Wintertime Saugatuck may not be gay central, but it's still a great escape.
My friend and I departed for the gay-friendly villages of Douglas and Saugatuck on February 2. It was, after all, Groundhog Day, and since that little fucker saw his shadow, we were both in search of a way to cope with six more weeks of winter. Alas, neither of us had the bucks for sunnier climes, so we wondered if, in the dead of winter, Michigan’s ’mo mecca is still gay ground zero.
We set out early that morning for our nearly three-hour drive, circumnavigating Lake Michigan’s southern tip through the puffy smokestacks of Gary, Indiana, until we reached the Wolverine State’s snow-blanketed southwest coast. On saugatuck.com, I’d discovered that during the winter you can saddle up at Wild West Ranch (4horserides.com), have a community-theater moment at the Red Barn Playhouse (redbarnsaugatuck.com) or tackle sculpting at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (sc4a.org). But when we arrived at our bed and breakfast in Douglas, the only thing we really wanted to do was unwind.
At the Kirby House (294 Center St, 800-521-6473, kirbyhouse.com), a sprawling 19th-century Queen Anne that at midcentury functioned as the Douglas Community Hospital, we had the entire place to ourselves, with the exception of an elderly straight couple from Grand Rapids. While gay couples are all over the Kirby House during the summer, we were happy to have room to recline on antique Victorian furniture and listen to Paul and Mary prattle on about their grandkids.
We began the afternoon shopping in town, where the crunch of snow underfoot was the only sound we heard. Fortunately, most shops in Saugatuck and Douglas are open year-round (although many have limited winter hours). We looked for gay visitors everywhere we went, but besides a group of chirping middle-aged (and presumably straight) Midwesties, tourists were nowhere to be seen. Yet we did discover that many of the shopkeepers are openly gay.
Afterward, we proceeded to Mount Baldhead, Saugatuck’s highest point, where we climbed all 282 steps. The view from the top is breathtaking, and the splendor of the moment was punctuated only by the sound of young townies whizzing by on sleds.
Next we headed to Oval Beach, an incredibly beautiful spot that, during the summer, lures gay sunbathers by the hundreds. In winter, the scene is eerily still: The thump of techno music is absent, and no risky business goes on behind the hilly dunes. But the sunsets, at least on a sunny day, are not to be missed.
We had dinner in downtown Douglas at the Wild Dog Bar and Grille (24 Center St, 269-857-2519), a midpriced contemporary American restaurant with a roaring fire and an elegant safari theme. Things around here are so quiet this time of year, we couldn’t help but notice that—later on at the newly refurbished Lakeview Lanes (229 Center St, 269-857-4359)—half the restaurant’s patrons ended up bowling alongside us.
We thought for certain the legendary Dunes Resort (333 Blue Star Hwy, 269-857-1401, douglasdunes.com) would be empty; the expansive hotel rolls motel rooms, cottages, a bunk house, café, swimming pool, cabaret, nightclub and cruising grounds all into one. Instead, we were delighted to find that this was where the gays were hiding. While far from pulsating, the Dunes hosted a combination of locals and visitors from as far away as Austin, Texas.
We ended the night by soaking in the hot tub at our B&B, feeling like giddy Icelanders as we sat neck-deep in piping- hot water. The next morning, we awoke late to a candlelit home-cooked breakfast of eggs Benedict, roasted hash browns and baked apple pancakes, a daily tradition at the Kirby House. As we pulled out of town, we felt assured that, even during the area’s quietest and coldest moments, gay life is alive and well in southwest Michigan.