Grand Rapids: A relaxed urban getaway

LA Times | Travel

I'm sitting with my wife on the fringe of Rosa Parks Circle as a multiracial band blasts bluesy tunes for a small but very receptive crowd--it's like a Dave Matthews concert in miniature--and it occurs to me that, for the slightly stressed, this western Michigan town represents the ideal urban ge...

By Phil Vettel // 08.12.09

I'm sitting with my wife on the fringe of Rosa Parks Circle as a multiracial band blasts bluesy tunes for a small but very receptive crowd--it's like a Dave Matthews concert in miniature--and it occurs to me that, for the slightly stressed, this western Michigan town represents the ideal urban getaway.

Because in Grand Rapids, you leave the city life without going too far in state of mind. Grand Rapids doesn't feel like a small town; it's bustling and busy and, in fact, the second-largest city in the state. It's also western Michigan's cultural epicenter, boasting a highly regarded symphony, several local theater ensembles and a ballet company. And some of those touring Broadway shows have Grand Rapids on their calendars as well.

So hunkering down for a long weekend doesn't involve any culture shock. The town has its funky neighborhoods, hip nightclubs, good restaurants, hometown brewery and cool museums.

It's a friendly town too. People smiled at me and said, "Go, Cubs," the morning I wore my Cubs T-shirt.

Then there is the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, the single biggest reason to put Grand Rapids on your must-visit list. Come for the park, stay in one of the downtown's grand hotels and rest assured that there are enough "other" things to fill up a loooong weekend. Or more.

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park:

When my wife and I unpacked our bags in our unbelievably gorgeous hotel room (more on that later), the first thing we did was check the weather report and figure out the optimum day to explore the Frederik Meijer (as in the mega-grocery chain) Gardens & Sculpture Park, because apart from the enormous greenhouse, everything to do there is outdoors.

As I paid for our tickets ($12 adults, $9 students and seniors, less for kids), I asked the woman at the desk, "So, what should I see here?"

"Well," she said, "we have a lovely cafeteria."

Cafeteria? Are you kidding?

She wasn't kidding. The cafeteria is clean and sunny and hopelessly neutral--except for the long Dale Chihuly art-glass sculpture snaking its way along the ceiling. This must be the only cafeteria that allows you to feast on a pre-wrapped tuna sandwich while sitting beneath a priceless work of art. So yes, check out the cafeteria. Just don't spend all day there.

Instead, meander through the greenhouse, marveling at the carnivorous-plant room and playing bird-watcher in the tropical conservatory, which also is home to many small, colorful birds. Outside are acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and arresting contemporary sculptures, including works by Henry Moore and Keith Haring. You can find them all by meandering along well-marked paths. Or, for $3, try a tram tour that takes in most of the sculptures and includes narrated explanations of same.

The park is great for kids; not only is there plenty of room to run around, but there's an enormous children's garden, with 10 themed garden areas, including a waist-high (for kids) water garden that depicts the Great Lakes.

And there's an amphitheater that hosts outdoor summer concerts, requiring separate admission. Kenny Rogers played there last week; Earl Scruggs and family will perform Thursday.

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, 1000 E. Beltline Ave. NE, 616-957-1580,

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum:

The Gerald Ford Museum, as the downtown maps abbreviate the name, is just across the Grand River, a block west of downtown. President Ford's grave is on the grounds.

Ford's political life was defined by scandals not of his making, from the bribery charges that forced Vice President Spiro Agnew to resign (Ford was appointed to succeed Agnew) to the Watergate scandal that brought about the resignation of President Richard Nixon, whom Ford followed into office. The museum displays dwell on these events at some length, not surprisingly, as well as the nation's culture at that time. The "Economy in Crisis" display details the mess of rising unemployment and high inflation that Ford inherited.

There also is a re-creation of the Oval Office as it appeared under Ford, an area dedicated to wife Betty Ford (particularly her fight for the Equal Rights Amendment) and occasional traveling exhibits. Considering that Ford's presidency lasted just 2½ years, there is a lot to see here; you get your $7 worth.

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum, 303 Pearl St., NW, 616-254-0400,

The B.O.B.:

The name stands for Big Old Building, a former warehouse converted into a multilevel venue packed with entertainment options. There are four restaurants, including a steakhouse, seafood restaurant, small-plates Asian resto-lounge and a pizza-and-pub-food joint called Bobarino's. There are two nightclubs, the high-energy Crush and the very intimate Eve. And there also are a microbrewery and a comedy club. Live music is featured regularly, and there are various happy-hour and other promotions. It's very much the premier destination in these parts.

I didn't eat at the B.O.B., but we did have a drink late one night on the Bobarino's rooftop lounge. The weather was nice, and the crowd, mostly young but not entirely so, was mellow.

And I thought, not for the first time that weekend: I could get used to this.

If you go

Getting around:

Navigating the Grand Rapids area by car is a snap, but the downtown area is extremely walkable; most of the cultural sites and a great deal of shopping, dining and entertaining options can be found in the six-by-six-block square bounded by Michigan Street, Fulton Street, Division Avenue and the west bank of the Grand River.

