36 Hours in Saugatuck Part 1: The Anti-B&B

Saugatuck, Michigan, is an ideal weekend destination. It’s convenient—about a two-hour drive from Chicago—but far enough to feel like you’ve completely escaped the city’s reach.

The Saugatuck area, a rural beach town that survives on tourism, has its fair share of lodging options. While it’s awesome to escape the stresses of the city, it’s a shame to leave behind the city’s high standards of quality.

A stay at the Kirby means you don’t have to. It’s a breath of fresh air for anyone who wants the best of both worlds—the peace and quiet of a rural getaway, and the luxury comforts of an urban boutique hotel.

In 2014, a new Chicago-based owner purchased the historic building and gave it a top-notch renovation.

The Kirby is a B&B, but calling it that feels a little wrong. Inside the 125-year-old Victorian is a totally modern hotel that retains all of the character but none of the corniness of your average B&B.

The Kirby is kind of like an anti-B&B. Yes, you get a bed for the night and you a breakfast in the morning. But you’ll find no lace curtains. No floral bedspreads, no teddy bears, no rocking chairs, no potpourri. No innkeeper in a needlepoint apron asking too many questions with a too-big smile.

Instead, it’s all chic décor, neutral colors, flat screen TVs, and high-end bedding.

It’s comfort-oriented details like Malin & Goetz bath products, squishy bath mats, super soft robes, and memory foam mattresses.

It’s the bar stocked with good wine and craft beer, and the gourmet breakfast in the morning.

After our drive from the city Friday night, Mindy, the manager and host, treated us to an impressive wine and cheese tasting.

Cheese and wine tasting: Aged Manchego (Spain), Sweet Gorgonzola (Italy), Delice de Bourgogne triple cream, Cana de Cabra (Spain), Fig Jam (Portugal), Jamming with Marguerite’s Cider Jelly (Michigan), dried cherries (Michigan), Earl’s honey (Michigan), Marcona Almonds (Spain)

Mindy is a great host and an instant friend. A Chicagoan and longtime restaurateur, she is down-to-earth, attentive without being nosy, extremely knowledgeable about food and wine, and one of the nicest people we’ve met in our travels. She made us feel right at home.

If you’re looking for a typical country breakfast in the morning, go elsewhere. The Kirby’s chef, Chris, started us out with killer beignets baked fresh that morning, followed by poached eggs served atop crab cakes and pulled pork and potato latkes.

It was on par with any of Chicago’s great brunch spots. The dining room (soon to be a full-fledged restaurant serving dinner as well) has small private tables, meaning you can keep to yourself, if that’s what you prefer.

A lot of care has been put into making the Kirby stand apart and offer something new to visitors who want to get away from the city but still want sophistication and luxury. It’s at the top of the list in the Saugatuck area and we’re so glad we found it.

If you go:

  • Be sure to check out the acclaimed Oval Beach, which is right down the street from the Kirby.
  • The chef will accommodate any dietary restrictions.
  • Saugatuck and The Kirby are gay friendly.
  • We went in the off season and enjoyed an impressive amount of peace and quiet.
  • Check the Kirby’s Facebook page for special events and packages.
  • Guests can dine at the hotel, and the restaurant is scheduled to open to the general public in early March. In the meantime, check out the tasty menu.

Solo Travel: 36 Hours on Amelia Island

[In today’s post, Go Go Go’s New York correspondent Leslie Griffin goes solo and likes it.]

I’ve always enjoyed a little solo getaway, and sometimes circumstances require it as when your significant other is out of vacation days, and you have some left. This was the situation I found myself in recently, so after doing some research, I decided to go to Amelia Island in Florida for a long weekend.

As the trip neared, the forecast looked rather dismal. It had been raining pretty much nonstop for weeks, so I was prepared to find things to do inside if need be (tough on an island that’s known for outdoor pursuits). As luck would have it, however, the weather took a dramatic turn for the better on the very day I arrived, and remained gorgeous for the three days I was there: sunny, upper 70s, and not humid or buggy—a rarity in Florida.

