Visiting Grand Rapids

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Sometimes you can just sense while landing at the airport if you’re going to have a nice trip.  Arrival at the Gerald R Ford Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan was an absolute breeze – for starters.

Despite the pouring down rain and the over-sized rental car Enterprise stuck me with (I could have taken 20 kids to soccer practice in that thing) — I found the elegant Amway Grand Hotel with almost no problem at all.  Word around town was that this is the place you stay if you’re coming to Grand Rapids.  It was hopping, too – I felt as though as I was the only one in the building not part of a business or organization conference.  When I chatted earlier in the year with Grand Rapids CVB President, Doug Small – he said convention business is through the roof here.  He wasn’t lying.  For fun, I considered putting on a name tag to blend in with one of the dozen groups having meetings there but I had sightseeing to do!

Things To See

Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

The most popular tourist attraction in Grand Rapids according to the website Trip Advisor is the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. It’s a massive 132 acre development including walkways around flower gardens, a sculpture park, a special children’s garden, an amphitheater and a neat yet incredibly humid butterfly house. This place is obviously a hit with school children as buses were lined up at 10am with students on field trips from neighboring areas. It was cold and cloudy during my visit in April – but having been to a handful of botanical gardens – I can assure you in the warmer months, I’m sure it’s spectacular to see when things are in full bloom.
For me, the sight of a sculpture rarely elicits the types of oohs and ahhs you hear from the studio audience on Wheel Of Fortune.  That doesn’t mean there weren’t a handful of creations I found very cool as part of the 30 acre display of art.  Pictured here is a fun sculpture of a guy taking a nap. (Looks pretty life-like doesn’t he?  The guy laying down – not me.)  There’s also a gigantic horse that would cause even Mr. Ed to yell “Holy crap!”  It seemed to be the most popular spot for tourist photo-ops.

The Gerald Ford Presidential Museum is another favorite attraction for visitors to Grand Rapids. While Ford may not be remembered as a President that left any major marks in the world of politics – the stories surrounding his Presidency and reminders of that turbulent time in American history are on full display.

Some of the artifacts include the phone Richard Nixon used to infamously record Oval Office conversations and the tools used in the Watergate break-in that of course eventually nudged Ford into the Presidency.  There’s a great re-creation of Ford’s Oval Office that recreates what his typical work day may have been like as President.

A replica of President Gerald Ford’s Oval office at the Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Both he and Mrs. Ford are buried on the site – a memorial is on the side of the building honoring both of them.

Grand Rapids also has its own public museum. Founded in 1854, Grand Rapids Public Museum is a mixture of history about the area as well as enlightening exhibits that aren’t typically found in smaller city museums.

The displays on the first floor detailing Grand Rapids early history are really impressive. They look like sets from a television or movie studio.

One of the current exhibits featured replicas of some of the most famous buildings in the world – built with LEGO’s. I felt at home as front and center was a replica of the Gateway Arch from my home town – although, I didn’t have a heart to tell them they didn’t have the right number of windows at the top. But, hey, who’s counting?

 

Where Have All The Couches Gone?

Once upon a time, Grand Rapids was known as the Furniture Capitol Of The World.  Today, most of those manufactures have moved elsewhere for whatever reason but there’s at least one furniture company that still remains. It’s called Kindel Furniture. It’s an upscale shop, with about 100 employees that design, build and craft beautiful pieces from tables to sofas.

As a total coincidence I happened to be on the plane next to Amy Beechler Wolbert who is the Senior Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Kindel. She and her husband were nice enough to give me some tips of things to see and experience while in town during our flight. Amy also invited me to a personal tour of the shop. (Word to the wise – don’t really invite me somewhere if you don’t want me there – because I’m probably going to show up.)

Indeed I called and enjoyed a great tour of the facility and saw where some incredible craftsmanship takes place – such intricate designs that could only be done by truly gifted professionals. The pieces are expensive – but Kindel seems to be doing quite well, catering to upper middle class and wealthy consumers that want one of a kind unique furniture in their homes.

Driving On Defense

It’s certainly a small city – but in the case of leisure travel, size doesn’t always matter. Driving from the airport to the Amway Grand Hotel downtown took all of 20 minutes. One benefit of arriving late was that there was virtually zero traffic and I was able to catch a glimpse of all the buildings and establishments that make up downtown Grand Rapids without anyone laying on their horn.

While I don’t think anyone honked at me the entire trip – being a first time visitor to Michigan, I was unprepared for the over aggressive style of driving. I’ve endured freeways in Los Angeles, rush hour traffic in Nashville, and road rage in Atlanta and Dallas – all places that often scare those who drive with fear.  However, driving across the state of Michigan – I found a whole new level of crazy. I wouldn’t even say the drivers were rude – they were just aggressive and unafraid.

Thankfully, downtown Grand Rapids, even at rush hour was pretty calm. I remember looking out the window of one of the walkways I happened to be in right about 5pm and stopped in my tracks as I noticed the lack of heavy traffic.

Where’s The Beach?

Grand Haven Beach

When you think of beaches, most of us don’t consider the beautiful shorelines along western Michigan.  From Grand Rapids, the sand isn’t far away at all.  I took a drive to Grand Haven Beach and explored the small beach town and walked to a beautiful light tower on a pier surrounded by Lake Michigan.

There were older locals sitting along the pier trying to fish – although they all seemed to admit the fish weren’t biting in the below average temperatures.  In the warmer months, this place comes to life, according to the locals. It’s certainly an easier drive here for most, especially in the mid-west, than to California or Florida for a beach visit.  It was very clean and the grounds seemed very well taken care of.

The Verdict

Grand Rapids is truly a lovely city that would be perfect for a fun weekend getaway or for convention meetings. The downtown area has a great vibe.  It’s certainly small but big enough that you don’t feel like you’re in a one horse town.  (Full disclosure – I didn’t actually see any horses during my visit.)  The city’s airport is great and while public transportation didn’t seem to be all that accessible – things are easily walkable – at least downtown.

For more information about visiting Grand Rapids, Michigan – please visit: Experience Grand Rapids

 

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Bill is a travel journalist, broadcaster and freelance writer based in Saint Louis, Missouri. Bill travels all across the country doing positive stories, highlighting people and places making America great. He's the host of the weekly Rediscover America podcast and author of the new book 100 Things To Do In America Before You Die! Bill enjoys parks, talking to strangers, eating medium-rare steaks, playing Pickleball and telling good jokes.