Monday, August 18, 2014

Bobbing Around Berrien County

Not farm from Kalamazoo, where I grew up, is Berrien County, the extreme southwest corner of Michigan with a population of 156,813 as of the 2010 census. Yes, that's for the entire county. There aren't a lot of people in Berrien, which leaves plenty of room for grapes - and hops! Berrien is home to almost a dozen wineries with plans for more to open in the future. (The market is ripe.)

As Greg and I headed west on I-94 to enjoy these wineries as well as award-winning Silver Beach in the county seat of St. Joseph (better known as St. Joe), we made a couple of roadside pit stops. The first was to a cute little place called the Chocolate Garden. After the third billboard, we had to stop. The prices were acceptable and the truffles were delicious. I understand why they have been praised by places as diverse as the Food Network, Travel Channel, and Elle Magazine. The best part? I can order online.

On our way to the Chocolate Garden, we passed the rather bizarre Dinosaur Farm attached to Grandpa's Cider Mill. Naturally, we had to stop and take photos. It turns out the skeletal dinos were made by the local high school's tech class. Really neat! We would later encounter smaller specimens in the shops of St. Joe that were for sale. 

We couldn't afford any dinosaur souvenirs, but we did stop into the Cider Mill to get some drinks. I wish I had read the ingredients lists before purchasing. Though tasty, our ciders turned out to be mostly corn syrup. BIG LET DOWN. I expect more from a Michigan cider mill. Like for the cider to be made from apples, which we grow a ton of,  for instance. Granted, mine was cherry flavored, but guess what, Michigan also grows a ton of cherries. (And blueberries. And peaches.) No excuse not to use real fruit. None.

Next we stopped in Benton Harbor (St. Joe's twin city) to check out something called Skellville that Greg read about in Oddball Michigan: A Guide to 450 Really Strange Places. Odd, indeed! You would never guess this place was there from the road. Do you know those weird roadside stores with all the garden statuary scattered around, mostly of a decidedly religious nature? (Don't blink.) Skellville, which is populated with plastic skeletons posted in various scenes, as if frozen forever in the moments following some horrible disaster (I've been to Pompeii; I now what it looks like), is located behind one of those. The building looks like a mechanic's shop, and it still might be used for that purpose, I have no idea, there just happened to also be hundreds of statues everywhere. And a mounted dinosaur head. Like you do.

We paid a dollar each to poke around Skellville. The incredibly enthusiastic owner - he really was a nice guy - told us that he had built Skellville originally as a Halloween attraction, and is now keeping it up year round, hoping to attract tourists from all over the world. He encouraged us to tell our friends, write about it, and take pictures. I took many, many pictures. 

The man also apologized that he hadn't mowed in a while, so it was a little overgrown. Luckily, we had a helpful marmalade guide to show us they way! And all it wanted in return was belly rubs and ear skritches. To my friends in the area, I say visit Skellville on Halloween. It'll probably be better done up, and you'll be in just the right mood. (Greg and I live Halloween every day of the year.) 

Greg and I made our first winery stop Tabor Hill, beloved of Bob Hope, as it turns out, for many decades. He actually had boxes shipped to his home in California for parties and sent the winery a Christmas card every year until his death. Greg and I learned this on the free tour Tabor Hill offers. We were the only ones on the tour, which is a shame because we both found it very interesting! When a winery offers you a free tour, take it. Seriously.

We indulged in a tasting, but ended up not buying any wine from Tabor Hill. Instead, we headed to our next destination, the Round Barn, which we had passed on our way to Tabor Hill. The Round Barn is a winery, distillery, and brewery. We did another tasting here and bought a bottle of the Edel Doux, a "nobly sweet" blend of German varietals with a rich lingering finish," and the DiVine Black Walnut Creme, which tastes a little of honey or maple and is a bit nutty. An excellent substitute for Irish Cream in many recipes! I've just been mixing it with milk and sipping it over ice. (Greg skips the addition of milk.)

After all that drinking, we were ready for lunch and drove over to village of Baroda and the Round Barn Public House where I had a very alcoholic root beer float with my deliciously amazing Ultimate Phillie French Dip. Greg ordered a regular French Dip and a beer called Escaped Goat because goat. The 5 Cheese Garlic Bread with Marinara was freaking awesome, too. 

From there we went to St. Joe and met up with a great friend of mine I've known since I was ten, Robin, who now lives in the area. I am sad I don't get to see her more often, but it's quite a drive from the suburbs of Detroit. (Maybe I can see my friends more once they put in that highspeed rail line?) We wandered down to the beach, around downtown St. Joe, and dined at a Chinese restaurant (about the only place that wasn't super crowded) which satisfied my often recurring craving for Chinese food.

We parted with Robin who had to get some work done and then met up with my friend John who was another of my best friends in high school. We also went to Western Michigan University together and have stayed good friends ever since. He was recently married and, again due to the distance, I had not had the chance to really meet his wife, who turned out to be a really cool lady who also likes to cook. They brought homemade snacks and we settled on the beach to watch the sun set over (or into) Lake Michigan. One of the things I miss most about West Michigan is the Lake, especially its sunsets, so this was quite a special moment for me. Who knows when I will see one again? (Come on, highspeed rail!)

When dark had descended, we bid our goodbyes and headed back to Kalamazoo to rest up before returning home the next day. I wish I could have stayed longer and visited with more friends, but it just wasn't possible that week. In September, we'll be headed up north and to the UP on a longer vacation. I hope this means I will finally get my Fall Color Tour! (Another thing I've been missing.)

Happy travels, everyone. Any many beautiful sunsets.

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