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St Joseph

5 Nov

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From the tip of the Mitten to the cuff, there is no shortage of charming little towns along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Today we’re about 190 miles west of Detroit in the city of St. Joseph.  It’s locale, about 90 miles northeast of Chicago, made it a huge tourist destination complete with miles of sandy beachfront and an amusement park back in the day. This lovely port town sits on a bluff overlooking the lake, a pair of lighthouses flank the St Joseph River; inland some of the country’s finest orchards and vineyards cover the rolling countryside. This is the largest non-citrus fruit-growing region in the nation. Every summer tourists swarm the city; they swim in the cool blue water, shop in unique boutiques, eat ice cream and fudge and watch spectacular sunsets. At this time of year the bulk of tourists have gone home, there are no lines, we share tree-lined streets with locals and parking is easy.

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The first order of business is lunch; we prefer someplace with a scenic view, Schu’s on Pleasant Street is perfect. The restaurant has an old-school, resort town feel; lots of wood, a stone fireplace, an upside down boat dangles from the ceiling, and of course, it has a view of the water. Service is speedy and friendly, before we know it we’re enjoying a delicious burger cooked perfectly medium with a pile of crispy fries. When we’re finished I grab my umbrella out of the Jeep and we take a stroll through town. Rain has begun, we duck into Cafe Tosi to grab a coffee, the caramel bomb looks too good to resist, I meet Kris at the table with our drinks, a sweet treat and two forks. The sunny yellow interior is opposite of the dreary scene out the window. The place is buzzing with activity, everybody seems to know each other, I like that. When I think of St Joseph one of the first things that comes to mind is the elegant Maids Of The Mist Fountain. Cherubs join two female statues nicknamed Constance and Hope sitting beneath the largest of three basins as water cascades into the pool below; I really love these old fountains. Built in 1872 by JW Fiske Ironworks of NYC, the owner of the Whitcomb Hotel purchased it out of Chicago and moved it to Lake Bluff Park in 1892, it has become a city landmark.

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By the time we’re finished the rain has stopped; time to explore. Many of the storefronts look unchanged, flowerpots are filled with colorful blooms, water bowls offer furry friends a little refreshment. In and out of shops we go, Michigan-themed shirts, hats, bags and drinkware are found in Lazy Daisy. There’s a cool consignment shop called Re Imagine filled with do-dads, art and craft supplies, fun gifts, repurposed items, jams and honey. The whimsical cows of the ‘cow parade’ make me smile. A couple of shops offer wine tastings from local vineyards, South Bend Chocolate Company has all kinds of chocolate treats, cakes and cheesecakes. No Michigan tourist town is legit without a Kilwins, I can smell the fudge from the sidewalk; this one is doing a brisk business today. We find the antique shops in town have a nice selection of Mid Century Modern pieces. In addition to furniture and accessories this one has a fantastic collection of cameras tucked snugly into wooden cubbies. The only brand names I recognize are Polaroid and Kodak. They have some great movie cameras too along with vintage advertisements.

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Black Rose Jewelry’s storefront is gorgeous; black vitrolite and unique showcase windows that you only find in a jewelry store. I wonder if this has always been a jewelry store. I imagine many businesses have come and gone through the decades. Perennial Accents is a good example, now a kitchen-goods store filled with gadgets, small appliances, linens, colanders and graters, a brass plaque on the floor tells us this was originally Gillespies Drugstore in 1866. Schaller Gallery housed in an attractive brick building sells fabulous handmade pottery. White walls and simple tables and shelves allow the pottery to get all the attention. Teapots, dishes, mugs are all beautiful, you can eat off of art. Our favorite building is an old bank that houses Wanderlust, an outdoor apparel and gear store. We go inside to see if any of the old architecture remains, we’re delighted to find thick moldings, columns and original ceiling details. The coolest part is the safes, they’re gorgeous! Look at the hinges, gears, decorative patterns everywhere, they use some of them for dressing rooms–makes me want to try something on.

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 In 1891 the Silver Beach Amusement Park opened on the land between the lake and the mouth of the St Joseph River, think Coney Island in NY; rides, concessions, games of chance, bumper cars and a boardwalk; they added a roller coaster in 1904 called Chase Through The Clouds. In 1910 a carousel was brought in; 44 hand-carved, life-like horses; it was hugely popular.The carousel operated continuously until 1971 when the amusement park closed. Today thanks to the dedication and fundraising ability of the Silver Beach Carousel Society a replica carousel has been placed at Silver Beach Center, an entertainment center below the bluff just yards from Lake Michigan’s Silver Beach. We park in the center’s lot, the building is part museum, part activity center. Inside large black and white photos and memorabilia  give us a peek at Silver Beach in its heyday; crowds of people on the beach, a rollercoaster, rides and several buildings including Shadowland Ballroom which opened in 1927; a caption reads “This place was so cool”.  People came by car and train to this amazing summer play land. Next we check out the carousel, in operation since 2010, it was built by Carousel works in Mansfield OH. There are only a few riders this afternoon. We watch as bejeweled horses rise and fall to old-fashioned music, there’s a serpent and a peacock chariot for those who prefer an even ride. Rounding boards around the top depict historical themes of southwest Michigan; computer graphics artists created the boards using a montage of colorized, historic photos. Around the carousel we find vintage cars from rides, penny arcade machines and a gypsy who will tell us our fortune for pocket change.

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We only have 1 day in St Joseph so we’re trying to do as much as possible. This area of Michigan is largely agricultural, grapes are plentiful, which means so is wine. The northern route of the Makers Trail runs through Stevensville, St. Joseph, Benton Harbor, Coloma and Watervliet. Let’s start with Karma Vista Vineyard and Winery. The view of the vineyard and farm from the tasting room is outstanding. Light rain continues to fall across the landscape, it feels good to be inside. I head straight to the counter to do a tasting, Kris looks around a little taking photos out the large windows, you can see the tractor marks in the freshly mowed lawn, vines are dense with leaves and heavy with dark clusters of grapes. With Kris’s help I taste about 6 different wines, I’m impresses with their Cabernet; I like all of them, seriously. I choose a few bottles to take home and we’re off to the next winery.

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Vineyard 2121 is on Red Arrow Highway, it’s pretty popular on this late Friday afternoon. Wooden steps lead us from the gravel parking lot to the red-sided tasting room. There’s live music on the far side, there are 2 open seats at the circular bar. A group of girlfriends have gathered for a bite of food and glasses of wine. I order a glass of white wine and sip on it while checking out the merchandise; they have many varieties of wine along with t-shirts, glasses, all the usual things one finds at a winery. As we drive to the next place we pass rows and rows of grapevines, they are loaded with fruit, part of me just wants to stop and pick a grape and eat it straight from the vine. It’s harvest season, someone told us that on a nice day an enticing grape scent fills the air–like smelling grape juice. Speaking of grape juice, this is where a lot of the grapes are grown for Welch’s Grape juice.

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12 Corners Vineyards is my favorite winery of the day. The cozy interior has a knotty pine ceiling, large wooden beams and a stunning view of the vineyard. It’s a big place; there are a couple of bars for tasting, cafe tables for drinking and rack after rack of Estate and Ice Wine, oh and Big Daddy Hard Cider too. I check out the tasting menu, it’s a long list. People around us are super-friendly and share tips on their favorites. We tried a little of everything; red, white and fruit wines. When we were finished and making our decision on what to purchase they served us each a piece of chocolate from Vineyards Chocolate, wine and chocolate? It doesn’t get better than this! 

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