Western Michigan: Lakes, Sand Dunes, and Lighthouses

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After spending two days in Detroit, I went off to Western Michigan to spend some time in Michigan’s outdoor wonders.

Our first stay was in Grand Haven, which get its nickname “Coast Guard, USA” because of its more than 200-year association with this branch of the military. Every summer, there is an event known as Grand Haven Coast Guard Festival that pays tribute to these servicemen and women with a carnival, firework displays, parades and tours aboard ships.

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Two other summer fun offerings are a Musical Fountain, a popular synchronized light and music tours, and historic trolley tours that show and tell more about Grand Haven on wheels.

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Though my visit to Grand Haven was during the warmer months, I’ve been told there are activities to do here year-round. One of them is for nature lovers. Rosy Mound is a system of dunes with hiking trails that take you through wooded areas eventually leading you to sand dunes. It’s a fairly easy walk to and part of you path takes you a section of red pine trees that are like a miniature version of California’s redwoods. Planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, these trees not only provide good shade on a warm day, but also are pretty to look at.

If shopping is more your thing, you’ll find it in Grand Haven’s downtown area with clothing boutiques and specialty goods stores.

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For some down time, I recommend stopping for a drink at Odd Side Ales. It’s a brewery inside a former piano factory that concocts an inventive list of suds ranging from the light Citra Pale Ale to the dark and spicy Mayan Mocha Stout. On one back wall, you’ll spot beer labels framed as works of art – they look like it too. Odd Side Ales doesn’t serve food, but you can a good meal at Kirby Grill, an American restaurant with nice deck views and a selection of salads, sandwiches and pizzas inside a former hotel.

Ludington

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After Grand Haven, my next stop was in Ludington. Once home to a major lumber industry, Ludington is a destination that brings back vacationing natives and keeps locals around with much to do. Former baron mansions have become B&Bs, and you can find quaint lodging such as the Summer’s Inn.

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Ludington’s downtown area has a good mix of restaurants, bars and stores. If you’re craving for ice cream, head ASAP to House of Flavors. But be patient. Here you can expect a line out the door at this diner/ice cream institution with classic flavors and in-house creations such as Blue Moon. Carrot Cake was my favorite. For lunch or dinner, The Jamesport Brewing Company offers good meal options with beer choices extending to German lagers and American ales.

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Park lovers will have a good at the massive Ludington State Park, which has options that could keep any outdoors person busy. Here you can go on hiking trails, spend time on beach areas, and hit the water to do anything from swimming to boating to SUPing. Michigan has the most lighthouses in the U.S., and you’ll see one of them in this park: the Big Sable Point Lighthouse.

Ludington is also located near other natural attractions such as the Silver Lakes Sand Dunes. Take a ride on them by letting Mac Wood’s Dune Rides do the driving on their 40-minute excursions. Another lighthouse to see near Ludington is the Little Sable Point Lighthouse. For a small admission fee, you can climb up the staircase and spend some time on the lookout area.

Two Days in Detroit, Michigan

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My time in Detroit for an assignment gave me an eye opener about the city – and the views were good. Though the city is still facing fiscal challenges, I saw a lot of what’s driving The Motor City in a different way.

Over the two days I spend there, I saw signs of Detroit’s revitalization that involves small businesses and community initiatives. Here are some places I went to or activities I did during my stay that give an insider’s view of D-Town.

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Detroit Experience Factory Tour
Detroiters know their city better than anyone else. Especially Jeannette Pierce. About seven years ago, she co-founded a nonprofit group to provide local perspectives to visitors that eventually has turned into what’s now called the Detroit Experience Factory Tour. As DXF’s Executive Director, Pierce led my group on a bus tour, taking us around different sectors and taking about everything from its legacy with sports teams (the Old Tigers Stadium is now a public park) to turned around neighborhoods. One stop brought us to the Guardian Building, a National Historic Landmark from the late twenties that only took seven months to build.

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Ponyride
Another stop on our DXF tour was Ponyride. Once a foreclosed warehouse, this 30,000 square-foot-location in Detroit’s Corktown district has been transformed into a multi-co-share working space where up-and-coming nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and companies occupy various floors and sections. With a low subsided rent (under a dollar I’ve been told), about 30 tenants run their businesses from here. For example, The Empowerment Plan is an organization founded by a design student that hires previously homeless women to assemble a coat that can be turned into a sleeping bag. Other vendors here produce clothing, ironwork, home furnishings, a beard balm, and even coffee. Ponyride is open to the public Wednesday afternoons at 2 p.m. where they can politely observe most tenants at work.

