Michigan is a magnet for cyclists, thanks to its gently rolling hills and thousands of miles of quiet secondary roads, many of which run through the state's 19 million acres of forest. There are scores of weekend group rides throughout the state; maps and other resources are on the Web site of the League of Michigan Bicyclists, lmb.org. The annual Michigander mountain bike tour features three rides of varying distances, starting July 15; see michigantrails.org for more info.
The longest ride is a weeklong trek of nearly 200 miles up to Mackinaw City from Big Rapids. But my biking partner and I decided to check out the shorter, less demanding rides that originate in Three Oaks, 80 miles from Chicago and 6 miles inland from the lakeside communities that make up southeast Michigan's harbor country. (See my story on the area's new community radio station, WRHC.) More info about the town and region is at threeoaks.org and harborcountry.org.
Ground zero for cyclists is the brand-new Dewey Cannon Trading Company (3 Dewey Cannon Ave., 269-756-3361), a gift shop and visitors' center that rents bikes ($15 a day, $25 on weekends, with optional carts and Trail-a-Bikes for kids). The store is named for the Spanish-American war-era cannon across the street in Dewey Cannon Park, which hosts a new farmers' market on Saturday mornings starting May 27, and free concerts on Saturday evenings in the summer.
The shop is headquarters for the Three Oaks Spokes Bicycle Club, whose president, former mayor Bryan Volstorf, founded the popular Apple Cider Century ride (applecidercentury.com), which takes place in October this year. And it's the starting point for a dozen self-guided "Backroads Bikeway" tours, ranging in length from 5 to 60 miles. Maps are available for a quarter each at the store, or online for free at applecidercentury.com. (Maps for six more "Outback Trails" designed for mountain bikes are online only.)
We started with the 20-mile Union Pier trail, which took us toward the lakeshore via rough and narrow but quiet roads. Turns were marked with green "Backroads Bikeway" signs, but because different trails often intersect we occasionally had to stop to check our map. Along the way we marveled at a cast-iron dinosaur skeleton on somebody's front lawn; just behind it was a scary face carved into a tree stump that looked like it was straight out of H.R. Pufnstuf. A few miles further along we stopped to gawk at a herd of shaggy Scottish Highlands cattle.
We passed the New Buffalo Railroad Museum (530 S. Whittaker St., 269-469-3166), which has a model train running through a replica of the town as it was in the 1920s. Nearby are Oink's Dutch Treat ice cream parlor (227 W. Buffalo St., 269-469-3535) and the Stray Dog Bar and Grill (245 N. Whittaker St., 269-469-2727 or eatatthedog.com). Locals suggested Brewster's Italian Cafe (11 W. Merchant St., 269-469-3005), an airy restaurant where we enjoyed cheese tortellini and eggplant ciabatta.
The restaurant is close to New Buffalo's public beach, which has a boardwalk, restrooms, and a concession stand. As we biked up the coast we passed several inns and cottages, including the Lakeside Inn (15251 Lakeshore Rd., Lakeside, 269-469-0600 or lakesideinns.com), a rustic and friendly place where we'd stayed the previous night; prices range from $75-$200 a night.
The trip back to Three Oaks took us past a number of vineyards; wineries in the area include Tabor Hill in Buchanan (800-283-3363 or taborhill.com), Lemon Creek in Berrien Spring (269-471-1321 or lemoncreekwinery.com) and Round Barn in Baroda (800-716-9463 or roundbarn winery.com). The last has a tasting room in Union Pier, as does St. Julian (269-469-3150 or stjulian.com). We also passed the 312-acre Warren Woods State Park (269-426-4013 or michigan.gov/dnr), which includes Michigan's last remaining beech-maple forest.
Back in Three Oaks we visited the Three Oaks Bicycle History Museum at the Three Oaks Township Public Library (3 N. Elm St., 269-756-5621). The museum recently moved from a larger space at the train depot and keeps fewer bikes on display than before, but the small collection includes a black 1892 Elliott Hickory bike with wooden spokes and an 1880s high wheeler. Other displays are crammed with artifacts from Three Oaks' pioneer days.
I'm a vegetarian, so I didn't venture into Drier's Meat Market (14 S. Elm St., 888-521-3999 or driers.com), a National Historic Site that has specialized in smoked meat since 1875. Across the street is Belle Via Market & Cafe (11 S. Elm St., 269-756-3978 or bellevia.com), which has a juice bar and organic grocery.
Many restaurants are closed on Tuesdays, and it's smart to make reservations for dinner, especially at upscale places like the Grande Mere Inn (5800 Red Arrow Highway, Stevensville, 269-429-3591), which boasts a view of the lake, and the elegant Soe Cafe (12868 Red Arrow Highway, Sawyer, 269-426-4878). Those who miss the burgers at the long-gone Redamak's in Lincoln Park can visit the kid-friendly original in New Buffalo (616 E. Buffalo St., 269-469-4522 or redamaks.com). We opted for excellent homemade ravioli and triple chocolate cake at the unpretentious Horsefeathers (12857 Three Oaks Rd., Sawyer, 269-426-3237), a Southern-themed seafood joint with a lively bar.
We spent our second night at the upscale Sandpiper Inn (16136 Lakeview Ave., Union Pier, 800-351-2080 or sandpiperinn.net), which sits on a bluff overlooking a private beach. The inn has sumptuous rooms ($155-$275 a night) with fireplaces, screened verandas, and incredibly comfy beds; it offers cruiser bikes for use during the day. After gorging on homemade French toast we picked up sandwiches at Milda's Corner Market (9901 Townline Rd., Union Pier, 269-469-9880 or milda.us), which among other things sells WRHC T-shirts and Lithuanian dishes like kugeli, a potato and bacon casserole.
For our second ride, we hit the Spicer Lake trail, which took us away from Lake Michigan and toward older farms and vineyards. The route dips south into Indiana, where we passed a redbrick one-room schoolhouse, the Rodeo Bar & Grill (5627 E. 1000 N, LaPorte, 219-778-9787), which has a mechanical bull, and Prairie Hills Bison Farm (5899 E. 1000 N, LaPorte, 219-778-9058), which sells bison meat, skulls, and hides by appointment.
Spicer Lake Nature Preserve (50840 County Line Rd., New Carlisle, 574-654-0361 or sjcparks.org) has a nature center with a restroom, picnic tables, and hiking (but not biking) trails across its 245 acres of wetlands, woods, and old-growth fields. Back in Michigan, after passing a church with a basketball backboard in front emblazoned with the legend "Score for Christ," we came to Gailen, a tiny hamlet where the Neighbors Cafe (113 S. Cleveland Ave., 269-545-0299) serves burgers and sandwiches. We had an amazing second breakfast--a fluffy pepper and egg sandwich and tangy scrambled tofu--at the elegant but inexpensive Bailey's Cafe (8 S. Elm St., Three Oaks, 269-756-2400), then headed back to flat Chicago.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Paul Dolan.