Wednesday, November 6, 2013

New Buffalo, South Haven, Saugatuck, & Fennville - Michigan

Part I: The University of Chicago Neuroscience Retreat in New Buffalo

Each year, before the fall quarter begins, the graduate program I'm in holds its neuroscience retreat for students, staff, and faculty.  Last year, we all went to Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, and this year, we went to New Buffalo in Michigan.  In an effort to ease the minor travel withdrawal I'm experiencing, I decided to stay in Michigan for a couple of extra days after the retreat ended para hacer turismo.  After the retreat, I continued up the western coast of Michigan to explore South Haven, Saugatuck, and Fennville.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bright and early on Thursday morning, we drove from Chicago to Michigan.  Having forgotten about the time change, I prepared myself for a nice, relaxing, long car ride.  Instead, we arrived about one hour after leaving.  For this year's neuroscience retreat, we all stayed at the Marina Grand Resort, which is conveniently located near the center of New Buffalo.  Driving in, we scouted out some artsy antique shops and adorable ice cream parlors to visit after the retreat.

Marina Grand Resort - New Buffalo, MI
Enjoying the perfect weather (really, it was perfect), I attended the university lunch and chose an outdoor table overlooking the other side of Lake Michigan, the harbor, and lots of boats.

Following lunch, I attended some seminars on a variety of neurotopics including sleep behavior in drosophila and empathy in rats.  At last year's retreat, after the seminars, I participated in a scavenger hunt and ended up winning an emergency inflatable brain.  (Yes, that is the sort of prize you get at a neuroscience retreat.)  This year, the program booked a kayaking tour for us!  After the talks ended, about forty of us piled into a bus and rode through the little town to the Galien River, where we paired up and stepped carefully into kayaks.

Kayaking on the Galien River
As Tahra and I kayaked and floated (mostly floated) around the river, we took in the scenery and, of course, snapped some photos.  Taking the time to get out of the city and place yourself in a natural landscape brings a welcome sense of relaxation.  I guess that's the actual purpose of a vacation.  At least, it's part of it.

Fortunately, Nicole, our program's fantastic administrator, left time in the schedule after kayaking for us to change clothes and clean ourselves up a bit.  She must have figured ahead of time that most of us would end up soaked in semi-icky looking river water.  Good planning.  Before dinner, we attended a poster session with appetizers and went strolling around the resort grounds.

As per retreat usual, the post-dinner plans included a neurofiesta, but this year some of us also went swimming and then up to the resort's very windy rooftop lounge to check out the stars and have a quick mini jam session. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

On Friday morning, I attended the university breakfast and more seminars.  This year, a former student who stayed in academic research was invited back to give a talk.  It's nice to see what students from my program end up doing after completing their Ph.D.  When the talks ended, we grabbed boxed lunches, took a few more pictures on the roof overlooking the harbor, and left the resort.

Before leaving New Buffalo, Tahra, Ben, and I decided to check out more of the town and some of those ice cream shops.  From a traveler's point of view, the cool part about the neuroscience retreat is that it gives you an excuse to get out of Chicago and explore scenic towns or cities within driving distance.  During the retreat, you mostly just see the resort (which is always lovely), and after the retreat ends on Friday, you have the whole weekend to continue exploring.  The university provides transportation to the retreat, but the advantage of driving there independently is that you can stick around the area longer and make a vacation.

Customs Imports - New Buffalo, MI
Our first stops in New Buffalo were to a variety of antique and art shops.  One called Customs Imports attracted our attention because of all the ethnic travel stuff placed outside between ceramics work and model skeletons.  The owner of the huge store explained to us that she and her business partner traveled all over the world and brought back art, accessories, and furniture to sell in their store.  We found just about everything you could imagine in this store - from fish wall hangings to paper globe lights to hand lotion.  Admittedly though, most of the fun of purchasing cool art from another country is going there yourself, taking a vacation, learning about the place and traditions there, and then bringing back your own momento.

