Traverse City, Michigan
Cherries, pasties, and beaches
Traverse City is summer vacation destination for Midwesterners who love the beach and watersports.
But, Northern Michigan is also a foodie paradise. While apples, peaches, apricots and many other stone fruits are grown here, the area is known as the tart cherry capital, celebrating the harvest each summer with the National Cherry Festival.
A short history
Over 2,000 years ago, Northern Michigan was the seasonal home to Native American tribes who migrated between what is now southern Canada and Northern Michigan. Sometime around 1400 AD, they were pushed out by Ojibwa and Potawatomie tribes moving in from the east.
After Samuel de Champlain claimed Quebec and Ottawa for France in 1608, French explorers and missionaries began moving into the Great Lakes region, including Northern Michigan. Jesuit Priest Jacques Marquette set up a missionary in St. Ignace (about 125 miles from current day Traverse City) in 1671, but the British soon took over after defeating the French in the French and Indian War.
Although the French and British were aware of Traverse City and the Grand Traverse Bay, a colonial settlement was not established until 1847 when Captain Boardman purchased some land and built a sawmill. Train service arrived in 1872 which spurred economic growth and population expansion.
With the increased population came a rise in agriculture and the area around Traverse City was found to be ideal for growing stone fruit trees, especially cherries. In 1925, the Blessing of the Blossoms was held. Later, this became the National Cherry Festival, still held each summer in Traverse City and attracting upwards of 500,000 visitors.
Tart cherries are grown in Michigan, especially the Montmorency variety, which is excellent for making cherry pie. Visiting in the summer, when the cherry trees in Grand Traverse County and Leelanau County are heavy with cherries and each tree seems tinted red, is especially evocative. You’ll often see unattended roadside tables, loaded with boxes cherries (apricots, nectarines, and plums, too) and an honor box. Just leave your money in the box and take some of the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted in your life. This quaint custom seems a relic from a distant time when people knew their neighbors and left their doors unlocked.
Of course, this embarrassment of cherry riches is also made into all kinds of wonderful cherry products. Cherry jam is especially popular as are dried cherries, chocolate covered cherries, and cherry ice cream. But, cherry pies hold a special place in the culinary hierarchy in Northern Michigan.
About 30 miles west of Traverse City in Beulah, the Cherry Hut and its iconic Cherry Jerry logo, have been serving cherry pies for almost 100 years. The restaurant, which is open seasonally, is a throwback of sorts. The waitstaff wear red and white striped uniforms and the menu lists their employees along with the school they are attending (many are college students). If you can’t make it to their restaurant, the Cherry Hut offers shipping on a variety of products, even pies (only the contiguous United States). Once, my uncle sent me several jars of cherry jam from the Cherry Hut for Christmas. It’s still one of my favorite gifts ever.
The Cherry Hut isn’t your only option for cherry goodness. The Grand Traverse Pie Company makes an outstanding pie they call the Cherry Crumb Pie. GTPC also has dozens of other pie flavors including sugar free varieties.
Cherry Republic has a half dozen locations in Michigan, including Traverse City, Charlevoix, and Glen Arbor. They sell everything you can think of that has cherries and lots of others you’d never imagine like cherry hot chocolate, cherry tea, cherry BBQ sauce, cherry salsa, and even cherry wine. And yes, they ship it all, including frozen pies.
Believe it or not, Michigan is the seventh largest wine producing state in the country. The well-drained soil and microclimate provided by Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay make wine growing possible. Michigan wineries point out that Northern Michigan shares the 45th parallel with the Côtes du Rhône and the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine regions of France.
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This claim, while geographically true, neglects to mention that successful wine making included a multitude of factors besides latitude. If the only requirement for world class grape growing was being on the 45th, then southern Montana and Primorsky Krai, Russia would be pumping out award winning wines.
All kidding aside, Michigan wines have been undergoing a renaissance lately, with some vintners even ripping out cherry orchards in order to plant grape vines (the horror!). Publications like Wine Enthusiast and James Suckling have favorably reviewed Michigan wines and commented on its quality and value. Rieslings are especially well liked but if you enjoy a glass of red, try the Cabernet Franc and Merlot; the Pinot Noir, meanwhile, can be inconsistent.