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Cass Corridor Design District
This Midtown district holds shops featuring locally and overall Michigan made products that are pretty top of the line. One example is Shinola, a high-end company that produces handmade watches, bicycles, journals and leather goods. The craftsmanship is definitely there. Another shop is this district which has a lot of fun and various priced items is CityBird. Owned by siblings Andy and Emily Linn, CityBird carries merchandise like books about Detroit, coasters made from tires, artisan soaps and even Michigan shaped cookie cutters.

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DNR Outdoor Nature Center
It might sound odd at first to have a wildlife center in a city, but that’s the point behind the DNR Outdoor Nature Center. Based in a former factory building near the Detroit Riverfront, the new center serves as an educational resource for Detroit youngsters and their families. It features replicas of natural settings, hands-on exhibits and educational displays. Visitors will encounter everything from a giant oak tree to a waterfall area and a house and yard to show the importance of taking care of natural resources. There’s also a yurt where youngsters can play in while their parents learn where to go camping.

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Belle Isle Park
Another option for finding shade is Belle Isle Park, a 985-acred island park that lines along with the Detroit River. You’ll also find nice views of its neighbor, Ontario. The park also has a number of attractions, including the oldest aquarium in the United States, a conservatory, a fountain, athletic fields and Dossin Great Lakes Museum, which is all about this area’s nautical history.

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“The Z” Parking Garage
Parking garages are purely functional but this one in downtown Detroit is more visually appealing. Called “The Z” because of its letter-minded shape, this 10-floor garage/retail property near the corner of Library and Gratiot doubles as a gallery space. Walls on each level have been turned into canvases featuring murals or street art that have been designed by 27 artists from around the world. If you have the time, take a ride on the glass elevator to each floor and hop off to take a quick look.

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Detroit’s Restaurants
Like manufacturing, Detroit’s culinary scene is cookin’. Newcomer Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails supports local farmers by incorporating their catches and crops into seasonal menus and serves its namesake botanical liquor straight or in cocktails. Fellow newbie Selden Standard is a hot spot with its small plates and craft cocktails. Long-timer Traffic Jam and Snug has an onsite dairy and a rooftop garden with fun interior décor from antique shops or donated by customers. At the historic Eastern Market, find vegetable, fruit and specialty vendors and then grab breakfast or lunch at Russell Street Deli. Back Downtown, try the Coney Island dog, a local favorite, and see which is better: American Coney Island or Lafayette Coney Island.

When You Should NOT Drop Everything and Travel

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Photo via Les Haines via Flickr

Like me, well-meaning travel writers and bloggers promote why you should go off and travel. And, more like me, at times you have to weigh the balance of measuring spending money on experiences – and what your decision can cost you.

Recently, journalist Chelsea Fagan penned a great piece about the notion of choosing the experience of continuous travel and financial risks that come with it on her personal blog, “The Financial Diet.” Fagan examines the viewpoint that (especially younger) people have about long-term travel as being a must-do, don’t worry about money experience. Whether they have it or not.

In her piece, Fagan talks about an internet, well-to-do acquaintance that decides to get her master’s degree in Europe because it’s an “opportunity to learn and expand her mind. Fagan also points out that her friend’s “opportunity” won’t really guarantee anything but that her friend can take that risk due to having a financial safety net.

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Photo by frankieleon via Flickr

While Fagan does admit she has done some modest travel, she is pretty sound about how putting yourself in a monetary bind to travel “just because” adds up. I definitely agree with Fagan about not putting your financial future in jeopardy, yet I have to challenge her on this sentence: “Traveling for the sake of travel is not an achievement, nor is it guaranteed to make anyone a more cultured, nuanced person.”

As someone who travels for business and personal reasons, my experiences have been rewarding and enlightening. They’ve also resulted from choices; not privilege. Having come from a hard-working family, I fund my travels through different means of income. In my twenties and thirties, I held part-time retail jobs along with my full-time office one, did a unique but well-paid pet sitting gig, and parting with unneeded but still valuable junk. I gave up weekends to work and spent money when necessary (like toothpaste and gas).

