[TRAVERSE CITY, MI] There’s the hiking, the TART Trail, the beach, the wineries and breweries and distilleries, the art, the organic food markets and the sophisticated restaurant scene. There’s a crunchy granola vibe, even among the shiny happy families and visitors wandering the Saturday morning farmers’ market. Traverse City is like paradise for hippies who shower.
This hidden Midwestern gem had been on my radar for a long time. I’d been reading stories in food and wine magazines about its ascendance. Friends who had visited raved about the wine, the bike riding and fall color. Sleeping Bear Dunes, just west of town, had even been voted Most Beautiful Place in America by viewers of Good Morning America in 2011.
So I was excited to first visit this grownup wonderland in the fall of 2013. And it has proven to be worth every single overwrought adjective.
This dual-natured community in the pinky finger of the mitten, as residents fondly refer to Michigan (look at a map of the state to know why), still wears a little bit of its old humility, as if some of the locals don’t really understand what happened to their small town.
But it’s definitely on the map and for many reasons, not the least of which is Grand Traverse Bay, bigger than most lakes by a lot but still manageable by boat, with friendly beaches and cool little beach towns sheltered from wild and unpredictable Lake Michigan. It’s deep and blue and ever-changing, sometimes calm and sparkling under the mega-watt sun, sometimes rollicking in the angry wind, sometimes frozen so solid that it becomes a shortcut by snowmobile from one side of the bay to the other. On summer evenings it’s a pool of black ink tossing soft waves under a velvet sky studded with a million brilliant stars. It lives and breathes, and everyone in Traverse City lives for a view of the bay.
Then there’s the food and wine. Chef Mario Batali has a summer place in Northport, one of the little towns just bursting with charm on the Leelanau Peninsula stretching north of Traverse City’s West Bay. The region supports a mouthwatering array of agricultural goodness, including cherries—hello, National Cherry Festival—blueberries, peaches, vineyards full of grapes, fields of lavender, hops, herbs and many more fresh-off-the-land ingredients with which master chefs and average foodies can craft unique culinary delights.
You’ve heard of filmmaker Michael Moore? He also has a place near Traverse City, and every summer he hosts the Traverse City Film Festival, rolling out the red carpet for stars from around the world. There’s good fun for the locals, too, with access to the opening night party and screenings on a catamaran in the bay, on the beach and of course in the two tiny but exquisite historic theaters that he’s outfitted with the best in seating and technology. It’s quite a hubbub for a wee city such as Traverse, but the town loves a good party.
In fact, there’s always a party in Traverse City. There are beer festivals, whiskey festivals, the aforementioned Cherry Festival with its jaw-dropping fireworks shows on the bay, music festivals, art festivals, wine festivals. During the winter, the town erects a ginormous (we’re talking five stories tall) Christmas tree right in the middle of one of the streets downtown and closes Main to put up a sledding hill and a Ferris wheel for anyone willing to brave the wind off the bay at the top of the arc.
Summer is high time in Traverse City—the city swells from a population of around 15,000 (150,000 in the metro area) to nearly half a million during the Cherry Festival—and it’s sweet, bright and fun. But there’s a winter draw, too, with miles of snowmobiling trails punctuated by spots where you can grab a hot toddy by the fireplace. If you don’t mind the bluster, the gray and the snow (they shovel the rooftops here), it can be a wonderfully quiet and cozy place in which to eat, drink and dig in. You can spend days combing through the four floors of Wilson Antiques or grab a book and hit Brew for a hot beverage on a sofa. There are no lines and no crowds—only the hardy survive.
Over the course of two years’ worth of visits, I made it something of a mission to tackle the wine trails of Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula and chat with the good folks pouring samples behind the bars. Be warned: It will take weeks or even months of true effort to get through them all, working your way along the maps. But it’s an endeavor well worth the effort. Each has not only unique pours but also unique personality, and the locals you meet are a source of some of the most interesting conversation you’d ever hope to have.
Traverse City is all about being outside. The Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trail, aka the TART, winds from East Bay through town and all the way up to Sutton’s Bay on Leelanau Peninsula north of Traverse City. It’s a gorgeous paved walk or ride through deep woods, over burbling creeks and past rows of cherry trees, hops and grapevines. Then too there’s Sleeping Bear Dunes, with miles of hikes and climbs in the trees and on the barren, windswept, sandy rim of the lake. You can try stand-up paddleboarding in the bay or kayak from Boardman Lake right through town (with a short portage to reach the river). Boating, biking, waterskiing, swimming, outdoor yoga, snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowboarding…you can find the spot and the gear for all kinds of outside adventures in Traverse City.