The Old Mission Peninsula bisects the Grand Traverse Bay with a three mile wide and nineteen mile long strip of land. Nine wineries dot the map (a tenth is on the way). It makes a fun day trip to visit several wineries and taste their wares in the incredibly beautiful Old Mission Peninsula. Remember, no drinking and driving. Here’s a few of my favorites.
· Bowers Harbor – 2016 Riesling is very highly rated. They also make an apple wine, a cherry wine, and hard apple cider.
· Brys Estate – One of the top wineries in Michigan. Excellent whites and reds. The 2012 Pinot Noir is especially good, if you can find it.
· Bonobo Winery – Named after the endangered primate, their slogan is “evolved yet primal.” Owned by actress Amy Smart and her husband.
Across the bay from the Old Mission Peninsula is the Leelanau Peninsula, home to seventeen more wineries. L Mawby deals exclusively in sparkling wines, and they are excellent. Black Star Farms on Suttons Bay is also a nice winery with an inn on site. Also worth mentioning the family-run rustic Chateau Fontaine, a twenty year old winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Remember to check the wineries website or call ahead. Some have limited hours while others are closed during the off season.
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (attached to the Lower Peninsula by the Mackinaw Bridge) has been rich in minerals for thousands of years. Native Americans mined copper for tools in the U.P. as far back as 5,000 BC.
Immigrants from Cornwall, England arrived in the mid 19th century and worked in the copper mines. With them, they brought a miners’ lunch called the pasty (pronounced with a short a), a folded dough filled with meat and vegetables that is the prefect hand food for miners. Think of a pasty as an English version of calzone.
Pasties are usually filled with meat and potatoes along with onion and rutabaga. There is also a Finish pasty which has carrots. Today, pasty shops in Michigan, while still offering traditional pasties, have also tinkered with the recipe and are offering things like the vegetarian, vegan and even gluten-free pasties.
A trip to the Upper Peninsula (The U.P.) makes for a long day trip from Traverse City. It’s about a 2 ½ drive to the Mackinaw Bridge, then another 2 ½ hours to Marquette. Therefore, I’d recommend staying over at least one night in the U.P.
Adventurous types might want to stay in the Crew Quarters of the lighthouse station at Whitefish Point (3 ½ hour drive from Traverse City). There’s a museum here that is a memorial to the Edmund Fitzgerald which sunk near Whitefish Point in 1975.
If a ten hour round trip drive to Lawry’s Pasty Shop seems daunting, the Yoopers (people who live in the U.P.) don’t have a monopoly on pasties. You can get excellent ones in Traverse City. Cousin Jenny’s Cornish Pasties might be the best, but you’ll see dozens of places that offer the hearty treat in T.C. And, many of the pasty shops listed below offer shipping.
Sleeping Bear and Mackinac Island
There are several islands that make great day trips from Traverse City.
A seasonal ferry from Leland (half hour drive from T.C.) can take you South Manitou Island in 90 minutes. Part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore, South Manitou Island is a great escape for daytrippers or overnight campers. The water is clear and there are a couple of shipwrecks nearby for divers to explore. The hiking is good, too, and even on the busiest days you can easily find solitude here. There’s also a lighthouse on the island which is owned by the National Park Service. The tower is open for tours seasonally; climb the tower for great views!
I went to elementary school in Michigan and one of things kids learn is the legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes.
A fire in Wisconsin drove a mother bear and her two cubs into Lake Michigan. They tried to swim across to the shore of Michigan. The voyage was difficult, and despite the mother urging on her babies, they drowned a few miles short of the shore. The mother reached the beach and collapsed in exhaustion. She watched as The Great Spirit created two islands to mark her children’s graves. The mother bear continues to wait for her cubs on the shore as the sands of the beach covered her body.
The park is massive, covering 35 miles of shoreline. There are tons of little spots where you can find your zen as well as popular tourist spots. The Dune Climb in Empire will give you great views of the shoreline and islands. The trail from the dune climb extends 22 miles along the shore with several trail heads.
For the truly adventurous, Isle Royale is an island national park in northwest Lake Superior. Wolves, moose, fox, and other mammals populate the island which has amazing hiking and camping. Houghton, in the U.P. is a seven hour drive from Traverse City. From there you take a six hour ferry ride to the island. Dubbed “The least visited but most revisited” national park, Isle Royale is a place to truly get away from it all.
