At the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, the twin cities of Saugatuck and Douglas once had a third sibling, the port of Singapore. Singapore was expected by its 1830s boosters to rival Chicago, but instead it was buried by 1890 in a shifting dune that loggers had stripped of its anchoring trees. Ecological mismanagement (and the Yellowstone-like fires of 1871) eventually left the area unable to sustain its basic industries--lumber, tanning, and shipbuilding--but industrial decline perversely permitted it to become a haven for artists and for summer people from as far away as Saint Louis. Today the principal industry there is tourism, and many of the homes built by prosperous Victorians now take in transient boarders as bed-and-breakfast establishments. The only functioning shipyard turns out enormous yachts, and in season the once-gritty waterfront is a parking lot for hundreds of pleasure craft of such grand luxe that Saugatuck can at least be said to have eclipsed Monroe Street Harbor.
In the 1960s, Jack and Lucille Hedglin's Shady Shore Motel in Saugatuck (787 Lake St., 616-857-4387) began to be known in certain circles as Lucille's Lodge for Lonesome Ladies, she being the only local innkeeper who welcomed gay as well as straight guests. Now in her 40th year in the hostelry business, Hedglin says that when she started, in 1951, "I'd never even heard of a gay, didn't know what it was . . . but I guess somebody figured, 'She's a friendly lady,' and told their friends, and it just grew and developed." That was then and this is now, and the gay presence in the area is well established. Saugatuck/Douglas has become to the midwest what Provincetown and Key West are to the east coast and the Russian River is to the west. Some lodging places, bars, and restaurants attract predominantly gay clienteles (the Douglas Dunes Resort does so most prominently in all three categories), but most of them advertise in general media and are nondiscriminatory; the worst that happens is that occasional uptight straights are upset to find themselves a minority among homosexuals and complain to the chamber of commerce, which tells them to relax.
A large if low-rise condo development on the river notwithstanding, Saugatuck still has much Victorian/Edwardian charm, and despite the numbers of tourists, the only fast-food franchise in town is a TCBY yogurt parlor; for that matter, there are no other franchises of any kind except a Tastee Freeze on the Blue Star Highway in Douglas, so that where one might expect yet another Benetton shop there is instead Splash Progressive Wear for Humans (103 Butler St., 616-857-1007), and in place of Pier 1 you get Thayer's Port (119 Butler St., 616-857-4445), which specializes in painted tiles, pottery, and textiles of village artisans in Portugal. The local merchants, who exchange gossip over early-morning coffee at the Village News and Sports (310 Butler St., 616-857- 8065), work hard and sometimes deviously, it is said, to keep the town that way.
The absence of franchises does not necessarily mean that the local product or service is good, only that it's local. An innkeeper regaling guests with travel tales sniffed that dining in Moscow was always dreadful, since everything was accompanied by cabbage; this town offers instead of cabbage the ubiquitous Saugatuck potato, your choice of baked or french fried, condemning the town to gastronomic hell. The flip side is that one is spared the certainties, good or bad, of nationally known purveyors, and can experience the adventure of travel, just like in the old days. You win some and you lose some. Some winners, more or less:
Restaurants and clubs: Popular Billie's Boathouse (449 Water St., 616-857-1188) is disappointing as a restaurant--the effort to manage three cuisines simultaneously (steaks and chops, seafood, and Mexican) would be daunting anywhere--but it usually has a good jazz band in the bar and there's a small dance floor. Marro's (147 Water St., 616-857-4248) is a good, nicely appointed Italian restaurant and pizzeria where the late-night scene, which often spills out of the tiny bar, is postcollegiate, very loud, and seriously heterosexual. Much larger and much less hetero are the cabaret, dance floor, and indoor/outdoor bars of the Douglas Dunes Resort (333 Blue Star Highway, Douglas, 616-857-1401), whose restaurant, Cafe Sir Douglas, has a beautiful room and patio, attentive staff, a good wine list, an ambitious menu, and trouble with complex dishes. The Loaf and Mug (236 Culver St., 616-857-2974) makes inventive soups and sandwiches on excellent breads and features private- label local wines in a pleasant garden, with music on Sunday. Ilforno is the pretty good cloth-napkin restaurant in the Coral Gables Complex on the waterfront (220 Water St., 616-857- 2162), which also includes the Rathskeller bar and the Old Crow Bar, where a large crowd is usually gathered for dancing and live entertainment. Chequers (220 Culver St., 616-857-1868) is especially nice in the winter with its warm wood paneling, fireplace, pix of the royals adorning the walls, Watney's and other imports behind the bar, and hearty British fare including a glutton's mixed grill and a righteous trifle.