Customs Imports - New Buffalo, MI
Still, since not everyone gets the opportunity to travel like that, it's nice that this shop brings some of the pieces home.  Often, when shopping in stores like this one, I find myself wondering how these little shops that sell things you only buy occasionally or never generate enough business to stay afloat.  Sure, it's wonderful to incorporate your passion into your store, but wouldn't it be more profitable to sell something people need and come back for again and again?  Regardless, the three of us had a blast digging through all the random stuff from around the world in this store.

Pumpkin Ice Cream at Oink's Dutch Treat

After checking out a few more antique shops, we decided it was finally time to test out the ice cream parlor we spotted on the way into town.  Oink's Dutch Treat Ice Cream & Yogurt Shop actually sells a flavor of ice cream I haven't seen anywhere else: pumpkin.  All over the walls, ice cream paraphernalia and pig toys fills your field of view.  Vintage toys cover every inch of this place.  Outside, there's even a parking spot reserved for Miss Piggy.  Walking in, I glanced at their homemade flavors and concoctions, and figured I would probably stick with my usual vanilla or oreo or coffee ice cream.  Honestly, when it comes to food, I'm a creature of habit.  You could make the best chocolate ice cream in the world, and I would still bet on a very high probability of me ordering vanilla.  Anyhow, I really like pumpkin, so I figured it would be ok to try a taste test of their pumpkin ice cream.  I hardly believe it, but somehow that little spoonful of orange ice cream convinced me to order an entire cone of pumpkin ice cream complete with cinnamon and nutmeg mixed in.  Mmmm.....

Oink's Dutch Treat - New Buffalo, MI
Part II - South Haven, Saugatuck, & Fennville

Sand Dunes at Van Buren State Park
From New Buffalo, Ben and I continued onto South Haven, stopping at Van Buren State Park's sand dunes along the way.  Somehow, I had this image in my mind of the Michigan and Indiana sand dunes that looked something like the Sahara.  I had always wondered how something like the Sahara could exist in the Midwest, the US's giant piece of farm land filled with nutrient-rich soil, not sand.  My question was quickly answered when we drove up to the bottom of a dune on a beach near the Michigan side of Lake Michigan: the dunes here are quite different from those in Africa.  That just makes so much more sense.  Though these dunes are quite different from the Sahara, they are still distinct from the rest of the Midwest farmland.  In the dunes, only plants adapted to harsh living conditions survive.  Some adaptations include holding onto water, perhaps by having a waxy coating on leaves to prevent evaporation and water loss.  Since sand shifts structurally, a successful plant on a dune will likely have an extensive root system in order to hold its land and itself in place.

Sand Dune at Van Buren State Park
All over, signs ask you not to disturb the sand and plants in order to help the park prevent erosion.  Sand doesn't form super stable structures, so I assume the park's goal was to maintain what structure they had.  Over time, a coastal dune undergoes many transitions as it changes from a beach to a forested area with large plants (photo above).  Closest to the water, you find a beach covered with sand, few plants (if any), and maybe some seashells (photo above, left side).  Next, according to a sign at the dune, you will find some small dunes and interdunal ponds.  Finally, the last step, farthest from the lake, is the backdune, which has the most plants and is the most vulnerable to human activity-related destruction (photo above, right side).

Van Buren State Park
Strolling along the beach, we took some shadow pictures in the sand, and eventually happened upon a section of the dune where climbing was permitted.  From the bottom, the dune didn't really look that tall, even for a Midwesterner.  However, as soon as I started climbing, I quickly realized that when the sand shifted under every step I took, it made the climb longer and more difficult.  Actually, about half way to the top, I was reminded of my trip to Guatemala in 2009 when I struggled through mountains of volcanic ash to climb the active Vulcan de Pacaya and see flowing lava.  When I finally reached the top of the dune, I stepped up to the top and suddenly noticed a very, very steep edge.  The side of the dune facing away from the lake plummeted rather immediately into rocks, trees, and a land-abyss whose bottom I was too timid to lean over and see.  After taking a bunch of pictures, we half stepped and half slid our feet back down the dune and continued the rest of the drive to South Haven.

