Roadside America: St. Joseph, Michigan

Growing up in Boston and later Tucson, I grew up going on beach vacations in New England and California. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a decade ago that I discovered America’s “Third Coast” (the Great Lakes, for our purposes, though some call the Gulf states the Third Coast) in the Midwest. Visiting my in-laws in St. Joseph, Michigan, I was amazed to see that you don’t need to go to the edges of the country to experience sand between your toes, eat an ice cream on the boardwalk, and swim out further than your parents can see you. The Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph is a resort town from way back in the midst of a comeback, striking the rare balance between charming and twee.

Each year that I’ve visited St. Joseph, the town has evolved and improved into a destination worth visiting beyond a quick side trip from Chicago. The waterfront parks have been revitalized in recent years, and the beaches are so wide and sandy, you could forget you aren’t on an ocean. St. Joe and its sister city Benton Harbor are under two hours from Chicago, as well as an easy drive from other Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, in what has been called the “Riviera of the Midwest.”Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, residents recently had hoped to revive the old Chicago-St. Joseph ferry that carried thousands to the beach in the 1920s heyday, but the venture proved too costly. Land remains the only approach, although there is a trans-Lake Michigan ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon in the summer season, about 90 miles north of St. Joe. Amtrak makes the trip an hour and forty minutes from Chicago daily if you’d prefer not to get caught in traffic.

This area of Michigan is also famed for its produce, owing to the “lake effect” on the climate, helping to produce what is arguably the world’s best fruit. From June to November, you can taste many varieties at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, one of the oldest and largest seller-to-buyer produce markets in America. Excellent fruit means excellent wine as well, and you can visit over a dozen wineries within a dozen miles of St. Joseph. You can also sample Michigan flavors at the annual Harvest Festival and regular farmers markets in the summer season.

In addition to the cute shops and a good selection of restaurants, St. Joseph has a budding arts scene anchored by the Krasl Art Center, which holds a major art fair each summer. The new pride of St. Joe is the Silver Beach area just below downtown. The historic Silver Beach Carousel was first opened in 1910 and re-opened 100 years later after the park had deteriorated and closed in the early ’70s. You can ride the carousel year-round, but go in the summer for the optimum effect, when you can finish out a day at the beach with one of Michigan’s famed sunsets and think about how soon you can return.

[flickr image via Molechaser]

Roadside America: Drinkin’ Moonshine In The Cornfields Of Culpeper, Virginia

Chuck Miller not only speaks in the same Southern twang as Jed Clampett from “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but he kind of looks like him, too. Dressed in a straw cowboy hat and a button-up shirt tucked into his jeans, the silver mustachioed farmer’s destiny, however, didn’t lie in black gold – instead it was in corn whiskey.

Along with his wife Jeanette, Miller owns Belmont Farm Distillery, where he produces a true American spirit: moonshine. The homemade corn whiskey is made in the Appalachian tradition using a recipe passed down from his grandfather, a real bootlegger who supplied thirsty flappers with the drink during Prohibition.

Unlike his grandfather, however, Miller’s moonshine is legal. It’s even sold in Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) stores throughout Virginia. Even better, this concoction is as straight-from-the-source as you can get; every single ingredient in the hooch is grown right on the Miller’s 189-acre farm. Even the leftovers are used to feed the livestock at the farm, which is why Miller explained they have very “happy cows.”

“We make it all the way from scratch, and we use the old time methods,” explained Miller, the master moonshine distiller.

Even though you can purchase Miller’s corn whiskey in stores throughout the country (and in some cases abroad), one can only get a true taste for the spirit by visiting the distillery, which lies off a dusty road about 15 minutes from downtown Culpeper, Virginia.


The couple’s distillery sits in the middle of a cornfield and was built using the remains of a church that burned down in the 1960s. The only leftover evidence of the building’s former incarnation is a pair of peaked doors that lead to the gift shop and the start of a distillery tour, which is open to anyone who passes by.

If your lucky, Miller himself will lead you on the tour. As you wind your way through the tiny distillery, he’ll spout off facts about the Prohibition-era copper pot he uses and allow you to take a big whiff of the drink as it’s being made (if you can handle it, that is). You’ll also understand why this drink became known as “white lighting,” a nickname given because it’s bottled straight from the still without any aging. This method was developed so that bootleggers – including Miller’s grandfather – would be able to produce the spirit quickly.

But just because Miller’s moonshine is made quickly doesn’t mean it’s made with any less expertise or enthusiasm, a fact that becomes immediately clear within moments of stepping into the distillery. Miller himself has encyclopedic knowledge of the drink.

