I’ve tasted tasty brews in many odd places in my day, but a recent trip to Michigan revealed a new brew stop that I was just dying to try out.
Brewery Vivant, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is located in what used to be a funeral chapel. Too morbid? I think not. Jason Spaulding is the President of Brewery Vivant and he opened the super-popular New Holland Brewing Company in 1997. He later attended the Doemens Brewing Academy in Munich, Germany and traveled around Southern Belgium learning from other breweries along the way.
After returning to Michigan, a funeral chapel seemed like the perfect spot for a new brewery. This particular part of Grand Rapids is nicely walkable/bikeable with easy parking on side streets nearby.
Brewery Vivant was designed to remain small and specialized. It has a Belgian beer theme, which is what drew me here in the first place. Well that, and the possibility of chatting up the haunting spirits of wise Belgian brewing monks.
I stopped by early on a Friday evening and the place was already packed. There was a wait for a table, but since I just wanted to sample some brews, I made my way back to the less-crowded tasting room. Standing up to sip at the barrel tables was just what I needed after a long car ride.
Brewery Vivant has a 20-barrel brew kettle, several 20, 40, and 60-barrel fermentation tanks, and a couple maturation tanks. The brewers have been producing between 1,600 and 2,000 barrels in recent years.
As typical, I ordered a flight to sample what these monkish types had to offer. Flights were a bit pricey in my opinion – $10 for 4 of their standard brews or $12 for your choice of 4. The standard brews included a French-style Farmhouse Ale, a Belgian-style IPA, a Hoppy Belgo-American Red Ale, and a Belgian-style Dark Ale.
Triomphe, the IPA, and Undertaker, the Dark Ale, got my top two votes. To switch it up, I tried the Smoky Wheat, however, it really didn’t have the smokiness I was looking for at all. Pepper in the Rye was also drinkable, but not too memorable.
Slow jams played softly on the radio and lured me into filling a growler to accompany me back to the hotel. My growler fill of choice was the Triomphe Belgian IPA – refreshing with just enough full-bodied, hoppy flavor.
The main bar eerily resembled an alter, with a stained glass window as the centerpiece and a total church-like vibe. Although it was admittedly an intriguing use of space, I failed to encounter a single haunting experience. Perhaps it wasn’t the right cycle of the moon.
Funeral accommodations are turning into some of the most interesting food and drink establishments lately it seems. My family actually celebrated Easter a couple years ago by making lunch reservations at a funeral-home-turned-restaurant. Needless to say, some family members of younger years were more comfortable with the arrangement than others!
A couple people on Yelp raved about the bathroom sinks, which I found a bit odd. They’re the kind of sinks that look like a long slab of marble – or virtually no sink at all. A little unique, but I wouldn’t show up for the sink if you’re not a beer fan to begin with.
Grand Rapids is actually an awesome place to visit for craft beer fans – there’s Founders, HopCat , Harmony, Elk, Mitten, Hideout, B.O.B., the Grand Rapids Brewing Company in town as well. I’ve hit up a couple of these while passing through the area over the years, and I can’t recall much in the way of disappointment. And actually, in the last couple years it’s won a bunch of awards for being a top American beer town.
Here’s an ale trail map to guide you. Who needs GPS when you have cartoon pints in all directions?
Up until a few weeks ago, the longest bicycle journey I’d competed was about 50 miles, which isn’t all that impressive. The idea of biking with camping gear and pitching a tent after a long ride always appealed to me, but the logistics and mileage intimidated me equally.
But the opportunity finally presented itself. And every journey begins a little bit easier with a dose of liquid courage.
My 83-mile biking/camping adventure began at Founders Brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sure, I’ve been to my fair share of breweries before, but this one impressed me nonetheless. Founders takes up an entire block of the street across from a train station, and both the indoor and the outdoor spaces are enormous. There were tons of servers floating around, with multiple servers working patrons’ tables.
After a slight sandwich mix-up, I began feasting on my Stella Bleu, one many deli offerings. One sympathetic server even brought out a sample of porter to ease a nearby burning tongue. As typical, I ordered a beer flight to sample the local goods, including tiny pours of All Day IPA, Oatmeal Stout, Mosaic Promise, BA Sprite, and Curmudgeon. BA Sprite was my ultimate favorite – a pale ale aged in a bourbon barrel, buttery, but not overly rich.
But I didn’t linger because lots of pedaling was ahead of me.
White Pines State Park Trail
The journey began on White Pines State Park Trail, Michigan’s longest rail-trail – connecting five counties along 93.5 miles. Along this trail, you find open farmland, forests, swamps, and lots of little towns along the way.
From the city streets of Grand Rapids, I picked the trail up in Walker, where it was paved, wide, and uncrowded. The trail is a mix of ballast and blacktop, so my hybrid tires did just fine for most of it – “most” being the key word. More to come on that later.