I landed in Jacksonville on the first Saturday in October, picked up my rental car, and drove the 30 minutes to the island. Though it is an island, the bridge to get there is very short, so it almost feels connected to the mainland. And at first, the scenery is not what you might consider islandy. In fact, it looks like Anytown, USA with strip malls, fast food places, and gas stations. But then you arrive in Fernandina Beach, the main (only?) town on the island, and everything changes. Suddenly, you have entered a beautiful historic area with lovely Victorian houses and a quaint downtown.

 Lesesne House, c. 1860, downtown Fernandina Beach

This is definitely the area you want to stay in if you visit the island, because it’s within walking distance of dozens of restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s also extremely easy to navigate because all the streets are numbered. Coming from me, this is saying something because as anyone who knows me knows, nothing is easy for me to navigate since I have the world’s worst sense of direction.

 Downtown Fernandina Beach

It was too early to check into the Hampton Inn on S. 2nd Street, so I walked to Timoti’s Seafood Shak for lunch. I had read great things about this place before the trip, and was not disappointed. In fact, it was so good that I ate lunch there two days in a row. All of the seafood is fresh, local, and delicious, and I can heartily recommend the shrimp wrap and the fish sandwich (made with flounder that day).

After checking in at the hotel, I immediately set off for the southern end of the island about 12 miles away to go to Amelia Island State Park, which is one of many beaches on the island. Although this beach is primarily known for horseback riding, I didn’t see any horses. Mostly there were people fishing from the beach. The downside to this is that you’re allowed to drive onto the sand, so there were a lot of trucks everywhere. Not such a pristine atmosphere. It wasn’t until I walked quite a ways down the beach and reached a “no vehicles beyond this point” sign that it started to feel more secluded and peaceful. This section was filled with brown pelicans, black skimmers, gulls, and various other shorebirds.

Black skimmers at Amelia Island State Park

Done with the beach, I headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner at Le Clos, a charming French restaurant across the street from the Hampton Inn. I had made a reservation about a week in advance, which I certainly advise. It’s quite popular and for good reason: This is about as close to a 5-star meal as you will get on the island. I had panko-crusted grouper for an entree and creme brulee for dessert, both of which were phenomenal.

On Sunday, I had a kayaking trip booked with Up the Creek Xpeditions, which was a few miles off the island on Lofton Creek. When I showed up at the boat dock, I met Pete, my guide, and learned that it would just be the two of us on the tour since the others who had reserved for that day had canceled. I’ve kayaked before, but not extensively, so he gave me a short tutorial, and off we went. Lofton Creek is what’s known as a blackwater creek, meaning the water appears to be black and is highly reflective. It’s also extremely calm, which makes paddling about as easy as it can be.

Kayaking on Lofton Creek (Pete takes photos of the people he guides and e-mails the photos to you!)

Unfortunately, the water level was higher than normal that day, which seemed to deter animals from being out and about. We saw some turtles, a couple of kingfishers swooping across the water, and a giant hornet nest, but that was about it. It was still a lovely trip, though.

 Hornet nest

Pete provided a wealth of information on the flora and fauna as well as the history of the area. Did you know that the Native Americans used pine needle tea to help rid European sailors of scurvy? Or that on a visit to the area, Henry Ford noticed that the inside of Spanish moss looks like horsehair, so he began using it to stuff the seats of his cars? Neither did I, until Pete told me.

We finished the paddling trip in a little more than two hours, at which point I was ready to continue exploring. I drove to the northern end of Amelia Island to another state park: Fort Clinch. As the name suggests, the main point of interest in this park is the Civil War-era fort. Tourist season on the island is largely over by October, so there were only a handful of people roaming around the fort. Almost all of it is open, and you can freely wander in and out of various bastions, barracks, and other rooms.

Fort Clinch

From the top of any of the bastions, there are unobstructed views of the beach and the ocean.

View from the top of a bastion

In addition to the fort, this park also has a beach, and this one doesn’t allow vehicles on it. I walked along there for a while hunting specifically for shark teeth, which are supposed to be easier to find on the northern end of the island. I only found a couple, but the search is always fun. There weren’t as many shorebirds on this beach, but there were quite a few ospreys.

