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Michigan's 'Harbor Country' calls
By Mike Michaelson | Midwest Travel

Three Oaks is bicyclist friendly with a network of superb trails. It hosts the Apple Cider Century.

 

Froehlich's is ready for alfresco diners in Three Oaks.

 

Colorful floats are crowd-pleasers at Three Oaks' massive annual Flag Day parade.

 

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Published: 6/28/2008 11:44 AM

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Bicycles and bologna, parades and Prancer. For years these have been tourism staples of Three Oaks, Mich. (pop. 1,801).

They remain major draws, with an enticing network of bicycle trails through the rolling Berrien County countryside, along with Drier's Meat Market dating back to the Civil War. Three Oaks still boasts the nation's largest Flag Day parade and is remembered annually by screenings of "Prancer." Released in 1989 and shot largely on location in Three Oaks, this tale of a young girl who nurses a sick reindeer back to health has become a holiday movie classic. In recent years, Three Oaks has added interesting boutiques, alfresco dining and two innovative theaters that, respectively, present live performances and screen indie films.

Despite these expanded visitor attractions - and its reputation as an emerging arts community - Three Oaks remains the quintessential "Main Street" village. People are friendly and life seems unhurried as locals hang out at a small cafe and show up for band concerts on the village green. There is, however, a patina of high fashion in Three Oaks, with a shop or two that merchandises couture clothing and accessories.

Downtown, Froelich's offers fresh-baked bread, such as cracked corn, cinnamon, herbed cheese and crusty French loaves. Colleen Froehlich, who converted an empty building in the early 1990s, displays a vintage neon sign that had hung in her grandfather's grocery store. It is a lunchtime fixture for many locals and visitors who enjoy well-built sandwiches that include a version of New Orleans' muffuletta, slavered with green-olive salad. Homemade jams include tart cherry, apricot, Concord grape and that inimitable combo of strawberry and rhubarb.

Another "must" stop is Drier's, which looks as a meat market should, with sawdust on the floor and rings of bologna on display, along with liver sausage and lean, lightly smoked hams (perfect for the holidays and special occasions). It was founded by the late Ed Drier, beloved for his sense of humor and Burma Shave-style roadside slogans, and now is run by daughter Carolyn. Originally a wagon repair shop, the building was converted to a butcher shop in 1875 and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. Eclectic decor includes a display of vintage butchering tools as well as a Bill Blass rhinestone apron and a cowboy hat sent by satisfied customer Larry Hagman, who played J.R. in the TV soap "Dallas."

Vickers Theatre also has an equine background, having served as a livery stable in the 1890s and converted to a cinema in 1911. Restored and reopened in the 1990s, it sports an art deco California-style look and functions as an arts theater screening indie films. It is where you're likely to find movies such as Sundance Film Festival selections "Son of Rambow" and "Smart People" and events such as Tribute to the Oscars.

Three Oaks' other theater, Acorn Theater, makes adaptive use of the Warren Featherbone Factory, which in the late 19th century revolutionized women's foundation garments by replacing whalebone corset stays with a substance made from the heavy quill feathers of turkeys. Today, this charming theater offers wide-ranging fare that includes the likes of internationally known guitarist Fareed Haque and folk legend Corky Siegel. The theater also showcases vaudevillian-style comedy and magic and performances by opera divas and jazz greats, including an Aug. 22 appearance by noted jazz vocalist Spider Saloff. Adjoining the theater is a shop offering wine and related gifts.

Four Winds Casino Resort is new and large - with 130,000 square feet of gaming space with 3,000 slots and 100 table games, plus three restaurants, including an upscale steakhouse and a 165-room hotel with 98 suites. It claims that if transported to Las Vegas, it would rank as the second-largest casino there. Certainly, this casino doesn't seem intrusive, tucked into the farmland south of town, with access via a tree-lined country road.

As you prepare to explore Harbor Country, check into the new Marina Grand Resort, a stylish and immensely comfortable condo-hotel complex. It hugs the shore of a large marina and features a pool and sun deck, complimentary breakfast (featuring a specialty egg dish) and complimentary loaner bicycles. Its Bentwood Tavern puts a spin on fashionable gastro pub fare, featuring wood-fired pizzas, seafood, steaks, chops and savory chicken dishes.

The hotel adjoins a sister property, Harbor Grand, which also is a good lodging choice, attractively appointed in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie School. It features harbor-view rooms with fireplaces and whirlpool tubs, plus an indoor pool and - as the ultimate gas-saver - a rack of bicycles for guest use.

Bicyclists are attracted to Harbor Country by a superb network of marked trails with routes ranging from 10 to 60 miles through the forest, orchards, vineyards and Lake Michigan shoreline. Pick up a map of the Backroads Bikeway from the Three Oaks Spokes and make a note to enter the Apple Cider Century, a major event on bicyclists' calendars. Held in October, it attracts 7,000 pedalers who receive a spaghetti dinner and sleeping space at a local school.

Looking for a farmers market that's also a garden center? Follow the Blue Arrow Highway to tiny Sawyer, which itself is enjoying a mild renaissance. Check out the colorful floral sprawl of Sawyer Garden Center where you'll find seasonal fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus, rhubarb and peaches, and also a wine shop (with 400 different selections), a large gift store and cooking demonstrations on weekend afternoons.

Information: Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council, (269) 925-6301, www.swmichigan.org; Travel Michigan, (888) 784-7328, www.michigan.org.

Mileage: Three Oaks is about 75 miles east of Chicago.

MikeMichaelson is a travel writer based in Chicago and the author of the guidebook "Chicago's Best-Kept Secrets."