Lodging: The Ship-N Shore Motel (528 Water St., 616-857-2194) is relatively expensive but worth it when you wake up and step outside to have your coffee on the half-block-long, beautifully landscaped patio/ deck (complete with pool), with boats, geese, and ducks gliding by. The Newnham Inn (131 Griffith St., 616-857-4249), which flies the rainbow flag out front, is a pleasant, relaxed Victorian B&B with a pool and an in-ground hot tub that stays bubbly year-round to benefit the ski crowd. The Maplewood Hotel (428 Butler St., 616-857-2788) is a grander and more dignified B&B, where the rooms have private baths and the dining room is named for puppeteer Burr Tilstrom, the creator of Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Shops, galleries: Saugatuck is a compact town where most of the business establishments are arrayed along Butler and Water streets and the cross streets connecting them, which makes for pleasant browsing. Among the more unusual, Kilwin's (152 Butler St., 616-857-1195) makes--right under your nose, the bastards--many flavors of fudge, and also sells Haagen-Dazs and its own ice cream. Spiritdreams (133 Butler St., 616- 857-1644, open daily in summer, weekends only after Labor Day) has New Age music and books and specializes in crystals, including--hurry before they're gone--blue rocks that "eliminate emotional confusion" and ameliorate female problems and arthritis. Knight's Collectibles (119 Butler St., 616-857-1628) features exquisite dolls. Das Bauhaus (546 Butler St., 616-857-2495, open 10 to 6 Saturday and Sunday or by appointment) features household items and objets in deco, moderne, and other 20th-century design styles.
To do: The only way to cross the river in Saugatuck other than driving down to the bridge in Douglas is to take the Saugatuck Chain Ferry, the original 1838 vessel pulled by an operator cranking a 380-foot chain, from the dock at Mary and Water streets. Once on the Lake Michigan side of the river, climb the 280 steps to the top of Mount Baldhead, a 250- foot dune that used to be a Pentagon radar station but is now a city park; swim and sun at the city's Oval Beach (on the lake) or join the nudeniks in the dunes north of the official beach; ride the Queen of Saugatuck stern-wheel paddleboat (716 Water St., 616-857-4261, runs daily) for an hour and a half, with running commentary on Saugatuck past and present; rent a bike or pontoon boat from H&H Leasing (720 Water St., 616-857-6106, open daily), or anything from a moped to a salmon boat from Adventure Yacht Charters (503 Park St., 616-857-1578, open daily). In season, On Track (306 Butler St., 616-857-8831) offers cross-country ski instruction, sales, and rentals. Most of the boat rides and rentals go through October 1; ski rentals at On Track start with the first snow.
Down the road: Hike or ski the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, just north of the town (616-426-4013). Visit the Vivekananda Monastery and Retreat (6723 122nd Ave., 616-543-4545), six miles south of Saugatuck on the Blue Star Highway in Ganges, chosen for its serendipitous name by the Hyde Park-based Vivekananda Vedanta Society. The 11 AM Sunday service is open to the public; otherwise call ahead. Mark Williams's Blue Star Pottery, on Route 2 just off the Blue Star Highway north of South Haven (616-637-5787), is his workshop as well as indoor/outdoor showroom. It's open 1 to 5 Friday and Saturday or by appointment.