As seems to be our custom, we arrived in Holland greeted by rain, a particularly forceful wind, and damp sand. A couple weeks back we were here to see the Saugatuck Dunes, but we were met with some rather unpleasant weather and decided to come back later to see the area at its best. Of course, as fate would have it we picked a day nearly identical to the last, with just one major exception. The tulips. Every year this lost slice of the Netherlands is covered by hundreds of thousands of tulips, in just one of many nods to it’s namesake. This colossal blooming is even accompanied by its very own festival, conveniently named: “The Tulip Festival”, dating back over 50 years, it coincides with the peak of color for the bloom, around May 7th – 14th. However, we did not come to this corner of western Michigan solely for the flowers. The Dutch culture and heritage in Holland is some of the richest in the midwest, making it one of the most unique cities in the Great Lakes State.
Holland also pulls off an interesting dichotomy when it comes to the city itself, managing to capture the essence of a much larger city while maintaining a population of under 100,000. A small town at heart, Holland is rich with local shops and restaurants, even boasting not one, but two, antique candy shoppes. That’s right, shoppes. But despite its rather homely roots, the city houses major high end retailers, a beautiful college campus, and walking down the streets it was hard not to notice how impeccably clean and new everything was; a byproduct of the city’s growing upper class, who are drawn in by the mass of waterfront property lining Holland’s inlet to Lake Michigan. The downtown area is classy and developed, complete even with a park at its heart where you can find a Koi fountain, Gazebos, Memorials, and various other enrichment. Typically sprawling, due to the weather we arrived to a decidedly empty version of the place, a double edged sword as it turns out. We got amazing shots all over town with no interference, but I’m afraid if you want to see a more typical portrayal of this interesting up-and-comer of a city, you’ll simply have to visit it yourself.
Deciding to once again make the most of this uninterrupted landscape, we thought we might wait out the rain, and first stop at the aptly named “Big Red Lighthouse.” Positioned at the mouth to Holland’s residential harbor, it dates back to 1870 and is still in use today. Of Michigan’s many lighthouses, this one is set apart by it’s massive red housing, and gabled roof, which was done in the traditional Dutch style. Though technically accessible to the public, actually getting to the lighthouse requires crossing an extensive amount of private property. That being said, the view from just across the harbor entrance in Holland State Park is actually quite good, and unless you’re an urban explorer, leaves little to be desired. In the short five minutes it took us to cross the sand to the edge of the harbor, the rain had gotten at least twice as heavy, and the winds were enough to make you fear being blown over into the water. Unperturbed, we ventured out to the end of the wave breaks for a spectacular view of the coast, which stretched off for miles until consumed by the fog hovering just off the shore. It almost reminds you of the Scottish Highlands, the massive glacial dunes piled up against the water, curving ever so slowly off into the distance. The ferocity of the elements on this particular day also brought images of the highlands to mind, until we returned within range of the shore and were subsequently sand blasted with maximum prejudice until collapsing back into the car. With the rain showing no sign whatsoever of relenting, we decided to cut our losses and see the rest of the city regardless of the storm, and it turns out, as with much of Michigan, it can be just as beautiful in any kind of weather.
Holland is usually nothing more than a stopping point on most people’s journeys. Understandable, if you’re looking for somewhere to grab a meal or recuperate after a day at the dunes. However, I must admit to being quite charmed by the place, and had no trouble spending a day in the city itself. Indeed, Holland offers a variety of unique things to do and see, such as authentic Dutch artisanal markets, clog factories, museums, did I mention there were candy shoppes? And that’s without even touching on all the recreational activities made available by Holland’s presence on Lake Michigan. With the Saugatuck Dunes no more than 10 minutes away, the city takes on whole new life in the summer, turning into a base camp for tourists and beach goers. As it offers some of the most accessible public beaches for the lower half of Michigan, the majority of it’s visitors are from in-state, and given that it’s Lake Michigan and not Myrtle Beach, that’s not entirely surprising. There is however one time of year when the city draws in people from across the country. You get three guesses.
