Three Classic Days Exploring In and Around Traverse City
Featuring beautiful shoreline scenery, quaint historic towns, and plenty to do and see, this northern Michigan region has become a Midwest getaway hot spot.
Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism
The secret is out. Though located in the northern reaches of Michigan — and a healthy six hour drive from Chicago — Traverse City has become one of the Midwest’s most popular getaway hot spots.
Among the region’s recent national accolades, Traverse was named a best spot for romance (Travel + Leisure Magazine), for scenic drives (USA Today), for great food (The Daily Meal), best beach towns (Coastal Living Magazine and CNN Travel) not to mention one of the top seven wine regions to watch (Touring and Tasting).
So where should a visitor start? How about where the locals go — and the spots to which they steer their friends.
Day 1: Downtown
The hub of Traverse City is the Clinch Park beach and marina, a short walk from the vibrant downtown business district. In a stretch of a few tree-or-beach-lined blocks, you can take a swim in Grand Traverse Bay, embark on a bike or kayak trip, go boutique shopping, sample cutting edge cuisine or microbrews, or simply enjoy a slice of pie — cherry, of course, the fruit for which the region is famous.
Start with a leisurely breakfast at Patisserie Amie, a cozy bistro that transports you to Paris at the first whiff of its savory crepes or sip of the bowl-sized café au lait. Boutique browsing amid Front Street’s Victorian storefronts could then fill a morning — or full vacation.
Among the more than 100 specialty shops — many boasting rustic brick walls and high (sometimes tin) ceilings — are Haystacks and Yana Dee, both featuring locally-made fashions specializing in re-used materials and natural fibers. Nearby is Wilson’s Antiques, three floors of eclectic furnishings and collectibles, and Becky Thatcher Designs, known for its upscale jewelry made from beach stones. Then there’s Ella’s, featuring vintage clothing, and American Spoon Foods with its tasting of jams (and more) made from local fruit.
European tasting bars inspired the concept behind Front Street’s Fustini’s, where shopping feels like play as you mix, match and taste toward your own combination of flavored olive oils and vinegars. There’s also ample tasting at the quirky Cherry Republic, where the motto is “Life, Liberty, Beaches and Pie.” Founder and owner Bob Sutherland has been called the “Willy Wonka of cherries,” having created a wide range of cherry-infused food items and condiments, from mustard and salsa to coffee, tea and soda — and seemingly anything else you can imagine.
Within a block, two independent booksellers encourage lingering, as does Brew, a hipster hot spot where people-watching is a sport and the coffee of the day just $1 at the self-serve bar.
No worries if inclement weather drives you indoors. The Dennos Museum Center at Northwestern Michigan College boasts one of the world’s largest collections of work by Inuit artists as well as traveling exhibits from around the world. The nearby State Theater — with its wide and comfortable seats and starred ceiling replicating Traverse City’s summer night sky — offers 25-cent classic movies on Wednesdays and kid-friendly films on Saturdays. It’s all volunteer-run to keep prices low. Independent filmmaker Michael Moore helped lead the renovation of the theater and participates in the selection of the film lineup.
But in the summertime, the water is the true star attraction in the Traverse area. Clinch Park boasts a long, narrow beach of sugary sand and an “open space” favored by kite flyers and picnickers. Local outfitter, The River, offers paddleboard and kayak rentals, beachside yoga classes and tours like the peddle/paddle. The latter — a vacation biathlon of sorts — lets you peddle a bike to a chosen destination and paddle back on a rented kayak.
And then there’s evening and plenty of great choices among the many farm-to-table restaurants that have catapulted the area to the top of many “best food” town lists. Tiny in space but big in creativity is The Cooks’ House, a casually elegant restaurant inside a former residential home, where every table is a chef’s table that offers peeks into the bustling kitchen. Or opt for Georgina’s, recently expanded and memorable for the way chef/owner Anthony Craig turned to his heritage to combine authentic Nicaraguan, Cuban and Chinese foods.
Save room for an after-dinner cocktail or microbrew with music. Head up to the Beacon Lounge atop the historic 10-story Park Place Hotel, with its floor-to-ceiling windows offering the best views of downtown and Grand Traverse Bay. Or check out the newer Low Bar for throwback cocktails served in a romantic speakeasy-style setting, or the 7 Monks Taproom, known for serving every microbrew made by Trappist monks around the world. For more great brews, check out local favorites like the Rare Bird Brewery or the Warehouse Brewing Company, the latter of which offers some of the region’s best musical acts, all free.
