I generally don’t go too far while visiting here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but we did venture out a few days. One evening we drove to Rockford, Michigan about a half hour from central GR. The town is charming with wonderful little shops and eateries. Piped-in music charms you as you stroll along the streets.
I came here as a child to tour the Hushpuppy factory that has now been dismantled. I remember the tour as a fun and interesting experience, but with the work outsourced to China the shoe factory is no more and only a partial wall from the factory and an outlet store remain. It is not all bad news. The Grand River, the longest river in the state of Michigan-it also runs through Grand Rapids- which runs along the former factory site is much cleaner now and the town no longer smells like a tannery.
We are here for the evening to share an outdoor concert with my cousins Jim and Kris at the city park-Garden Park Stage- along the Grand River. This iconic summertime event (a similar event is held in my home city of West University Place in June-just too hot in July) is held weekly and lasts through August in Rockford. The concert is free and features local bands. Just pull up a chair or a kayak and enjoy the concert.
The river and dam is on one side and the bike path (that goes all the way from GR to Cadillac, MI) on the other side of the small park. Cross the bike path and visit one of the many takeout eateries (or sit-in on their riverside porch) if you haven’t brought your own goodies from home. Our selection-“Rockford dogs” from Dam Dogs (very good, but I had never had a hot dog where they chopped the pickles into small pieces that completely covered the top of the bun) before the music started and cones from the next door creamery during the break. You can visit with your group, wander around and talk to friends, dance to the music, or meet the town commissioner dressed as a blues brother as he mingles with the crowd.
This is quintessential American summer stuff with hot dogs, ice cream, bicycles, and even girl scouts selling cookies.
The setting features twin dams in the Grand River and a lovely new park where I saw a couple having their engagement pictures taken. Many of the concert goers choose to enjoy the music from the water sitting in a kayak they have brought from home or rented on the ramp just behind the stage.
It had been a warm day, but we had an excellent spot under a tree. At concert close, it was just starting to get a little cool, but you still didn’t need a jacket. A small temporary carnival was set up a couple of blocks down which made the parking a little tougher, but otherwise it was a perfect evening. We stayed through the entire concert; it is still hard for me to realize that it doesn’t even get dark here until 10 pm.
We drove back to Jim and Kris’ house and mom wanted to try out one of their kayaks so we could join the concert goers on the water next time. I didn’t bother to point out that it would help if she knew how to swim before she ventured into the middle of the river to watch the concert.
Hard to beat an outdoor concert in the summer, whether you are watching it from dry land or from the water.
Kris is the expert on booking camping locations. She and Jim will spend about half their summer weekends and several weeks camping out across the state. One of their favorite places is Hoffmaster State Park near Muskegon and about 45 minutes from central GR. My uncle has a park pass and often goes there just to read in the wonderful setting. He suggested we make a day of it. Although we got a later start that expected (we were all up late last night watching the NBA playoffs), before heading to the park we drove to Muskegon to check out a favorite bar-b-que spot of my Uncle’s.
US 31 Bar-B-Que has been at the same location for 52 years and 5 generations of the same family have worked there. When I read the restaurant’s history-on a sheet of paper placed under the glass on our table top along with family pictures-I asked our server if she was part of the family. Turns out her grandfather was the founder, her brother was cooking the meat that day, and her mom was behind the counter filling orders.
You could get a pork, beef, and/or ham sandwich. Our server said the pork and ham combo was her favorite. She said the beef was particularly good that day, so I tried that knowing my uncle was getting the pork and I could try a bite. No this is not Texas Bar-b-gue. The sauce, a secret family relish, was completely different and fabulous. The server put it on side for me since I had tried it before, but I ended up scooping it all on. The beef was wonderful; the pork was even better. I had mine with fries, but you could also get chips or a cup of soup. If you still had room, there was a great pie selection or try one of the several varies of baklava that they serve. My original was great. The food is absolutely worth a drive over to Muskegon.
The family was very nice and invited me to place a sticker on their map showing where I was from. They also agreed to a picture US 31 Bar-B-Que is small; there are only a few booths and counter seats. Be prepared to wait during prime times. Large groups would find dine in difficult- try ordering to go).
As much as I loved US 31 Bar-B-Que, Muskegon doesn’t have a lot to recommend it as a city. It appeared a dying town, with lots of for sale signs on homes and businesses alike. Muskegon is the largest city of the eastern shore line of Lake Michigan, built on the fur and lumber trade (a few of the lumber barons’ mansions still line the main street). They work at attracting tourism to a town where the factories have pulled out and people are out of work. To that end, there is a submarine museum, Michigan’s largest amusement and water park, and several beaches.
Nearby was our ultimate destination, P J. Hoffmaster State Park with 3 miles of shoreline, dune overlooks, almost 300 modern campsites, gorgeous beaches, and swimming. There is also hiking, cross country skiing in winter,a visitor center modern bathroom facilities, and changing rooms. There are no life guard for the swimming, but a flag indicates the safety rating of the water for swimming. There are even complimentary life jackets for your use.
My uncle drove to his favorite spot with picnic tables along side the forest and parking lot, changing rooms, and most importantly beach access. He was content to sit in a lawn chair under the trees after showing me the beach. Mom sat up at the top of lookout, not wanting to venture into the sand. I found the beach wonderful. There was a cooling breeze, but not so much as to make it cold or to kick up too much sand. The sand was beautiful, clean, and deep. There were people soaking up the sun and families enjoying play time on the beach. In spite of the red flag recommending no swimming, there were children playing in the water. I did dip my feet into the water; it was extremely cold.
The beach was a great place to relax. Even when I wasn’t looking at the gorgeous view of the water, I could still hear the sound of the waves as I flipped through my magazines. I sat for hours until my lack of sunscreen drove me back to the car. I could have made a complete day of it.
Headed out of the park, we stopped at Whippi Dip for ice cream. I just had to-what a great name! It is even listed in 365 Things to Do in Western Michigan. If you had forgotten your picnic supplies, you could eat a full meal here and even get beach supplies. My mom loved the weather rock out by the picnic area with playground equipment. We hung around until after the evening traffic and then headed back to Grand Rapids.