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On the Road: What to Do in Traverse City, Michigan

Escape the heat in this northern Michigan resort town, known for its outdoor beauty, wineries, cherries and other fresh produce, and bountiful recreational opportunities.
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On the Road: What to Do in Traverse City, Michigan

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It’s about this time of year, when we’ve all grown tired of the triple-digit heat in Dallas, that I really start missing my old stomping grounds off the coast of Lake Michigan in the northern part of the state’s lower peninsula. So, when I recently had the opportunity to attend a magazine conference in Detroit, I tacked a few extra days onto my trip and headed to what’s known in Michigan as simply “Up North.”

There’s some disagreement among Michiganders as to where Up North begins, but most define it as the coastal region starting at Traverse City, which is about midway up the coast of Lake Michigan, and extending up to Mackinac Island. The beautiful, historic island lies about six miles east of the Mackinac Bridge, a five-mile expanse that connects Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. (Side note: you will be targeted as a tourist if you say Mackinack; it’s pronounced Mackinaw.)

We spent the first part of our trip in Traverse City, situated around Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. Our first day started with an early lunch at one of my favorites, The Cherry Hut, about 30 miles south of Traverse City. The restaurant began life as a roadside cherry pie stand in 1922. (The Grand Traverse region is the world’s largest producer of tart cherries.) Along with cherry pie (save room for dessert!), The Cherry Hut is especially known for its cherry chicken salad, fresh roasted turkey with dressing, and hand-battered cod. I opted for the cherry chicken salad plate, served with a cherry muffin and fruit. It was delicious. My boyfriend went nontraditional and ordered the Asian chicken salad, which was surprisingly tasty. Don’t leave The Cherry Hut without visiting its in-house store. I highly recommend taking home some cherry salsa.

Next, it was time to burn off some calories with a trek to the Sleeping Bear Dunes. I could write an entire column about this 35-mile stretch of sandy beaches and bluffs that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan. There’s a reason Good Morning America viewers named it the “Most Beautiful Place in America.” There are bountiful options of things to do at Sleeping Bear, from visiting the Manitou islands, lighthouses, or maritime museum to outdoor activities like kayaking, swimming, and the famous dune climb.

If you’re short on time, the must-do is Pierce Stocking Drive, a 7.8-mile loop that meanders through the Beech-Maple Forest and the dunes. If you make just one stop along the way, choose No. 9, the Lake Michigan Overlook. Park your vehicle, then walk up a short hill to see the majestic views. Be sure to walk out onto the viewing platform and take it all in. Pro tip: Do not try to run down the steep dunes to the beach. The walk back up is much steeper and arduous than it looks. If you need to be rescued by the park service, it will cost you $3,000.

After the dunes, we were ready for some refreshments and headed to the Traverse wine coast. The region, on the 45th parallel, benefits from the lake-effect climate. The area’s 25 or so wineries are concentrated on two peninsulas off Traverse City—Leelanau and the smaller Old Mission. Our first stop was Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay on Leelanau. (It has a sister winery on Old Mission, too.) The 160-acre estate includes a charming inn, café, outdoor terrace, and tasting room, plus equestrian facilities and recreational trails. Known for its global award-winning Riesling, it also offers Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and more. After partaking in the tasting sampler, I visited the store and walked away with six bottles.

Note: While in Leland, a charming town on Leelanau (where Dallas Chamber Chief and Michigan native Dale Petroskey has a family home, by the way), make time to visit Fishtown, a collection of historic fishing shanties transformed into quaint shops.

Along with wine, Traverse City is getting its craft beer and spirits game on, with about 25 microbreweries, 14 taprooms and cideries, and seven distilleries. Some can be found on the peninsulas, but many are located downtown or in nearby villages on the Lake Michigan coast.

Local restaurants take full advantage of the region’s bountiful produce, and the options were plentiful for dinner. Eater Detroit recommends these top five: Farm Club, Taqueria TC Latino, Samsara (southeast Asian cuisine), Wren, and Trattoria Stella, a longtime local fave.

We went on a hunt for fresh fish and chose Apache Trout Grill, which overlooks Grand Traverse Bay. Appetizer standouts include the Ciabatta Pull-Apart Bread, served warm with house-made pesto, Fustini’s garlic olive oil, and 18-year balsamic vinaigrette, and the Smoked Whitefish Dip, which is something you’ll find on a lot of restaurants Up North. A Perch Reuben, Panko-Crusted Whitebish, and TC Bourbon-Glazed Burger are sandwich highlights, and salad recommendations include the Blackened Salmon Caesar and Traverse City Cherry Salad.

Among the fish entrees are whitefish and walleye, both sourced from Lake Superior, and locally sourced trout. We tried the walleye and trout, and both hit the spot. Apache Trout Grill also is known for its hand-cut steaks and BBQ ribs. We didn’t save room for dessert, but I regret not trying the Boston Cooler (a Michigan classic made with vanilla ice cream and the state’s popular Vernor’s ginger ale) or the Pistachio Gelato Bomb.

Before heading to the resort, we stopped at Front Street and walked around Traverse City’s charming downtown, with brick sidewalks and 19th-century Victorian storefronts. Be sure to stop at Grand Traverse Pie Co., where the nearly 50 flavors include 10 cherry-based options and its signature lemon-blueberry silk pie, and Cherry Republic, which has more than 200 cherry-based items, including the must-try coconut cherry oatmeal cookies.

 I’ve stayed before in the historic Park Place Hotel in the heart of downtown, but this time, we opted for the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, about six miles north of the city in Acme. The 900-acre complex was built in the 1980s and acquired in 2003 by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. It offers 500 hotel rooms, a 17-story condominium tower, a private beach club, a full-service spa, retail shops, a water park, indoor and outdoor tennis, and three championship golf courses, including The Bear, designed, as you may have guessed, by Jack Nicklaus. The accommodations were roomy and provided all the perks you’d expect to find in an upscale resort.

After getting settled, we were ready to head out again. This time, we visited the Old Mission peninsula and Chateau Chantal for its Jazz at Sunset series. The winery, which includes a bed and breakfast, sits on one of the highest points of Old Mission and offers stunning views in every direction. It has a fascinating back story; the founding couple, Robert and Nadine Begin, both served the Catholic church—Robert was a priest for a dozen years, and Nadine was a nun for 22 years. They met and married in 1974. The winery is now run by their daughter, Marie-Chantal Dalese, president and CEO.

Chateau Chantal, which is known for its late-harvest Riesling, also makes Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Cabernet Franc, Gewürztraminer, Blaufränkisch, Pinot blanc, and Pinot grigio. When conditions are right, it also waits to harvest some of its Riesling grapes until after the season’s first hard freeze to make rare ice wine.

The winery’s Thursday night Jazz at Sunset concert series is a tradition that began about three decades ago. Listening to a live performance of smooth sounds and enjoying the views while sipping on a refreshing glass of wine was the perfect way to end our evening—and our whirlwind trip Up North.

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Christine Perez

Christine Perez

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Christine is the editor of D CEO magazine and its online platforms. She’s a national award-winning business journalist who has…
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