And once you feel as if you’ve explored all there is to offer in TC (warning, this could take years), you can branch out. There’s Leelanau Peninsula, where Sutton’s Bay, Northport, Leland, Glen Arbor and Empire welcome visitors with live music, freshly brewed hard cider and beer, boutiques stocked with locally made goods and dining choices ranging from burgers on picnic tables to fusion cuisine on white tablecloths. Go a little further and you’ll reach Charlevoix and Petosky, sporting their own brand of hip, artsy and interesting. This is the coast with the most, right along the fingertips of the Michigan mitten.
Even though there’s still more I want to explore, I have my favorites. When I get asked, as I often do, these are my top recommendations:
Drive up Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the lighthouse at the northern tip. There's space to do a little walking around in the woods and on the sandy shore, so bring appropriate shoes. It's also a great place to enjoy a picnic. Or, if you prefer a restaurant, we like the Jolly Pumpkin. Be sure to hit a few wineries on the way up and back.
Spend some time checking out the shops on Front Street. You'll find lots of clothing and home decor boutiques, souvenir shops, ice cream places, hard cider and whiskey tasting rooms, cherry treats and all kinds of other local businesses. Cherry Republic is a great spot in which to sample cherry wines and cherry treats, eat lunch and pick up all manner of cherry-based souvenirs.
Hit the beaches downtown. The West End beach features sand volleyball courts, picnic tables and boats docked for hanging out. Clinch Park, the beach area in the center of the shoreline downtown, has a children's playground/splash pad, and you can rent stand-up paddleboards there. Really, each beach is just down the sidewalk from the other if you want to check out both.
Head west to the Sleeping Bear Dunes on 72 for a day of great hiking or biking. The views are magnificent, and there are all types of trails--paved and not, in the woods and on the windswept hills. Stop by the little town of Glen Arbor for dinner afterward.
Speaking of bikes, this is a great city for them. The TART Trail provides access to much of the city and Leelanau Peninsula along cherry orchards and lakes.
Leelanau Peninsula offers lots of opportunities for exploration all along the famed M22 route. Historic Fish Town is cool for a bit of walking around and fishing in Leland on the Lake Michigan side. Northport is utterly charming, especially on Friday summer evenings when they have outdoor concerts by the marina and fire dancers afterward at the distillery up the road. I have yet to explore the Grand Traverse Lighthouse park on the very tip of Leelanau Peninsula, but it looks pretty phenomenal. It requires an entrance fee, so save it for a day when you have lots of hiking time. And there are tons of wineries all over Leelanau.
If it's raining, see a movie at the State Street Theater or the Bijou. In fact, both are great even if it's not raining. They're beautiful historic theaters with state-of-the-art design and sound, thanks to Michael Moore. He hosts his annual film festival here at the end of every July, flying in actors and directors and laying out the red carpet. They're works of art—be sure to look up in the State Street Theater, where the ceiling looks like a starry night sky.
If it's raining some more, check out the Grand Traverse Commons. It was once a progressive mental hospital back in the day when there was nothing up there. It's been wonderfully restored into condos, shops, coffeehouses and more with a bakery, a winery and restaurants in the outbuildings.
Kids might enjoy fishing at one of the marinas or kayaking on Boardman Lake. There's surfing at the Dunes, parasailing and boat rental downtown, and there's a tall ship that offers chartered boat rides in the bay. Or head west and kayak the Platte River. (If you're a relative newbie, start on the lower Platte to avoid the fast rapids.)
Some of our favorite restaurants include Georgina's and the rooftop of the Franklin, both downtown; Red Ginger's amazingly fresh and flavorful menu with a sophisticated vibe; the Flap Jack Shack out by the mall for breakfast; the Apache for an amazing outdoor dining garden; Brew downtown for coffee or cocktails anytime and live music in the evenings; the food truck scene at Little Fleet on West Front Street for a festive atmosphere, beer and just about any kind of food...the list could go on. Moomers is the best ice cream ever--look for signs around town. You can even visit their dairy farm and take a tour during the summer.
But don't take our word for it. Go see TC. We dare you not to fall in love. Spend an afternoon swimming in the waves, sipping hard cider, perusing art and talking to people who craft it. BIke by the cherry trees and hike the sunny dunes. Spend an evening listening to the waves, watching the sun set, sipping some local wine and chatting with the person who made it. Soon you'll be smitten with the mitten, too.