $5 per family; tickets are available at stores along the route.
Area bike maps are available for $1 per county from the Michigan Department of Transportation, Transportation Building, 425 W. Ottawa, Lansing, MI 48909. A free brochure listing bike tours and events is put out by the League of Michigan Bicyclists, P.O. Box 16201, Lansing, MI 48901. More elaborate and expensive bike tours are arranged by Michigan Bicycle Touring, 3512 Red School Road, Kingsley, MI 49649 (616-263-5885).
Tourism is the major business here, so the area offers an abundant assortment of places to spend the night--both rustic and ritzy. Hundreds of campsites--including extremely popular spots in Ludington State Park, dozens of cozy bed-and-breakfast inns, and hundreds of rooms in more conventional motels and hotels--some ordinary and others exquisitely restored English-style country inns.
For those seeking rustic charm, there are clusters of lakeside cabins in the woods. Some come sturdy and plain, like the 18 pine log cabins--complete with fully equipped kitchens and fishing boats--of the Timberlane Long Lake Resort (7410 E. U.S. 10, just east of Walhalla; 800-227-2142). Heated year-round, Timberlane also attracts fishermen, deer hunters, cross-country skiers, and snowmobilers; the proprietors will have rental skis waiting for those who request them (rooms are $65 to $85).
There are also plenty of decent inns, like Inn Wick-A-Te-Wah, a restored resort, four-room bed and breakfast, and retirement home of Len and Marge Carlson, just north of Manistee on the shores of Portage Lake. Room prices range from $65 to $75 and include full breakfasts, featuring the freshest local fruit and produce (3813 Lakeshore, Manistee; 616-889-4386). Other area bed and breakfasts are described in detail in the excellent Michigan Bed and Breakfast Directory, put out by the Lake to Lake Bed & Breakfast Association, Route 2 Box 183, Cedar, MI 49621. (This brochure and hundreds of others, including bicycle maps and some useful detailed county and state maps, are readily available and free at the Michigan Welcome Center at I-94 and the Michigan state line near New Buffalo.)
Moving upscale a bit, one of the classiest places to lodge (and eat) is the Historic Nickerson Inn (616-869-6731). A cozy, high-quality rehabbed country inn in Pentwater, it has ten rooms ($75 to $95), two large suites with whirlpools ($150), and some of the best food in the region. Rooms overlook the dunes and Lake Michigan or Pentwater Lake. Using all fresh ingredients, the Nickerson offers a sumptuous Sunday brunch as well as hearty lunches and dinners that attract locals--including a former state governor who lives nearby. The food, overseen by a chef who's a recent refugee from Chicago, is several notches better than the standard prime-rib and baked-potato joints that dominate the area's "fine dining" scene.
If it has to be prime rib, locals recommend Club 37, a roadhouse and bar that also offers a piquant black-bean soup, decent vegetable side dishes, seafood, and homemade bread. It's seven miles north of Baldwin on M-37 (616-266-5601). "It's not just the best place to eat in the Baldwin-Idlewild area," one local says, "it's the only place." Other places that get high marks include:
Ludington: Scotty's, where the perch is recommended, 5910 E. Ludington (616-843-4033), and P.M. Streamers, near the marina, at 502 W. Loomis (616-843-9555).
Manistee: 440 West is another prime-rib palace, with reasonable prices, casual ambience, and views of the Manistee River, 440 River (616-723-7902).
The tastiest fish in the area are the ones you catch yourself, especially if you can find someone to smoke them for you in the backyard smokehouse. Since state law forbids sport fishermen to share or sell their catch, you need to know someone to sample the delectable smoked salmon and other lake fish caught by local fishermen. Those who want to try their luck at catching their own have a lot of charter boats and fishing spots to choose from. In Manistee, Lake Michigan fishing trips can be arranged through Captain's Corner, a combination restaurant and charter-boat service on Highway 31 just north of the center of town (267 Arthur, 616-723-3474).
If you prefer trout fishing try heading to the Pere Marquette River south of Baldwin. Steelhead and salmon also can be caught there. Information about public access points along M-37 and other spots can be had from national forest rangers at the Baldwin office, 650 N. Michigan (616-745-4631).