The Beach - Van Buren State Park
In South Haven, we stayed at the Victoria Resort Bed & Breakfast.  The B&B is right near the center of South Haven, and the people who work there are friendly, helpful, enthusiastic, and everything you would want from the staff where you're staying.
South Haven Light House
They also cook a delicious breakfast each morning.  They gave us some dinner recommendations in the town and mentioned that if we ate quickly enough, we might have enough time to see the sunset over the lake.

Though I live right near Lake Michigan, I live on the side where you can only see the sunrise over the lake.  The likelihood of me being awake early enough to see the sunrise is....unlikely.  Besides, walking around Hyde Park in the dark is really unsafe anyways.  Pleasantly, South Haven is situated on the other side of the lake, where you can watch the sunset.  After dinner, we power walked over to the South Haven Light House and watched the sky change from light blue to dark blue with a mix of colors in between.  Every time I see a lighthouse, I wonder about all the stories where evil people hold lights in a harbor to guide boats in while pretending to be a lighthouse, and then they steal the boat.  Fortunately, this was a very real lighthouse, so I'm sure that doesn't happen here.

South Haven Light House
Back at the B&B, exhausted from a very full, super fun day, I confirmed my loose plan for the following day and drifted off to sleep.

Saturday, September 14, 2013 - South Haven

Fruit Wines - McIntosh Orchard and Wine Cellar
On Saturday morning, we drove out to the McIntosh Orchard and Wine Cellar, which is known for producing a variety of fruit wines as well as pickled asparagus, cider donuts, and fudge.  Strolling into the winery, we were invited over to the tasting bar, where we sampled strawberry wine, peach wine, blackberry, blushing bare wine (pear and cranberry mix), and a couple others.  Though fruit wine is a cool concept, I have to admit that most of the wines, particularly the strawberry, left an icky aftertaste and tasted like alcoholic jelly.  Since we weren't so into the wine, we switched to tasting the cider, which we liked, and then changed gears and went to check out the fudge and cider donuts.  As expected, both were delicious.  I decided to skip the pickled asparagus since it looked like a creepy thing you keep in a jar in one of those stereotypical haunted laboratory movies.  After splitting the donut, we drove around the corner to the apple orchard to pick some apples.

We realized we're really city people when upon climbing out of the car at the Overhiser Orchards, our eyes widened in amazement as we spotted a chicken frolicking through the parking lot.  I guess that's a normal sight for someone who lives around a petting zoo/farm/orchard.  When I was in elementary school, I held a Polish chicken at a petting zoo, but that day sums up all of my experience with live chickens.

Shortly after arriving, we hopped onto a golf cart-like vehicle and were driven over to the orchard where we decided to pick Honeycrisp apples.  Apple picking is great if you like to cook a lot with apples because most people get carried away and end up with about 20 pounds of apples.
That said, we only picked about five or six apples each, and decided to just eat them.  I have considered making cranberry applesauce this year for Thanksgiving, but that probably won't least not with the same set of apples.  As we reached up into the apple trees in search of the perfect fruit, the sweet scent of fresh apples overwhelmed us.  One interesting thing we noticed is that apples in an orchard look sort of dusty compared with grocery store apples.  They're also fresher and about half the price.

Before leaving the orchard, we went to check out the petting zoo.  The great thing about petting zoos is that the animals come right up to you because they all assume you have food for them.  We saw a mix of goats, geese, chickens, and I think an alpaca.  Around the cages, different signs displayed facts about the animals for visitors.  Interestingly, the goats seemed to hang around by their sign as if proudly showing off who they were.

