When I was invited on a #MittenTrip to Holland, I had no idea what to expect. Now, a little personal history first: I’ve been to Holland a few times during the summer. For most of us who grew up in Michigan, a summer or five has been spent near the greatest lake of all (in my stubborn opinion), Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan is beautiful, clean, large, obviously great (hehe), and can be enjoyed in a day trip from Metro Detroit. So, to me, Holland was a city that granted access to Lake Michigan. Most of my trips to Holland have been spent lying on the beach, eating a late lunch or early dinner Downtown, and retiring to a three-hour car ride home or a B&B for the night. Never had I spent two nights and days actually exploring Holland as a destination city. But guess what… it is!
The good and bad news was that it rained the first day we were there, so we spent the first part of the day exploring the downtown shopping district with lovely dress shops, a toy store, and New Holland Brewery. We tasted beer and their housemade spirits. This was great, and truthfully, I thought this would be the bulk of our experience. As a life-long Michigander, the case can be made that most lakeside towns have little boutique shops, restaurants, sweet shops (as in, the best fudge and ice cream), and that about ends the tour. But, for Holland, this was just the beginning.
Holland, as the name suggests and their website tells us, was founded by Dutch settlers in the 1840s. By the 20th century, Holland was home to many industries where stuff ranging from pickles to pianos was being created.
Holland was, and still is, tied closely to the Netherlands. In 1910, the Nelis family first ventured to the United States. They were so in awe of the beauty that is West Michigan, they purchased land and began growing produce. During the Great Depression, the family started growing flowers, specifically tulips. This business became quite successful, and as an added feature the family began to import Dutch goods to sell in their shop. By 1952, the Nelis’ small operation was outgrowing its small beginnings, so the family purchased land on a small two-lane road that would become Dutch Village — our first Dutch spot.
1. Dutch Village
Now, you may be wondering, what’s with the history lesson? I tell you all of this because when you visit Nelis’ Dutch Village without this information, you may wonder, why is Dutch Village surrounded by strip malls and national big box stores? Progress! That small, two-lane road is now US 31, a major thoroughfare with fast food locations and chain stores galore.
As we entered Dutch Village, a young girl dressed in traditional Dutch garb asked if we would like to hear a song. Of course, we said yes! She then placed a songbook into the street organ (that was about the size of a wall) and pressed some pedals then, like it has for many years, the very large wall of sound began to play. I couldn’t help but smile.
Dutch Village consists of 30 structures all paying homage to different parts of Dutch culture, from cheese making to candle making to the carving of wooden footwear known as clogs. We watched several demonstrations and also witnessed many families taking candid photos with horse sculptures and tulip planters. We wandered over to the petting zoo and fed baby goats, bunnies, and even a llama. It was truly an experience for all.
2. Windmill Gardens
If you haven’t had enough Dutch heritage yet, don’t worry — there is more! Our second Dutch experience was at Windmill Gardens, a municipal park on the edge of the city that offers the only authentic working Dutch windmill in the US.
This windmill is called a DeZwaan – meaning ‘graceful bird.’ The park is quite picturesque, featuring well-kept gardens full of flowers (obviously with plenty of the signature tulips), a bridge perfect for a selfie, walking paths around the outer edge, and even a carousel for the kids. We even considered crashing a wedding taking place at the beautiful park that weekend!
3. DeBoer Dutch Brothers Cafe & Bakkerij
To close out our visit to all things Dutch, we stopped for a meal (and something sweet) from DeBoer Dutch Brothers Cafe & Bakkerij. The place had a wait, even in the early morning hours of a late-summer Sunday, which is always a good sign. We had several other folks along our trip mention this place, including a local who explained this was the one place she desperately wanted to go for her birthday.
The restaurant and bakery was the hot spot for Dutch food in Holland, MI. Some of the flour from the DeZwaan mentioned above is used in their bakery – talk about sourcing locally! From the healthy Veggie Power Blend Skillet featuring “super foods” to Old World Biscuits and Gravy, you can find something delicious to eat no matter what you’re craving. Just looking for something sweet? Try a Klompen Cake (a buttermilk pancake) or Sugar Bread, their traditional egg bread loaded with chopped sugar cubes and cinnamon, fried with butter and served with fresh strawberries (I can’t make this kind of thing up).
What are your favorite Dutch spots in West Michigan? How do you experience other cultures without leaving the state? Let us know!
~Guest Writer, Amanda Brewington
Amanda Brewington is the founder of Always Brewing Detroit, a community gathering space that also serves coffee. She currently runs day-to-day operations at the shop, holds two other jobs in hospitality, and facilitates small business training with BUILD. Amanda has two BAs from Michigan State University, one in Communication with a specialization in Public Relations and a second degree in Telecommunication Information Studies and Media with an emphasis in audio production, as well as more than a decade of experience in her fields. After 5 years of owning a business, Amanda will soon transition from full-time entrepreneur to a new opportunity to continue her passion for helping people.