After passing by Rockford Brewing Company, the trail becomes wooded, but fortunately not riddled with mosquitoes.
Keep an eye out for crossing turtles!
KC’s Ice Cream
With about 20 miles left to go on the first 40-mile leg of this journey, a magical place appeared between the trees. So I plopped my bike along the trail and sifted through the wildflowers to investigate.
KC’s ice cream shop is located along Main Street in Cedar Springs. They have a ton of unique flavors for cheap prices, and honestly, I probably won’t have made it any further without the generous helping I enjoyed atop a sugar cone.
With the taste of cherry cheesecake still on my tongue, I didn’t exactly anticipate what would happen next. My nicely paved path came to an abrupt halt five miles later, leaving me with a mess of sand, gravel, and rocks to bike on. I longed for my old mountain bike, while slow, durable under such conditions.
My pace slowed, my right knee began to ache, and my bitching level increased dramatically. The town of Howard City provided a temporary path relief, which ended just as quickly as it came up.
Mecosta Campground – Morley, Michigan
Before hitting the four-hour mark, I arrived at the Mecosta Campground in Morley, Michigan, a tiny town with less than 500 people. Mecosta is awesome because it only charges $10/person if you arrive on a bike. Otherwise it’s $26 for a rustic site and $34 for a hookup site.
There’s just something “hardcore” about arriving at a faraway destination on two wheels. Site #24 looked as good as any, and despite the sizable ant population, the tent remained pleasantly bug-free.
The campground had a decently-sized pool, but unfortunately no hot tub. That would have been quite lovely after 41.something miles. I took a quick dip, but was promptly joined by masses of screaming children. I abandoned my post and toweled off with a ringing in my ears.
Now here’s something you NEVER find at campgrounds…free mini golf! There were nine holes of mini golf located onsite, with free club and ball rentals. More campgrounds should really set this up!
Mecosta Campground was clean and easy to sleep in. It was unfortunate that there was only one bathroom for each gender onsite, however, the owners were in the process of building out a few more.
Mecosta’s owner recommended checking out Moe-Z-Inn for dinner. This was a solid recommendation, within walking/biking distance of the campground and with really delicious food. I got the lobster lasagna and downed every last bite. There’s a nice patio out back along the river if you don’t mind sharing the space with mosquitoes.
There isn’t a whole lot else to do in Morley, but there is gas station convenience store if you need to pick up some snacks or a cigar. Expect to see bored teenagers loitering and riding around on motorized bikes on summer evenings.
Satisfied with my brief stint in Morley, I hopped back on the trail the next morning to begin the return journey and complete this 83-mile adventure. The temperature was cooler and the sun was hiding, but rain was nowhere in sight.
As an alternative to 15-mile stretch of sand and gravel path, I opted to ride the first portion along the road for the way back. It was a two-lane road with a 55 MPH speed limit, but not too busy on a Sunday morning. That was definitely a good thing because there was essentially no shoulder, let alone a bike lane. Cars whizzed by, but were kind enough to move over the center line when passing.
The wonderfully-paved trail that I initially took for granted picked back up in Sand Lake, another tiny town along the way. From here, the pace picked up and it was smooth sailing.
Rockford Brewing Company
For one final hurrah, I stopped at the Rockford Brewing Company, about ten miles away from the initial starting point at Founders. One tip: don’t park your bike along the outside patio because you’ll probably get yelled at like I did. There are bike racks on the other side of the trail.
You can get a sampler of Rockford’s five standard beers for $7 and additional samples are $2 each. Top picks were the Rogue River Brown, which wasn’t that unique but well done, and the Ain’t Jemima, a cleverly-named maple sap beer that’s sweet, but not sweet enough to rot your teeth out. The Rockford Country Ale is also pretty good and reminded me of Two Brother’s farmhouse ale.
To refuel, I ordered a Stromboli with chips & salsa, but it appeared to have come pre-packaged from another eatery. Regardless, I was too starving to question its origin. The place has a great location along the trail, a chill vibe, and so-so service. A flyer informed me that they host live bands Thursday and Friday nights, but alas, the calendar and the stars did not align.
After the last leg of the journey, I arrived back at Founders Brewery to find Chief (my Jeep) safe and happily not towed. There are lots of other breweries in the downtown area of Grand Rapids to check out too if you’re still bent on soaking in a hot tub and willing to splurge for some well-deserved relaxation in a walking-distance hotel.
To date, this is my longest biking journey, and it showed me that I’m totally capable to doing more…after at least a week of cursing my bike and nursing my knee back to health, of course.
My mind wanders and becomes restless while I ride, but that’s good for me and I could probably use more of that kind of quiet time. The occasional ache and pain creeps up, but I’m still (relatively) young and healthy, so I need to take advantage of that while I can. And there are still lots of places to explore on two wheels.