Where to stay:

The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel (187 Monroe Ave. NW, 616-774-2000, is one of the most recognized sights in downtown Grand Rapids. It began life in 1913 as the Pantlind Hotel and eventually was acquired by Amway, which restored the original Pantlind and added a 27-story glass tower to the property. If you are looking for a ritzy place to stay, it's the Amway Grand Plaza, followed by the JW Marriott (the first JW in the Midwest) a block south.

I was able to find an Amway Internet rate of $189 for the weekend (it dropped to $169 for Saturday night), which isn't bad given the spacious room, excellent beds, wide-screen TVs, marble bath and upscale amenities. My rate seemed like a downright bargain when I was upgraded to a suite because a convention took all the smaller rooms (thank you, Piano Technicians Guild).

Where to eat:

Taking its name from the year the original Pantlind Hotel was constructed, the 1913 Room in the Amway Grand is the hotel's culinary jewel, a low-lit, hushed-tones dining room with formal service and a jackets-required dress code. The expensive menu (most entrees $34-$39) is classic French--sauce perigueux under the veal tenderloin, a foie-gras emulsion gracing a glorious rack of lamb--but offers contemporary twists, such as foie-gras torchon with bruleed banana and a ceviche of sea scallops. The must-have item is the Forbidden Apple dessert, a clever trompe l'oeil of chocolate ice cream and chocolate sauce.

The 27 Cygnus in the contemporary part of the Amway Grand is perched on the 27th floor of the glass tower, with glass walls that offer the best possible views of the river and the Grand Rapids skyline. True, it's not the most compelling view in the world (though the Gerald Ford Museum is illuminated in appealing blue lights), but 27 Cygnus offers its own enticements, including several happy-hour specials, a contemporary-American menu with a full slate of sushi options, and eye candy in the form of the smartly dressed clientele. If you want to dine with a sunset view, this is the place to do it.

The Bull's Head Tavern, 188 Monroe Ave. NW. 616-454-3580, The sign outside this pub, across the street from the Amway Grand, depicts a bull rhinoceros, rather than one of those grazing-with- the-cattle bulls. No matter. Modestly priced pub food and prime location (it's an easy walk to the city's prime cultural and sporting venues) are the draws.

Corez Wine Bar & Restaurant, 919 Cherry St., 616-855-2310, This is a full-service restaurant in the East Hills neighborhood, but it's a great place for a midafternoon wine and cheese break too, especially on the sunny porch overlooking the sidewalk. There is a nice list of wines with meticulous descriptions, and at least a half dozen cheeses to choose from. Corez stays open late too.

Founders Brewing Co., 235 Grandville Ave., 616-776-1195, This sprawling warehouse just south of downtown offers a wide range of home-brewed beers, available in various pours, bottles and even (some) in take-home growlers. The food side of the menu is a bit lacking, although if you're in the mood for a hefty sandwich, you'll be fine.

San Chez, 38 W. Fulton St., 616-774-8272, A local food writer tells me this is the only tapas restaurant in western Michigan, a claim impossible to verify. I can say it's a pretty good tapas restaurant, a two-level space bedazzled with tiles and a sound system that's more fond of alt-rock than Spanish tunes. Highlights of the thorough menu include marinated artichoke hearts with pimento peppers and a well-garlicked aioli, and sea scallops with roasted asparagus, romesco sauce and Marcona almonds. Lots to drink here, including very good sangria.

Tre Cugini, 122 Monroe Center St. NW, 616-235-9339, I loved this charming space, which combines family atmosphere (the name means "three cousins") with a sophisticated Italian menu. But what really made the experience was the strolling accordionist (Friday nights) and the wonderful tortellini in brodo (meat-filled pasta in broth), quail with white beans and lobster risotto.

Other places of interest:

Rosa Parks Circle, Monroe Avenue at Monroe Center Street. There's always something going on at this public park. Designed by artist Maya Lin, the park is a refrigerated ice rink in the winter and an open-air music venue in the summer, when there's free entertainment almost every night.

Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center, 616-831-1000, GRAM is as well known for its building (the world's first LEED Gold-certified Museum, recognizing green building practices) as it is for its collection of modern art. Small but mighty.

Fifth Third Ballpark, 4500 W. River Drive, Comstock Park, MI, 616-784-4131, Grand Rapids is home to the West Michigan Whitecaps, a class A baseball team that plays the likes of the Kane County Cougars (Chicago suburbs), Peoria Chiefs (Cubs affiliate) and the Lansing Lugnuts. But the team, which plays at Fifth Third Ballpark a couple of miles out of town, has gotten the most press for its Fifth Third Burger, an absurdly large publicity stunt of a burger introduced this season. The $20 burger weighs 4 pounds and checks in at 4,800 calories.

Farmers Market, Fulton Street near Fuller Avenue. Open four days a week, this market consists of a narrow lane, two blocks long, packed with locally grown produce, baked goods, flowers and more. It pulls in big crowds, especially Saturdays. It's several miles east of downtown but worth the drive.