Osprey with a snack in its talons

Monday was my last day on the island, and I was determined to see more wildlife, so I headed to the Egans Creek Greenway, which is a series of interconnected trails that runs along a creek. There are numerous access points, but I opted to start at Atlantic Avenue on the northern end and work my way down. From this direction, the first section of trails up to Jasmine Street goes through a large wetland area with open marsh that is ideal for spotting wading birds.

Egans Creek Greenway

I saw egrets, great blue herons, white ibis, roseate spoonbills, hawks, and ospreys.

Great white egret with white ibises

After Jasmine Street, the wetland disappears and the trail hugs the creek. Trees line the bank, making it harder to see beyond that. Though the wading birds weren’t as prevalent here, I did see a couple of alligators, rabbits, dozens of turtles, a kingfisher, and a gorgeous pileated woodpecker.

I saw very few people on either section of the greenway, and the ones I did see were clearly locals walking their dogs and the like. I was the only person with a camera and binoculars in tow.

For lunch that day, I ate at the Salty Pelican in downtown Fernandina Beach, which had surprisingly great shrimp tacos. Despite being full, my final stop before heading to the airport was a roadside stand selling boiled peanuts. If you’re not familiar with this particular regional snack, it’s common in Florida and Georgia. A lot of people hate them (too mushy, too salty, or both), but I have very fond memories of eating them during car trips when I lived in Florida as a kid. So, I was pretty excited to relive that experience. For four bucks, I got a giant bag of hot, salty peanuts dripping with salt water, which I then devoured in a parking lot. I forgot how messy they are, but they still tasted great. A lovely parting memory before returning to New York.

Photo Log: 36 Hours in Pittsburgh

Yeah, I know. “36 hours in…” is the NY Times format. But we really did have just 36 hours in Pittsburgh, so let’s just call it an homage, shall we?

This trip came about when we decided to spend my 35th birthday at a Steelers preseason game. We took off from Chicago on Friday after work and headed east, across Indiana and Ohio and into the hills of Pennsylvania, arriving late.

Saturday, we started early to beat the hungry masses to Pamela’s Diner, famous for their crepe-style hotcakes: crispy, buttery edges, soft in the middle, and filled with your choice of fruit and whipped cream.

The Strip isn’t really what it sounds like. Rather, it’s a congested strip along Penn Ave packed with old Pittsburgh character in the form of eclectic shopping, cafes, grocers, farm stands, and bootleg Steelers fan gear.

I bought a Terrible Towel for $8, after checking to make sure “Terrible” was spelled correctly. (Once I got to the stadium I found they sold way nicer ones for $10, but mine has… character.)

Highlights of the Strip were the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a true Italian grocer, a stop at Enrico’s for some biscotti, and Mon Aimee Chocolat, which had the largest variety of chocolate brands I’ve ever seen in once place.

We moved on to Lawrenceville, an “up-and-coming” area that’s undergone a “revival.” Now it’s a “hot” destination and a good place to invest in real estate. It’s always interesting to see a neighborhood in transition, with old dive bars and pizza joints next to craft beer shops and trendy restaurants. Having seen our share of hipster boutiques and restaurants, we found ourselves more interested in the hilly residential streets, as the home styles are different than anything we have in Chicago.

Next we headed into downtown and grabbed lunch at Winghart’s in Market Square. Winghart’s… looks like a dive bar, sounds like a dive bar (think: old Metallica blasting), tastes pretty great. We had their popular Shipwrecked Burger and the Pau’a (Hawaii’an) Pizza, and I would order them both again if we went back. If you want to avoid the loud music, try for a seat on the upstairs balcony overlooking the square.

We walked off our lunch by heading on foot to Pointe State Park, where you can observe the confluence of the three rivers (the Ohio, the Allegheny, and the Monongahela), the sports stadiums, Mt. Washington, and the cityscape.

We continued on foot to the Duquesne Incline, an old cable car that takes riders to the top of Mt. Washington, high above the city, where you get to look down on the sky scrapers. It’s a short, 0.75-mile walk to the Monongahela Incline, which we took back down. While waiting in line, we noticed that you can request a free transfer for the T, the city’s rapid transit train. So we gave our feet a rest and hopped on the T at Station Square and rode it back downtown.