Now in my forties and more self-employed, I have to admit that travel can cost me in some ways. Sometimes I’ve had to pass on a freelance assignment due to being away on one. Or as I give my ongoing clients my travel schedule, I do worry that maybe a day might come where they won’t need me anymore. Plus there’s the other side of this debate: regret. Or maybe FOMO. Or my fear of looking back as a sad, old woman who wished she did more with her life.

And though I’m dealing with a financial pinch right now, I have to say that I wouldn’t trade in my experiences for anything else. I also agree with Fagan in that being able to travel, or not, doesn’t mean that a person is any less, but I do think people should pursue this opportunity if they have the chance, and means to. Maybe it can’t be right away or in the way that you want, but do what you can without breaking your bank.

Just don’t sound like this person.

A Weekend in New Haven, Connecticut

photo 2(46)New Haven, Connecticut has always been a city of innovation: the lollipop, hamburger, phone book, and first public tree planting. Since the 1990s, the city’s downtown area been undergoing a revitalization of older buildings being repurposed into shops, restaurants, and bars. Yet, at the same time, New Haven has keeping up its history as a place for higher learning and culture.

And the best part is that you can see a lot of it on foot.

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For a work assignment with Info New Haven, I spent the weekend in New Haven during the 20th annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Held every June, this festival is a roughly two-week event of exhibits, lectures, and musical and artistic performances that take over just about every public space, gallery or theater venue in and around New Haven. Along with offering much discussion and insights on the arts, the nice thing about this festival is that 80 percent of these events are free. 01-JSSULMO3Le3QwM3kdrMsQao28BpAN2Q6YwsBo3LU For me, highlights included the evocative performance artist Taylor Mac and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love. I also got to see “Sinatra: An American Icon.” a temporary photo exhibit on the crooner’s legacy – he’s been to New Haven too – at the Yale School of Art. YQDi9QzCNdhCqidkf3rcZWnejjBiSUl1eb0hSQNCHEQ Culture is a year-round find in downtown New Haven. First there’s the Shubert Theatre, where many great long-running Broadway shows were first introduced. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and a musical that would be renamed “Oklahoma!” made their debuts there. And then Yale Repertory Theatre stages well-established plays and world premiere productions.

As for art, pay a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, which houses modern pieces like Rothkos, Pollocks and Picassos, sculptures, antiquities, and decorative pieces. And admissions is free. Another place to visit is the Yale Center for British Art. Although it’s closed until spring 2016 because of conservation project, keep it mind as it holds quite a collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom. photo 3(35) Culture aside, New Haven might not be thought of as a college town but Yale University has been a fixture in New Haven since the 1700s. The public can visit the campus through private tours led by undergraduates, who give a history lesson about this Ivy league institution that has its surprising facts. For example, I learned that Yale’s dorms are called colleges and about a tradition involving rubbing the left foot of the statue of a former president for good luck.

While exploring New Haven, consider rewarding your appetite. One way to get familiar with New Haven’s restaurant scene is through Taste of New Haven, a food/drink tour company. Founder and New Haven native Colin Caplan took my group around on a tour of six diverse restaurants. photo 4(27)  photo 3(34) Michele Herrmann's photo for MB Class

Cubanos

Our stops included:

Meat & Co., an artisan sandwich shop in New Haven’s Ninth Square Historic District. It’s the innovative and rotating combos that make their sandwiches interesting and tasty.

Ordinary, a dark-paneled restaurant and lounge. This place started off as a Colonial tavern (in those days called an ordinary because alcohol could be sold there) and later was the Hotel Taft with famous guests including Babe Ruth and Hollywood greats like Katherine Hepburn and Marlon Brando stopped in. The Ordinary is also quite a nightspot, and cocktails like “Cricket Hill Smash” fit the bill.

Miya’s Sushi, a three-decade, family-owned restaurant that implements environmental practices in sushi making by using sustainable seafood. Miya’s has even gone a step further in creating a menu of dishes made with invasive species (non-native plants or fish).

