Michigan’s natural beauty at its best, with beaches, dunes, vineyards and a quaint but vibrant town boasting nationally renowned festivals
Sleeping Bear Dunes
Photo courtesy of Traverse CIty Tourism
If you had just one weekend to spend in Traverse City, Michigan, you’d regret not making a week of it. But regardless of how long you stay, here are a few must-dos and can’t-misses to put on your itinerary.
Traverse City is named after the gorgeous blue-green water it sits next to — Grand Traverse Bay, located at the upper northeast edge of Lake Michigan. The name stems from the “long crossing” the Indian hunters and French traders had to make by canoe across the bay. Today, it’s a haven for outdoors lovers, boaters, runners, artists, film lovers and more.
There are numerous beaches along the shore but the most popular is Clinch Park Beach, situated next to the vibrant downtown area. Visitors park in the public lot off Cass Street and use the underground pedestrian tunnel under Grandview Parkway to access the beach area. The fun begins here as everyone, and I mean everyone, has to give a shout to hear their words echo in the tunnel! Clinch Park’s sandy beach, grassy park, splash pad and playground are a delight for families. But add shade trees, picnic areas and rest rooms, and you’ve got all the necessities covered, too.
There’s so much to do here that you can make a day of it. Rent a bike and tackle a portion of the 22-mile paved TART bike trail that runs along Clinch Park. Rent a paddle board or kayak and paddle along the beach (stopping for a swim, of course) before heading up the Boardman River to see one of Michigan’s top 10 trout streams up close. At sunset, enjoy a walk out on the pier and challenge your group to find the best named boats moored in the marina.
Other beaches along the bay worth a visit include: Volleyball Beach, the nets await you; Bryant Park, a local favorite because of the lifeguards, playground and outdoor grills; and Greilickville Harbor Park, where you can watch the Tall Ship Manitou, a replica 1800s schooner, setting sail from the nearby docks. And across the street you can visit the Children’s Museum.
The Tall Ship Manitou also offers sailing trips to the general public, another fun way to see the bay and learn the history of the area. They even offer an overnight “floating bed and breakfast” trip. There are more than lakes to enjoy. Dip your toes in the area rivers including everyone’s favorite, the Platte River. Rent a tube or a canoe from Honor Trading Post and enjoy this perfect lazy river that eventually dumps out into Lake Michigan. With the gentle current you don’t even need to paddle. At the end of your float, have a picnic on the shores of Lake Michigan and let the kids play on the dunes around the mouth of the river.
DOWNTOWN TRAVERSE CITY
To take in the beauty and history of quaint downtown Traverse City, start on Front Street, a one-way thoroughfare full of diverse and bustling shops for all ages and interests.
The kids can find the latest gadgets at Toy Harbor — but don’t expect a big box take on toys. The selection at Toy Harbor is built on originality and creativity. Lake lovers must visit the M22 store, with products featuring the iconic M-22 road sign — the road follows the Lake Michigan shoreline in Leelanau County and has become a symbol of life Up North. Fun signs and collectibles can be found at My Favorite Things and book lovers can browse the diverse selections at both Horizon Books and Brilliant Books. Train aficionados will want to check out the Trains & Things Hobby store, while fashionistas will be drawn to What to Wear, a clothing shop with one-of-a-kind pieces.
Stop into Cherry Republic for your cherry fix and try the free samples of chocolate-covered cherries (white, dark, milk chocolate and more). The kids can play in the “cherry pit” pit too! Last but not least, there are fudge shops downtown, too — try Kilwin’s or Murdick’s. Locals call tourists “fudgies” because they love the fudge! But don’t overdo the sweets and ruin your appetite, because you’ll want to partake in Traverse City’s flourishing dining scene.
Traverse City has become a huge foodie town in the last five or so years. The only problem with finding a good meal is deciding which one to dig into first.
For lunch, grab a take-out “Turkey Gobbler” from Mary’s Kitchen Port and head to one of the beaches. The homemade bread has a salty crust that has grown a city-wide fan base. If you hear someone local say “Gobbler” in Traverse City, they mean an MKP sandwich. Always. In the same area, you can walk and visit The Cheese Lady, Burritt’s Fresh Markets, Chef’s In and Grand Traverse Pie Co. See? How do you even begin to choose?
