Groups looking for a summer or fall getaway far above the invisible Tension Line will find Northern Michigan a peaceful retreat. The area includes Traverse City, Leland, Northport and, a bit farther up, Mackinac Island.
Small villages, friendly people, shady woods and a laid-back atmosphere have lured visitors for decades. Another big attraction is water, as water is all-pervasive here, with numerous lakes and rivers (including lakes Michigan and Lake Huron) affording a wide variety of activities.
On Lake Michigan in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the 50,000-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, replete with hills and forests of birch, pine, beech and maple, is a great place for groups that enjoy hiking, fishing, swimming, bird-watching or learning about nature. It encompasses numerous small lakes and rivers, sugar-sand beaches, massive sand dunes and bluffs.
A few miles offshore and also part of the National Lakeshore lie North and South Manitou islands, the areas of the first Leelanau County settlement. The National Park Service offers campsites with electricity, showers and modern restrooms on the mainland, and rustic campsites without electricity or showers on the mainland and on the two islands.
This area of northern Michigan area has a number of lighthouses, including Mission Point Lighthouse, Grand Traverse Lighthouse and those at Point Betsie, Empire, Old Mackinac Point, South Manitou Island, with two at Mackinac Island and several at Mackinaw City. Some even allow guests to stay overnight, and lighthouse group tours by boat are often arranged during the summer months.
At Leland, north of Sleeping Bear Lakeshore, smaller groups can enjoy the comforts of Whaleback Inn, located on the water’s edge just outside of town. The property offers 18 accommodations, including the large Maple House Cottage. Some rooms have lake views, and during summer months a deluxe continental breakfast is served to guests. Just down the road from the Whaleback a trail leads to the picturesque Whaleback Natural Area and overlooks of Lake Michigan and the Manitou Islands.
In Leland, built on the site of one of the oldest and largest Ottawa Indian villages on the peninsula, visitors walking along the Leland River encounter unique shops and old commercial fishing shanties. The shanties, some still in business, represent the heart and soul of Fishtown and are loved for their rustic appeal and enduring functionality. Two steel-hulled fishing tugs, the Joy and Janice Sue, are usually anchored at Fishtown and still work in commercial fishing operations. Charter fishing boats are available from the dock in Leland. Besides Van’s Beach in downtown Leland, there are Bartholomew Park Beach and Schneider’s Beach close by.
Ferry boat service via Manitou Island Transit is available during summer months to both islands, along with island tours during which visitors can view 300- to 500-year-old giant cedar trees.
At tiny Empire, settled in the 1850s, the Empire Museum Complex includes a blacksmith shop, school bus sleigh, an early household kitchen, an old elementary school room and more. Visiting the popular Cherry Republic at Glen Arbor is a must for cherry lovers. The company sells as many as 200 different cherry-related products and has a winery and restaurant.
Just outside of Northport, Kilcherman’s Christmas Cove is a fourth-generation apple and cider farm that grows rare apple varieties, as many as 200 from as early as the 1600 and 1700’s. An added highlight of the visit is a view of John Kilcherman’s 20,000-piece glass pop bottle display.
Wineries and Distilleries
There are as many as 15 wineries and distilleries within a short drive from Leland and Traverse City. They include French Valley Vineyards, Green Bird Cellars, Aurora Cellars, Boathouse Vineyards, Chateau Fontaine, Grand Traverse Distillery, Northern Latitudes Distillery and Leelanau Wine Cellars. Wine Trail maps are available from the local tourist offices.
At newly-built Bonobo Winery tasting house, located on a high overview, Traverse City natives and brothers Todd and Carter Oosterhouse offer wine varieties such as Pinot Blanc, Rose, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling produced from their 19-acre vineyard. The Michigan winery area sits on the magical 45th parallel, which runs through some of the best vineyards in the Northern Hemisphere, including the Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone regions of France and Italy’s Piedmont.
