Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Zehnder's Snowfest 2015 in Frankenmuth, MI

Now that my boyfriend Greg and I both have our work schedules a whole month at a time, it's been easier to make plans. So when I saw that we both had Friday the 23rd off, I turned to the internet for fun things to do. This being winter, I decided to see which snow and ice festivals I could find within easy driving distance. For a mutual evening off, we attended the Plymouth Ice Festival, and the 23rd turned out to be smack dab in the middle of the Zehnder's Snowfest in Frankenmuth (home of hidden gnomes). 

The German Club in my high school made a pilgrimage to Frankenmuth every year. I was in French Club, so I didn't visit "Little Bavaraia" until a couple of years ago with my adventurous roommate-at-the-time and fellow sky pirate Kimmy and Greg. Kimmy, being from California, had also never been; Greg had. (We found many gnomes.) 

There had been no festival then, though, so this trip was considerably more, well, festive and also crowded. The temp was pretty cold, but not God-awful, and there were plenty of shops to duck into to warm up. Our first discovery was apparently new to the area, and I loved it: Got Kilt?. They carried kilts (obviously) in all shades and sizes, some steampunk items, and Doctor Who merchandise. (And since the website doesn't say, they are located, according to Bing, at 566 S Main St, Frankenmuth, MI 48734.) Why was Kimmy not with us that day??? She would have loved it.

Next, we looked through a candy shop, where we managed not to buy anything (I'm trying really hard to cut down on sugar, so I view this as a victory), then we found the first of the snow sculptures. Unlike with the ice sculptures from last week, I saw few electric saws. I did see a lot of picks (think Yukon Cornelius) and other more typical sculpting tools. 

I can't help wondering where all the tightly packed snow came from. It must have been trucked in like the blocks of ice in Plymouth. Some of these sculptures were quite large! It was impressive. 

Moving on, we found the petting zoo. Because it isn't a festival without exposing farm animals to the elements and bribing them complacent with pellet food. There were camels. One of them slid on the slushy pavement of the parking lot they were set up in, but recovered quickly and was happy to camera crash for some pellets. (I wonder if the camels were cold.) Also there were goats, one of whom reminded me of Anton LaVey (don't ask). Greg saw another animal he couldn't identify that I am not sure I noticed.

After popping in and out of a few more shops, we found the smaller - but still as big as a backyard shed - snow sculptures. These were fun! We saw Mario from Super Mario Brothers coming out a pipe, Castle Grayskull complete with Skeletor and He-Man action figures hanging out in the "eyes," a giant shark a la Jaws movie posters (each tooth was carefully crafted row after row), and many more. 

We also learned the clock tower does, in fact, have characters come out of it (we weren't sure on our last trip), but not many and very slowly. A recording tells the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Unlike a number of families sitting around on benches, we did not tarry here long, instead lured by the sculptures. 

We finished our day with dinner at the local Frankenmuth microbrewery (which will probably get reviewed on my food blog next week), then headed home. We ended up skipping Bronner's CHRISTmas store this time. If you've never been to Bronner's before, you definitely want to include it in your itinerary and during Zehnder's Snowfest is a pretty nifty time to visit!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Plymouth Ice Festival 2015

One of Michigan's monikers is the Winter Water Wonderland. This is a fanciful way of saying that in winter, Michigan is brimming with snow and ice. The first I can remember actually going to an ice festival, however, is in 2012 when I, my boyfriend Greg, and roommate-at-the-time Kimmy went to the Plymouth Ice Festival.

That year we went early and we able to see many of the sculptures be created. This year we went on that last day, so all of them were already completed already and almost starting to melt. The sculptures are actually very pretty when they are glistening with just a bit of melt. None were faded to the point of losing its design.

On the way from our car (free parking is, of course, many blocks away from the main festivities), we stopped into some of our favorite Plymouth spots, Earth Lore, a must-see for people interested in the metaphysical and fantastical, and Espresso Elevado, an "artisan coffee roaster and brew bar" that Greg has fallen in love with. He ordered a curry latte something that was exactly how it sounded (and made me crave curried vegetables), and I got a mint espresso that was not very minty, but still tasted all right when I added more half and half.

