Where Chicago goes on vacation

March 4, 2019

MICHIGAN CITY — Remember when your family piled into the car for a vacation – where did you go? Starved Rock? Lake Geneva? Wisconsin Dells?

If you grew up in Chicago, it’s likely the Indiana Dunes or Michigan’s Harbor Country were on the itinerary.

So Geoffery Baer, well known TV host on WTTW11, of course chose the dunes for one of the stops on his new “Chicago on Vacation” documentary.

“The Indiana Dunes serves as the poster child for our show – literally,” he said. “Still photos we shot of me on the beach there are being used on billboards advertising the show and on the cover of our WTTW viewer magazine.

“The National Park Service ranger who was our on-camera tour guide at Mount Baldy, Kelly Cadell, had such an obvious love for her work and for the dunes. Her warmth and enthusiasm really inspired all of us on her tour.”

“Chicago on Vacation” is a 90-minute documentary and companion website that premieres Tuesday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m. on WTTW11 and wttw.com/vacation.

Baer hops in a 1973 Chevrolet Impala wagon (the same car his family drove on vacations) for a nostalgic and scenic adventure throughout the Midwest, visiting some favorite vacation spots and not so well-known treasures.

“Our aim is to capture the nostalgic feeling of a classic road trip, and to showcase the many amazing places just a few hour’s drive from Chicago,” Baer said. “We logged more than 7,000 miles on the WTTW production van over eight months of filming.

“And everywhere we went, people were so excited to learn we would be featuring their beloved vacation spots. Those destinations really do have a special place in our hearts.”

He found some “treasures” in Michigan City, and remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

“What I loved most was not any one particular place, but the truly unique elements we found in each place. With regard to Michigan City, and this might surprise local residents, I love the fact that the South Shore Line runs right down the middle of the street in places.

“I know this creates traffic headaches and safety worries for locals, and that there are plans to relocate the tracks. But I’m a bit of a train geek and this so called ‘street running’ is a legacy of interurban rail travel.

“Interurbans were sort of a cross between streetcars and commuter trains that had a brief heyday in the days before better roads made intercity auto travel easier. The South Shore is America’s last surviving interurban rail line,” Baer said.

“I also love that in this show I get to give a shout-out to the ‘stops’ – a quirky way of giving directions unique to Michigan City and Long Beach. The bus route is long gone. But the stops live on!”

Baer’s goal was to “uncovers hidden history and the back stories of favorite Midwestern tourist destinations,” he said.

One favorite story was about the Old Lighthouse Museum

“Historically, I particularly love the story of the woman who tended the Michigan City lighthouse for 43 years until she retired in 1904,” Baer said. “Her name was Harriet Colfax and she lived in the lighthouse with her lifelong companion Ann Hartwell.

“They were beloved in the community and known as ‘Ann and Tat.’ Harriet maintained not only the lighthouse but the other light far out at the end of the seawall extending from the harbor mouth.

“Until she was 80 years old, she would make the trek out to the end of that pier twice daily even when the catwalk was covered in ice or washed by waves. One can only imagine how many lives she saved by keeping the light burning in all seasons and weather.”

He finds Northwest Indiana a truly remarkable and unique area.

“I think many first-time visitors to the beaches in Northwest Indiana are amazed by the odd mixture of natural beauty and heavy industry. To regulars it might not seem surprising. But beachgoers can look one way and see a rare, beautiful and fragile dune landscape, and look in the other direction and see steel mills.

“It’s a history lesson with one simple turn of the head, telling the story of the battle over this precious lakefront between environmentalists who understood the special quality of the ecosystem here, and early 20th Century industrialists who saw a waterfront ripe for exploitation.”

“Chicago on Vacation” is hosted and written by Baer; and produced, directed, and co-written by Griffin.

Baer is a multiple Emmy Award-winning producer, best known as the host and writer of WTTW’s feature-length specials about Chicago architecture and history, including “The Chicago River Tour,” “Navy Pier: A Century of Reinvention,” “Chicago’s South Side,” “Chicago’s Lakefront,” “Chicago’s Loop: A Walking Tour,” and “Chicago by ‘L’: Touring the Neighborhoods.”

Baer also hosted the national PBS series “10 that Changed America” and appears regularly on WTTW’s flagship nightly public affairs program “Chicago Tonight.”

Griffin is a three-time Emmy Award-winning producer. He has produced several of Baer’s WTTW documentaries and the street quiz show “Where in Chicago?” He co-produced the WTTW anthology series “Remembering Chicago: The’70s & ’80s,” and “Local, USA,” which aired nationally on PBS’s World Channel.

As for the new show?

“The family road trip is becoming increasingly rare in today’s ‘constantly connected’ culture,” Griffin said. “We wanted to recapture that experience for our audiences, and also shine a spotlight on unique places that were such a memorable part of it.”

Baer called it a wonderful experience.

“Absolutely! This show taught me that, even in an age when the highway has become generic with the same chain restaurants and motels at every exit and the kids in the back seat looking at screens instead of out the window, local flavor is alive and well when you get off the interstate and explore the towns themselves.”

Chicago on Vacation

Among the stops and attractions showcased in “Chicago on Vacation,” Baer will highlight:

n The South Shore Line to the Indiana Dunes, and a little bit of Florida on the National Lakeshore.

n A restored miniature train running through the ghostly remains of an amusement park built by an apocalyptic religious community in Benton Harbor.

n The “Black Eden” of Idlewild, Michigan, and the once-booming Jewish resorts in South Haven, both of which thrived in the days when now-illegal restrictions limited vacation options for Jews and African Americans.

n The Midwest’s iconic gay resort in the artsy LGBTQ haven of Saugatuck.

n A dazzling musical fountain, authentic Dutch windmill, and the towering Sleeping Bear Dunes along Michigan’s western shore.

n Traverse City celebrating cherries in every way you can imagine (and some you can’t!).

n A voyage to sea on a tall ship, a U.S. Coast Guard rescue vessel, and one of the last commercial fishing boats on Lake Michigan.

n A Mackinac Island carriage ride, and view of the the sunset from the sweeping (and exclusive!) front porch of the storied Grand Hotel.

n Lake Geneva mansions built by Chicago industrialists during the Gilded Age.

n Tracing the tracks of Prohibition era gangsters in the resorts and lodges of Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

n Wisconsin Dells, the Waterpark Capital of the World (a registered trademark).

n A kerosene-fueled inferno that caps an iconic Door County fish boil (followed by a hearty helping of fish stew originally served in logging camps).

On the companion website (wttw.com/vacation), visitors can explore vacation destinations around the Midwest; dive into Baer’s personal travel journal and behind-the-scenes snapshots; plan their own vacation; and watch the show and web extra videos.