Another fun, on-the-go choice: food trucks. A variety of trucks rotate through The Little Fleet in downtown Traverse City, which offers outdoor seating and often, live music. Most people arrive by bike or on foot, and, if you want a fun, local, small town vibe, this place has it. Little Fleet also flanks the historic residential area of the city which is a pretty neighborhood to tour homes.
When dinner time rolls around, Apache Trout Grill is one of the signature fine dining destinations, so go early or plan to wait for a table — though the wait is worth it. Enjoy Happy Hour on the deck, perched on the edge of the bay. Pick from items like hand-cut choice steaks, fresh seafood, ribs and lobster bisque soup. The marina is just up the road, and sailboats dot the lake all summer long.
For a different upscale dining experience, try Red Ginger, an Asian restaurant downtown next to the historic State Theatre. The metropolitan atmosphere gives you reason to leave the kids at home and dress up just a bit. The perfect girls’ night out drink is its signature “Red Dragon Martini” made with Svedka raspberry vodka and garnished with a raspberry-sugar rim.
For more of a true Up North dining experience, head to Sleder’s Family Tavern. Established in 1882, it is Michigan’s oldest, continuously operated restaurant. The original bar runs along the east wall, an impressive 21 feet of solid mahogany sided with cherry wood and fronted with a brass rail. At the far end of the dining room hangs “Randolph,” a mounted moose. It’s part of the Traverse experience
to “Smooch the Moose” for good luck.
A perfect evening might end with a drink and a sunset at the rooftop bar at The Hotel Indigo overlooking Grand Traverse Bay. The glass-railing view is unobstructed and unforgettable.
For a family-friendly end to the evening, go to Moomer’s Homemade Ice Cream — voted America’s # 1 ice cream by USA Today in 2016. There isn’t a weekend summer night when the line isn’t snaking out the door into the parking lot. No one minds — the store overlooks the family farm and there are always a few Holstein cows out to remind us of a simpler life. Moomer’s boasts 160 flavors with
20 on offer each day. Pick from flavors like Cherries Moobilee or Mooberry or get crazy and let the kids split a Wholey Cow — 10 scoops of ice cream, their choice!
Every winery in the area offers views and libations that will please. If you had to pick three, here are a few tried and true favorites.
Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn is located on Old Mission Peninsula a few miles outside of Traverse City. The drive includes a pull-off along the road to get pictures of the bay. Or you can wait and soak in the views on the deck at Chateau Chantal. It’s stunning. There’s a B&B, too, which might spoil you for life.
Bonobo Winery is also on Old Mission Peninsula. It’s relatively new to the wine scene but is already established as a must-see (and sip). The tasting room features a wall of windows, natural light, a welcoming staff ,and several sets of French doors leading out to the deck that beckons everyone for nightly sunsets. The winery was founded by brothers and Traverse natives Todd and Carter Oosterhouse, from Trading Spaces/HGTV fame.
Black Star Farms has two locations. The original one in Suttons Bay showcases the best Leelanau County has to offer. Just 15 minutes from Traverse City the 160-acre estate features a winery, inn, café, event venues, equestrian facility and hiking trails. Imagine breathtaking barns, white picket fences, majestic horses and leafy vineyards running the countryside. Plus, the drive includes a stretch of the famous highway, M-22, winding along Grand Traverse Bay, offering one vista after another
Traverse City is known as the “Cherry Capital” of the world. The region produces 40 percent of the annual tart cherry crop in the United States, and the National Cherry Festival is held the first week of July, drawing an estimated 500,000 people to the area.
The fest provides for a perfect built-in mini family vacation. There are more than 150 events and most are free. It primarily takes place outdoors along the bay, and in parks and other downtown areas. Highlights include three parades, the Festival of Races (5k to half- marathon distances) and plenty of kids events. Think turtle races, cherry pie eating showdowns and cherry pit spitting contests.