The downtown park where the heart of the festival was set up was PACKED. And, of course, this being an ice festival, stuff from the Disney movie Frozen was everywhere. I liked the movie all right - definitely not my favorite Disney movie ever - but I now want to gag whenever I see something Frozen-related. "Saturating the market" barely begins to cover what Disney has done with this film. Even the sculpture of what might not even be a reindeer (I'm not totally up on my antlered creatures), the children insisted was "a Sven."

"Are you sure that isn't a reindeer?" asked one mother.

"No!" one child retorted. "It's a Sven, not a reindeer."

Duh, Mom. Reindeer are those things that pull Santa's sleigh. Is this attached to a sleigh? No! Geez.

Though I was delighted by a laughing Buddha ice sculpture outside a yoga studio off the main drag, and impressed by what appeared to a rising phoenix, I think I have to crown the expansive, multi-sculpture extravaganza that was a giant squid attacking a sailing ship as my favorite this year.

It was a little unfortunate that we went on a Sunday because so many other nifty little shops were closed. Ah well! There is a lot of stuff in downtown Plymouth and I could easily spend an afternoon wandering around there, so perhaps another time.

Next, Greg and I plan to hit up Zehnder's Snowfest in Frankenmuth, which neither of us has ever been to and promises something new: snow sculptures! This should be interesting. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gas Lantern Highland Cemetery Tours in Ypsilanti, MI

During the month of October and at the end of December (and possibly other times, as well) tours are offered of the sizable cemetery in the middle-north of Ypsilanti, just northeast of Depot Town, Highland Cemetery. Here is what the info page on says about it:

Highland is an outstanding example of the “garden” or “rural” style of cemetery design, popular in this country during the 19th century. The garden cemetery movement sought to create tranquil places where visitors could find solace in the beauty of a natural setting. A masterpiece of landscape architecture, Highland’s rolling hills contain original plantings of oak, pine, cypress, willow, and cedar, making a natural habitat for wildlife.

What it doesn't say is that, at least for the December tours (the one I went on), each person on the tour carries a gas lantern since it's pretty darn dark at 7pm in December. I didn't find that my lantern shed a whole lot of light given just how dark it really is out there, but the atmosphere it gave was fantastic. Kind of spooky, kind of creepy, and very period.

The information given on the tour is also somewhat varied. It is definitely not a ghost tour, though it shares some elements of the many ghost tours I have been on. We were taken around to some of the oldest graves and told about the people who were buried or entombed, about their lives, famous exploits and contributions to local history and the current city, etc. Some people were builders of the community having given money to build some cornerstones of the city that still stand today but have largely been forgotten. Others were more notorious. 

We heard stories about the only Civil War general who was, I think, relieved of duty. I can't recall his name and I can't find his story anywhere online, which is very annoying. His brother was in the navy and did considerably better. His grave had a beautiful engraving of a sailing ship. I tried to take a picture. Sadly, it did not turn out well, but I have included it here anyhow. (Click the picture to make it bigger.)

There was also a story about a young Detroit woman who, in 1936 or 1939, shot her mother and little brother, left them dead in their car on the road from Detroit to Ypsilanti (where they had a cottage), somehow got back to Detroit, then shot at another brother as he was entering their apartment. He ran for it, and she shot herself as the building was being stormed by police. The family is buried in Ypsilanti. I couldn't find any information on that incident online either. I guess Detroit has seen too many murders. 

If you are in the area and are into this kind of thing (there were people of all ages on our tour, including some children in strollers), check VisitYpsiNow for future tour dates. Our guide was a member of the local historical society, so they would probably have info, as well. And if you aren't in the area and are still interested in this type of thing, check with your local historical society and see if they run similar tours. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Ringing in the New Year in Kalamazoo

In the past, both while living in Kalamazoo and not, I often celebrated the arrival of the new year on the steps of Western Michigan University's East Hall, enjoying the fireworks set off by the city of Kalamazoo, then back to a friend's house for drinks, games, and sleep. The close of 2014 found me in Kalamazoo once again, but this time, my boyfriend Greg and I joined my mother and her boyfriend downtown for New Year's Fest, which I had never before heard of. It was cool!

