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Grand Rapids, Michigan: My Hometown

Author: sightseeingsue
Date of Trip: April 2006

Grand Rapids is a medium-size city with a huge heart, and Midwest Michigan’s fastest-growing travel destination.

Grand Rapids, or GR as us locals call it, is a perfect combination of cosmopolitan flair and Midwestern hospitality, making this a top tourist destination as well as a great place to live. Spending some time here, you will quickly discover why it has been called an “All-American City” three times. Located on the west side (the best side) of Michigan and roughly a 2.5 hour drive from Detroit, 3 hours from Chicago, and about 30 miles east of Lake Michigan, makes this a prime location for short or extensive stays.

Living here most of my life, I have watched this once third largest city rapidly explode into Michigan’s second largest city in a matter of years. GR encompasses an area of approximately 45 square miles with its city’s population around 197,800 (per the 200 census) and its metropolitan area nearing 1,000,000. The Grand River is our primary waterway that runs through town, and we are unfortunately ranked the 9th cloudiest city in the US. Our downtown has seen revitalization in the past few years, and now offers over 50 different restaurants, a bustling entertainment district, museums, sports/concert arena, hotels and a state of the art convention center amongst its list of attributes. Originally known as the “Furniture Capital” but now better known for its office furniture industries, it is home to many multi-national headquarters including Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, Alticor (formerly Amway), Wolverine World Wide and Meijer stores.

GR was the first city in the US to add fluoride to its drinking water in 1945 which has reduced cavities by over 60%. Other industries that were major producers include apples (largest in MI), peaches, celery, carrots, onions, corn, wheat and Christmas trees. We have also been noted by Fortune magazine as one of the Top 10 Best Cities for Business in the U.S.

A regular tradition in town is our Arts Festival held every first weekend in June, but we also offer other cultural festivals throughout the year. A visit to GR wouldn’t be the same without stopping at the Frederik Meijer Gardens/ Sculpture Park, or without playing a game of golf at one of our 28 public courses. Don’t miss out on our newest beach, Millennium Park, and do take a short drive to Lake Michigan for a day of shopping, sunning, boat watching, or to enjoy a meal. Grand Rapid truly is a medium-sized city with a huge heart.

Gerald Ford Presidential Museum/Library is a newly-expanded museum where you can step inside a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, see original Watergate burglar tools, as well as other exhibits of our 38th President’s life.GR was originally known as the “Furniture Capital” but now is more recognized for it’s office furniture industries. Located downtown and offering dozens of exhibits, some of which will give you a glimpse into the history of our city, is the VanAndel Museum.

Amway Grand Plaza is our most famous and swankiest hotel, andis located in the heart of downtown on the banks of the Grand River. This hotel has the only 5-star rated restaurant in Michigan — the “1913 room” — as well as several other great eateries. The BOB — short for “Big Old Building” is a must stop for a grand evening of dinner and entertainment. This converted warehouse, located across from the VanAndel Arena, offers several different restaurants and clubs on 4 floors. So, whether you are looking for a place to dine, a place to do a little dancing, or want to catch a comedy show, you will find it here.

The VanAndel Arena is a 12,000 plus seat (not a bad seat-in-the house) arena that has drawn concert performances from top-named artists, housed big named family shows, held numerous seminars, rodeos or monster truck shows, and is home to Rampage Football and our Griffin’s Hockey teams, making this a first-rate facility. If you are in town for one of these events, you will probably end up at this venue.

We just refer to the “Art Festival”as the “Festival” and the locals know exactly which one we are referring to, as we hold several throughout the year. The Arts is our biggy and draws huge crowds each year. A better name for it should be called the Foods-n-Arts festival it offers numerous ethnic food booths, sure to satisfy anyone’s taste buds. This festival is also a place for local musicians, performers (dancers, singers, artist, storytellers) to showcase their talents each year.

The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is astate-of-the-art, 125-acre park that holds one of the most comprehensive sculpture collection around and with one of its most famous being the “Leonardo da Vinci horse”. It also offers numerous gardens, the largest tropical conservatory in Michigan, and in the summer holds concerts held in its outdoor amphitheater. A must see while in town. Please, don’t let the cloudy days scare you away!

The Gerald Ford International airport is served by eight passenger airlines with nonstop flights to 16 major cities. It is conveniently located near I-96 and M-6, and only a short distance from US-131. Short-term, long-term, express shuttle, and valet parking are all available. They offer four on-airport car rentals with other car rental and limo services available via the transportation board. A taxi ride will set you back around $30 for a trip to downtown GR, but several downtown hotels offer shuttle service for your convenience as well.

