Great times in Grand Rapids, Mich. By Kit Bernardi

My toddler son, Will, hugged the kitchen table-sized hoof of a 24-foot tall, prancing bronze horse originally designed by Leonardo da Vinci. He said, "Mommy, this is sculp-pulp-ture. You know?"

I could see the light bulb burning in that little toe-head. "Ah-ha!" World-class art was sharing brain space with Buzz Lightyear, Pepperidge Farm fish crackers and Thomas the Tank Engine. But we didn't have to fly to Italy for Will's masterpiece moment. We drove just three hours from Chicago to the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. Over a fall weekend spent as guests of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau, we collected plenty of "ah-ha!" memories like this one.

Fresh air fun We spent the better part of a day at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 125-acre botanical park and outdoor art gallery. You can walk or ride a tram among 100 larger-than-life sculptures by internationally acclaimed artists from the late 19th and 20th centuries. Woodlands blazing with fall color serve as vibrant backdrops for works by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Alexander Liberman, Keith Haring and many others.

The sculpture park opened in 2002. The impressive complex has a 15,000-square-foot tropical conservatory, the nation's largest carnivorous plant display, nature trails and four themed outdoor gardens with three more planned. In the facility's learning center, Will pressed his nose to the pond-sized turtle aquarium. He hugged more masterpieces on the room-size sculpture park 3-D puzzle. Toddler-height replicas of the park's sculptures are puzzle pieces.

You can dine at the airy café on site or travel down the street to Robinette's Apple Haus & Gift Barn. Opened in 1911, the family owned orchard serves homemade pie, cider and sandwiches in its rustic lunch room. Ed Robinette says, "I've farmed my whole life. This time of year, I guess you could say cider runs through my veins."

We took a horse-drawn hayride through the orchards. Will joined other kids in climbing around the giant pumpkins. I bought fresh-popped caramel corn, cider and apple butter for munchies in the hotel.

On the town At the Grand Rapids Children's Museum, Will and his dad, Bob, huffed and puffed blowing gigantic, geometric-shaped bubbles. We dressed up in knights' armor and observed bees busily working in a hive. Nearby is One Trick Pony, a local favorite for wood-fired pizzas and jumbo sandwiches.

The Van Andel Museum Center on the Grand River makes Western Michigan's Native American history come to life for kids through hands-on exhibits. The "Furniture City" exhibit showcases Grand Rapids' fine furniture-making legacy in the late 19th century. It was rough unsaddling Will from the pastel-colored horse on the vintage carousel overlooking the pretty river walk.

On the other side of the river is the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum tracing the hometown son's personal and political life. Older kids get a glimpse of their parents' flower power phase growing up in the tumultuous 1960s. Fashion-conscious teens may want the bodacious bell bottoms in the plexiglass case. Within easy expressway access and walking distance to both museums are hotels offering family packages.

At authentic 1950s-style Pal's Diner, we snuggled into a pink leatherette booth, munched on fist-thick burgers and slurped lung-popping milkshakes. We got our licks in at the old-fashioned ice-cream parlor Jersey Junction in the historic Gaslight Village shopping district. For Sunday brunch, we ate at Rose's on Reed's Lake in bucolic East Grand Rapids. The homey restaurant housed in a vintage boathouse serves eggy French toast, chicken crepes and bread crumbs to feed the neighborhood ducks.

Afterward we drove through Heritage Hill, a 40-block neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Homes date back to 1848 and represent more than 60 architectural styles. The Heritage Hill Association headquarters at 126 College Ave. SE has free, self-guided brochures available in the purple mailbox on the porch. Also in the historic district are Voigt House Victorian Museum and the meticulously restored Prairie Style Meyer May House built in 1909 by Frank Lloyd Wright (free tours offered Tuesday through Thursday and Sundays).

In the country Our day in Coopersville, a half hour west of Grand Rapids, was one of the weekend's highlights. At the Coopersville Farm Museum & Country Store, Will clambered over dozens of pieces of vintage farm equipment and played for a full hour in the tractor sandbox.

"Coopersville is a small, quiet place where people here know their neighbors' children's names and where they live," says Cindy Timmerman, lifelong Coopersville resident and chamber of commerce official. She says visitors come to get a glimpse of the type of unhurried community life that is fast disappearing across the country with city and suburban sprawl.

During Fall Fest on Saturdays, volunteers run bead craft, corn-husk doll-making and pumpkin decorating activities. Visitors can cast votes for their favorite scarecrow decorating Coopersville's Main Street. You can ride the 150-year-old Coopersville & Marne railway on a restored steam locomotive called the Pumpkin Train. During the hourlong trip, the Great Pumpkin leads sing-alongs onboard. When kids disembark, they wander the pumpkin patch to pick a free squash for sculpting at home.

Our pumpkin "sculp-pulp-ture" was Buzz Lightyear with a horse's mane made of construction paper.

Just the facts Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau (800) 678-9859

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (616) 957-1580

Van Andel Museum Center (616) 456-3977

Gerald R. Ford Museum (616) 254-0400

Grand Rapids Children's Museum (616) 235-4726

Coopersville Farm Museum & Country Store (616) 997-8555

Kit Bernardi is a mother and freelance travel writer.


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