For starters, downtown Kalamazoo has changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable to me. Suddenly (to me), there are restaurants, shops, places to go and hangout for hours on end. It isn't the shady, crumbling, largely abandoned, you might see your car on TV in the middle of a shoot-out (true story) same couple of blocks of my youth. Which is a good thing! But it was like stepping into a parallel universe where people wanted to go downtown and hang out with their friends and families rather than avoid it like some kind of drug-infested mine field. 

I remember going to downtown Kalamazoo with my mom or grandparents as a kid and not finding it to be that big of a deal, but the reaction of my friends and their parents in the cozy (and somewhat posh) suburb of Portage was like I had flown to Iran or North Korea (or Detroit) and returned unscathed. When I was 13, I was even dropped off with a friend by her mother and allowed to roam freely for a couple of hours before being picked up by my mother. (No supervision and no cell phones. Completely scandalous by today's standards.) And really, there wasn't a lot to do. We hung out at the library on their public computers more than anywhere else. 

Sign at Something's Brewing.

But like I said, that has changed. A lot. Which makes a lot of sense when you consider people of my generation and after have been gravitating towards city centers as quickly and readily as our parents and grandparents fled them. People don't want to drive anymore. They want to be able to meander to the neighborhood bar, get drunk, stumble over to the all night diner or coffee shop, then head home safely without worrying about DDs or DUIs. It's great! And you can finally do that in Kalamazoo. Or at least park for a few hours in the ramp (which, I realized on this trip, is not what people on this side of the state call a parking garage) and flit from place to place - the theater, art galleries, dinner, drinks, dessert, etc.

All that having been said, we didn't get to see much at New Year's Fest. There was just so much going on all at one time! We tried to make our first stop the aerialist Laura Ernst, but her first two shows were "sold out" (no actual selling involved), and we had to get bracelets to assure us seats for her final show of the night at 10pm, which turned out to be funny and very entertaining. Ms. Ernst is very talented, and it does not surprise me she has won awards and been on TV. 

Out front, we hopped a horse-drawn trolley to the center of the action, Bronson Park to form a new plan.  (One of the horses had an icicle hanging from its nose, poor creature.) Our actual first event ended up being over at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. While Yolonda Lavender and Bedrock put out some swinging tunes, Greg and I wandered the galleries where I was extremely excited to see an Edmonia Lewis sculpture. (If you don't know who she is, click the link. She was an amazing, amazing sculptor of so many beautiful pieces and a very interesting person.) I was also quite impressed by the wire-wrapped sculptures and hangings by Seungmo Park. It's hard to describe some of those pieces and really must be experienced in person. 

Greg and I were lucky to find seats up front for the next act at the KIA, the MI Hiryu Daiko (or MI Flying Dragon Drummers), one of only three taiko drumming groups in Michigan. Most of the members are not Japanese, which was sort of funny to me since I have only ever seen Japanese performances. The woman who leads the group, Esther Vandecar, studied taiko in Japan for 7 years and has played for 25 total. She still has close ties to Japan and an obvious respect for the drums and the tradition. The ages in the group ranged from senior to middle school. The two youngest members were quite skilled and did not shy away from the drums or the audience. It was wonderful to see this group perform! I love taiko.

Fustini's front window display.

Back outside, it was even colder, so Greg and I stopped in at Something's Brewing for a couple of delicious Snickers lattes, warmed up, then walked up and down Burdick so I could see what all had changed on the once-familiar street before waiting for Laura Ernst show to begin. 

We finished the night back at the house with the four of us on the couch, drinking wine, warm and cozy, watching the NYC ball drop on TV. Kalamazoo does its own ball drop with fireworks, but it was just too damn cold to stand around outside and wait for it. 

Happy 2015, everybody. (It's still too cold for me.)