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Less than two hours from Chicago, the settlements of Harbor Country offer rural refuge and bucolic bliss along the shores of Lake Michigan for vacationers and city refugees alike.
Out of Chicago, past Gary and east across Indiana, skyscrapers, steel and city slowly fall away and in their place, rolling farms, lush trees and a slower pace take over. Just as soon as you’ve crossed into the Michigan mitt by way of US-12, you’ve found yourself in Michiana, the first town of Harbor Country, a string of eight towns that tumble into each other, one after another along Lake Michigan, with the old Red Arrow Highway as their main artery.
Long a vacation destination for Chicagoans fleeing the hot and busy city in the summer, Harbor Country’s towns – Michiana, Grand Beach, New Buffalo, Union Pier, Three Oaks, Lakeside, Harbert and Sawyer – are becoming permanent residences to many Windy City transplants who found themselves stretching their stays until eventually making the move year- round. With new urban residents, new urban shops and eateries have popped up throughout a part of the country known mostly for farmland and dunes.
The area has more than enough to offer for a weekend getaway. Morning should start early at local anchor Luisa’s Cafe and the 60-year-old Harbert Swedish Bakery. Luisa’s is the more recent addition to the long-standing bakery, and is the top stop for a breakfast and Intelligentsia coffee, free-range eggs and organic baked oatmeal. (NB: If you happen to arrive on Friday, an oven in the back turns out wood- fired pizzas from noon to 8:30 p.m. – Fridays only.)
Red Arrow Highway is dotted with antiques stores that have been there for ages, but among them a more curated, urbane version stands out. Just up the road from Luisa’s is Marco Polo, Brian Overly and Brian DeBaugh’s shop of 12 years. Antique copper calipers, 1860s astronomy prints, mid-century yellow chairs and a 19th-century baking trolley exemplify the European industrial and American cottage-style mix at this immaculately dressed store, where treasures from the past are made new again. Though Marco Polo stays open year-round, many places in the area still have seasonal, or weekend-only hours, and though many of the small cottages along the water have been replaced with large, year-round, insulated houses, a strong rain and wind storm can still seriously knock out power, paralyzing the small towns and closing roads with fallen trees and power lines.
Rabbit Run Inn is the place to be during such a storm, with a backup generator – a rarity in these parts – to keep things running. No surprise, as innkeepers Linda Jo and Rodney Clough have thought of nearly everything to make your stay at their idyllic four-room inn as comfortable, private and relaxing as possible. You’ll find orange juice and cream for coffee in your mini fridge for the next morning, ground coffee and espresso for the dual espresso/coffee machine by your mini bar, and baked goods delivered silently to your doorstep by 8 a.m. A deck out back looks onto a lily-padded koi pond and croaking bullfrogs. Linda Jo, an interior designer in her previous life, has put a well-edited, modern touch on everything, from super-soft sheets to rolled beach towels in the closets. Upon checking in, you’ll be given the couple’s favorite picks for dining and activities in the area, with helpful maps accompanying. Go by foot, and follow the Cloughs’ hand-drawn map and directions to walk north less than a mile to Warren Dunes State Park. Six miles of hiking trails weave throughout the park, which is dense with oak, maple, ash, and cottonwood trees, and filled with picnic tables and campsites. Hike to the peak of the dunes where the landscape opens for striking views a couple of hundred feet above the lake, or wander down to the expansive three-mile stretch of shoreline.
Refuel at Soe Café, a lunch and dinner locale in Sawyer just south of Rabbit Run Inn, with an impressive menu that pays homage to the rich agriculture of the area, using local farm produce, wines from nearby wineries Hickory Creek and Wyncroft, and brewed-in-Michigan beers.
From Soe, driving directly south on 3 Oaks Road, the afternoon calls for a relaxed stroll through Three Oaks, the only inland Harbor Country town. Impossibly charming, with century-old buildings and a train that passes through its heart, it is from another era. The old train depot, just east of the main drag of town, houses J.L. Powell, a menswear shop inspired by the sporting and gaming life: coyote throws, ostrich belts, Shetland wool sweaters, leather dog collars, and shirts and slacks in linens, washed twills and seersuckers. The shop’s decor – nautical maps, quail feathers, and hunting dogs – pair perfectly with the depot, with its pressed tin walls and ceilings and Teddy Roosevelt-era appointments.
