Michigan outdoors: beer, Bavaria and beyond

Peter Jackson
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“I guess you’re wondering about all the white crosses on people’s lawns,” the girl said.

My wife had noticed them. My vision’s not so good.

There was, of course, a story behind them.

A few years ago, an atheist moved to Frankenmuth. He was upset the town crest contained a cross against a heart-shaped background — a nod to the town’s Lutheran heritage.

To Mr. Atheist, it was a blatant violation of the separation of church and state. He launched a grievance and forced the town to remove a couple of prominent signs. In protest, the townsfolk erected white crosses on their properties. Apparently suffocated by all the Christian zealotry, the godless interloper packed up and left.

“Walk,” the other girl commanded to our horse, Gus. Gus was trying to catch up to the buggy ahead of us. She tugged the reins to slow him down.

And that was our little nighttime tour of one of Michigan’s most curious tourist traps. Frankenmuth, just south of Saginaw, is often called Michigan’s Little Bavaria.

We felt bad for Gus and the other horse. The sun had set but it was still quite muggy. The young guides had buckets of water waiting for the thirsty beasts when they arrived back at the Bavarian Inn after each promenade.

We were a little oppressed ourselves, having just stuffed ourselves on schnitzel, sauerbraten and beer served by young staff dressed in dirndls and lederhosen.

The Bavarian Inn is owned by the Zehnder family, who has pretty well owned the town for the past century. They turned it into a heritage village, with the Bavarian Inn and its 12 German-themed dining rooms serving as its business hub.

The other main attraction in Frankenmuth is Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, open all year round. The day we left, it wasn’t open till noon. We didn’t have enough time to wait around. I was glad. Christmas in July was a disturbing prospect.

So, we left this enchanting, yet oddly unsettling community to reach our primary destination: Lake Michigan.

Striking similarities

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the Great Lakes region. Huge “islands” of water surrounded by land, it is the very inverse of The Newfoundland experience. Yet in many ways, it is quite similar.

This was our first trip to the shores of Lake Michigan and it turned out to be a worthwhile adventure. We camped with dear friends and family at Petoskey in the northern part of the state, where an expansive sandy beach rivals those of most tropical climes. After one searing hot day, a late-night dip felt like a comfortable soak in a tub.

We visited quaint resort towns like Charlevoix and Harbor Springs, sharing midday meals and shopping in boutiques.

We drove to Mackinaw City and strolled its long strand of tourist shops — a disproportionate number of them dealing exclusively in fudge, for which the region is reportedly famous.

And we crossed the mighty Mackinac Bridge to camp a couple of days on the north shore of Lake Michigan. Just off the highway, an unserviced campground offered a serene vantage point to take in Hog Island, a small sanctuary teeming with gulls, terns and ducks. On occasion, an eagle will sail into the fray and cause a cacophony of protest.

At night, we sat around a fire, chatting, laughing and singing songs.

And then, far too soon, it was time to leave our four companions and drive back to Canada.

Scanning radio stations in the car, we learned one other thing: Michigan rocks. Every station seems intent on capturing the perfect retro party mix, with little variation. This is the home state, after all, of Kid Rock, that tattooed archetype of the talentless rock star, a bikini-clad bimbo under each arm.

Then there are the country music stations, where if you don't like the chap singing, “I’m pretty good at drinkin’ beer,” you can listen to a lovestruck songstress croon, “I love the gap between your teeth.”

After our lakeside rendezvous, living the simple life, those lyrics truly spoke to us.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Bavarian Inn

Geographic location: Michigan, Frankenmuth, Saginaw Lake Michigan Lake Michigan.Striking Great Lakes Charlevoix Mackinaw City Hog Island

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