The tulip festival. Although the festivities culminate downtown, primarily at Windmill Island and the few city blocks where the fair is set up, the festival is really about the blooming of the tulips; an event that can be witnessed as soon as you get within city limits. The entire area is laden with them, they’re growing in the fields, on lawns, in parks, even in the median of the road. A spectacular array of color is plastered across the ground everywhere you look, the icing on Holland’s undying Dutch heritage. At the peak of the rain, we found ourselves trudging through the Veldheer tulip gardens, looking for our first shots of a full field of tulips. After wondering why the gardens were also advertising “Buffalo”, in what capacity we’re not sure, we made our way through the mud to the entrance of the gardens. Veldheer, we discovered, is not simply a tulip field; but rather a tulip farm. Planting over 5.5 million tulips yearly, the acres contained within Veldheer’s garden are filled to the brim with tulips of every variety, not to mention some pretty nifty big art. Even in the rain it was a sight to behold, on the 20-30 minute trek through the fields, you will pass literally millions of bulbs in literally hundreds of colors, laid out in rows a good 50 yards long, and each complete with marking posts allowing you to identify the variety.
In addition to the tulip fields you will also find DeKlomp wooden shoe factory, perhaps one of the biggest examples of the cities roots in the Netherlands. A slightly clinical mix between an actual factory and a tourist trap, the majority of floor-space accessible to the public is occupied by a vast array of dutch curios and confections, mostly being tended by an army of sweet little old ladies. What remains is taken up by a large fitting area, displaying hundreds of pairs of clogs all across the wall. The factory itself can be viewed through a series of plexiglas panels set into the wall between the shop and it. The windows are large enough to accommodate a view of the entire operation, and are complemented by a host of informational panels and signs. While a little impersonal, its still the only place I know of where you can go and watch them make you a pair of shoes by hand in under a few hours. Of course, if you’re not one to wait then you could help yourself to one of thousands of clogs laying about the building, all are for sale. You can even purchase rejects and unfinished sets for personal modification, or just try on a pair of clogs the size of your torso. They have those.
Our final, and certainly most impressive destination, was windmill island. The cultural center of Holland, the island is host to a great number of attractions, such as tulip fields and an authentic dutch village; but it is best known, for housing the 250 year old De Zwaan windmill. The windmill was built in the Netherlands in 1761, and was used there as a farming implement until WWII. During the war, windmills were frequently used as observation posts, given their height and typical position over large amounts of flat land, fields. However, the axis got wind (haaaah) that the allies were using the mills as listening posts, and subsequently started targeting them whenever possible. Being a miller became a very dangerous job, and derelict mills became a more and more frequent occurrence. After the war ended, so many windmills had been destroyed that the Netherlands declared all remaining windmills national landmarks, making it impossible for any to leave the country or be sold. However, De Zwaan was one of the most heavily damaged windmills left standing, and the dutch weren’t exceptionally keen to hold on to it. So in 1964, the city of Holland Michigan offers to buy the windmill from the Netherlands, and the Netherlands says yes, making it the last windmill to ever leave the country. After about 6 months of shipping and about 6 months of reconstruction, the mill was completed where it now stands, and put into operation as an artisanal grainery. Now people from across the nation can come and take a tour of this historic structure, buy grain made with its stones, and even bring their own wheat to be milled just as it would have been 250 years ago.
When all was said and done, our adventure through Holland was quite an enjoyable one, albeit rather wet. The city has a lot to offer, and it’s not just about the cultural heritage either. A unique and upscale downtown, miles of dunes and beach, quiet suburban living, million dollar waterfront mansions. Perhaps not the most exciting or exclusive features for a city to possess independently, but Holland is truly a city greater than the sum of its parts. It manages to be quaint and modern at the same time, a very neat trick if you ask me. Still, spending a day in a city like this is honestly somewhat of an unusual activity to do unless there’s something specific going on, such as the tulip festival. So for most who visit Holland, it will be in a less comprehensive manner, a pit stop on the road to the Great Lakes most likely. That being said, I think it’s something that the city lends itself to quite well. It’s almost as if it were designed for it, the ease at which you can kill a couple hours in this place is remarkable, and it’s memorable enough to put the icing on any day trip. It’s a light vacation for practically any budget, just be sure to check the forecast.