At the other end of the spectrum is Mackinac Island. A very popular site, the island is car-free, so leave your vehicle in the parking lot when you jump on the high speed ferry at St. Ignace (30 minute crossing). Once there, your only modes of transportation are by foot, bike, or horse drawn carriage. In fact, one of the best ways to see the island is by a horse drawn carriage ride.
Just wandering around the town where the ferry drops you is also a treat. The cottages are picture postcard perfect, many with gorgeous flowering gardens in the summer. The Grand Hotel is an historic hotel known for its massive 600+ foot porch and spectacular views. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never gone on the porch as I refuse to pay the $10 admission for the privilege of standing on their porch. $10 isn’t extravagant, of course, but still. I have heard it is very nice, though.
Fort Mackinac is also an interesting stop. Mackinac Island held strategic importance during the colonial era because whomever controlled the island, controlled the important trade route through the straits between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
The British built the fort to replace a poorly located French fort on the mainland after the French and Indian War. Despite losing the Revolutionary War, the British would not cede control of Fort Mackinac to the Americans until 1796. The American force at the fort surrendered to the British during the War of 1812 and it remained in British hands until the end of the war.
Original walls, gates and buildings from the fort remain intact and tours, led by 19th century costumed guides, are an excellent way to learn about the fort’s history.
Each year, sailors from Chicago take part is a 330 mile sailboat race to Mackinac Island. If you happen to be in the area for the race in July, don’t miss a chance to see the boats cross the finish line. Each boat’s completion of the race is punctuated with a cannon firing a report.
Hot Fudge Cream Puff
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Foodies will find a couple of things to get excited about on Mackinac Island. Sanders is one of the most famous candy makers in Michigan. They also have shops all over the state, including on Mackinac Island. Their toffee is excellent, as is their fudge, but you need to get their Hot Fudge Cream Puff. Vanilla ice cream is placed inside a puff pastry shell and topped with chocolate sauce. Is that it, you might ask? Yes, but know that all three ingredients at Sanders are of the highest quality, making this a dessert to savor. And, if you want to make a Hot Fudge Cream Puff at home, Sanders sells their shells, ice cream, and fudge topping.
The other treat that Mackinac Island is famous for is fudge. Murdick’s Fudge has been in business for over 140 years. While is seems that every tourist town has at least one place that sells fudge, Murdick’s is truly high quality fudge. And they’ve branched out to offer over twenty flavors of their treat.
Besides the beaches at Sleeping Bear Dunes, there are beautiful beaches at Empire, Good Harbor and Glen Haven. But with an extensive shoreline, there are great beaches all over Northern Michigan.
A few blocks from downtown in the beach at Clinch Park. Nice for families because it is so close, however there’s no parking lot at Clinch. Park on Cass Street.
West End Beach is also close to downtown. This is a great spot for beach volleyball and boating.
Or, you can head up Old Mission Peninsula. There are several beaches on either side of this skinny strip that juts into Traverse Bay. All the way north is Haserot Beach, a spot that is rarely crowded and is great for swimming and diving, even beginners will like the calm water.
But, my personal favorites are those at Crystal Lake in Frankfort and the nearby beach on Lake Michigan at Point Betsie. The clear, calm water of Crystal Lake is perfect for water sports and Point Betsie on Lake Michigan is an idyllic spot where you can watch the sunset or scan the beach for Petoskey stones.
One of the great joys of Northern Michigan beach life is hunting for Petoskey stones. Petoskey rocks are the fossilized remains of an extinct coral from about 350 million years ago. The fossils have a unique hexagonal interlocking shape that is visible only when the stone is wet or polished. That makes finding them a challenge.
Some of the best places to find Petoskey stones along Lake Michigan is in Petoskey, Michigan (of course), Empire Beach in Leelanau County, and my favorite, Point Betsie in Frankfort.
When we were little my parents would take me and my brothers on a family vacation every summer to Crystal Lake, less than an hour’s drive from Traverse City. It was a short hike from Crystal Lake to Point Betsie where we would play on the beach and hunt for Petoskey stones. Finding them was a serious competition between me and my brothers, an exercise that could take entire days to complete. I now realize my parents used this “game” as an effective ruse to get us out of their hair. But we loved looking for the special rocks.