Baldwin also offers two highly recommended canoe liveries for beginning canoeists who'd like to try the Pere Marquette and Pine rivers: the Baldwin Canoe Rental (616-745-4669) and Ivan's Canoe Rental, at M-37 and the Pere Marquette (616-745-3361). Giant inner tubes for floating downriver are available for rent along with shuttle service (back upriver) at most canoe liveries, including Happy Mohawk Canoe Livery, on B-86 (Fruitvale Road) east of Montague and U.S. 31 (616-894-4209), and Sawmill Canoe Livery, 230 Baldwin in Big Rapids (616-796-6408).
For those who prefer bigger craft and that ocean cruise ship feeling, Ludington offers a terminal for Lake Michigan's only car ferry service. Twice daily between June 18 and August 23 the S.S. Badger leaves Ludington and its sister destination, Manitowoc, Wisconsin, for a four-hour cruise across the lake. The 410-foot steamship has a restaurant, small bar, and gift shops for the restless; it holds up to 620 passengers and 130 cars. One-way tickets cost $30 for adults and $15 for children; it's $40 for a car and $10 for a bike. Round-trip passenger fares are $50 for adults and $25 for children. The Ludington dock is on William Street just south of Ludington Avenue (Route 10) and the harbor (800-841-4243 or 616-845-5555).
Western Michigan is fruit-and-vegetable-growing country, and from now through October something is always in season. The asparagus season is just ending; soon those legendarily small but sweet Michigan strawberries will be available. Then cherries and blueberries ripen, and in late July and August peaches and apricots are harvested. Apples are abundant in the fall. Roadside stands offer the best and freshest selection. There are several asparagus stands on old U.S. 31 south of Ludington. One of the most reliable markets for fresh fruit of all sorts is the Brown Orchards on U.S. 31 between Manistee and Ludington.
Those who like the weird and wonderful roadside attraction--good for rainy afternoons--should note two places recommended by locals:
Shrine of the Pines is a beautiful hand-built log cabin hunting lodge filled with one-of-a-kind furniture hand-carved by Raymond Overholzer, a fishing and hunting guide who was angry about the loggers who clear-cut the local virgin pine forests in the 19th century. Overholzer obsessively transformed many of the stumps and roots left behind into huge tables, chairs, and beds that he carved, joined, and finished with all natural ingredients. Even the glue was of his own recipe, and not one nail nor one ounce of varnish was used, the finish coming from rubbing the wood with deer pelts. Overholzer married his grade-school teacher but died shortly after finishing the cabin and its furniture--several years before she did. You'll find his shrine on M-37 two miles south of Baldwin (616-745-7892). Open daily through November 1. Admission is $2.50 for adults, $1 for kids.
Shelby Gemstone Factory, with furnaces that burn at 5,040 degrees Fahrenheit--almost twice the temperature needed to melt steel--challenges visitors to tell the difference between its factory-made diamonds and the real thing. Their manufactured diamonds even cut glass. Shelby, which also makes sapphires, emeralds, and rubies, offers tours weekdays between 9 and 5:30 and Saturdays from noon to 4 (1330 Industrial, Shelby, 616-861-2165).
Sandhill cranes--rare, wondrous birds known for their leaping displays in the spring mating season--nest in the Walkinshaw Wetlands part of the Manistee forest, southeast of Walkerville. Crane watchers try to find them by heading southeast of Walkerville down 204th Avenue north of McLaren Lake and south of Gilbert Lake. The useful Oceana County map is available from the Michigan Welcome Center at I-94 and the state line. For more information about the cranes and their behavior call national forest rangers in White Cloud at 616-689-6696.
Every town boasts that it has the best homemade ice cream, but even nonresidents claim that Jones Ice Cream, 858 N. Michigan in downtown Baldwin (616-745-3591), is the best. It is also one of the few places where you can see evidence of the former Idlewild. Hanging on the wall next to pictures of deer hunters, the 1979 Baldwin High School marching band, and a Cadillac that crashed into the shop are photos of Paradise Club show girls and tap dancers and Idlewild summer visitors of the 20s and 50s posing outside the now torn-down Idlewild Clubhouse.