The southwest Michigan city of Holland has its own town crier. The only certified Dutch flour miller outside of the Netherlands is on their city payroll. There are souvenir wooden shoes galore and beds of blooms (more than six million tulips alone)—many planted in the shadow of the authentic, working De Zwaan (the swan) windmill, the last one allowed to leave its homeland.
The annual Tulip Time festival (May 4-12, 2019) celebrates Dutch heritage and culture, and on Sinterklaas Eve, St. Nicholas, dressed in a bishop’s robe and pointed red and gold headdress, arrives on horseback at the open-air Kerstmarkt (Christmas Market) to lead families in a procession for an evening of holiday fun.
These traditions make this Lake Michigan beach town one of the most interesting places for experiences you’ve likely never had (outside of the Netherlands, at least). But there’s much to appreciate beyond that related to the Dutch heritage of a city that is increasingly adding experiential options to its existing wealth of events and natural beauty attractions.
“More than, ‘Let’s watch someone do something,’ we want people to be able to say, ‘We can do something,’” says Sally Laukitis, director of the Holland Area Visitors Bureau.
Sips and Stops
One of the newest ways to experience the region’s landscape and creativity is the Handcrafted Passport to local artisan spirits. The passport’s cover illustrates three sprigs of hops and glasses shaped to represent beer, wine and spirits. Each of the 16 participating breweries, cideries and distilleries has its own custom stamp, and once you’ve collected them all you earn a bottle opener engraved with a contemporary tulip representing the area’s iconic flower.
The real prize comes through the pours at stops found within a 15-mile radius of Holland. The passport program’s goal is that you experience the story of the product as you sip and take tasting notes on space provided within its pages. The visitor’s bureau’s Laukitis shares, for example, that distiller New Holland’s blueberry gin is made from fresh berries from the maker’s family farm. And there are many more tales to be told.
Fall color tours follow a portion of the old West Michigan Pike, designated a Pure Michigan Byway for its scenic and historic worth. The visitor’s office has put together a backroads touring guide for those traveling by car, motorcycle or bicycle, with suggestions for interesting stops. Among them is Crane Orchards, where you can pick a bushel of apples, find your prize pumpkin, get lost in the 20-acre corn maze and enjoy homemade pie and cider in a circa-1800s barn.
Hunt for antiques or head to the Holland Bowl Mill, where 1,000 wooden bowls—once famously chosen by The New York Times for its Christmas guide—are turned out each week. The mill started as a wooden shoe factory in 1926 and eventually shifted to more practical offerings—it’s the largest solid hardwood bowl maker in the U.S.
Nelis’ Dutch Village celebrates its 60th year in ways that look both back—and ahead. The family founders made their way to Holland to join others from their homeland in this pretty settlement started in 1847 by Dutch Calvinists fleeing persecution. They loved the region’s beauty, bought 80 acres north of town and started growing vegetables. A Dutch cousin asked them to grow some daffodils, and to that they added tulips. Their blooming fields became a hot spot for tourists flocking to the then-new Tulip Time. They added a windmill and souvenir shops, and the combination heritage and amusement park site known as Nelis’ Dutch Village was born.
In celebration of its milestone anniversary, Nelis’ Dutch Village’s park attractions are staying open an extra month and will be open weekends through October (the shops are open year-round). That means more time to drink beer out of a wooden shoe sampler, to enjoy delicacies like metworst, banket (almond pastry) and saucijzebroodjes (pigs in a blanket), and to attend a pirate fest, barn dance and harvest festival.
Windmill Island Gardens, owned by the city of Holland, is also upping its hands-on learning fun. Best known for the namesake DeZwaan landmark and massive gardens of tulips that bloom each spring, the popular attraction is focusing on themed gardens that burst with flowers until the season ends on October 7. This year’s bird theme will have visitors enjoying a cardinal garden wholly planted with blooms that are red or have names like cardinal vine. The hummingbird garden is designed with the tiny bird’s favorite nectar-filled plants.
“We love having people come through to enjoy the Dutch heritage side, but we’re really trying to build onto that story and show things like gardening—the Dutch were horticultural experts—and tie that in with food and lifestyle events like biking to reach people with different interests and to expand our audience,” says Matt Helmus, the attraction’s development manager. Pedal the Provinces on September 15 offers the chance to bike with a group to heritage attractions on a choice of four routes ranging from 16 to 63 miles that begin and end at Windmill Island Gardens, and travel to historic sites and the Dutch-founded towns of Graafschap and Drenthe.
Lake Michigan sunsets here are spectacular year-round, and prime viewing spots are Tunnel Park, where you’ll walk through a sand dune to the beach, and at the Holland Harbor Lighthouse, called “Big Red” for its hue. Since 1907, the landmark light has marked the point where Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa meet. Holland State Park borders both lakes; follow the trail and stairway to the top of the Mt. Pisgah sand dune for scenic views of the waters and Big Red.
Nearby Saugatuck Dunes State Park has more than two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and 200-foot sand dunes. Hiking trails cover 13 miles on four routes, and there’s cross-country skiing on ungroomed trails.
Perhaps the most persuasive reason of all to visit Holland as temperatures cool and the holiday season nears is its quaint downtown and shopping ease. Thanks to a sophisticated sidewalk heating system put in place several years ago, walkways are kept clear regardless of season. Even the seats around the outdoor fireplace are heated. Base yourself at City Flats, a modern, ecofriendly hotel, then walk under Victorian streetlamps to some 100 independent shops, restaurants and microbreweries. Don’t forget your Handcrafted Passport—the only passport you’ll need to reach this Holland.
In addition to Tulip Time, celebrating its 90th anniversary May 4-12, 2019, Holland hosts festivals throughout the year including:
- Sept. 15-16 | Civil War Muster and Heritage Days
- Sept. 20-22 | Tulipanes Latino Art & Film Festival
- Oct. 12-13 | Fall Fest Nov.-Dec. Dutch WinterFest & Holiday Events
- March 1-3, 2019 | Girlfriends Weekend
Holland is about three hours from Chicago by car or Amtrak. Stop at the Holland Visitor Bureau (78 East 8th St.) for the Handcrafted Passport, bicycle, walking and fall color tour maps, and assistance in tailoring an itinerary to your interests. holland.org
This article originally appeared in the 2018 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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