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Visiting heaven and Hell in Michigan

It was a cold day in Hell.

Writers wait all their lives for a lead like that.But on a thin ribbon of road in southeastern Michigan, it's a joke worn thin on travelers visiting Hell, a tiny map-dot of a town just north of Chelsea.

Employees of the township's dessert and year-round costume shop, Screams Ice Cream from Hell & Halloween, revel in telling each customer "Welcome to Hell" when they walk in the door.

Off Interstate Highway 94, the stretch of highway between Jackson and Ann Arbor offers concrete tributaries full of small-town bed-and-breakfasts, quaint shops, theaters and dining treasures.

Chelsea, 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor, served as the epicenter of our weekend, home of actor Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theatre and uncommonly superb Common Grill. Its handful of downtown shops, however, aren't more than an afternoon's entertainment--which brings us back to Hell.

How this blink-and-you'll-miss-it bend in the road came by the name of Hell depends on who you ask. Some say that cantankerous founding figure George Reeves, when asked what the hitching post community on the Dexter Trail would be called, reputedly said, "I don't care; you can name it Hell if you want to." Other theories mention the area's low, swampy lands leading settlers to choose a Biblically hyperbolic name.

And so now, Hell has its own postmark so that relatives can see that, yes, your postcard really was sent from the (metaphorical) fiery pit.

A small, green road sign announces "Hell (Portage) Creek, a tributary of the Huron River" and if that were the only town marker, drivers would simply blow by Hell. But instead, savvy proprietors have set up a fun, gimmicky pit stop flagged by a wall mural announcing the town.

Between Screams and a small grocery store (also Hell's official post office and gift shop), silly Halloween scenes are painted on upright wooden displays, complete with face-holes so visitors can insert themselves into the campy horror. Who can resist? My girlfriend, Kate, lent her good looks to a plump devil caricature wearing a button declaring, "I'm a lil' devil in Hell." In turn, she took my picture in a cartoon graveyard populated by a headless body holding an ice cream cone and a platter holding my head. The word balloon above my noggin read "I lost my head in Hell." You get the idea.

But tucked away in Hell is a little bit of heaven.

Despite some cheesy gifts (Hell University T-shirts, pun-laden postcards), Screams offers a rather extensive "gourmet sundae bar," with toppings displayed in a coffin. In front a lounging plastic skeleton wearing Groucho Marx glasses, goodies labeled "buttersnot" (butterscotch), "chocolate-covered warts" (M&Ms) and "ghost poop" (marshmallows) are arranged for ice cream lovers. You can even eat while you shop.

After buying some postcards and depleting the pun possibilities, Kate and I headed back to Chelsea.

Home of Jiffy mixes (remember those corn muffins?), historic Chelsea prides itself on its classic Victorian-style homes, arts and dining.

The most famous restaurant, and deservedly so, is the Common Grill, founded by executive chef Craig Common. The chef, formerly with Detroit's Muer restaurants, was approached by Robert Daniels, owner of Chelsea Lumber Co. (and father of actor/writer Jeff Daniels), about opening a high quality dining establishment to complement the run of plays at his son's Purple Rose Theatre. Opening its doors in 1991, the Common Grill has been raking them in ever since. Friends told us that even non-theatergoers from Detroit and Ann Arbor routinely make the drive for one of the restaurant's live music "Jazzy Brunch Sundays."

With inventive culinary selections, such as the "warm smoked chicken baby spinach salad" ($11, my order) and menu standard "oven roasted chicken breast" ($20, Kate's choice), we were instantly sold. A pleasant wait staff and autumn-colored decor helped round out the experience.

Bellies full, we decided to crash-land at the Chelsea House Inn, our B&B accommodation for the evening. Run by owners Kim and Jim Myles, this colorfully ornamented house was a labor of love for the couple. In their spacious sitting room, they proudly display their renovation photos and will talk (at length) about their fine, 122-year-old Queen Ann Victorian home. And they have reason to be proud. Jim has done much of the rebuilding himself, and Kim has decorated each of the four rental spaces with antiques and warm colors, including our room, the Congdon Room.