“The first time corn whiskey was ever made was in 1612 at the Jamestown Colony,” explained Miller as he bounced around from machine to machine. “The settlers had the technology, and the Indians had the corn.”

As you’ll see on the tour, the resulting spirit is clear like a vodka and although it smells a bit like rubbing alcohol, it goes down smoother than many other whiskies. And even though the drink is technically a whiskey, this is one place that you won’t find on the American Whiskey Trail.

“We asked to be on the Whiskey Trail, but they didn’t think moonshine was suitable,” said Miller with a smile. “So if you see any of those Whiskey Trail people you tell them they’re missing a big thing!”

Tours of Belmont Farm Distillery are offered Tuesday through Saturday from April 1 through December 24. Groups of 12 or less depart every 15 minutes.

[Photo by Libby Zay]

Roadside America: Marietta, Ohio

Marietta, Ohio, is your quintessential small town. With a population that wavers around 15,000 and a little liberal arts college, Marietta College, nested within the downtown perimeters, Marietta is a quiet escape, especially for those spending time in the relatively larger nearby cities of Columbus, Pittsburgh or Cleveland.

As the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory, history often guides the sightseeing in Marietta. Established in 1788, reflections on Marietta made by famous historical figures are readily recited by schoolteachers. President George Washington remarked on the beauty he had seen in this area in 1788 when he said, “No colony in America was ever settled under such favorable auspices as that which has just commenced at the Muskingum … If I was a young man, just preparing to begin the world, or if advanced in life and had a family to make provision for, I know of no country where I should rather fix my habitation …” Benjamin Franklin acknowledged Marietta’s beauty a year earlier though and said, “I have never seen a grander river in all my life.” But Marietta’s historical intrigues extend beyond the settling of the area for the Northwest Territory.The Native Americans, primarily Shawnee, were settled in the region of Marietta prior to 1788. The large, still-standing burial mound, which is the oldest west of the Appalachians, is erected in the middle of Mound Cemetery. Many Revolutionary Soldiers, including Rufus Putnam, are buried within the cemetery. Mound Cemetery is now a must-see attraction when visiting Marietta, but the town’s attractions aren’t limited to the history books.

Marietta was built at the confluence of two rivers, the Ohio and the Muskingum. The town is nestled into the Appalachians and so if Ohio makes you think of flat cornfields as far as the eye can see, you’re not thinking of Marietta. Just across the river is West Virginia and like West Virginia, Marietta is marked by the dramatic slopes of the hills. Because of the rivers and the low mountains, Marietta is a great destination for outdoors enthusiasts. Whether you’re hiking, biking, or water-skiing, it’s nice to be outside in Marietta. But the town is also recommended for those who are drawn to antiques and haunted tours. There are a few good restaurants and bars in town and a strong arts community that keeps the town interesting with concerts and art walks, among other activities.

If you manage to make it to Marietta, here are some recommendations from a person who grew up there (me).

The Lafayette Hotel
The Brewery
The Adelphia Music Hall
Rinks Flea Market
Downtown Shopping
Sternwheel Festival

[flickr image via gb_packards]

Roadside America: Annapolis

An Annapolis native rolls their eyes when dining out of state and they’re informed that a restaurant has “really good crab cakes.” They can tell the season by the color of a midshipman’s (Naval Academy student) uniform, and inform you that a “Johnny” is not a young boy but a student at the town’s other university, St. John’s.

So who better to tell you about this scenic state capital than a local? We can’t think of anyone either. Here’s the down and dirty on our hometown.

An easy day-trip drive from cities like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and an equally simple overnight for those from as far away as Philadelphia and Richmond, the lure of this historic town is simple: water, water everywhere.

Want to visit Annapolis? Here’s what you need to know.

Play Tourist:

Start your trip downtown at the docks. Dubbed “Ego Alley,” the main city dock has dozens of large boats that pull up each day. It’s fun for spectating, and there’s plenty of seating for those who want to enjoy a cold beverage or ice cream cone. You can also catch a $13 waterfront cruise from City Dock, a great way to see the town by water.

Next, walk up Main Street, popping in and out of boutiques as you like – you’ll find a lot of souvenir shops but also some clothing stores, galleries and even national vendors like Sperry and Helly Hansen. When you reach the top of the street, head to the right, around Church Circle, and continue on to State Circle. You can then take a walk down Maryland Avenue, which is heavy on the design boutiques and art galleries. From here, you can reach one of the minor gates of the United States Naval Academy. During daylight hours, you can walk on to the campus by showing your ID. You can stroll the grounds, visit the chapel and stop by the Visitors center, which offers a number of free exhibits. Guided tours are available until 3 p.m. and are $9.50 for adults.
When you stroll out the front gates again, you’ll pretty much be right back where you started – and it’s time for a cocktail!

