An Ecotourism Mini-Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Reader Contribution by John D. Ivanko and Inn Serendipity
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Cheese at Zingerman’s Creamery

It’s not just about the vibrant, local, farm-to-table culinary scene, though plentiful food and drinks were the focus on my recent visit to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Sure, backpacks are everywhere, but in this case, they’re worn by students attending the University of Michigan and used to carry books and notepads around campus – not camping gear.

But with rolling farmlands an easy bicycle trip out of town, the Huron River meandering through downtown, the 700-acre University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, and a vibrant arts scene, these can beckon an ecotraveler who doesn’t require wilderness to be in nature. With all the tree-lined streets and green spaces, Ann Arbor justly earns its moniker as “tree town”. And for many ecotravelers, cultural attractions and activities are as important as natural ones.

Get Active Outdoors

The Argo Canoe Livery will happily put you in a canoe, kayak or inner tubes on the Huron River, perhaps to shoot the Argo Cascades on a run between Argo to Gallup Park. Or stay dry and hike through the acres of gardens and natural preserves of the University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Be advised, strolling through the “Diag” on the main campus, or through the magnificent Law Quad, may make some pine nostalgically for campus life.

You don’t have to go far out of town (less than 20 miles) to get to the 11,000-acre Pinckney Recreation Area, with miles of mountain bike or horseback trails, hiking trails, plentiful lakes to fish, rustic cabins to rent or remote primitive camping sites in the backcountry to pitch a tent.  You can event stay in a yurt. If that’s not enough, cross over to the adjacent 20,000-acre Waterloo Recreation Area, largest state park in lower Michigan.

You can even exercise as you pedal and drink. Have a laugh, share some cheer, and zig-zag through the streets with High Five Pedal Tours while the sound of music festively plays from the speakers on the bar-on-wheels vehicle. One bell, pedal; two pedals, stop. Leave the driving to the guide, who steers you where you want to go. Local beers, wines or coffee from local roasters are often featured, along with customized tours that can include special stops at some of the many bookstores in town.

Savor Farm to Table Feasts

As I wrote earlier, where Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti most reflect the essence of ecotourism is in the communities’ approach to farm-to-table cuisine. The cornucopia of flavors served up at the many restaurants are as diverse as the cultivars of tomatoes you might find at the farmers’ market. The restaurants seem to satisfy every ethnic food craving, from Korean to Turkish.

Forget that this four-season climate includes lots of cold and snow.  There are serious foodies here, probably more on a first name basis with their farmers than they are with their doctors. The Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market in Kerrytown is year round (and outside) every Saturday morning, where you can elbow alongside chefs who pick up their ingredients for the week. From small batch, cottage food products to whatever is at peak ripeness, in abundance. In early June, that can mean nettles, bouquets of peonies, radish and lettuce, and strawberries — even tomatoes from farmers who know how to fool nature with their hot-house hoop greenhouses. Every day of the week you can pick up local produce, eggs, meats, baked goods, dairy and artisan products from over 140 local farms that supply the Argus Farm Stop, where the producers set the prices!

Be Artistic

Traditional arts are, in fact, mingled in with the culinary arts.  In Ann Arbor, trying your hand as an artist is easy at the Yourist Gallery and Studio where you can take pottery classes taught by local artists.

“I started the studio with me wanting to make pots,” explains owner and artist Kay Yourist. “Then I started teaching. It’s helped me to develop as an artist.” Her gallery offers monthly classes where you throw a pot and get to keep the finished piece, too. Appointments can also be made for individual workshops, again, with a piece you create included. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that there’s a group of annual art fairs that are so large that they spread out along numerous streets throughout the city to accommodate the more than 1,000 exhibitors; the combined event featuring four art fairs attracts over a half a million attendees.

Reflecting the vibrant culinary scene, cooking classes abound.  You can learn the finer points of making cheeses from chief cheese maker and a managing partner of Zingerman’s Creamery, Aubrey Thomason. “What we make are lactic processed cheeses,” Thomason explains to our small group as we watch her work her magic making mozzarella. “They’re soft fresh cheeses or mold ripened cheeses.” After the class, our group had a chance to try nearly twenty varieties of the cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses they’ve built quite a following for, each made in small batches with traditional methods. Or head over to Fustini’s Oils and Vinegars for one of their hands-on cooking classes.

The music scene is thriving, too.  For near daily live bluegrass and folk music in an intimate setting, I headed to The Ark where Mark Lavengood Bluegrass Bonanza plucked, strummed and sung a near perfect ending to the day.

Shop Local

When it comes to picking up a little gift, Ann Arbor has a buy local, buy Michigan spin. The VinBar features a great selection of Michigan wines from Black Star Farms, Good Harbor Vineyards and Mawby. The Kerrytown Market & Shops offers yarns at Spun and unique oils and vinegars at Fustini’s. Just up the street, enjoy a cup of tea or partake in a full tea service from among the world’s best teas at the Tea Haus; let them guide your journey and explore teas from black to green to oolong to white. Of course, leave plenty of time to taste your way through Zingerman’s Delicatessen with their spectacular selection of breads, olive oils, cheeses and meats.

Sleep in Green Lodging

Ann Arbor has a few eco-lodging options. The Sheraton Ann Arbor is a TripAdvisor Silver Green Leader, with four EV charging stations, low flow showers, sinks and toilets in every room, and widespread use of energy efficient lighting. Guests can even op out of having their room cleaned during their stay and receive a Make a Green Choice voucher for food or beverages as thanks for doing so each night.

The Burnt Toast Inn, with eight rooms split between two properties, offer seasonal, mostly organic breakfasts featuring local foods from Crust Bakery, Calder’s Dairy and The Grainery. There’s an AirBnB option that will allow you to see what living in a net zero energy and net zero water home is all about (if you don’t already do so). The Grocoff’s energy-efficient renovation of a 1901 Victorian family home features an 8.1 kW PV array, Geothermal heating and cooling, EV chargers and sustainable landscaping.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, “9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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