The beautiful, 19-mile-long Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City has numerous vineyards, also reachable via winery tour buses and limos. This three-mile-wide peninsula offers scenic countryside views, nature walks, cherry orchards and vineyards, hilly biking trails, a quilt barn trail and sandy beaches.
For winery tours or group tours of any kind, a number of Traverse City transportation companies with catchy vehicle names such as Brew Bus and Champagne Shuttle are available.
Other Traverse City area attractions are lavender farms and nurseries, including the historic 1839 Old Mission Trading Post; the 10-acre, 6,000-lavender plant Secret Garden at Bry’s Estate, in addition to a strawberry and blueberry patch and an herb garden; and Buchan’s Blueberry Hill, where you can pick your own berries or enjoy homemade ice cream.
In Traverse City, as many as 500,000 visitors show up for the annual National Cherry Festival, which sponsors 150 events, including pancake breakfasts, barbecues, picnics, musical entertainment, parades, fireworks and cherry pie-eating contests.
At the Maritime Heritage Alliance on the shore of Traverse Bay, you can hop aboard the reconstructed mid-19th century schooner Madeline or observe construction of historic Great Lakes boats. The Tall Ship Co. offers sailings on its 1800s cargo schooner Manitou. The Pelizzari Natural Area consists of three miles of trails that wind through open fields, former orchards and upland forests. Bird-watching is popular along the trail. There are a number of hiking trails in Traverse City with easy to moderate skill levels. Other sports and activities in the area include fishing, boating, birding, hunting, biking and fall color tours.
Grand Traverse Commons, a buttery brick-colored assemblage of former asylum buildings, now houses 15 restaurants, wineries, breweries, boutique shops, offices and condos with an Italian village feel. Some 531,000 feet of space have been redeveloped adjacent to a large park. Also, more than 150 shops, restaurants and galleries make their home in downtown Traverse City. The Boardman River runs through the downtown area, with scenic public walkways along the shore.
The Grand Traverse Pie Co. is the place to fill up on the area’s best-selling fruit: cherries. Michigan leads the nation in cherry production, representing nearly 75 percent of the tart cherries and 20 percent of the sweet cherries grown annually in the U.S.
Traverse City restaurants include Michigan’s oldest tavern, Sleder’s, which opened in 1882 and is located in the Slabtown working-class neighborhood. The Blue Tractor is a brew and barbecue restaurant dedicated to the working-class people of the city, while the Filling Station, featuring flatbread pizzas, is housed in a quaint old Pere Marquette Railroad station.
The 16th-floor Aerie restaurant at the 900-acre Grand Traverse Resort and Spa offers a spectacular panoramic view. The resort has 85,000 square feet of meeting space for groups as large as 2,500, with 36 separate meeting rooms available.
On peaceful, no-cars-allowed Mackinac Island, visit late-18th century Fort Mackinac, which once protected a large fur-trading center. The 10-acre site has historical exhibits, the oldest building in Michigan and costumed interpreters who perform historical reenactments from cannon firing to cooking demonstrations.
Mackinac Island Carriage Tours follows a tradition that started in 1869. Carriage tours include Arch Rock, the island cemeteries, historic Market Street, Surrey Hills Museum, Grand Hotel and Stables, Mackinac State Park and the colorful Butterfly Museum. Visiting the Mackinac Art Museum, Ft. Holmes, Mission Point Resort with its large beamed ceilings and the 1887 Grand Hotel are all rewarding island pursuits. Mission Point and Grand Hotel are able to host small and large group meetings and conferences. Visitors also enjoy hiking, biking and tasting the island’s famous fudge.
If You Go:
Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island features majestic, nine-ton trusses in the lobby, which resembles a 16-sided teepee. The 240-room summer resort has five restaurants and eateries, a spa, miniature golf and bike rentals. Grand Hotel has nearly 400 guest rooms, all individually decorated, and has been named one of America’s top 10 resorts. Dinner is served in its main dining room between 6:30 and 8:45 p.m. every evening. Appropriate dress is required.
Story and Photos by Don Heimburger