After getting what we needed for the game, we headed on foot across another bridge, this time to Heinz Field, home of the Steelers. Fans lucky enough to have a boat (or a friend with a boat) can dock right along the river walk and tailgate. The great thing about preseason is you can get pretty good seats!

Sunday morning we headed to Squirrel Hill, a nice little neighborhood with a to-die-for little place called Waffallonia. Gooey inside, crispy outside, topped with a giant scoop of speculoos ice cream. Nom. If we had one here in Chicago, I’d eat there all the time until I needed a motorized chair to get around. That place has ruined me for waffles.

We drove though Oakland, where the universities and museums live, but it was move-in day for the students, so it was a little hectic.

We moved on instead to the Mexican War Streets, which was a highlight. The man who developed this real estate in the mid 1800s was a big proponent of the Mexican-American War, hence the name of the neighborhood. The streets are named after battles. It’s a little visited area, despite its proximity to the National Aviary, the zoo, and the Andy Warhol museum.

It was noon, now, and time to head home. On our way back to Chicago we stopped at Cuyahoga Valley National Park, an hour and a half from Pittsburgh, which has a very nice waterfall (Brandywine Falls) and some nice trails we didn’t have time for, like the Ledges Trail. But I’m glad we got to stop at the closest national park to Chicago.

You can research the heck out of a place, but once you get there, it still holds a bit of surprise and delight when you see it in real life. The delights for me in Pittsburgh were the dramatic hills and cliffs and the buildings tucked into every nook and cranny. The expansiveness of the rivers was another surprise; they were easily 5 times as wide as our little Chicago River and were a dominating feature of the city’s geography.

It was a short weekend, but we really crammed in a lot, and I’m so glad I got to visit!

5 Things: Louisville, KY

Art for sale in the NuLu neighborhood.

Before venturing into Kentucky’s belly at Mammoth Cave National Park, we spent a day hoofing it (pun totally intended) around Louisville, the home of the Kentucky Derby. If you want to judge a city by the quality of its cat art, then I’m sure you can already tell that there’s more to Louisville than southern charm and bourbon. So here are five things you may not know about Louisville, a very worthy weekend destination.

  1. American Pickers’ Antique Archaeology (in Nashville), step aside. You’ve got nothing on Joe Ley Antiques, which lived in the East Market neighborhood long before it became the fun, foodie-oriented and arty NuLu. This place is freaking enormous. It should be featured on a TV show, if it hasn’t been already. It’s three stories—and a basement—packed with antiques and reclaimed pieces from some of the area’s old Victorian mansions (See #3.) If I lived in Louisville, I would set aside a couple hours each weekend to inspect one corner of Joe Ley. And in a few years time, I may have been able to cover the entire store.
  2. Colonel Sanders was a real guy, and he’s buried in Louisville.
  3. Old Louisville has the largest collection of Victorian homes in the country, with some blocks that are pedestrian-only courts still lit by gas lamps. It’s an area in transition, with some homes that look like this:And others that have been parsed out into low-cost rental units, with sports paraphernalia that double as drapes hanging in windows. These are a renovator’s dream. If you’ve got some spare cash and a good hammer, there are some serious investment deals to be had here.
  4. Keep Louisville Weird” is a thing. Particularly along Bardstown Rd in the Highlands neighborhood, a multi-mile stretch of one-of-a-kind shops that seem more suited to Austin than to a city steeped in southern tradition.
  5. Being from Chicago, we’ve had our fair share of tasty burgers (I’m looking at you, Au Cheval.) But we found some serious competition in an unlikely place. In a very suburban, tree-lined strip mall on the outskirts of Louisville, you’ll find the reputed Mussel & Burger Bar. If you go, try the Breakfast Burger, with a thick piece of pork belly, a fried egg, maple syrup aioli, caramelized onions, and cheese. Can a burger alone make a weekend getaway worthwhile? It just might.

Descending into Kentucky’s Belly: Mammoth Caves Wild Cave Tour

I’m straddled across a 3- or 4-foot wide canyon, 8 feet or so above the cave floor, and I’m stuck. My Siberian guardian angel, the exchange student who’s supposed to keep an eye out for the person behind her (me), is long gone, out of sight around a bend. The guides had told us to follow the footing of the person in front of us to navigate the canyon walk, so now I’m on my own for the next 20 feet or so, with a few others in the tour waiting patiently behind me while I hesitate. I have no choice but to plunge ahead and trust my experience and my footing.

