The Michigan Renaissance Festival in Holly, Michigan is a non-stop visual extravaganza…a head-swiveling, eye-popping, show-stopping, people-pageant. Since its beginnings circa 1979, the Festival has grown to over 250,000 visitors each year. This 17-acre renaissance replica village is replete with craftsman shops, imitation castles, crowded pubs, entertainment stages and a gargantuan number of gussied-up villagers. On a rainy weekend like today, it feels even more Renaissancy as we tip-toed around the muddy “town” streets, aiming for strewn straw, just as fair maidens did back in the day. Who amongst you wilt gallantly lay down thy cape for me to walk across that puddle... Anyone? Anyone? Nay.
From August to the first weekend in October, the festivities are sustained for 7 consecutive weekends. Themes accompany each weekend ranging from “Highland Fling” (with Scottish Games, pipers and legions of kilt-wearers)…to “Royal Pet and AleFest” (drink and be merry alongside your furry friend…preferably costumed in 16th century doggy-duds). The day we attended was “Wonders of the World” weekend, noted for its Steampunk Invasion cocktail party and costume contest reflecting gadgetry, gears and goggles of the futuristic Victorian era fantasy genre.
So, what’s so cool about this RenFest? Well…
For the Renaissance enthusiast, it’s a dream. Where else can you find this kind of stuff all in one place: custom fitted elf ears (yup, not kidding); Renaissance costumes (kilts, capes, hoop skirts & poufy shirts-like Seinfeld’s “Puffy Shirt” episode); unique potions (herbal extracts); fairy gardens; swashbuckling gear (swords and staffs, pirate outfits and armor.) But you can find unique Christmas gifts too: local honey, artisan teas, carved wooden & stone beer steins, interesting incense holders, handmade leather goods, rare stones and crystals. Got one of those hard-to-buy-for persons on your list? RenFest can help. Who doesn’t want a poufy shirt for Christmas?
Of course, you got your requisite jousting tournaments and your medieval castle dinners. In addition, 17 themed stages showcase a variety of performances: lilting and mournful Gaelic music, rock bag-pipers (so cool!), raunchy comedians, peculiar feats of strength (like balancing a wooden bench on your nose – hmmm, reminds me of Mexico) or feats of folly (like flame-throwing). Filtered throughout, you got your Taro card readers, palm readers, metalwork demonstrators, young maidens dancing around the maypole, roving musicians and bawdy bards. There’s even a daily Royal procession where us commoners can get a glimpse of the Queen and her court, along with hundreds of other costumed villagers flaunting their duds.
Attendees are encouraged to dress up in their finest fantasy frocks. This is actually the best part, because at least half of attendees are in costume, and most are incredibly dressed to the nines. Wizards in flowing robes, buxom wenches in tight corsets (breast reduction?... no, breath-reduction), dainty winged faeries, elves with those custom fitted ears, fancy schmancy noblemen, Friar Tucks, flower-haired fair maidens, armor-bedazzled knights of the realm, sword-sporting Musketeers, cutlass-bearing buccaneers, badly singing bards, wandering minstrels, kilted Scottish knaves, drunken Irishmen…you name it…they all gather together in this spot to have fun being someone else for a day. Think Game of Thrones meets Lord of the Rings. (Where’s my John Snow?)
Some outfits seem a little incongruous…like fat belly-dancers (nobody wants to see that) or Deadpool (I mean, this isn’t ComiCon); others just downright don’t make sense. I saw one disaster of a homemade red butterfly/bee costume; and another guy was only half-dressed wearing a kilt, tennis shoes and plain red t-shirt…total costume slacker. But for the most part, these folks go ALL OUT. And to go all out ain’t cheap. A lace-up bodice alone can go for $200, a red riding hood cape $120, wooden staff $80-$120…it all depends on how authentic you want to look.
While I loved some of the over-the-top costumes, one wraithlike princess in ghost-white makeup with black haunting eyes and a flowing white dress caught my eye as she mysteriously stalked about town…really eerie and movie-worthy. My second fav was Gandolf. Now, you’d think everyone would want to be Gandolf, but I only saw one. Because this guy IS Gandolf… with his stately presence, deliberate stride and thousand yard stare. Anyone who tried to top THIS Gandolf impersonation would fail miserably (and probably be struck down by lightning… or orcs).
Come for the costumes and people-watching, but stay for the food. Get here early to try a Scotch Egg for breakfast – a hard-boiled egg coated in sausage and breading then deep fried. OMG this is the best thing ever. Of course there are donuts and cider, soup in a bread bowl, hot spiced walnuts, chocolate covered bacon (‘cause bacon and chocolate solve world crises), and of course, giant smoked turkey legs. Because where else can you get a smoked turkey leg? Plus, there’s beer tasting and mead tasting and wine tasting, all three of which promote general happiness and well-being.
Those Frikin’ Pickle People:
Our first encounter inside the castle walls was with The Pickle Man. Hawking obscenely large pickles on a stick, The Pickle Man managed to bleat out the word “pickle” in such a booming voice, enunciating the PICK so sharply, it scared the bejesus out of me every time. “Piiiiiickle!... PICKle!” These pickle vendors have their wiles, often making naughty or snarky references to unsuspecting passersby. “Those elf ears are UUUGLY”.
At the other end of the festival, The Pickle Woman lies in wait. She must have overheard one of us saying the name Josh in conversation while passing by. Not skipping a beat, PickleWoman shouted out “Hey Josh!” and hugged him like they were best friends, subsequently proceeding to place a pickle into the hands of his wife. “She wants a pickle, Josh!” OK, you pulled a fast one, very funny… “What, she took it!” He good-naturedly pays for the pickle. Funny gag, right? I take a picture of the incident and in doing so PickleWoman turns and says “Hey, look at your mom!!” Mom? WTF???!!! My eyes go wide and my face turns beet red, mad as hell. Seriously? She sees my horrified face and backpedals: “What, people have kids young these days.” Yeah, I would have been 16. It’s just one more reminder I am getting old. I even put on makeup today and everything! Ugh…depressing. PickleWoman, NO MORE pickles from you!
An Entertaining Day of Escapism, then Back to the Real World:
Aside from The Pickle Incident, escaping the distressed world we live in for an imaginary realm, even for just one day was a nice reprieve (never mind that life was much worse back in medieval times!) But it is time to get back to the real world. We are headed down to the boat right now to survey the fallout of Hurricane Newton in San Carlos, Mexico and to start getting Indigo shipshape for a 3rd season of cruising!