Several major freeways encircle Grand Rapids, one being the interstate I-96 which if you are going west on ends near Spring Lake, and if going east takes you towards Detroit. I-196 runs off from I-96 and goes through town (you can hook up to N/S-131 at the river from this freeway) and continues on until ending up near Holland. M-6 our newest by-pass freeway can be picked up from I-96 near Lowell, and taken to N/S-131 near 68th St. (south of town) or continue on until hooking up with I-196 towards Holland. A frequently traveled road is the East-Beltine but actually runs north and south rather than east and west. Take this road south and you will end up on one of the busiest road in GR called 28th Street. Here you will find everything, and anything and all the major chain hotels/restaurants, except a hospital. We rarely experience traffic jams unless an accident has taken place, but the freeways do get congested during the early morning rush and evening compute. We do get a fair amount of snow and ice (being on the fringe of the snow-belt) during the winter months, but with our experienced, hard working road crews we find that the roads are quickly salted and plowed when needed. We also now offer many walking trail and parks around the area if you want to get a little exercising while in town. Overall this town is easy to get around and you never have to plan your day or activities around rush hour traffic, like in some other major cities.

Now, more about the Grand Rapids Arts Festival! Are you into the arts? Do you love good food? Enjoying listening to great music? Can you appreciate good dance performances? Then make sure to visit Grand Rapids during the first weekend in June each year. Festivities start promptly at noon and last until 5PM Sunday evening.

The “Festival” is one of West Michigan’s largest draws each year, capturing the hearts and stomachs of around 500,000 visitors. This 3-day festival is always held the first weekend in June, rain or shine. Noted for being the largest all-volunteer arts festival in the nation and an event where all exhibits and performances are totally free of charge.

The festival started 37 years ago, being an excellent way to celebrate the works of local artists. It opened with only two stages, a few food booths, and encompassed a small area held on the plaza in front of City Hall. Today, major streets downtown are closed, numerous ethnic food booths are found everywhere, and it has now grown into six stages for area performers to showcase there talents.

My favorite part has to be eating at the food booths. All booths are run by area churches or non-profit organizations, and provide us with delicious favorites with many celebrating their cultures. To the groups, this is usually their biggest money- makers so offering the best tastes aren’t taken lightly here, especially with all its competition that weekend. Where else can you get meat-on-a-stick, Souvlaki, egg rolls, elephant ears, ice cream treats, grilled shrimp kabobs, or polish golumpki or peogios (my all-time favorite) all in one venue.

The festival is a favorite for all ages. For the kids, the finger-painting, chalk the walk, or face painting areas are always packed. For the teens, hanging out with friends at one of the rock or country bands performing on stage is always extremely popular, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

The possibilities are endless for the more mature-aged folks (I’m in this category). For music sit back and enjoy the spectacular sounds of the symphony, a jazz band, polka band, family gospel singers, or church/school bands or choirs. Catch a performance from area dance studios, (my nieces and nephew are always on stage for this weekend), listen to a storyteller or poet, or browse the art exhibits found around the grounds. A large tent is set up each year which houses the work of the local artists — sketch drawings, photographic prints, jewelry, water/oil paintings, or sculptures all for sale.

Informational programs are available for a donation highlighting every event, listing times for performances, and mapping out the different foods booths locations.

With the hard work of around 20,000 volunteers, generous financial support of area folks and Mother Nature’s help for decent weather, this festival comes alive each year and is meant to be experienced by all. So stop by and check it out…you won’t be disappointed or leave hungry!

Coming to Grand Rapids wouldn’t be the same without stopping at one of its most favorite attractions — the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park. This magnificent charm was made possible by the generosity of Fred and Lena Meijer who donated all the funds and their entire sculpture collection to get this project underway.

It is the second most-popular cultural destination in Michigan with 600,000 visitors annually, and is funded almost entirely by private donations. “Meijer Gardens” as we call it, has inside it’s 125-acres Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory, the nations most extensive carnivorous plant house, outdoor gardens, boardwalks and nature trails, the most comprehensive outdoor sculpture collection in the area, library, amphitheater, gift shop, classrooms and conference rooms, and a café. See why more than 3 million visitors have flocked to this place in the last 10 years?