Soul de Cuba, a home-style café focusing on Afro-Cuban culture. There’s a sense of family here, as photos of the employees’ relatives grace the walls, along with great cubanos and fresh mojitos. photo 3(33) Pizza is New Haven’s signature dish brought over by Italian immigrants and first served in bakeries. The city’s most recognized pizzeria is Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, or mainly known as Pepe’s, a 90-year-old “apizza” establishment with a history of using coal-fired ovens to bake its thin crust pies. To get a taste of New Haven pizza, Caplan took us to Bar, a restaurant/nightclub with a brewery that serves a unique white pie with a mashed potato and bacon topping. Two other standouts have their respective legacies. Louis Lunch Louis’ Lunch has been credited as the birthplace of the American hamburger. Today, this continuously family-owned place still uses cast iron grills from 1898 to cook freshly made burgers — with no need for ketchup. And don’t ask for it. Claire’s Corner Copia serves vegan and gluten-free orders extending to sandwiches, salads, breakfast orders, Mexican entrees, smoothies and desserts.

Next to Claire’s, Basta dishes authentic Italian with a modern twist. Start off with the Sicilian Calamari, Farfalle Funghi or Farfalle di Stagione Con Fagoli. For dessert, definitely get their coconut chocolate bites or tiramisu.

For overnight stays in New Haven, here are two suggestions. First, the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale is not even 10 minutes from Union Station, and close by the New Haven Green. Its John Davenport’s restaurant has sky views of the city and serves regional cuisine with breakfast/buffet, brunch, lunch and dinner options. And The Study at Yale has a studious feel from bookshelves and reading chairs in its lobby area and guestrooms. Its farm-to-table Heirloom Restaurant incorporates regional and artisan food finds in Connecticut and the surrounding New England region.

Disclosure: My time in New Haven was as a guest of INFONewHaven, based on an itinerary they provided.

KLM Pop Up Shop in New York City June 25-27

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KLM Royal Dutch Airlines sent me a notice about their upcoming pop up shop in New York City. From Thursday, June 25, through Saturday, June 27 at the Openhouse Gallery in SoHo, the carrier will be creating what’s being described as “KLM onboard experience” that brings a bit of Amsterdam to the Big Apple.

The three-day event is said to provide the opportunity to experience Dutch culture through music, food, art and design.

Various free and interactive offerings will include the following:

– The chance to win KLM flights to Amsterdam
– Cycling for bonus Flying Blue Miles
– Tasting delicious Dutch treats
Drinking Heineken during Happy Hour
– Dancing to top Dutch DJ sets
– Experiencing live art, kids activities and more.

The event is free but advanced registration through Eventbrite is required. See this link to register.
The Openhouse Gallery is located at 201 Mulberry Street, between Spring and Kenmare. Hours for the KLM Pop Up Shop are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, June 25 and 26. For Saturday, June 27, it opens at 11 a.m. but runs until 7 p.m.

Toronto, Canada: What to Do in Three Days

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Toronto, Canada can make for a good weekend or holiday weekend destination, particularly if you’re based in the United States and where you’re coming from. For getting to Toronto, your two options involve driving (more so if you’re near New York State or overall the US/Canadian border) or flying (to/from two airports).

As for what to do in Toronto, your options can be pretty spread out. From hockey to history, artsy to culinary, there’s a lot to do in this faceted city. From taking a recent weekend trip, here are my suggestions on what to see in three days.

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Hockey Hall of Fame
Toronto has its professional sports teams — Blue Jays for baseball, FC for soccer, and Raptors for basketball — but hockey (Maple Leafs) makes the goal at this museum. Non-hockey fans can learn a lot about its history of this rink sport, which displays jerseys and other gear by greats such as Canadian’s Wayne Gretzky. It’s also where the Stanley Cup is kept along with other trophies. And the museum’s location is different too — on the lower level of a shopping mall.

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CN Tower
When completed in the mid-seventies, the CN Tower was once both the world’s tallest tower and free standing structure. A general ticket takes you up the glass elevator straight up 1,136 feet – or 346 m – to its Lookout Level. My friend and I decided to shell out more cash for extra admission to the Skypod, which takes you up an additional 329 feet to another lookout spot. The tower’s 360 Restaurant can be a bit pricey but its all-around window views are pretty nice. The very brave can go on the EdgeWalk, which leads them on a harnessed walk around on the outside of the tower.

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Toronto Islands
From the downtown area, catch the ferry or a water taxi to get to this collection of small islands neighboring Lake Ontario and get a glimpse of Toronto’s skyline. My friend and I explore on section of these islands with walkways to a pier and along various paths. From what I’ve read, among these islands you’ll also find an amusement park, a children’s garden, a petting farm and the Gibraltar Lighthouse.

