Grand Rapids, Mich. is, perhaps, not the typical tourist destination for Texans, but this is a shame for this lovely city.The second largest city in Michigan, it offers a number of unique activities and venues. The culinary scene and arts enthusiasm are surprising but have not gone unnoticed.
Chosen by the New York Times as one of 52 Places to Go in 2016, it also was selected as the No. 1 U.S. travel destination in 2014 by Lonely Planet. Grand Rapids is all of this and so much more.
Nicknamed River City for the Grand River which flows through the center of downtown, Grand Rapids has been the beneficiary of a forward-thinking business community, which identified strategic goals several decades ago. The generosity of several wealthy families have created dynamic cultural, medical and environmental institutions – all of which draw hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
Just some of the city’s superlatives, courtesy of ExperienceGR.com, the tourism arm of the city, are: the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park – one of the world’s 100 most-visited art museums; ArtPrize – the world’s richest, most radically open art competition; the Grand Rapids Art Museum – named one of the six best buildings of 2007 (Newsweek Magazine); Founders Brewing Company – the World’s 2nd Best Brewery (ratebeer.com, 2012); 28 public golf courses (within 15 minutes of downtown make G.R. one of the top cities for per-capita public golf courses); the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum – a spectacular exploration of the lives and history of the 38th U.S. president, and his wife, Betty Ford; and Grand Rapids is America’s 6th Best Fishing City (Field & Stream Magazine, 2006.)
AHC + Hospitality owns and operates three hotel properties in the city: the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the JW Marriott Grand Rapids and the Downtown Courtyard by Marriott. Each has its own ambiance, with the Amway Grand being historical and elegant, The Courtyard is family- and business traveler-friendly, but the JW, where we stayed, is the hip, happening hotel. From beginning to end, the staff at the hotel were superlative. Guests check in next to a wall of glass that overlooks the river. Casual seating gradually melds into Six.One.Six., the hotel’s restaurant. Outside is jdek, where the after-work crowd mingles with hotel guests, all enjoying the magnificent view, the live music and inviting menu.
Cocktails on the patio led to dinner inside and it was a fabulous evening.
Chef Chris Madsen served an amazing charcuterie platter, followed by fresh vegetables and a delicious rib-eye (and that’s hard for a Texas beef lover to admit!) Madsen includes herbs from the urban garden located on the jdek in many dishes.
The JW Marriott Grand Rapids is a world-class hotel for both business and pleasure. The hotel boasts 340 well-appointed, smoke-free rooms and suites on 23 floors. In anticipation of its 10th anniversary this year, JW Marriott Grand Rapids recently unveiled new interiors for the guestrooms and common areas of the property. To create a contemporary look, the hotel design team, led by Dan Pearson, utilized dark, cool gray tones in the corridors that would lead to guestrooms with pops of color like plum and gold. The plum tones were chosen to inspire peace, creativity and worldliness and are connected to the art in each room, “Sister Cities” by Dan Watts. Additional new design details include new drapes, carpets and wall vinyl.
The Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, formerly the Pantlind, reopened in 1981 after extensive renovations by Marvin DeWinter & Associates. This work included the addition of a 29–story glass tower offering panoramic views of the city, river and Lake Michigan. The Pantlind Hotel’s original architects, Warren & Wetmore, were inspired by the work of the Scottish neoclassical architect Robert Adam. In its prime, the hotel was rated as one of the top 10 hotels in the U.S. The hotel features several restaurants well known in Grand Rapids, such as Cygnus. The Courtyard is a bustling, busy hotel and has extensive renovations planned for this year.
West Michigan produces 85 percent of all crops harvested in Michigan, so it’s no surprise that one of the most popular places in downtown is the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. Stylishly urban, visitors peruse the many vendor offerings, most of them made-in-Michigan products. The market offers a number of activities, including cooking classes. The LEED gold certified building has many interesting features such as a green roof, geotherm walls and large greenhouse spaces filled with a variety of plants.
We enjoyed dinner at The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck and the next evening, at Cygnus 27.
Chef Austin Gresham really offers a signature experience at the Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck. The bar overlooks the Grand River and the night we visited, we were enchanted with the sunset as it slipped into the horizon.
Located on the 27th floor of the Glass Tower at Amway Grand Plaza Hotel Hotel, Cygnus 27 is the absolute must-do restaurant in the city. It is known for trend-setting, romantic décor inspired by the Cygnus constellation and captivating scenic views of Grand Rapids. In 2015 the restaurant unveiled a new Latin-inspired menu helmed by Chef Tim Moreno. The AAA Four Diamond eatery unveiled a new seasonal Sunday brunch menu in September 2015.
One of the world’s most significant botanic and sculpture experiences, Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, serves more than a half-million visitors annually. This is a special place. Lovely gardens filled with outdoor statuary, all thought-provoking and impactful. The 158-acre, main-campus grounds feature Michigan’s largest tropical conservatory; one of the largest children’s gardens in the country; arid and Victorian gardens with bronze sculptures by Degas and Rodin; a carnivorous plant house; outdoor gardens; and a 1,900-seat outdoor amphitheater. After spending a few hours admiring the sculptures, plants and flowers, and doing some shopping in the terrific gift shop, we stopped at Founders, one of Grand Rapid’s treasures. Grand Rapids was named “Beer City of the U.S.” in 2014. Prominent breweries in the area include B.O.B.’s Brewery, Brewery Vivant, Founders Brewing Company, Grand Rapids Brewing Co., Hideout, HopCat and Schmohz. Overlooking a classic brew house, Founders taproom is a great testing ground for beer lovers. On any given day you’ll find a few beers on tap that are only available at Founders. It’s a laid-back former trucking depot that was modeled after a German beer hall, complete with a patio and beer garden. Sample handcrafted sandwiches, stop by for some live music or book the Centennial Room to have a private Founders experience for a group.
I thoroughly enjoyed a warm bamboo massage at the JW Marriott Spa, which offers a nice variety of reasonably priced treatments. Complimentary use of pool and fitness center facilities is included with spa treatments.