Day 2: A drive, the dunes and a beachside bonfire
When a highway sign inspires its own line of clothing and merchandise, you know something special awaits. The M-22 line was named after the 116-mile state highway that begins in Traverse City and follows the shoreline of the pretty Leelanau Peninsula and continues down the Lake Michigan coast. It was launched by a pair of kiteboarding entrepreneurs who loved the lifestyle the drive encompasses and evokes — the wineries, orchards and vineyards, gallery towns and sunset beaches.
The frequent peeks of the stunning bay to your right is the highlight of the drive from Traverse City to the village of Suttons Bay, edged by water and a shallow sandy swimming beach and surrounded by wineries. A downtown of pastel-painted storefronts is a draw, as is its charming single-screen art-house movie theater, and the Michigan Artists Gallery’s vibrant and fun collection of local works.
Score an addictive almond croissant at 9 Bean Rows, or go with the luncheon lamb burger. Either way, be sure to leave some room for the watermelon or berry flavored gelato or Italian ice at Little Bee’s.
While browsing the shops in town, check out Great Goods for its beach glass jewelry, and Enerdyne, run by a retired astronomy professor and featuring science and nature gear.
Keep going north, and you’ll run into the town of Omena, site of Leelanau Cellars Tasting Room, right on the bay, and the Tamarack Gallery, a destination venue for fine local art. Next up is Northport, another thriving small town with a beach and marina filled with art galleries and a fun local used book store.
Then continue to the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula and one of the Great Lakes’ oldest lighthouses — the Grand Traverse Lighthouse, circa 1850 — which you can tour and features a small museum about its history.
Another option is to cut across M-204 to meet M-22 as it heads back down the peninsula where you’ll come to Leland and its popular Fishtown — a collection of weathered fishing shanties, many of which have been repurposed to house gift and clothing boutiques, art galleries and specialty food shops. Check out Benjamin Maier Ceramics, which has a strong following of regular customers who pick up a piece a year.
Continue south past Glen Arbor to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore — a must stop that Good Morning America viewers famously named the most beautiful place in America. Even the most skeptical are sure to agree by Stop 9 of the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a jaw-dropping view of sand walls dropping into Lake Michigan’s massive blue.
The park itself covers a 35-mile-long stretch of beach, with many inland wooded hiking trails as well. The dunes get their name from an Odawa Native American legend about a bear that swims across Lake Michigan to escape a fire and then spends her life as the largest dune, gazing back at her cubs, who have become the Manitou Islands. The major dune, which families love to climb, is 450 high.
Head back to Glen Arbor — a small but lively vacation town with a variety of shops and restaurants — and enjoy dinner and live music on the outdoor patio of Glen Arbor’s Boone Docks, a casual dining spot known for its burgers and chicken wings. Then finish off the day in relaxing style with a sunset bonfire along Good Harbor Bay.
Day 3: Wine touring and an insane asylum, repurposed
There’s no better start to your exploration of a wine region on the rise than at the area’s first urban winery — though that term doesn’t generally evoke the visual image of castle-like structure that once housed the Northern Michigan Asylum for the insane.
The 19th-century structure has been transformed into the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a mixed-use development with apartments, shops and restaurants. One of the outlying structures that used to house the hospital’s laundry is now home to Left Foot Charley’s winery, offering wines made from the region’s best local vineyards. Also in that building is Higher Grounds Coffee Trading Company, a small-batch roastery which holds weekly coffee “cupping” classes — guided slurping to identify flavor undertones.
The former hospital’s trolley ran where the James Beard nominated chef at Trattoria Stella now serves up cavatelli with pulled pork shoulder or orecchiette with flash-friend squash blossoms.
The main building houses the “Mercato,” a group of locally-owned shops connected by a network of hallways, as well as a tasting room for Black Star Farms winery.
For a more in-depth look at the former hospital campus, take one of the daily history tours that step behind doors still marked “Women’s Most Disturbed Ward” and through its underground tunnels. Or take a hike around the surrounding arboretum of exotic trees. The connection is not as unexpected as it first seems, since the hospital was built on the Quaker belief that beautiful architecture and exposure to nature facilitates healing.
Tasting what nature (and vintners) made while gazing at the area’s natural beauty is the combination that keeps tasting rooms filled on the Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula wine trails. Eight wineries and numerous farms, farm stands and scenic overlooks dot Old Mission, a peninsula situated between East and West Grand Traverse bays. Leelanau’s wine trail has grown to 25 tasting rooms — so many they’ve been divided into three loops for easier planning.