Named for town founder Elisha Congdon, the small chamber contains a sun splash of yellow hues. Antique bureaus and a waist-high bed are indicators of personal, period touches. After taking advantage of modern comforts such as fuzzy slippers and robes (provided free of charge), mini water bottles and a recently installed shower, we decided to freshen up and nap before the evening's play.

Rising bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we headed across the public parking lot to Purple Rose Theatre. Not so coincidentally sharing a name with Woody Allen's movie "The Purple Rose of Cairo" (in which Daniels starred with Mia Farrow), the non-profit theater features classic and modern works, this evening "Across the Way," the first dramatic play written by Daniels.

The cozy, three-sided stage (surrounded by 168 seats) lends itself to intimate performances, perfect in this case for Daniels' tale of a woman coping with death, possibly her own. The star of such films as "Terms of Endearment" and "Dumb & Dumber" previously premiered his comedies "Escanaba in da Moonlight" and "Shoe Man" at the Purple Rose, but "Across the Way" has been lauded by critics and is up for some major theater awards this year.

After the play, Kate and I exited under the purple neon of the theater and returned, shivering, to our sun yellow suite. In the morning, we were greeted with such a vast breakfast and heavenly (there's that comparison again) crepes that we had to sit and digest before venturing out to nearby Hidden Lake Gardens.

We chatted with our fellow B&B guests, telling them how we made it to Hell and back while they laughed and made plans to go themselves. Who knew such a simple joke could carry you through an entire weekend?

THE BOTTOM LINE

Weekend expense for two:

Lodging (two nights at B&Bs) .... $301

Food ............................ $112

Gas .............................. $42

Total ........................... $455

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Chelsea, Mich., is about 225 miles east of Chicago. Take Interstate Highway 94 East toward Ann Arbor. Use exit 192 and turn south on Michigan Highway 52. Chelsea is located roughly 2 miles north of the interstate.

LODGING

Chelsea House (118 E. Middle St., Chelsea; 734-433-4663; www.chelseahouseinn.com) greets visitors with elaborately decorated Victorian rooms chock-full of period antiques. Rates for different rooms in this B&B vary, but usually circle the $130 mark. The owners couldn't be more effusive or accommodating, and it is possible to eat too many of their addictive fruit crepes. The house is centrally located, just across the parking lot from The Purple Rose Theater.

DINING

The Common Grill (112 S. Main Street, Chelsea; 734-475-0470; www.commongrill.com) radiates high- class dining at affordable prices. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday (closed Mondays).

ATTRACTIONS

Hell (15 miles north of Chelsea, on Patterson Lake Road) hosts only a handful of attractions, but who can resist the campy candy store Screams Ice Cream from Hell & Halloween (4063 Patterson Lake Road; 734-878-1099) or sending a letter postmarked "Hell" in the local convenience/tourist shop next door? Visit Hell safely on the Web at www.hell2u.com

The Purple Rose Theatre (137 Park St., Chelsea; 734-433-ROSE; www.purplerosetheatre.org) often features productions written by actor Jeff Daniels. Quality theater in a quaint space, 2003's season also includes plays by Noel Coward and Toni Press-Coffman. Shows run nightly at 8 p.m. Wednesday.-Saturday, with matinees at 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Hidden Lake Gardens (517-431-2060) lies on the outskirts of Tipton, a 13-mile drive south on Michigan Highway 52. This Michigan State University facility serves as a great, under-the-radar retreat for those looking for an afternoon with nature or simply a pleasant, winding drive through six miles of rare conifers, meadows and ponds. A donation of $3 per person is asked, and well worth it for admission to the facility's Plant Conservatory. Open 365 days; 8 a.m.-dusk April-October and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. November-March. More info is at www.cpp.msu.edu/hlg/

INFORMATION

Contact the Michigan Department of Tourism at 888-78-GREAT; www.michigan.org. The Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce can be reached at 734-475-1145.

-- R.K.E.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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