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Traverse City, Michigan, is the kind of place that is quiet and tepid for most of the year, then explodes in popularity.
The vacation destination’s moment in the sun is early July, when the National Cherry Festival, scheduled this year for July 2 to 9, brings some 500,000 tourists to the resort community of 15,000 permanent residents on Lake Michigan’s northeastern shore. Known among locals as “T.C.” or “Up North,” Traverse City long ago surpassed Door County as the nation’s tart cherry capital, and frequently gives its Wisconsin cousin, 54 miles away across the lake, a run for its tourism money.
But if you can get to Traverse City before that big rush, or wait until it subsides, the destination becomes a tranquil location for peaceful reflection. We visited in mid-May, avoiding the crowds, and while we had to deal with both mayflies (normal) and snow flurries (less normal), we ultimately found the visit an enchanting experience.
Anchored at the edge of Grand Traverse Bay and flanked by the sprawling Leelanau Peninsula to the west and the narrow Old Mission Peninsula to the east, T.C. offers much of what Door County does, and perhaps a few things more.
Hiking is a key form of recreation, especially along the wooded trails on the largely agricultural Leelanau Peninsula. Choices are plentiful, but the true destination for most hikers and sightseers is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, part of the U.S. National Park Service.
Sleeping Bear hugs the glacier-scalloped Lake Michigan shore from Platte Bay in the south to Good Harbor Bay in the north. The sprawling mix of parkland and wilderness, home to 13 different hiking trails of varying length and challenge, also includes the remote South Manitou and North Manitou islands, accessible by ferry during the summer season.
Most first-time visitors opt to pay the park entrance fee at the visitor’s center in Empire and take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The 7.1-mile loop through hardwood forests and sandscapes covers some of Sleeping Bear’s most significant dune formations, including the Sleeping Bear itself.
According to legends of the Native American Anishinaabe tribe, a mother bear and her two cubs chose to flee a raging forest fire in Wisconsin by swimming across Lake Michigan to the opposite shore. The mother bear made it to land safely and perched on the shore’s edge awaiting her cubs’ arrival.
But the cubs, less agile and not as strong, both drowned. In consolation to the grieving mother bear, the Great Spirit created the two Manitou islands at the spots where each of the cubs perished. The bear to this day sleeps as a brush-covered dune overlooking the lake, keeping watch for her lost cubs.
We hiked the 1.5-mile Cottonwood Trail at the north end of the loop drive, which allows visitors to experience the dune-covered landscape and its varied terrains on foot. The Lake Michigan Trail, perched 450 feet above the water’s edge, offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding shoreline and a good chance to see the Sleeping Bear Dune, albeit from a distance.
For those energetic enough to try it, the Dune Climb just north of the loop drive on Hwy. M-109 allows visitors to clamber up the face to a dune with nothing but sand under foot and no handholds to rely on. If you tire easily you can simply come back down. In this case, gravity is on your side.
A very different type of trail awaited us on the Old Mission Peninsula east of T.C. The 19-mile-long strip thrusts like a three-mile wide serpentine tongue into Grand Traverse Bay. The 32-square-mile area of land and water is narrow enough to see both sides of the surrounding bay from its higher reaches.
The peninsula is one of Michigan’s four designated American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and home to some of the Midwest’s best wines. The area provides a more moderate maritime climate to the vineyards, apple and cherry orchards that cover the landscape.
The bay keeps the peninsula cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, challenging the vines to produce excellent chardonnay, riesling, pinot noir, cabernet franc and other varietal grapes.
Currently, the peninsula is home to nine wineries, but vinters are in the process of adding three more. These fledgling entrepreneurs know how to create a winery experience with the best of them. The showcase wineries of Napa Valley have nothing on their Michigan counterparts, whose impressive tasting rooms also boast some of the peninsula’s best views.
The Leelanau Peninsula is home to another AVA and an additional 25 wineries, making the area an oenophile’s paradise. We chose to limit our sampling to those closest to our residence.
From our room at The Old Mission Inn, a former 19th-century hotel restored as a quaint bed-and-breakfast by owners Angie and Bruce Jensen and their son Tyler, it was an easy drive from the tip of the peninsula south to a long string of wineries, each offering wines more delicious than the last.
The wineries charge a modest $3 to $5 for five 1-oz. tastes of their wine, far less than their Napa counterparts. For those driving the distance, the wine flights can be shared, further reducing costs and promoting sobriety. Wine also is for sale by the bottle and the glass, with bottle prices as low as $11 and as high $75 for the boutique wines.
We stopped at 2 Lads Winery, owned by T.C. native Chris Baldyga and Cornell Olivier, who grew up working in the wineries of his native South Africa’s famed Stellenbosch region. It was our first taste of the day, and we walked away with several pinot noirs of different vintages, a remarkable late harvest riesling, and two bottles of the fruit-forward Vortex Rosé, which we knew would be perfect for outdoor summer fare.
At Brys Estate Winery, it was the bright and fruity sauvignon blanc that captured our palates with its floral nose and flavors of melon and starfruit. At Chateau Chantal Winery, the Double Barrel Reserve Cabernet Franc and Proprietor’s Reserve Trio (a merlot, cabernet franc and pinot noir blend) caught our attention, as did the winery’s commanding view over its vineyards of both arms of Grand Traverse Bay.
But it was late afternoon at Chateau Grand Traverse, the peninsula’s oldest winery having opened in 1974, that perfectly ended our afternoon.
We sat on the winery’s sun-soaked terrace with glasses of Silhouette Red, an off-dry proprietary blend of oak-aged estate wines, in hand while an unusual blend of music from the winery’s playlist hummed in the background. The afternoon had finally warmed to near-spring levels and gentle breezes urged towering, tumbling cumulus clouds slowly across the vivid blue sky and over the bank of vineyards that reached down the hill and toward the horizon.
The winery itself was modest by comparison to its competitors and there was no water in sight from the terrace. But it didn’t matter. The wine opened our senses to the peninsula’s gentle ambience, making us feel that we at last had discovered the peace and relaxation that we had come to the area to find.
And isn’t that what a vacation should be about?
Traverse City sits directly across Lake Michigan from the Door County community of Sturgeon Bay.
Visitors can reach T.C. by taking the Lake Michigan Circle Tour (lakemichigancircletour.com) by car around the lake, or crossing the lake on either of two car ferries — the Lake Express High Speed Ferry (2330 S. Lincoln Memorial Dr., Milwaukee; 866-914-1010) or the S.S. Badger Ferry Service (900 S. Lakeview Dr., Manitowoc; 800-841-4243) — and then driving north.
The Old Mission Inn is located at the top of the peninsula at 18599 Mission Rd., Traverse City. Telephone: 231-223-7770.
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Philip A. Hart Visitor Center, South Dune Hwy., Empire, Mich. Telephone: 231-326-5134.
2 Lads Winery, 16985 Smokey Hollow Rd., Traverse City. Telephone: 231-223-7722.
Brys Estate Winery, 3309 Blue Water Rd., Traverse City. Telephone 231-223-9303.
Chateau Chantal Winery, 15900 Rue Devin, Traverse City. Telephone: 231-223-4110
Chateau Grand Traverse, 12239 Center Rd., Traverse City. Telephone: 231-938-6120.