Driving isn’t the only way to get out amidst the vineyards. Grand Traverse Bike Tours, started by a transplant from Napa Valley, offers maps to wineries within easy bike access of the paved Leelanau Trail as well as guided wine or beer tours with snacks or a vineyard lunch.
Or build a trip around patios with a view. Shady Lane’s new patio boasts an impressive outdoor bar and fireplace, while Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery — recently called one of the top 10 hottest wine brands in the U.S. — boasts a new elevated patio above the vines, complete with its own tasting room.
Visitors often audibly gasp when they first take in the double bay view from Old Mission’s Chateau Chantal, a popular winery and bed and breakfast. The winery offers a special “Sensory Treat Tour” twice daily ($20/person) that includes a tour of the cellars and vineyard, along with an unusual tasting-to-music session, designed to engage multiple senses. Among the winery’s popular sparkling wines is one with a name that evokes what this stop — really, the entire Traverse area — inspires you to do: Celebrate!
Longtime travel writer Kim Schneider loves exploring the world but always looks forward to returning home to the Traverse City area and Leelanau County, where she lives across the street from a vineyard and likes nothing more than sharing her local outing favorites.
WHERE TO STAY WHEN YOU GO
You’ve heard the adage. It’s all about “location, location,” and that’s never truer than when choosing among Traverse City’s many lodging options.
If water’s your draw, there are many modern hotels situated along East Grand Traverse Bay’s particularly sandy beaches. Grand Beach and Sugar Beach hotels, which share an owner, are two popular options, as is the upscale Tamarack Lodge Resort, notable for its Mission-style décor and nightly activities including a s’mores roast on the beach.
Most of the rooms at the popular Grand Traverse Resort and Spa are on the opposite side of U.S. 31 from the bay, but all guests have access to a beach club with a beach, pool, restaurant, and regular evening bonfires and entertainment. And you can’t beat the sunset view from its tower-top Aerie Restaurant and Lounge.
If a hotel within walking distance to downtown attractions is key, the Park Place Hotel is a popular option, as is the regal Antiquities’ Wellington Inn, a 1905 neo-classical mansion in the heart of town.
And if you’ve longed to sleep in the heart of a vineyard, that’s an option too. Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay offers lodging in a tony inn along with benefits including a gourmet breakfast and private wine tasting.
Private wine tasting of another sort is yours at Chateau Chantal on the Old Mission Peninsula. Rooms have hilltop water views, and guests get after-hours access to the tasting bar. Or check out the private rental cottages set amidst the vineyards at Brys Estate or Silver Leaf wineries.
EVENTS WORTH PLANNING A TRIP AROUND
Traverse City Wine and Art Festival, June 20
At a glance: Selected pours from 30 northern Michigan wineries are featured, along with seven bands, 40 artists, food from eight restaurants, and wine education tents amid the castle-like backdrop of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
Insider tip: Buy tickets early for the popular education portions of the event. Seminars by the entertaining Michael Schafer (aka, the Wine Counselor) run $10 in addition to festival
ticket costs, and for an additional $5 you can take a hands-on art class and paint what you taste in three different pours. Traversecitywinefestival.com.
National Cherry Festival, July 4-11
At a glance: Organizers are working to return this 80-plus year, eight-day celebration along Grand Traverse Bay to its orchard roots, adding more emphasis on the then-ripening star fruit. Remaining are some 130 distinct events including concerts along the bay, parades, an air show, cherry pit spitting and pie eating contests, wine tastings and more.
Insider tip: Wander to lesser-known venues like F&M Park, a few blocks from the center of activity, for more low-key family fun like turtle races. Or really go to the festival’s roots by attending Blossom Days on May 16, an event that combines winery barrel tastings and food pairings with a pastor-led blessing of the blossoms, a circa 1910 event that was the precurser to today’s cherry fest. Cherryfestival.org; wineriesofoldmission.com.
Traverse City Film Festival, July 28-Aug. 2
At a glance: Multiple days of documentaries, foreign films, first-run Hollywood flicks and other “just great movies,” curated in part by independent filmmaker Michael Moore and shown at multiple venues around town. There also are free family movies shown by the bay (bring a blanket), discussion salons, popular daily filmmaker panels and a film school taught by industry insiders.
Insider tip: Work the stand-by line. Members get first crack at tickets (worth joining if the film festival is the centerpiece of your trip), but sold-out doesn’t mean you won’t get in. Often, everyone in the stand-by line gets in. And handy shuttles run often between venues. Traversecityfilmfest.org.