This is a horticulturist’s heaven with its ever changing botanical exhibitions. The Conservatory is a 5-story, indoor, 15,000 feet greenhouse filled with tropical plants found around the world; which include massive palms, exotic orchids, bamboo and banana trees which are displayed amongst ponds, fountains, and charming sculptures spotted everywhere. The temps are always in the 80ºs inside, making this a haven on those cold winter days. Other indoor gardens offer seasonal displays of beauty. You may visit during a bonsai exhibit or an English cottage themed tour, but whenever you do, you will always find an impressive array of nature to be discovered and experienced.

Go outside to experience the sculpture park, which features over 170 different pieces from over 30 renowned sculptors. You’ll also findabundant seasonal plantings, which surround the winding paths of this section. Each season you will be surprised by all there is to explore. With its wetlands and other variety of foliage seen everywhere, you will understand why it’s also a bird lover’s paradise. The most famous sculpture in this collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse. At 24 feet tall, it’s the largest bronze equine sculpture in the Western Hemisphere, and one of only two in the world.

During March and April, the butterfly exhibit is the most popular, with over 6000 tropical butterflies let lose to flutter inside freely inside the conservatory. It’s amazing to see them land on your hands, head or shoulder. This is one of my favorite exhibits.

Christmastime is magical at the gardens. Its display of over 40 international trees, horse-drawn carriage rides, carolers singing, strolling the grounds, and the awesome vision of over 300,000 twinkling lights makes this a holiday treat. Newly added was the Polar Express Railway exhibit.

From June through September, an outdoor concert series is offered, showcasing some great entertainers at the gardens amphitheater. This is a great place to spend time outdoors amongst the beauty of the gardens with wonderful musicians and friendly people.

Open daily from 9am to 5pm, Tuesdays 9am to 9pm. Adults are $12, students and seniors are $ 9, children are between $6 and $4, and children under the age of 2 are free. Guided tours are available and everywhere is handicapped accessible.

With temperatures in the 70’s, the sun is finally showing itself. After having been cooped up all winter and in need of some cardio, I grabbed my camera and headed for the John Ball Park Zoo. It had been a quite a while since I had shown my face here and wanted to see first hand why a proposal was on the ballet for a new and improved zoo to be built. Did we really need it? After just a few minutes, I had my answer. The zoo had hardly changed since I was a kid, and I had no doubt how I would vote on the upcoming proposal.

John Ball Park Zoo is a small zoo — around 140 acres, which is clean and well maintained, but only really enjoyed by the kids. Yes, we have the usual bears, eagles, elephants, chimpanzees, wolfs and lamas, but the cages are small and the exhibits lack interest. The indoor aquarium and the penguins/gulls exhibits, though small, are pleasant to observe.

There’s a petting zoo area allowing kids to get up close and personal with different barn animals, such as goats, chickens, roosters, sheep as well as turkeys. When I was walking around I was repeatedly being harassed by this huge turkey. He definitely got me a little flustered and kept following me everywhere (possibly scared of my camera).

I read they are getting a new Sting Ray Lagoon, which is a 5,000 gallon outdoor touch pool featuring Cownose and Yellow Spotted Rays. This will provide visitors with the opportunity to not only see, but to touch, feel and experience the sting rays. This exhibit will be the only exhibit of its kind in Michigan. That is a good start, but not enough to get visitors flocking to this park.

Unfortunately, the citizens around the zoo and city officials fought to keep the zoo from expanding in recent years and we lost the proposal for a new wildlife park to be developed, by a small margin. All the land was going to be donated by the generosity of Fred Meijer and would have been a wonderful place to visit as well as to get more people to Grand Rapids.

I do however, applauded the hard work of the staff as well as the many volunteers who devote many hours in making the John Ball Park Zoo an educational experience, as well as a fun place for children from the area who may not get an opportunity otherwise to see these animals. It’s not top-rated, but I guess for some, it is better than nothing.

Parking is free, and the park is open every day except Christmas. Regular hours are 10am-4pm, extended to 9am-6pm starting May 20th for summer hours. Free admission, December-February and weekdays during March and November. It’s located at the corner of Fulton and Valley just 2 miles west of downtown GR and has an easy access from the I-96 expressway. Admission: Adults (14 – 62 years) $6, Children (4 – 13 years) $4, under age 3- free, seniors- $4.50.

Imagine bright lights shimmering through the floor of an ice rink, popular music playing, light snow falling, the smell of hot chocolate in the air, and you skating hand in hand with that special someone under the starlit sky…sound a little romantic? It is, and maybe that’s why so may people flock to Rosa Parks Circle on those cold winter nights. Come fora little fun, ice skating, romance, and, on some occasions, that special marriage proposal for the “Star-light” Skating Experience. Winter isn’t the only time to visit Rosa Parks Circle, as spring and summertime bring hosts of sweet-sounding free concerts for your listening pleasure.

