Sand, dune, and sky on the shores of Lake Michigan — who needs the ocean? (Photo: Thinkstock)
Pacific and Atlantic? Those coasts are old hat. This summer head inland to Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, on the northwest coast of its Lower Peninsula (about the “tip of the ring finger,” as any local might point out). A welcoming spirit and natural beauty that rivals the seashore’s, plus wine and food and culture, have made it a much-loved summer vacation spot for generations. Here are 10 reasons why you should join the Midwesterners and make it yours, too.
1. Fly direct from Chicago or Detroit in less than an hour. Cherry Capital Airport (TVC) is easy to navigate, gorgeous (its Arts and Crafts architecture is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright), and just 10 minutes from downtown Traverse City. Arrive on an early flight and ask for a pump of cherry syrup in your latte to kick off your Cherry Country adventures right.
2. Traverse City’s bustling downtown. The pedestrian-friendly commercial district is made for leisurely afternoons and fun-filled nights, be it window shopping along the brick-lined sidewalks of Front Street or taking in the weekly “Friday Night Live” outdoor musical events and street vendors. And with plenty of waterfront along Grand Traverse Bay, all sorts of activities from kiteboarding to sailing are available, too. Get your bearings at Horizon Books, stocking an encyclopedic selection of books on Michigan and all the natural wonders of its coast since 1961.
Traverse City’s walkable downtown is great for a lazy afternoon. (Photo: Michigan Municipal League/Flickr)
Traverse City, Michigan’s picturesque waterfront at sunset (Photo: David Cornwell/Flickr)
3. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Sun and sand abound for outdoorsy types (as well as those that just want to lounge) along this gorgeous, undeveloped stretch of coast. The popular Dune Climb has been challenging Michigan visitors of all ages for generations, while a more serious crowd can huff the Bay View hiking trail, an 8-mile loop through the fields and beech-maple forest above the dunes that offers panoramic views of Lake Michigan from its storied bluffs. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive allows a similar route to enjoy the scenery that can be driven or cycled. Before you head out, pick up gourmet picnic supplies at Burritt’s Fresh Markets, and you’ve got a day trip all set.
Climbing the dunes and taking in the views at Sleeping Bear (Photo: bierdoctor/Flickr)
4. Cherries. Whether you prefer ’em sweet or sour, dried or fresh, in pie, candy, or scones, cherries are the region’s true celebrity. The world-renowned National Cherry Festival kicks off the first week of July, while farmers’ markets continue throughout the summer almost every day of the week. Cherry Republic is a one-stop cherry shop (more of an experience, really) for those who want to go all Forrest Gump on the local produce. Also on Front Street, Cherry Cone offers truly decadent local cherry ice cream and cherry-spiked coffee and sodas.
Cherries are the true celebrities here in Grand Traverse Bay (Photo: Harvey K/Flickr)
5. Movies on the water. While the Traverse City Film Festival (July 28 through Aug. 3), founded by Academy Award-winning Michigan son Michael Moore, centers around the traditional light-bulb marquee of downtown’s State Theatre, this year it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary in a big way: by screening movies in Grand Traverse Bay. Moviegoers will be given the unique experience of watching a film while sailing out under the stars from downtown’s Clinch Marina.
Traverse City Film Festival at the State Theatre (Photo: Joey Lax-Salinas/Flickr)
6. Dynamite dining. For tasty regional eats, make Grand Traverse Commons your first stop. Built in the late 1800s, this former psychiatric hospital has been repurposed into a gourmet food, beer, coffee, and retail mecca. On the basement level, Trattoria Stella offers Northern Michigan’s best high-end Italian (think handmade pastas with locally sourced morel mushrooms and char-grilled lamb). With a hip alfresco dining room and an eclectic pork-inspired menu, the Towne Plaza is an up-and-coming favorite, although the freshly made pork rinds at BBQ joint Blue Tractor surely give it a run for its money.
An aerial view of the sprawling Grand Traverse Commons dining and retail complex (Photo: thevillagetc.com)
Buddy Guy, appearing in August at the Interlochen Arts Festival (Photo: WireImage)
7. Interlochen Arts Festival. For 50 years, this world-class music and performing arts festival has brought some of the country’s biggest acts to one of the country’s largest outdoor stages, set in the pine forest on the shores of Green Lake, just a 20-minute drive from Traverse City. Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and the Cavani String Quartet have already performed this summer; Buddy Guy and Steely Dan are coming in August. Tailgate before the show, or stop by the Hofbrau Steak House & American Grille in Interlochen for a steak and one of the 52 beers they have on tap, including the addictive Tongue Tied Cherry Saison (natch) from the Rochester Mills brewery.
A vineyard on Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula (Photo: Thinkstock)
The moody marshes around Old Mission Peninsula (Photo: Bryan Casteel/Flickr)
8. Vineyards and breweries. Old Mission Peninsula, a 22-mile-long finger of land just north of downtown Traverse City, divides Grand Traverse Bay into East and West Bay (with beautiful beaches on both) and is home to more than half a dozen different wineries. It also has some serious foodie credentials thanks to the Bowers Harbor Inn Estate, home to the Northern United Brewing Company, gastro-pub the Jolly Pumpkin, and gourmet destination restaurant Mission Table (famous for farm-to-fork locavore offerings like pan-seared lake trout with seasonal kale and red curry short ribs). Nearby, the Boathouse restaurant, overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay, is sunset central, especially with an artisanal cheese and charcuterie board and glass of local vino in hand.
The historic Neahtawanta Inn (Photo: Courtesy of Neahtawanta Inn)
9. Charming inns and cottages. Experience unique, authentic hospitality in the area’s historic lodging options. Originally a cottage built in the 1800s, the Neahtawanta Inn (from $145) is located on Old Mission Peninsula and has more than 300 feet of beach frontage on Bowers Harbor. Today it serves as a nature retreat, with yoga taught onsite by owner Sally Van Vleck and a resident masseuse that honors the mind-body connection. A delicious breakfast is cooked up every morning on a vintage 1940s Garland stove — great for flapping pancakes!
The wide green lawn and waterfront location of the Fountain Point Resort (Photo: Courtesy of Fountain Point Resort)
A 30-minute drive up the coast from Traverse City on the shores of Lake Leelanau near the Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Fountain Point Resort (rates vary widely) was built as a hotel in 1889 near the therapeutic waters of an artesian well. Its wraparound porch and charming one-of-a-kind cottages will give you the feeling you are staying at an old-fashioned family retreat. Live music fills the property on many summer nights, so feel free to have a moonlit dance in the grassy meadows that surround the lakeside buildings.
The Inn at Bay Harbor, a Lake Michigan grande dame (Photo: Courtesy of the Inn at Bay Harbor)
The Inn at Bay Harbor (from $400) is a Victorian-style luxury resort set right on the edge of sailboat-dotted Lake Michigan, a 90-minute drive north from Traverse City. This coastal grande dame hosts bonfires on the shores of Little Traverse Bay at sunset, and with access to both the Bay Harbor Golf Club and the Crooked Tree Golf Club, you can play through and then hang out at the beach or around the pool, or enjoy the full-service spa.
10. The people. “Friendly, cheerful, and laid-back” doesn’t begin to do the locals justice — they’re the most memorable part of the trip! Spend some time around the smiles, and you’ll end up leaving with one on your face, too.