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Fort York
It might be odd for a military fort to co-exist among modern-day buildings and a highway, but this National Landmark stands on the place where today’s Toronto was founded. At the times of its construction, the set of fortifications was built to safeguard the area from a potential naval attack – from the United States. The fort also was battered by forces during the War of 1812 and 1813 but was rebuilt a year later to hold off American forces.

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St. Lawrence Market
Unfortunately for me, the Saturday of our Memorial Day Weekend I planned to visit this food market it was closed (check hours as it is open at times). I ended up eating at Paddington’s Pump, a restaurant next to the market, but I got to peek inside of it. With a history going back two centuries, the inside of this walk-through place has three different buildings that service specific things like merchants or offices. South Market is where specialty vendors sells fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, grains, baked goods and dairy products.

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Kensington Market
St. Lawrence Market may be about tradition, but Kensington Market is more trendy. The scene around this area is like hipster meeting hippie. This Bohemian district has more of an urban feel with a collection of health food stores, tea/coffee shops and eateries ranging from perhaps a pizza joint and vegan bakery to a bagel shop and a store selling flavored popcorn. Mixed in between places to dine, find places to shop such as clothing boutiques or a used record store.

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Art Gallery of Ontario
As every major city has its share of museums, Toronto has a number of check out. We ended up seeing the Art Gallery of Ontario, which along with a neat acronym contains quite a collection of Canadian art. More specifically, it holds the works of a specific set of Canadian artists called the Group of Seven who focused on capturing their country’s landscape on canvas. There is also a children’s wing, where young visitors can appreciate art. Aside from AGO, consider the Royal Ontario Museum, which has an assortment of cultural and nature history displays. And the Bata Shoe Museum is all about footwear through the ages.

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Casa Loma
It’s a climb to get to Casa Loma, but this hilltop Gothic mansion is a fine example of a private home built to be a show place. Once owned by a financier named Henry Mill Pellatt and wife before the First World War, the costly project ended up being completed for then a whopping $3,500,000. But with hitting a financial slump, the Pellatts couldn’t afford to stay. They had to leave their home after not even living there for 10 years. After they moved out, the castle has had other uses by the Canadian military and as a film set. Remnants of high-end living are still displayed. Definitely get down to the lower level and follow a tunnel area to get to stables where antique cars like a Ford Model T are stored.

Product Review: Savvy Traveler Wipes and Safe-T Stepz

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Ever since TSA introduced the “3-1-1″ rule, it’s been a cramming of shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, body lotion, facial cleanser, deodorant, and moisturizer — and who knows what other necessity — in 1-quart-sized bag to get through security. It’s a squish.

Recently Savvy Traveler, a lifestyle products company, sent me samples of their various single-use wipe packets to try out. The wipes are marketed as an easier alternative to carrying on a bulky Ziploc or even having to pack it in a checked-in bag because you need that full tube of Colgate.

Savvy Traveler’s line of wipes cover all the bases and are claimed as being TSA compliant. Sold in 4-packs and priced at $9.99 each, the wipes extend to antiperspirants, face and hand/body wipes, and hand sanitizer, plus for cleaning glasses and screens. There’s even a mouth wipe you gently rub your teeth with for a cleaner feeling minus the toothbrush.

Although the $9.99 sticker might be a bit steep for some budgets (alas you can still get trial sizes in other ways), if you want to go bottle/tube free, the Savvy Traveler various wipes would work best.

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My assortment came in Savvy Traveler’s Liquid Kourage ($9.99) carry on bag, which fit all the six samples I got. The zippered pouch is see-through too so it should seem go through airport scanners with no problem, if you want to go beyond the sandwich bag. It’s also stylish.

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I also received Savvy Traveler’s Safe-T Stepz ($9.99). They are foot safety shields for use in situations where you’re still required to remove your shoes like at airport security. Each pack has four pairs and can fit up to a size 11. Press them on under socks or bare feet.

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From my experience, I can say that I found the adhesive on the Safe-T Stepz to be pretty strong. I put on a pair of shields under my bare feet and they stuck well but removing them was a bit of a pull. I tried another pair again but this time with some knee highs on; much better.

For more information about Savvy Traveler, and their other products, visit their website.