This was just one example of the physical and mental challenges we faced during the Wild Cave Tour at Mammoth Caves National Park.

Mammoth Caves is in northwestern Kentucky, about an hour and a half south of Louisville. It’s the longest-known continuous cave system in the world, with 400 miles of connected passageways. Researchers believe there could be as many as 1,000 miles.

At most national parks, visitors are free to explore on their own. This is impossible at Mammoth Caves. To see them, you must take one of many guided tours. They range in length and difficulty, from easy strolls along wide paths, to the long and strenuous Wild Cave Tour, which is how I chose to spend a recent Sunday.

If you read the description of the Wild Cave Tour on the NPS website, you will likely react one of two ways—“I’ve GOT to do this!” or “I’d rather die.”

If small enclosed spaces, teetering on high ledges, or pushing your physical limits doesn’t appeal to you, maybe take a pass on this one.

Here’s how the tour goes: It’s 6 hours long and covers 5 miles about 300 feet underground. You are provided with helmets, headlamps, jumpsuits, gloves, and kneepads. You will wish you had elbow pads too.

To get through passages that are smaller than you are around, your guide will explain and then demonstrate moves you can’t believe you’ll have to emulate. And then, somehow, you do.

You crawl on hands and knees or army-style through long, narrow tunnels.

You wiggle and contort through tiny holes to emerge into enormous underground caverns that your headlamp can barely illuminate.

You wall-walk across a canyon and hoist yourself through holes in the ceiling well above your head. (If you’re short-legged, like I am, you’ll pretty much have to do the splits to manage this move. Not that I cannot do the splits. But I did them on Sunday.)

You pull yourself up by the arms onto ledges you can barely reach.

You hit your head. A lot.

You experience complete, utter darkness and the oppressive silence that can only be found deep within the Earth. No wind, no leaves rustling, no insects chirping. The silence is so thick it will feel heavy, like a weight on your chest.

You emerge dirty, sweaty, scratched, bruised, tired, and euphoric, in front of more than 100 visitors on one of the popular short tours, who stare in admiration at your group. They’re a little jealous, and you like it that way.

Near the tour’s end, the group inched, on our bellies, through one last 45-foot passage that was quite wide, but very, very low. “Decide now whether you want to look left, or look right, because you won’t be able to turn your head once you’re in there,” our guide advised.

The passage narrowed even more the further in we got, until a pinch point wedged my helmet between the rock above and the ground below.  For the second time on the tour, I hesitated, wondering how I’d get out of this one.

Inching backwards, I freed my helmet and tried again. Defeating the pinch point, I swung my legs up and log-rolled the last 15 feet, emerging dizzy, proud, and happy.

If you go:

The tour isn’t for everyone, but spots are in high demand. It runs only on the weekends and the group size is limited to 14, so book ahead if you want to go, especially in the summer months. The cave itself is between 55 and 60 degrees year round, though, so visit any time of year.

A Travel Catalog Inspired by Motion

In my very first post on this blog, I waxed poetic about Yosemite and mentioned a little TV show that inspired my first of many trips there:

Our first trip to Yosemite, before we spent a small fortune on gear!

“In 2010, I stumbled upon a tiny low-budget TV show on an offshoot of a major network, in which two brothers headed out to national parks with handheld HD video cameras to show viewers some of the best hikes in each park. I sat glued to the TV as the hosts hiked along the south rim of Yosemite National Park, peering into the famous valley below. My eyes were agog. My mouth gaped. It was love at first sight.”

The show is called Motion, and it airs on a little-known, little-watched network called Live Well, a subsidiary of ABC. The show is narrated by Greg Aiello, the world’s most likable guy. The camera work captures sweeping vistas and tiny details in HD, all set to a well-chosen musical number. No one I’ve talked to has ever heard of the Live Well Network. Not surprisingly, ABC is pulling the plug on it come January. And with it goes Motion.

