Photo Story: Windmill Island Gardens in Holland, MI

Whenever I visit a new destination, I seek out colorful places and outdoor experiences. Not only does it contribute to a cheerful day, it also looks great in vacation photos. In a world speckled with cramped buildings and concrete jungles, this city girl lives for balancing work life with nature -- especially when it is just a short commute away! 

Such was the case during my four-day visit to Grand Rapids: an unexpected gem that spanned outdoor locales within 20-40 minutes from downtown. 

On one of our days there, Alex and I took a drive to Holland, MI to visit the United States' only authentic, working Dutch windmill. There we encountered acres of gardens, Dutch replicas of authentic structures and villages, and what might be the most immersive old-Dutch experience on American soil. 

When we arrived at the Windmill Island Gardens parking lot we spotted a white shed purposed for ticket sales. It was 3pm and the site closed at 6pm: we still had plenty of time to explore, and hoped a late afternoon breeze would provide relief from the earlier summer Michigan heat. 

After our $10 (per adult) ticket payment, we followed our ears to the cheerful tune of an organ played by a guide in traditional Dutch guise. The peculiar four column street organ was bright, and loud, and felt reminiscent of circus music. According to our map's fact sheet, street organs were popular in The Netherlands. The instrument in front of us turned out to be an authentic organ donated to the United States by the city of Amsterdam. 

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Still sweating from the heat, we realized there wouldn't be as much shade or breeze as we'd hoped. Luckily we found refuge at the Posthouse Visitor Center following the organ performance, where we were able to use the restroom, drink from the water fountain, and peruse timelines and exhibits of the region's dutch history. 

After our visit to the Posthouse Visitor Center we hurried down a straight path toward a row of colorful Dutch homes. Structures we'd later learn are replicas of Dutch architecture from the Zaan region and the Royal Orphanage in Gelderland.

Here we found gifts and snacks, and a model of life in an 18th Dutch century village. Visitors with children enjoyed this area most, as it was right near a refurbished Dutch Kiddie Carousel from the province of Groningen. 

We knew by heading to the gift shops we'd be straying away from the map's recommended tour order, but the food portion of the shops closed at 4pm; we wanted to make sure we purchased something to eat before we were left hangry and dangerous. 

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At the shops we browsed traditional Dutch items, like klompen (wooden clogs) and delftware (the well-known blue and white pottery). My instep was too high to fit into my clogs (darn arches!) so I had to get a much bigger size, which was very difficult to walk in. Alex seemed to enjoy his clogs very much!

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Beyond the rowed houses was a drawbridge arched over a canal, modeled after one from the Noord Holland province. The bridge offered direct access to the historical De Zwaan windmill ("The Swan"). The centuries-old Dutch windmill is visited by thousands of people per year and was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places. 

The windmill was open for tours on the hour and had a small crowd of people already waiting for the next. We noticed the island also offered a walkway (called Polder Walk) around the grounds' seasonal blooms and horse pasture, so chose to walk off all the amazing Grand Rapids restaurant food we'd been eating. Along the walk we stopped and stayed near the horses for a while, finally finding shade to cool our overheating bodies. 

After looping the 2/3-mile path, we were back at the canal -- this time choosing to cross a different bridge that would offer a closer look at the sluice gate (this gate is common in canals, as it controls water levels).

Before we knew it, two hours had passed and we were ready to get back to our hotel and freshen up for dinner in Grand Rapids. We had so much fun exploring the Windmill Island Gardens and couldn't believe how close it was to Grand Rapids and Lake Michigan beaches.

Have you ever visited a place like Windmill Island Gardens?

Let me know if you've been to The Netherlands or a replica destination like this! I am sure there are more of them. Have you seen a windmill up close? Scroll down to leave a comment!

xx, O.


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Windmill Island Gardens