Regular nightly events include outdoor concerts — from nationally known country acts and comedians to local cover bands — and a carnival downtown along the river. Get a bird’s eye view of the greater Traverse area on the Ferris wheel, a must-do near dusk when the lights of the city and the pier highlight the best of both worlds. The festival also features two sets of fireworks — one on July 4th and the other as the grand finale on the last Saturday of the event.
The other big summertime event is the Traverse City Film Festival, which brings films and filmmakers from around the world to Northern Michigan from late July to early August. Founded in 2005 by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Michael Moore, the annual festival features screenings of upwards of 140 films, along with a variety of other events.
The festival was instrumental in renovating a shuttered historic downtown movie house, the State Theatre, which it continues to own and operate as a year-round, community-based, and volunteer-staffed art house movie theater. The festival also renovated the historic Con Foster Museum building in Clinch Park and turned it into a sister screen for the State Theatre, the Bijou by the Bay.
Films are also shown at the City Opera House, a landmark in downtown Traverse City since 1892. The immaculately restored facility hosts a world-class performing arts series year-round.
For those who like to see their favorite classic movies under the stars, there is an inflatable outdoor screen overlooking Grand Traverse Bay in the park area called the “Open Space,” where screenings of family-friendly films like “Star Wars” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” begin at dusk.
The Park Place Hotel is the quintessential Traverse City experience. Located in the heart of downtown, its tall, classic, 1930 pale green roof is a landmark for miles around. Enjoy drinks at the “top of the Park” in the Beacon Lounge, which boasts a great view of the bay, or dinner at Minerva’s Restaurant on the ground floor. You can walk out the door of The Park Place to the beach and everything else downtown. It’s hard to beat when it comes to location, history and views.
Tamarack Lodge is a condominium resort located on the beaches of East Grand Traverse Bay with an “Up North” feel. Its lobby is reminiscent of Michigan’s grand lodges of a bygone era with its large stone fireplace, high-beamed ceilings, and detailed wood columns and wainscoting.
The Grand Beach and Sugar Beach Resort Hotels in Traverse City offer excellent family lodging, with sandy beaches, an indoor pool and hot tub, and a beachside location close to downtown and the wineries. Just step out on the balcony for expansive beach views.
DAY TRIP TO THE DUNES
Traverse City is a great home base for exploring the surrounding areas, the most popular of which is Sleeping Bear Dunes in Empire. Voted the most beautiful place in America in 2011 by “Good Morning America,” the dunes are a great one-day excursion for the entire family.
Sleeping Bear is one of America’s most unique destinations. About 45 minutes from downtown Traverse, the first stop needs to be Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile loop goes through a covered bridge and offers various outlooks along the way. One stop includes a view of Alligator Hill — look for the outline of the trees that take the shape of an alligator. The culmination of the drive is the observation deck at the Lake Michigan Overlook, about 450 feet above the lake. The breathtaking blues of the water against the endless pale of the dunes is unmatched.
Just past Pierce Stocking is the Sleeping Bear Dunes hill climb. This is the place to let the kids (and active adults) climb up, race down and see who tumbles first. You can also rent bikes from shops near the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, a multi-use paved pathway that runs from the northern end of the park to a point just south of Empire. Bike the path from the dunes to Glen Arbor for lunch at Art’s Tavern — a cozy pub, with an authentic northern Michigan feel — and ice cream at The Pine Cone. Consider a stopover in Glen Haven to enjoy a tour of the old canning company and learn the history of the area.
Inside secret: Glen Arbor is a great little out-of-the-way spot to spend an entire day in the Sleep Bear Dunes area. The downtown features wine and food shops, a bookstore, art galleries and more. It sits along the famous M-22 and is home to the blue-green gems of Big and Little Glen lakes as well as the Crystal River. Lake Michigan is also right out the back door, with numerous beaches to explore, including Peterson Beach, named one of the top 10 beaches to visit in America by The Saturday Evening Post.
Kandace Chapple is the editor and publisher of Grand Traverse Woman Magazine in Traverse City. She loves to mountain bike on northern Michigan trails, hike with her dog, Cookie, and spend time with her husband and two sons.Edit Module