Most of us Southerners (read: Southernish Michigan) have been Up North at some point. Cottages in Charlevoix, white-sand beaches on Lake Michigan and summers (and visiting day) at Camp Walden and the dearly departed Camp Sea-Gull are imprinted on our souls.
Now, with kids of our own in tow, we are always on the lookout for family-friendly fun to be had and different areas to explore — after, of course, we’ve waxed nostalgic at our own favorite childhood memories. Here, a few favorite destinations along the Leelanau Peninsula (the area’s first inhabitants, Ojibwe, called the lake “leea-lan-au,” meaning “Land of Delight”) and its base, Traverse City — some off the beaten path, and some so awesome that the path is long beaten down.
WHERE TO GO
• Extending 30 miles from Michigan’s Lower Peninsula into Lake Michigan, the LEELANAU PENINSULA (the “little finger” of Michigan’s mitten; leelanauchamber.com) encompasses the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and strings together charming towns and pristine beaches with rolling hills, lush forests, and acres of orchards, vineyards, farmland and meadows along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay.
Even National Geographic is on to the scenic drive along M-22, which hugs Lake Michigan’s shore and wanders through Suttons Bay, Omena, Northport, Leland, Glen Arbor and more. WINERIES dot the landscape, including BLACK STAR FARMS (blackstarfarms.com) in Suttons Bay, where you can spend the night in the Luxe Inn (overnight stays include a full gourmet breakfast and a bottle of house wine) nestled below a hillside of vineyards and overlooking barns and pastures. Stop in LELAND and take in the weathered but still functioning fishing shanties (many now housing shops), smokehouses and fish tugs along the mouth of the Leland River in FISHTOWN, a small fishing village operating for more than 150 years — and today, one of Michigan’s only remaining commercial fishing villages. Then head to the RIVERSIDE INN (theriverside-inn.com) to sample artisan cheeses and pan-roasted whitefish, fresh from Carlson’s of Fishtown, before strolling the shops and ice-cream parlors in town.
• Voted the “Most Beautiful Place in America” by “Good Morning America, SLEEPING BEAR DUNES NATIONAL LAKESHORE
(sleepingbeardunes.com) encompasses a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s spectacular eastern coastline (along the west side of the peninsula), as well as North and South Manitou Islands. Incorporated inside the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, lush with forests, dune formations and ancient glacial phenomena, the Lakeshore offers breathtaking vistas of Lake Michigan and Glen Lakes: To orient yourself, take the 7.4-mile PIERCE STOCKING SCENIC DRIVE (named after the local lumberman who built a road to the top of the dunes for others to share his awe of the natural beauty), a self-guided tour that offers history of the area.
Head to the DUNE CLIMB, just south of GLEN HAVEN, for a short but strenuous (for some) climb to view gorgeous GLEN LAKE (then let the kids run and tumble down the sand) — or head out for a serious 3-4 hour round-trip hike through wind-carved dunes and rippling sand, with a halfway point at Lake Michigan’s shoreline.
• About three miles south of Empire and Sleeping Bear Dunes, discover a secret-to-outsiders beach spot: ESCH ROAD BEACH (also called OTTER CREEK BEACH) provides expansive views, refreshing (read: chilly) Lake Michigan waves and enough pristine sand to keep a thousand kids busy for days. Plus, if the water is “too” refreshing, this out-of-the-way spot comes replete with picturesque
OTTER CREEK, a babbling, leafy inlet just right for splashing, exploring and chasing fish.
(grandtraverselighthouse.com) holds the Grand Traverse Light Station, which has been guiding ships and sailors since 1852 and converted to a two-family dwelling in 1900. Tour the keeper’s quarters, still historically appointed, and exhibits on area lighthouses, foghorns, shipwrecks and local history, and climb to the top of the tower for views that extend to the horizon on a clear day. (While you’re in Northport, check out the cinnamon rolls and other baked goods at BARB’S BAKERY (231-386-5851) — Mario Batali, who has a home in the area thanks to his U-M-graduate wife, Susi Cahn, loves the glazed doughnuts.)
Among the most photographed of Michigan’s lighthouses is POINT BETSIE LIGHTHOUSE (pointbet sie.org), just south of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Built in 1858 for $3,000, Point Betsie marks the southern entrance to the MANITOU PASSAGE and became the last manned light station on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. In 1898, the Point Betsie Life Saving Crew rescued all but one of the crew of a steamer stranded amidst a blinding blizzard (the one life lost was a man who tried to make it to shore himself).
WHERE TO STAY
• Spanning 900 acres in the Northwoods of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on the shores of Lake Michigan’s East Grand Traverse Bay, the GRAND TRAVERSE RESORT AND SPA (grandtraverseresort.com), owned by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, is perfectly situated at the base of the Leelanau Peninsula on the east side (and just 10 minutes from Traverse City’s Cherry Capital Airport) for a base point for exploration.
Choose from nearly 600 comfortably appointed hotel rooms and suites equipped with Jacuzzi whirlpool tubs and Nintendo and condominiums (some with their own private beach on the sandy shores of East Grand Traverse Bay with a dock and watersports rentals). Check out the health club, which offers a rainy-day respite with a 15,000-square-foot indoor water playground with a waterslide, zero-depth spray-ground, video arcade and more. Tennis, yoga, zumba and, of course, world-class golf, including three distinguished 18-hole championship courses surrounded by the lush greens of the Northwoods and the shimmering blue Bay exhilarate.
The Gallery of Shops, a destination in itself, includes DYLAN’S CANDY BAR and CANDY CAFE (as in Dylan Lauren, daughter of Ralph, who founded the New York-based flagship store), an emporium of more than 5,000 kinds of candy plus gifts, chocolates and homemade ice cream (try the Red Velvet Cake).
Unwind from the strenuous activity at the SPA GRAND TRAVERSE, 7,000-square-feet of serene retreat (try the Cherry Honey Glow, 45 minutes of full-body exfoliation and polishing, followed by a relaxing rinse under the Vichy shower), plus a salon and boutique.
Drive 6 miles southwest into downtown Traverse City for down-to-earth gourmet burgers, burritos and salads at BUBBA’S (tcbubbas.com; kids eat free on Mondays) and homemade jams, tarts, pickles, pastrami omelets and fabulous coffee at FRENCHIES FAMOUS (231-944-1228), another Batali favorite — maximum occupancy: 10.
• Starting at Grand Traverse Resort, meander along the Leelanau Peninsula’s magical coast to THE HOMESTEAD: AMERICA’S FRESHWATER RESORT (thehomesteadresort.com) as your next ultimate destination. Sprawling across 500 acres of bliss surrounded by the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in charming Glen Arbor, the Homestead can give visitors whatever they want out of their vacation: tranquil relaxation, thrilling land and water sports, fun with the kids and more. With four separate hotels, plus condos and homes within five distinct neighborhoods, many offering lake and riverfront views, the Homestead works hard to make its expansiveness and amenities easy to access and enjoy, including four pools, the luxurious Spa Amira and top-notch golf (plus Dave Pelz Scoring Game Schools, the only one in the Midwest).
Built on land purchased in the 1920s by a St. Louis couple searching for the region’s most beautiful beach, the Homestead began as a camp offering wholesome outdoor experiences before it evolved into a boarding school (still running nearby). But in the 1970s, a Michigan family transformed the beautiful beach property into a casually luxurious four-season resort surrounded by nothing but views of Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Crystal River Valley, and nothing to do but laze by the pool or swim, kayak, hang glide, kite surf, scuba dive, hike, bird watch and more.