If you’re visiting during the late spring, summer, or early fall, you absolutely must experience crabs. Make the drive to Cantler’s if you’re in search of the steamed or soft shell variety. If you’d prefer a great crab cake, try O’Learys instead.

If you’re visiting on a day trip and are enjoying just a meal and a snack, we’d prefer to satisfy our cravings while on-the-go with a quick pit stop at Annapolis Ice Cream Company, which churns out the town’s best homemade treats in flavors like Mint Oreo and Apple Pie. If you’d rather sip your calories, the famed Chick & Ruth’s Delly features a 6-pound shake on the menu (yes, you may have seen it during an episode of “Man vs. Food”).

If you’re staying overnight, you’ll find that most bars along Main and West Streets cater to a casual crowd. Feel free to come in fresh from an afternoon on the boat and order a brew at McGarvey’s (where the Navy’s Blue Angels hang out when they’re in town) or the 250-year-old Middleton Tavern (order some oysters with your cocktail). Or, head to West Street and try the local brews at Rams Head Tavern, where you can frequently catch local and national musicians playing for the evening. For a true scenic dining experience, head across the water to the Severn Inn, which offers panoramic views of the bay and downtown.

For brunch, lovers of the casual will find a locals hangout at Boatyard Bar & Grill, just across the bridge in Eastport.

Tips for Day-Trippers:

  • Plan to do some walking. Finding a parking space downtown on weekends can be tough, so you’ll want to leave it in a public garage (there’s one on Main Street) or at your hotel if you can. Downtown is pretty walk-able, but you’ll want flat, comfortable shoes for the brick sidewalks.
  • Preppy chic is the dress code of choice for most Annapolis natives – most restaurants won’t require more than a collared shirt for dinner, although a blazer wouldn’t look out of place either.

[Flickr image via jeffweese]

World’s largest kaleidoscope near Woodstock, New York

While on a road trip, you’ve probably passed many an attraction that you’ve wondered about. Perhaps, you’ve thought, “Should I stop?” but didn’t because there’s that feeling of getting sucked into a tourist trap that’s not worth the effort of pulling over and parking.

The Kaatskill Kaleidoscope is one that is worth the effort, if you happen to be on your way to Woodstock, New York, or to the Museum of Bethel Woods at the place where Woodstock, the music festival happened–or just tootling around just outside of Kingston, New York. It is literally right off Rt. 28. The kaleidoscope is part of Emerson Place (formerly called Catskill Corners), a collection of higher end shops where you can pick up Catskill Mountain-made type products and a lot more besides. You can’t miss it.

A few years after my kaleidoscope experience, the connected Emerson Resort & Spa opened. The inn that used to be here was destroyed in a fire. From the resort’s description, it sounds like upscale has come to the area. If you’re looking to bask in luxury in the Catskills, this is it. Consider spa treatments, well-appointed rooms, 4-star rating, etc. etc. But back to the world’s largest kaleidoscope.

The kaleidoscope came about when the original owner wanted to do something spiffy and imaginative with a barn silo. Some sort of shop geared for tourists was in order for the attached barn, but the silo was calling out for something different. The size and shape, 38-feet-tall and 50-feet in diameter said, “kaleidoscope.” The result of the idea is a visual/sound experience for folks of all ages. When you step into the inside of the silo, you are stepping into the kaleidoscope. The top of the silo is where the magic happens. Through the use of projected moving images and mirrors, the world’s largest kaleidoscope replicates the kind that you hold against your eye and manipulate by turning your hand. The world’s largest is more fun, though, since you can lie on the floor and look up. If you don’t want to lie on the floor, you can lean against the wall and look up as well.

I remember lying head to head with my mom, my daugher, who was eight at the time and my mother’s best friend, splayed out in a circle like we were getting ready to do a June Taylor dance routine. I don’t remember exactly which show we saw, but I do remember that the images changed rapidly, just as if I was turning them myself. Very cool.

The show changes seasonally and each reflects the theme of the Catskills. While prices in most places tend to rise as years pass, the price of seeing the kaleidoscope show has gone down since I was there. It’s now $5 for adults. I paid at least $8. Children 12 and under are still free. You can’t get cheaper than free.

The reduced price does give you more dollars to spend in the gift shop which has probably the largest collection of kaleidoscopes in the world. They range in price from inexpensive to extremely pricey. Since my mom was along, my daughter got a better one than she would have been able to wheedle out of me.

Back when we were there we ate at the restaurant that was part of the complex, but according to Roadside America, the restaurant is no longer there, unless this has changed since 2004.