One summer in particular stands out. My brothers and I were hauling in Petoskeys by the dozen. It seemed we couldn’t walk more than a few feet without finding another treasure. We found so many, in fact, that at the end of the day I accused my father of going to the beach early that morning and scattering stones along the beach for us to find.
One of the largest stones we ever found was about as big as my fist. We had it polished and it is now one of my favorite things in my house.
If you decide to go Petoskey hunting keep these things in mind. First, you cannot remove more than 25 pounds of rocks per visit. Any more than that is illegal and susceptible to confiscation. Second, the best time of year to find Petoskeys is the spring when a new crop has been churned up by winter storms and thrown on to the beach. That said, we always went on vacation in August and found rocks. Finally, keep your eyes peeled but don’t fret if you don’t find a Petoskey. Despite what I told you about me and my brothers, this isn’t a competition. Even if you don’t find a Petoskey, you’ve still had a lovely day at the beach.
If you go:
Cherry Capital Airport
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Traverse City’s airport has direct flights from Chicago and Detroit as well as several other cities in the summer. However, flying into Chicago or Detroit and renting a car (5 hour drive from Chicago, 4 from Detroit, longer if you take the scenic route) can make for a lovely trip.
Traverse City itself is compact, but many sites and attractions are outside the city, so a rental car is recommended. Biking is an excellent way to get around as there are many scenic paths. Uber and taxis widely available.
A car ferry https://www.ssbadger.com/ from Ludington (2 hour drive from Traverse City) can take you and your vehicle to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It takes about four hours to cross Lake Michigan.
Star Line Ferry takes you from St. Ignace to Mackinac Island in ½ hour. https://www.mackinacferry.com/
A ferry from Houghton in the U.P. to Isle Royale operates seasonally. 6 hour trip. https://www.nps.gov/isro/planyourvisit/ranger-iii-info.htm
Manitou Island Transit operates a seasonal ferry service from Leland to South Manitou Island. The trip takes about 90 minutes. https://manitoutransit.com/
Eclectic European cuisine. Vegetarian options available.
229 East Front Street, Traverse City, MI
Coffee shop and bakery in the warehouse district.
144 Hall Street, Traverse City, MI
The Little Fleet
Food Truck park with several food trucks including Daily Blend. Open seasonally
448 East Front Street
The Cook’s House
High end restaurant with cooking classes
115 Wellington St, Traverse City, MI 49686
Excellent local fare with several vegetarian options.
128 E Front St., Traverse City, MI
Old Mission Tavern
Classic restaurant featuring seafood and steaks
17015 Center Rd, Traverse City, MI 49686-9392
Martha's Leelanau Table
High end restaurant with a wallet-friendly lunch menu. Martha’s conducts foodie trips as well.
413 N St Joseph St, Suttons Bay, MI 49682
The Cherry Hut
Restaurant famous for the cherry pies
211 N Michigan Ave., Beulah, MI 49617
Traverse City Ale Trail
Eight craft breweries. Get the Ale Trail passport stamped for a free gift.
Cousin Jenny’s Cornish Pasties
Top notch pasty shop in Traverse City
129 S. Union St, Traverse City, MI 49684
Lawry’s Pasty Shop
Making pasties in the U.P. for over 70 years. Vegetarian pasty available.
2164 US-41, Marquette, MI 49855
U.P. pasty shop with traditional, vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free pasties on the menu
801 N Teal Lake Ave, Negaunee, MI 49866
U.P. pasty shop, been in business over 40 years.
827 N. Lincoln Rd., Escanaba, MI 49829
Sanders Chocolate and Ice Cream Shop
Famous for the Hot Fudge Cream Puff
7330 Main Street, Mackinac Island, MI 49757
Over 20 flavors of fudge. In business for 140+ years.
7363 Main St., Mackinac Island, MI 49757
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons
The former Traverse City State Hospital asylum is now a planned community. Tours available to revisit its creepy past.
Traverse City Film Festival
Takes place at the end of July/beginning of August each year.
Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trails (TART)
A network of over 100 miles of biking and hiking trails, including bike paths in the city.
