Submitted by: Matthew A. Werner
Check out Miller Beach, she said. Write a story about things to do. Keep it at 1,200 words, she said. No problem, I thought. That won’t be hard. Then I visited Miller Beach. Keeping it under 1,200 words became a challenge.
My first stop was the Nelson Algren Pocket Park, an alleyway tucked between a liquor store and the Indiana Landmark’s northwest field office. The park is decorated with some of Algren’s quotes. The Nelson Algren museum is around the corner. Sue Rutsen gave me a tour that outlined Algren’s colorful life and highlighted his time spent in Miller Beach. Twenty-four fabulous photographs of Algren shot by renowned photographer, Art Shay, help tell the story. But the items in the corner grabbed me—the chair, desk, and typewriter on which Algren hammered out the text to his famous novel, “The Man with the Golden Arm.” It was right there! The museum doesn’t keep regular hours. No problem. You can schedule a visit via phone or e-mail and somebody will meet you and teach you about the famous author. Learning about Algren’s time in Miller Beach also provided great insight into the unique neighborhood.
The Nelson Algren Museum
Afterward, I wandered down the back alley and gawked at murals painted by renowned graffiti artists such as Hebru Brantley and Rahman ‘Statik’ Barnes. The artwork changes every two years. Loitering in this alley is permitted and encouraged.
Across Lake Street is the Marshall J. Gardener Center for the Arts. A former drug store, the façade is all glass and the interior provides ample space for artists’ works. The current exhibit features Chesterton rock ‘n roll photographer, Bobby Talamine. Black and white and color photographs captured Lady Gaga, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Johnny Cash, Madonna, and more. Each performer is frozen in time, fully entranced, practicing their craft, doing what they do best on stage. Exhibits rotate regularly, so you can go back again and again and be assured to see something new.
To reach the two furthest points in town, you need travel only three and a half miles. You can easily bicycle anywhere, as Nelson Algren did. Driving is a cinch, but I felt a little silly doing it. As I tooled through town, windows rolled down, it felt like I was missing the best of Miller. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore surrounds the town and runs right through the center of it. Miller Woods is a trail no one should skip. The Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education is full of interesting things and activities for both young and old. There are miles of hiking and biking trails. Wild geraniums, black-eyed Susans, cactus (yes, there are native cacti here!), black oak savannahs, and dune grass flourish. Lagoons are a part of life. Canoes and kayaks are waiting for you. The town is soaked in natural beauty year-round. The entire lakefront is accessible to the public. Need a meeting place, reception, or wedding? Look into the Marquette Park pavilion or the Aquatorium. Want to stay a few days? There are two places ready to deliver an unforgettable experience.
Miller Woods Trail
Miller residents smile and wave. Most like to chat. Lifelong residents and recent transplants are proud devotees to the town. Jim and Hilary Pappas are two such residents. In 2007, the engineer and interior designer started a luxury, elite vacation venture: Miller Beach Vacation Rentals. The first property, Dream Retreat, is a stone’s throw away from Chanute Hill, where Octave Chanute’s team flew a glider in 1896, years before the Wright Brothers first manned flight. The house has six half-levels with strong handrails and stair runs limited to seven steps apiece. Jim designed it with his parents’ aging knees in mind. You don’t notice it unless you need it. The home includes six bedrooms, five bathrooms, a hot tub, sand volleyball court, and a great view of the neighboring dunes. Just over a small hill between the house and Lake Michigan is a natural lagoon. A narrow asphalt path winds past it. Three blocks to the west and you’re at Lake Street Beach. A half-mile to the east and you arrive at the Aquatorium at Marquette Park. Park the car and explore the area on foot or bicycle. One of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in America is right there beyond the deck. Wander the dunes. Take a dip in Lake Michigan or sit and listen to the waves wash against the pristine beach. Fall foliage and winter snow provide excellent hiking and cross-country skiing experiences as well.
The View from “Dream Retreat”
At the Pappas’ second property, Villa Santorini, we grabbed a seat on the main deck, perched atop a dune overlooking Lake Michigan. I turned to Jim and said, “I could sit here all day and be happy.” Pappas smiled. “Me too,” he said. How marvelous it would be to take my coffee in the morning and cocktails at sunset with that view. It’s the southern tip of Lake Michigan and the deck faces due north. Ahead—hundreds of miles water. Wells Street Beach is a few hundred feet away. To the immediate east is the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Pappas showed me around the compound (it can accommodate up to thirty people). The home has a subtle nautical theme that whispers Mediterranean, Greek island. The experience overwhelmed me. Every turn, every doorway, every room, every stairwell—a new discovery. A spiral staircase, a round room, a skylight, a hidden bedroom with a vaulted ceiling and its own secluded deck, reading nooks, a steam shower, wet bars, televisions, and music in every room. One-hundred-eighty degree views of sunrise, sunset, and the Chicago skyline. You can stand at the kitchen counter and gaze at Lake Michigan water.
The deck at Villa Santorini
Guests to Miller Beach Vacation Rentals have come from forty-nine states and fourteen countries for good reason. If the devil is in the details, Jim Pappas is absolutely wicked. As a kid, he asked for blueprints of Mike Tecton manor homes and mansions for Christmas. He stared at the drawings, imagining every detail in his head. At his properties, he designed every feature down to the lightbulbs. He orchestrated all of those nooks and crannies, begging visitors to discover them. Jim and Hilary Pappas strive to provide the perfect vacation rental experience. They even designed a phone app to help guests navigate the house and guide them to nearby places to go and things to do. If you want a memorable stay in a beautiful setting, this is it. I can’t stop thinking about my brief visit.
Miller Beach is just 40 minutes from Chicago and there’s much, much more to do, including 18th Street Brewery, Miller Pizza, Miller Bakery Café, Vibrations Juice Bar, Flamingo Pizza, Lake Street Gallery, and Indie Indie Bang Bang (to name a few!). Don’t wait. Plan your visit. Wander the dunes, hike a trail, cross-country ski, learn about the amazing ecological diversity and experience it up close. Kayak or canoe through the lagoons. Bathe in Lake Michigan water. Take in the scenery. Relax.
Miller Beach is a neighborhood in Gary, Indiana. Want to learn about more places in the dunes? Be sure to like Dig the Dunes on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @digthedunes, and sign up for our newsletter today!
Feature photo by: Donna Lind