It’s weird to admit that a television show has impacted my life importantly. Ninety-nine percent of TV is total crap. One percent, TV at its best, is entertaining or edifying. But

Motion goes beyond even that. In 30-minute episodes their cameras and humor have virtually brought many of the national parks into my living room and inspired real-life trips to these places. The show got me connected to nature, a connection that turned out to become a really important part of my life. Now I crave time in nature like a body craves nutrients.

This was the episode that started it all for me. As I started looking through the other episodes online, I was struck by the number of trips I’ve taken over the last four years  that were spurred to existence by Motion.

Today’s post is a catalog; a tribute to my friends at Motion. The links will take you to related Go Go Go content and to the Motion episode that inspired the trip. Check out the episodes of Motion so you can become a fan too, if you aren’t already. (You’ve still got 6 months to catch the show on the Live Well Network, too, if you can find the channel.)

Tunnel View, Yosemite National Park

After our first visit to Yosemite in 2010 (we’ve returned every year since), Motion inspired our southern Utah trip to Zion National Park, where we experienced the Narrows–hiking in the Virgin River through a slot canyon–and the snow-capped hoodoos in nearby Bryce Canyon National Park. Both parks are along Utah’s Route 12, a scenic byway with a nerve-wracking stretch called Hell’s Backbone.

The Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah

The amphitheater in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Hell’s Backbone, Route 12, Utah

Then they inspired this trip to Glacier National Park. Among the many spectacular hikes we did was 13.5 miles from the Gunsight trailhead to the Sperry Chalet, a backcountry lodge, through some of the most beautiful spots we’ve ever seen.

Comeau Pass, Glacier National Park

There was our trip to Hawaii, where we hiked a stretch of the famous Kalalau Trail on Kauai. We quite literally slid down the Sliding Sands Trail into Haleakala, an inactive volcanic crater. The trip was booked after seeing the amazing series of Hawaii episodes on Motion.

Summit of Haleakala, Maui

Our first trip to the Eastern Sierras in California, in which we visited the tufas at Mono Lake…

Mono Lake

…and the ghosts of Bodie, the largest remaining ghost town in the US? Inspired by Motion.

There was last year’s inaugural backpacking trip to Thousand Island Lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness near Yosemite (which you have read scarcely little about because we are still picking sand out of our various crevices). This route was inspired by Motion’s episodes on the John Muir Trail and the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Garnet Lake along the JMT in the Ansel Adams Wilderness

Solo trip to northern Wisconsin to kayak in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, on Lake Superior? Thanks for the idea, Motion!

Greg and the Motion crew have had the dream job that any fan of nature wishes she could have. To travel to the world’s most beautiful places and get paid to explore them? Lucky bastards. I’ve sufficed by living vicariously through them and doing my best to make many of those experiences—and myriad others—a reality. There are so many more places I’ve discovered in Motion episodes that are on my bucket list, so even as the show says good-bye in January, it will continue to provide years of inspired travels. So Motion, thanks for the memories—those past and those still to come!

Motion-inspired trips on my list:

  • Kenai Peninsula, Alaska
  • Olympic National Park, Washington
  • Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
  • Channel Islands, California
  • Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Arizona
  • Canyoneering in Escalante, Utah
  • Owens Valley, California
  • Point Reyes, California
  • Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
  • Acadia National Park, Maine

Go Go Go Recommends… Thrilling Drives

Go Go Go Recommends…

Driving a crazy curvy road. Come on, live a little. Tight switchbacks winding up the sides of mountains with death-defying drop-offs? That’s what I call fun.

Utah Route 12
In addition to the harrowing highways Conde Nast offers up in the link above, I also recommend Route 12 in southern Utah, which includes a lovely little stretch called Hell’s Backbone, with a steep incline and severe drop-offs on not one, but both sides, of the highway. Route 12 runs through some of my favorite places, including Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, pictured below.

The Road to Hana
Then there’s the famed Road to Hana, with over 600 curves, many of them single lanes around blind corners. Just go slow, use your ears as well as your eyes. Leave early, like we did, and you’ll barely see another soul.

The Backside of Haleakala
If you’re really cool, you’ll continue beyond Hana to make a loop around Maui by driving the backside of Haleakala, car rental restrictions be damned. (Most agencies forbid driving on this road. So if you get a flat, they won’t come get you. But, you know, whatevs. It was amazing.)