The Marquette skyline from the waterfront.

 

The Village of Marquette has become something of a second home to me this winter. In fact, I have actually spent more time here than at home in Grand Rapids. This town, the largest in the Upper Peninsula and home to Northern Michigan University, serves as the economic and cultural confluence of the Peninsula, with even radio ads 2 hours away advertising places here.

The Marquette Harbor Lighthouse near the start of the breakwater.

For the last few years, partly as an isolationist exercise to try and improve my writing (a la Thoreau’s Walden, though far less extreme) and partially for an archetypal experience in a northern small town during the winter, I had been looking loosely for the chance to spend a winter in an Upper Peninsula town. Enough so that I actually included it on a sort of makeshift bucket list that I keep. Little did I figure that it would happen merely as a sideline effect of spending the winter with someone that I truly cared about.

 

Before meeting Sheylyn, I had the unfortunate yet comical story of coming to Marquette in October of 2009. That trip had not exactly turned out to be the best opportunity to see the town, as I arrived from Paradise and Grand Marais later at night on the weekend of NMU’s parent visitation weekend. The Marquette “micropolitan area” extends about 15 miles west of the town center along US-41/M-28. Every hotel was filled up, something I hardly expected this time of year, and I luckily found one room at the very western edge of Ishpeming: the hot tub suite for $130, rather than the $40 I would have paid for a regular motel room. And it happened to be across the parking lot from the Jasper Ridge Brewery, a great UP brewpub.

Downtown Washington Street set up for the beginning of the dogsled races.

The first time that I came here with Sheylyn was in August on our trip down M-28 to Bruce Crossing to see the Paulding Light. This visit included my reintroduction to the Marquette beach. Apparently in error, I had never assumed Lake Superior to be a warm or desirable swimming locale. This beach just north of downtown throws that assumption out the window. It was late August and there were over 200 people on a half-kilometer stretch enjoying the unexpectedly warm water and swimming out to the whimsically decorated Shiras Rocks.

As I have made so many trips back and forth from Marquette in the last few months, it’s better to just give some of the town’s highlights rather than recount various different experiences.

Food & Drink

One of the staple foods throughout the entire Upper Peninsula is the pasty. Made popular by the miners and loggers of the 19th century, this Cornish dish usually consists of beef, potatoes and rutabaga, and sometime onion wrapped in a dough shell and then baked until it’s either soft and doughy or crispy and flaky. I ordered gravy with it at Jean Kay’s in Marquette, a revision to which the owner vocally expressed his disapproval, in a very cordial manner, of course, as he made conversation with us throughout the meal.

Aoy’ fanclub

For any traveler, one of the best options is the Rice Paddy. It’s well known by locals and NMU students and is rated as “the best Thai food in the world” by the Lonely Planet travel guides. I personally don’t know enough about Thai food to comment on that one way or the other. However, I can say that I’ve never had a bad meal there and the prices are fantastic. On top of that, the owner, Aoy, is one of the hardest working and friendliest characters you will ever come across, even with her own following known as the “Girlfriends and Boyfriends of Aoy.”

In a newly purple building almost right across the street from Rice Paddy is a bar called the Wooden Nickel, which quickly became one of my favorite spots to pass time in Marquette. It’s wooden everything in there, even down to the mixture of shavings and peanut shells on the floor. The owner, Stan, is often there with his dogs and is every bit as hospitable and friendly behind the bar as Aoy is at Rice Paddy and he has 4 shelves of the largest variety of tequila that you may ever see. The bar is aflutter right now with anticipation for the “Drinko” wall, a mock-up of the Price Is Right’s Plinko game that will determine drink specials.

One of the dogs found at the Wooden Nickel

Black Rocks Brewery is all the talk of the town the past few months. Opened in a house on Third Street as a “nano-brewery”, they brew very small batches and are changing their recipes and beer types with each week. Their taproom, a kitchen and living room converted into a lounge area and bartop, is only open on weekends and is usually packed shoulder to shoulder with regulars and newcomers.

There are a number of other venues around Marquette that will cater to different tastes, but as is to be expected in a town this size, there are things lacking.

Boiled crawfish topping off my étouffée at Lagniappe.

One surprising venue is Lagniappe, a sunken New Orleans themed restaurant and bar (not open late night) and the accompanying store at street-level. Having lived in New Orleans for a small time, I can appreciate what the chef-owner is trying to do here. His recipes and ingredients are without a doubt top-notch. That being said, the flavor on every dish I’ve had there leaves much to be desired to the Cajun fan. They make little use of spices and it’s very fortunate that there is a seasoning shaker and 3 or 4 bottles of hot sauce at every table.