In town along Elm Street is Drier’s Meat Market, offering smoked meats, cheeses and an aesthetic so striking “you kind of can’t believe it’s real,” according to a regular visitor. Just up the street is the café and deli Froehlich’s, where you’ll find a gorgeous array of their own preserves, pickles and pasta sauces crafted from organic tomatoes and other natural goodies grown in Three Oaks, as well as big Ball mason jars filled with housemade lemonade, and enormous rosemary flatbreads. The Vickers Theatre is a turn-of-the-century art film house, restored to its original splendour. If you don’t stop in for a film, stick your head in to ogle the beautiful architectural details. On the way out of town, you’ll see antique store Ipso Facto, which hawks large architectural artifacts, as well as interesting objects from the past century and Americana folk art.
As the day comes to a close in Harbor Country, the sunset over the lake tends to be the main attraction, but for a dinner and show in one, Fitzgerald’s in Sawyer is the place. The painted white building, with an outdoor patio covered in hanging lanterns and a menu of craft beers and comfort food (house-smoked pulled pork sandwiches, fish and chips, mac ’n cheese) transforms on the weekend nights to a spirited party of live music and dance, and tends to be the destination for area residents and visitors alike.
Though not one of the Harbor Country towns, Buchanan, which stretches straight east from New Buffalo about 30 km, is developing a small fan base who make the 30 minute drive through farm country to see its growing crop of stores and eat at the best restaurant in town, Wheatberry Restaurant and Tavern.
Driving east along Warren Woods Road toward Buchanan, you’ll pass farm after farm, witnessing one of the most agriculturally diverse lands in the country. The fields change from corn to wheat to soybeans to blueberries to vineyards to apple trees, for a total of more than 50 different crops. Farm market stands along the side of the road and U-Pick farms are everywhere; make a stop to gather apples as you make your way east. Warren Woods Road drops into Front Street, which cuts through Buchanan. A one-time mill city, the town was nearly entirely abandoned until this most recent revival. Chicago-based antiques stores like Alan Robandt and Thomas Jolly Home and Garden have opened up outposts. Modern and brightly hued home décor shop Front adds to the mix, making the trip well worth it for a well-rounded shopping excursion. Just out of the centre of town, Wheatberry Restaurant and Tavern sits along the picturesque St. Joseph River and offers locally sourced ingredients, fresh-caught fish and slow-smoked, award-winning ribs.
If you’ve filled up on barbecue at Wheatberry, walk it off through the trails of Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve, just north up Range Line Road in Niles. Since 1964, the preserve has been a destination to learn about horticulture and botany through the various gardens, including the Japanese, Boxwood, Herb and Sensory, and Fern gardens. Fernwood boasts more than 40 acres of ornamental trees and shrubs, all accessible via the marked trails that wind throughout the area. A five- acre Tallgrass Prairie shows off towering grasses and wildflowers, an idyllic autumn destination.
Though historically it has been a summer des- tination, the fall may be the most striking time to see southwestern Michigan: nature trails and dune walks with views of changing leaves and stretches of beach; apple and pumpkin gathering at U-Pick farms; weekend harvest celebrations at farms and wineries in the country. Within a short drive from Chicago (or via Amtrak from Chicago’s Union Station to downtown New Buffalo), Harbor Coun- try and its neighboring towns show off the best of Midwestern lake country.
Occupying that hip, edgy numerical area between the fairly bland 8 and the somewhat overbearing 10, this sterling men’s store has been supplying sartorial cognoscenti with belovedly off-centre labels – Martin Margiela, Band of Outsiders, Hamilton Shirts – for an integer-appropriate nine years.
And with discreet and discerning styling tips also part of the mix, you might arrive at sixes and sevens, but you’ll leave dressed to the nines.
1804 North Damen Avenue, (773) 395-2999
Chicago Midway International Airport (MDW) benefits from being just 9 km/6 miles away from the Loop.
Location of Porter check-in desk: concourse A.
Taxi US $30 to downtown. Car service approximately US $40.
Hertz is conveniently located outside the Chicago Midway International Airport passenger terminal building. The car rental shuttle is located on the Ground Transportation Level of the airport at Door 3.
Public transport to downtown includes CTA train (orange line), US $2.25. The CTA Orange line provides a direct rail link from Midway Airport to downtown Chicago. Upon arrival at Midway Airport, look for the “Train to the City” signs inside the terminal. The Orange Line makes stops throughout southwest Chicago and travels into The Loop (central business district), connecting travellers with the financial district and all of Chicago's major attractions.