The Hippie Tree
Spot near the former asylum where spirits supposedly roam. Accessible from the trailhead near the Greenspire School at:
1026 Red Dr, Traverse City, MI 49684
National Cherry Festival
Late June/early July festival in Traverse City celebrating all things cherry.
Nice beach very close to downtown T.C.
111 E Grandview Pkwy, Traverse City, MI 49684-2566
West End Beach
Beach in T.C. with volleyball and boating.
716 W Grandview Pkwy, Traverse City, MI 49684
Interlochen Center for the Arts
Fine Arts summer art camp and boarding school with incredible performances.
4000 S. M-137 Hwy., Interlochen, MI 49643
Mission Point Lighthouse
Lighthouse in Traverse City available for seasonal tours (climb the tower). You can also apply to be a “lighthouse keeper” and stay in the lighthouse and lead tours.
20500 Center Rd, Traverse City, MI 49686-7900
Quiet beach on the Old Mission Peninsula
Swaney Road, Traverse City, MI
Cherry Bowl Drive-In
Family friendly drive in theater.
9812 Honor Hwy., Honor, Michigan 49640
Sleeping Bear Dunes
National park and seashore with incredible natural beauty.
Visitor Center: 9922 W Front St, Empire, MI 49630
Isle Royale National Park
Proudly calls itself the least visited national park
Petoskey State Park
One of the best places to find Petoskey stones
2475 M-119 Hwy., Petoskey MI, 49770
Another excellent spot for Petoskey hunting. There’s also a lighthouse here and you can stay overnight in the keeper’s quarters.
3701 Point Betsie Rd Frankfort, MI 49635
Earl Young Gnome Houses
Strange houses look like Hobbit homes.
Park Avenue, Charlevoix, Michigan 49720
World’s Largest Cherry Pie Pan
Kitchy photo-op spot.
6591 US-31, Charlevoix, Michigan
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
On the northern end of the Upper Peninsula, this museum memorializes crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Accommodations are also available seasonally in the lighthouse crew’s quarters.
18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, MI 49768
Excellent Riesling. They also make hard apple cider.
2896 Bowers Harbor Road, Traverse City, MI 49686
One of the top wineries in Michigan. Inn on site as well.
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Named after the endangered primate, their slogan is “evolved yet primal.” Owned by actress Amy Smart and her husband.
12011 Center Road , Traverse City Michigan 49686
Deals exclusively in sparkling wines, and they are excellent.
4519 S Elm Valley Road, Suttons Bay, MI 49682
Black Star Farms
Lovely winery on Suttons Bay with an inn on site.
10844 E. Revold Rd., Suttons Bay, MI 49682
Family run, award winning winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
2290 South French Road, Lake Leelanau, Michigan 49653
Light of Day Biodynamic tea farm
Local tea farm. Their tea is available at dozens of locations in northern Michigan including many in Traverse City. You can also visit the farm.
3502 E. Traverse Hwy. Traverse City, Michigan
Shopping drag filled with restaurants and boutique shops
Front Street, Traverse City, Michigan
Everything cherry from pies and jams to cherry wine.
154 E. Front St., Traverse City, MI 49684
Antiquities’ Wellington Inn
Inn decorated with antiques in a neo-classical mansion.
230 Wellington St, Traverse City, MI 49686-2610
Chateau Chantal Winery and Inn
B&B at Chantal Winery.
15900 Rue de Vin, Traverse City, MI 49686-9379
The Inn at Chateau Grand Traverse
Upscale inn at a winery.
12301 Center Rd, Traverse City, MI 49686-8558
Whispering Waters B&B
Secluded and rustic.
2020 Sarns Rd, Traverse City, MI 49696-8234
B&B on Lake Leelanau
1757 N Manitou Trl W # M-22, Leland, MI 49654-9719
Condo in Traverse City
Sleeps up to six
Three bedroom chalet on Lake Leelanau
Large house on Lake Leelanau with a dock.
Five bedroom house on Lake Leelanau
Huge house sleeps up to 14
The Grand Hotel
Historic hotel on Mackinac Island. Stay here or pay $10 for the privilege of standing on the porch.
286 Grand Avenue, Mackinac Island, MI 49757
Harbour View Inn
Historic inn on Mackinac Island.
6860 Main Street, Mackinac Island, Michigan 49757