Jen Wilson, Michigan Travel Ideas contributing writer, shares experiences from a trip to Holland, home of the annual Tulip Time Festival.
Like many other travelers, I arrived in the southwest Michigan coastal town of Holland expecting two things: wooden shoes and windmills. The tidily landscaped, downtown-centric city 186 miles west of Detroit delivers both.
Celebrating Holland’s Dutch culture
Holland thrives as a tourism destination because it’s more than a one-note blast from the past. Named for the home country of founder Rev. Albertus Van Raalte and his pious followers, Holland’s imported windmill, historic Dutch village and museums deliver Dutch history, complete with wooden shoes and Delft pottery. Millions of tulips bloom each May during the popular Tulip Time Festival.
But the founders’ strongest legacy appears to be a close-knit community that feels much smaller than its 35,000 population. Holland is a modern village built on the banks of Lake Macatawa, which meets Lake Michigan at Holland State Park, a beach area with a wooden lighthouse lovingly called Big Red by locals since the Coast Guard gave it its classic barn color in 1956.
Something for everyone
Holland is flat-out pretty and hospitable, especially when it’s ramping up for tourist season each spring. Bulbs planted fresh every fall bloom along city streets and a residential historic district. Nelis’ Dutch Village opens then, too, on the outskirts of town, with Dutch buildings, miniature canals and cheese- and shoe-making demonstrations. Nearby Veldheer Gardens blooms 50 million tulips strong.
One of the best tourism stops is Windmill Island Gardens, with a carousel and simulated Dutch village. Its imported 12-story windmill is home to the nation’s first Dutch-certified female miller. A family passing through from Leusden, Holland, gives it the thumbs up.
But the most fun memorial to the ingenuity and hard work of Holland’s settlers is in the spirit of downtown. Renovated historic buildings deliver an updated version of the old-fashioned main street, with clothing boutiques, bookstores, coffee shops, a brew pub, restaurants and bars.
“Downtown Holland has had so much love and energy poured into it,” says Ruth James. The New York transplant came for Holland’s Hope College and stayed for scenery. “The fact that we can have shops like this is miraculous. It’s a testimony to the fact that we’re a true community.”
Tulip Time Festival begins May 1 and runs through May 8. The festival centers around Holland’s Centennial Park and features three parades, concerts and theater, Dutch food, trolley tours and traditional Dutch dancers.
Holland feels a lot smaller than it actually is, because downtown’s inner ring is complete in and of itself with shopping, dining, tourist stops and two hotels. The majority of the vacation can be taken on foot.
As a travel and features writer for the past 12 years, Jen Wilson has worked for magazines such as Midwest Living, National Geographic Traveler, Frommer’s Budget Travel, AAA Living and many others.