Leaving the petting zoo and orchard, we decided to stop into some of the many antique shops we had passed before lunch.  In one memorable store, the owner sold tons of little glass bottles that looked like they hadn't been cleaned in about a decade.  The store was in an old barn with random barn pieces all over the place and bible quotations painted literally everywhere.
There was also a discarded, broken-looking toilet placed behind a semi-cutout wall in a pile of dirt.  We weren't sure what to make of that, but assumed it wasn't for sale.  Although, who knows?  In other shops, we found old books, garden pieces, picture frames, old hats, and other odds and ends you might expect to find in an antique shop.  In the last store we visited before hitting antique burnout, the owner recommended that we have lunch at Crane's Pie Pantry Restaurant & Bakery in Fennville, MI.

We put our name on the popular restaurant's long waiting list for a table and checked out the pies while waiting.  Everything in the town revolved around the theme of apples, which wasn't surprising because of all the u-pick apple orchards around.  With so many orchards, the restaurant comfortably served bottomless apple cider (yum!) and amazing apple pie (not bottomless).

Saturday Evening - Saugatuck

Our original plan for Saturday evening was to drive to Saugatuck and have dinner outside on the deck of The Butler.  However, we got sort of caught up in all the little shops and never made it there.  Strolling around, we noticed right away that Saugatuck is the home for a younger population than South Haven.  In South Haven, we felt unusually young and surrounded by people who were either well-established in their careers or retired.  Of course, living at a university probably skews my idea of a general population age, so all the middle aged and old people really stuck out to me.  In contrast, Saugatuck has a school - not something you find in a city of older folks.  It's a bigger city with a much more modern vibe that includes art galleries, touristy clothing shops, and trendy coffee shops.  Still Saugatuck isn't a college town by any standard; rather, it felt like more of a family place.

One store that really caught our eye was an art gallery that had a huge sign in the window announcing that their art was priced to sell and that the gallery was "going out for business".  Skeptically, I walked in, figuring that all the paintings lining the walls would still be hugely expensive because original art is expensive and that's how galleries work. To my great surprise, I found a series of square, abstract paintings on stretched canvases that were about four square feet each, and priced at about $68 down from $240.  Not bad!  As the prices increased, so did the sizes of the paintings and the percentage discount.  I picked out a textured abstract piece for a large, empty wall in my apartment.  Taking a road trip with all of your luggage and souvenirs in the car becomes a bit more crowded when you add two large paintings to the mix.  Fortunately, when I was younger, I took a road trip all the way to Arizona with my family, and we rode all the way back home with two large coffee tables on our laps.  Fitting the paintings in was really not a challenge compared to 1000+ miles with a coffee table on your lap.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

In the morning, we drove back to Fennville in search of an indoor activity because the forecast predicted lots of rain.  At the suggestion of the B&B, we decided to check out the Express Yourself Art Barn, a DIY art studio in a refurbished barn.  The art barn offers projects such as glass fusion, glazing ceramics, painting, and more, all at a variety of prices.  The owners train you quickly on the techniques you need for your project, finish it, and ship it to you.  Though the glass fusion pieces looked super cool, they were a little on the expensive side (because of the high quality of the materials), so we opted for the glazing instead.  As a student, I didn't want to make a large permanent piece for my apartment because I move so frequently, and wanted something versatile.  In the end, after checking out the shelves of platters and plates I could glaze, I decided on two outlet covers.  Certainly, I will always live somewhere with electricity, and as long as I live in the United States, these covers will have the correct shapes for the outlets.

Truffle tasting on the way back to Chicago

Painting the covers turned out the be the perfect therapeutic, relaxing way to close a perfect weekend.  On my first cover, I painted lightning bolts because it seemed appropriate for an electrical outlet, and on the other, I painted the Purkinje cells from the molecular layer of the cerebellum, a different sort of electrical circuit.  Of course, when I returned back to my lil' grad student apartment in Chicago, I found out that the odd, old building doesn't have regular outlets, but instead has a weird sort of power strip.  In any case, I'm confident that I will eventually live somewhere where I can use these.

¡Hasta luego, Michigan!


  1. Thanks, Buddy. I have also enjoyed your blog and will continue to check in to read your posts.

    1. Hi Mandy,

      I'm so glad you're enjoying my blog!

      Happy travels,