^ In case you wondered, that’s what I look like riding a bike with camping gear. ^
For the past two years in a row, I’ve found myself perched on top of skis along the “coast” of Western Michigan. It’s not that I’m particularly partial to the area, but it does happen to be a great place to cross country ski.
Last Winter Skiing at Ludington State Park
The area around Ludington State Park also tends to have a fair bit of snow throughout the winter and locals post information about ski conditions online so you can plan ahead. Other considerations were northwestern Wisconsin, around Rhinelander, Wisconsin, Sturgeon Bay, and Manistee National Forest in Michigan. However, Ludington had snow and trail conditions yet once again.
The Gear Rental
Ludington isn’t a big town, so you don’t have a ton of gear rental options to choose from. The one that I’ve gone to twice now is Provisions Sport Shop. Their website leaves a lot to be desired and the staff is pretty clueless, but the equipment is quality and the prices are reasonable.
Regardless of what time you rent ski equipment, it’s considered a 24-hour rental and due back by the close of business the following day. The 24-hour rentals include skis, boots, and poles for $25 per person. The shop has lots of gear for sale too, in case you left any essentials behind. Hand warmers are key.
The State Park
Ludington State Park is the biggest state park along Lake Michigan, covering 5,300 acres in Mason County, 5.5 miles of Great Lake shoreline, and a 1,699 acre natural wilderness area. When they’re not covered in snow, you can see wind-blown sand dunes and gently-hilly pine tree forests.
Handy dandy park info board
This spot is clearly more popular in the summer than it is in the winter. There’s a large beach area and a couple campgrounds that only operate during the warmer months of the year. The park also has a 4-mile/3-hour canoe trail that with great signage to keep you on course, and there are a couple miles of bike trails that connect the campgrounds.
The Skiing Trails
The north ski trails include a 6-mile loop, and the south ski trails include four cross spurs that are all between 1.5 to 4 miles in length. The trail map is pretty straightforward, so first take a look:
However, there are some serious differences between the trails on here. For beginners, the best place to start is the Logging Trail (green), a 6-mile loop located at the north end of the park. The hills are gentle, the trail is wide, and you don’t have to worry about flying over protruding tree roots the whole time.
The Logging Trail
I first made the mistake of attempting the Ridge Trail (purple), which sits just east of the Logging Trail. The Ridge Trail is narrow, winding, and has tree roots sticking out pretty much the whole way. I encountered some local hikers at a particularly frustrating moment, who told me about a guy who broke his hip last week trying to ski that very trail. They suggested back-tracking a bit to the logging trail for my own safety and sanity. It was a wonderful suggestion.
If you travel south in the park, you’ll find the designated cross country ski trails of Jackpine Loop, Cedar Loop and Juniper Loop. When I visited the park in mid-December 2013, the road that led to these trails was closed and chained off to vehicular traffic. But on my second consecutive day of skiing, my curiosity got the better of me and I ventured towards these trails on foot with skis under my arm.
Alyssa v. trees on skis
Perhaps it was due to the new snow that had fallen the night before and that morning, but none of these trails were groomed and I never passed another single skier. I skied along the edge of the Jackpine Loop, fully around the Cedar Loop, and back out to the main road. These trails provided a completely different experience than the two I had skied the previous day.
Cedar Loop’s hills were more gentle, and this area of the park is much more wooded. It’s a really peaceful place. Tree roots weren’t a problem, and the trails were very well marked so I never took a wrong turn. I had to cut my own trail the whole way, which was a little tiring, but a great workout nonetheless.
The Trail Conditions
Unfortunately, this park doesn’t have it’s own fancy website that updates trail conditions on an obsessive-compulsive basis. However, if you’re not phone-shy, you can call up the Michigan DNR at (231) 843-2423 and ask how the trails are looking today and for the days ahead.
Another area that seems worth checking out is the Big M Cross Country Ski Trails. Big M’s website updates trail conditions every few days, which can give a general idea of how things are down in nearby Ludington. If anyone’s skied on these trails lately, I’d love to hear how they are!
Re-gloving at the trail warming shelter
One of the best parts of cross country skiing at Ludington State Park is the warming shelters. There’s on by the the parking lot at the trail head and there’s a several scattered along the trails as well. Most of these have fire pits, although you’d have to figure out a way to tote firewood on you back while skiing to use them.
Playing in snow is the only way to stay sane in the winter
Camping really isn’t an option in this area, as all the campgrounds shut down for the winter and honestly, it’s just too damn cold anyway. There are few things that feel better after a day in the snow than a warm, bubbly hot tub. Hot tub hotel options are somewhat limited in Ludington, so I’d suggest the Comfort Inn & Suites in nearby Pentwater, Michigan. The rooms are clean, the pool area isn’t very crowded, and you can crash for about $70 per night.
What are your favorite cities, states, and parks to cross country ski?