The best burger in town is (un)surprisingly not the staple local chain Beef-a-roo, but the low-key Pat’s Bar on Washington street about a kilometer outside of the main downtown strip. Usually staffed by a single amiable bartender and populated by a few passionate regulars, it’s a venue that certainly doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

For those looking for a dance venue, the Upfront is going to be the best option, followed by Verabar (formerly The Mix). The dance crowd will greatly vary at both from day to day, and there are times when they won’t even be there on weekends.

Remillard’s Pub AKA Remie’s is the place to go downtown for a down-tempo atmosphere and rougher eclectic mix of patrons, which the bar recognizes and embraces. It’s a great place to strike up random conversations or just get some cheap drinks, which they specialize in.

Those looking for a more relaxed bar atmosphere should seek out L’attitude. Despite its pretentious sounding name, the staff is friendly and the prices (granted, I was there in the winter with its reduced menu and more generous prices) were hard to beat. Aside from the UP version of neo-industrial architecture, the best feature of this venue is by far the view. It stands almost at the northwest corner of Marquette Harbor, giving a complete vista of the Harbor, the pier, ore dock and marina, and a partial view of downtown.

Other sights to check out

  • The Village – For a town of its size, Marquette has a somewhat unique feature. There is a second sort of downtown called “The Village” along Third Street until it ends at the NMU campus. This area tends to be populated more by the NMU students than by the general public, but provides the wealth of the town’s smaller restaurants and a couple bars, including the Third Base Bar, which opens at 8am, for those early morning drinkers.
  • Northern Michigan University has an enormous influence on the town and it is well worth a drive or walk through the campus. Originally founded as Northern State Normal School as a training program for teachers in the UP, it grew into the largest education facility in this half of the state. Aside from a few of the newer buildings, most of the architecture is very utilitarian, which is unfortunate if you see some of the pictures of buildings that no longer exist. NMU does provide a large multitude of cultural events and activities that are well worth checking out.
  • The Peter White Library serves as a cultural institution in Marquette as well, providing a quite workspace with a great view of the town on the second floor and the bottom floor contains a community arts shop, a coffee house, and hosts a variety of events.
  • Just recently, the new Marquette Regional History Center opened up on Spring Street. Unfortunately it didn’t open until after I left Marquette the last time, but I certainly plan on making a visit the next time I find myself there.
  • Presque Isle Park is an anomaly. Located just north of the largest factory and active ore dock in the city is a beautiful city park. Presque Isle, despite its name is not an island, but rather a French term, which means “almost an island” and only has a narrow strip of land connecting it. On the east side of the “Isle” are a quarter mile of cliffs, which are popular to jump off of with the locals. Its higher elevation also provides a great look at the surrounding shores and islands further out. The wildlife is also present, evidenced by the deer that cut off our path or almost 5 minutes. A bartender at the Northland Pub is currently working on a GPS based guide to the Presque Isle Park and surrounding area.
  • Sugar Loaf is a mountain just north of the town on the road to Big Bay. It takes 10-15 minutes to hike up and there are two paths: the easy and the difficult. Feel free to choose your own. Although, on our trip down the mountain, Sheylyn and I strayed from the trail unknowingly and ended up a bit down the road from where we had parked. The top of the mountain is equipped with a wooden stairway and observation area which will provide you the grandest view of the entire area, from the downtown and ore factory to the undeveloped woods and mountains surrounding to the occasional freighter you may see cruising the Lake Superior coast. There is also a popular trail nearby at Hogback Mountain.

Walkway from Front Street to the waterfront.

Just south of town is the Marquette Mountain ski area. Local radio stations are overwhelmed with their ads during the winter and the hotels fill with the occasional ski teams and groups. Outdoor winter activities, however, have never been one of my fortes, so I cannot provide a firsthand account of Marquette Mountain, other than it attracts people from all over the UP.

The Marquette breakwater, much narrower than most.

Just as in Houghton, the best thing you can do to experience Marquette is to walk the downtown area of Marquette, including the majestic waterfront that it has. On nicer days, the walk down the narrow breakwater provides for an exceptional experience and view in all directions. Waves and high winds on harsher days can make it very intimidating though.

The overwhelming structure in Marquette is the derelict downtown ore dock

Close-up of the downtown ore dock.

that is fenced off from any visitors. There is currently a petition attempting to convert it into condos with an extended pier, park and indoor atrium open to the public. It’s unknown whether or not that will happen at this point though.

Another thing to keep in mind is that, as Marquette is the largest town in the Upper Peninsula, it also has a “micropolitan area” (defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, not me) populated with a combination of interesting and oddball sites that you may not find anything like otherwise. I’ll be discussing the Marquette area in an upcoming post.