Artist Maya Lin (designer of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.) designed a sculpture within a public park called Rosa Parks Circle, which is located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids in Monroe Center. Her design consists of three distinct areas suggesting the differing states of water: liquid, solid, and vapor. The core of the park is the “Ecliptic” (intersection plane of the earth’s orbit with the celestial sphere, along which the sun appears to move as viewed from the earth), which is a 13,000-square-foot oval outdoor amphitheater (with a stage) that transforms into an ice-skating rink during the late fall and winter and hosts many festivals and concerts during the warmer months. The park’s other two components include a small tree-enclosed reflecting pool and a secondary pool emitting water vapor.

Enclosed in the structure’s floor are 166 fiber-optic lights that shine through the ice at night and are patterned after the midnight sky over Michigan on January 1, 2000 (start of the third millennium). Two lights that shine through represent the planets Jupiter and Saturn, and another light portrays the North Star. Now add in FREE skating and a warming hut with refreshments and you may see why this place is such a hot spot in winter.

During the summer, every Wednesday night at 6pm from mid-June through July (2006: June 14th to July 26th), a “Blues on the Mall” concert series hosted by GR’s local classic rock radio station (WLAV-FM) is held, presenting wonderful blues performances, and it is totally FREE. In addition, this great location is the ideal meeting spot for area business professional or residents who live downtown to congregate at during lunch hour, to enjoy each others company or to enjoy their meals.

There are several parking lots nearby to park at, or if you are lucky, you might even find a free after-hours parking meter. The park is located in Monroe Center, right off Monroe Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids, and is very close to many of the downtown hotels. The skating is free, but skate rental is a couple of bucks. Skating is open during the day as well as nighttime. Hours vary. There is a nice police presence downtown, so you should free safe while down here.

It’s family friendly, totally teen, and an awesome adult experience. I can’t think of why you wouldn’t like this place.

While browsing through our newspaper’s “Weekender,” we ran across a 2 for 1 coupon for dinner being offered at the “Tavern on Kraft” restaurant. We love to try new places, so we reached for the scissors and did a little snip-snip-sniping.

28th Street is a road you can find just about anything on, it’s our busiest street by far and Tavern on Kraft is located right off 28th on Kraft. This place has an absolutely ideal location, easy to get to and easy to find.

It was only quarter to five, maybe we’d beat the dinner rush and from the looks of the cars in the parking lot…we had. We entered into a very dimly-lit corridor which had two brown micro-suede couches, two coordinating chairs, a coffee table and a “please wait to be seated” sign… but we were all alone. Our first thoughts…nice place, but are they even open? Shortly, a young lady popped out of the kitchen. She informed us that,”We don’t open until 5pm on weekends, but I would be happy to seat you.” Our table was located in the back of the dinning area, next to a huge floor-to-ceiling brick fireplace.We weren’t alone. Another early-bird couple was there, finishing up their fish and chips baskets.

The room was tastefully decorated with wainscoted walls all in earthy tones and had an upscale casual tavern-style feel to it. There was a long, L-shaped bar in the front area that is partitioned off, but still able to see through the etched glass. The only thing that seemed a little out of place was the vaulted ceiling directly above us which had a hand-painted mural of the sky on it. It wasn’t the whole length of the room just in the middle area…. a little odd in my opinion.

The menu was not overwhelming with choices featured for lunch and dinner. A few appetizers, six sandwiches (Reuben, burgers), entrees of pasta, fish-n-chips, chicken and a few steaks. That’s about it. We both settled on the NY steak ($15) and paid the extra $1.50 to include a bowl of home-made french-onion soup.

The steaming hot soup was delicious, our steaks done perfectly, the mix of zucchini and summer squash fresh and tasty and some fried potatoes that weretasty as well…but no bread or rolls, what’s up with that? We should have passed on the dessert, as it was by far the smallest slice of cheesecake ($4) I have ever been served.

Probably catering more to the working-class professionals, but fit for anyone, this place offers a relaxed atmosphere to enjoy a meal or after-work cocktails. On Wednesday through Saturday evenings, live bands perform and the place offers dancing. Full bar, featuring a large list of martinis, beers, wines, and other specialty drinks, and on some evening they offer all-u-can-eat specials. So, with its reasonably priced good tasting meals, music, dancing, cocktails, and an outdoor deck in the summer, I give this place a thumbs up.

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