Life in Northern Michigan: Sandy dunes, lighthouses, fresh seafood and oh …

September 11, 2013 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

The question arises, as it does invariably, on the second day of every trip to nearly every place I have traveled.

Can we move here?

I fall in love with new landscapes easily, and I feel the sensation creep into my soul as I suck in the morning air here on the Leelanau Peninsula, a 30-mile-long finger that juts northeast into Lake Michigan. How to explain the air? Light and clean, yes, but those aren’t wholly satisfying adjectives. A poet might describe the atmosphere more expansively, as in floating with possibility. For a Floridian used to wearing wet blankets in the summer, it conjures freedom. The remarkable thing is that I can’t feel it at all.

I ask again: Can we move here? The question bubbles up even though I have yet to see the cherry trees heavy with fruit or watch Mary Cooper deftly make her famous pies. Still to come are reminders of New England in the fishing village of Leland, one of the many spots we will stop for ice cream. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is on the agenda, as is a sail on the schooner Manitou. There will be fried whitefish and lighthouse excursions, too. Plus plenty of hours to gaze at that magnificent lake since the sun doesn’t disappear until about 9:30 p.m.

But for now, I am thinking about the air and how quickly we might sell our house, as I rock on the porch of the Inn at Black Star Farms, a 160-acre agritourism destination not far from the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay. Lake Michigan is close, too. The sun popped up at about 6 a.m. and so did I, to walk down the hill and watch the horses play. A couple of curly-haired mangalitsa pigs loll in their mud bath and a dozen or so hens skitter in the yard. I give the barn cat a nod and survey the inn on the hill, which looks like a grand home on a Kentucky horse farm. The vineyards roll behind it. This is farm living for folks who like fine things.

The onsite bakery is nearby, as is a wine-tasting room and the business where a French cheesemaker turns out wheels of mild raclette. None is open yet, so I put them on my to-do list.

Still, I taste a good bit of the farm on my plate at breakfast. A square of polenta sits on a silky mornay sauce made with the raclette, a superb melting cheese. The early-morning cluckers provide the eggs, which the chef scrambles and studs with bits of scallions, asparagus and herbs from the garden that I can see from my window seat.

Later, managing partner Don Coe, who was the president of Hiram Walker in a former life, gives us a tour of the wine cave and offers a lesson in local wines, among them chardonnay, Riesling and pinot noir. Leelanau is on the 45th parallel, and Coe won’t be the last person to remind us how special that is. The region sits halfway between the North Pole and the equator, and if you doubt the quality of the wine here, just know that the 45th parallel threads around the globe and through famed French winemaking areas Bordeaux and Burgundy.

I sip a late-harvest Riesling, the grape coming to full fruit in my mouth, and admit my foolishness. I had to be convinced to come to Northern Michigan, and I suspect I’ll have to be dragged back home.

It’s no secret that the shores of Lake Michigan and the many interior lakes in the state’s northwest region are summer’s hot spots. At least, it’s no secret to residents of the Great Lakes State. Still, many outsiders might be surprised to see lake water as blue as any in the Caribbean. I am. Midnight blue becomes turquoise becomes emerald as the water laps rocky beaches.

Lesson No. 1: America’s East and West coasts haven’t cornered the market on stunning water views and quaint villages. And get this: Michigan’s 3,100 miles of shorelines are the most of any state in the contiguous U.S.

People from Michigan do this nifty thing with one hand to show where they live in the state. They hold it upright, mimicking the mitten, and point below the thumb if they are from Detroit or somewhere in the palm if they hail from Lansing or Grand Rapids. (Those from the Upper Peninsula are out of luck on the manual map.) On this trip, we explored what I call the pinkie, which I understand is not really an accepted locator term, I guess because you can’t see it through a mitten. Still, it’s apt.

Over several days in early July, we traipsed around Leelanau, from water’s edge to interior, skipped east to the much skinnier Old Mission Peninsula, down to Traverse City and then north again, along the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay to Elk Rapids. We stopped at roadside farm stands with honor cash boxes for cups of cherries, which were ripening just as we arrived, a little late this year but a healthy crop nonetheless.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, waits are long at restaurants and parking lots crowded with Michigan plates. Summer is no time to be vacationing in another state. Michiganders do that when the infamous lake-effect snow blankets the area, nearly 100 inches a year. That starts in October. Soon after, towns with already small populations almost disappear as residents flee south.

But in the summer, the Leelanau landscape and the areas around Grand Traverse Bay go from stark to lush with sweet-corn fields and cherry orchards mingling with vineyards. (There are about 35 wineries in the region now.) We even spied a hops farm that supplies the growing craft-beer scene.

Did I mention cherries?

Mary Cooper won the cherry-pie-baking contest at the annual Cherry Festival in Traverse City way back when she was 12. Now, many decades later, she’s baker No. 1 at Farmer White’s, her family’s 100-acre farm with accompanying farm stand just south of Elk Rapids on U.S. 31.

Every day is busy in the summer, and we arrive on a Sunday as she is making some of the 50 daily pies that will be sold there or at farmers markets. She’s kind enough to let us into the kitchen to watch, but gleaning tips is a lost cause. Her fingers fly as she works the dough into lattice tops and crimps the edges of single-crust pies. She tells us that the best cherry pies are a mixture of the local sweets and tarts.

While we peruse the jams, salsas and other homemade condiments, a local caterer comes in to buy a pie. She just worked a wedding where the bride snubbed cake for Mary Cooper’s pies and the caterer wants to taste what all the fuss was about. We already know because we bought a miniature pie and ate it right away.

There’s no lack of cherry-sampling on this trip. There are cherry-wine spritzers, dried cherries in salads and Cherry Butter French Toast. The fresh fruit, some of which we plucked off trees ourselves, is deliciously sweet. We spit the pits artfully into plastic bags as we drive the back roads.

Lest you think all we did was eat cherries and whitefish, you should know that we wandered around several lighthouses, including the Grand Traverse and Old Mission Point beacons. Both are on the tips of the two parallel peninsulas.

We had only one drizzly day, so the ground was quite muddy and the sky streaky when we stopped at the Grand Traverse light. It was commissioned in 1850, electrified in 1950 and then decommissioned in 1972 in favor of a beacon mounted on a skeletal tower. Not nearly as romantic, but travelers into such things can stay for a week in the keeper’s quarters, greeting visitors and handing out information. Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state, and that’s a lure to the many people who are enchanted by their history.

One evening we went for a two-hour cruise on the Manitou, a replica of an 1800s cargo schooner, which has 12 cabins below and is a floating bed-and-breakfast. The folks from Short’s Brewing Company were onboard to hand out samples of the local brewery’s beers. One of us got hooked on Short’s Bellaire Brown, which is unavailable out of state, and ordered it at every restaurant we frequented after the cruise.

There was a stiff wind that night as we ripped around the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay taking in the sites from another vantage point, and meeting people from “Down State” who were enjoying what so many Michiganders do in the summer.

On our last day, we finally made it to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This 35-mile stretch of shoreline is one of the most visited places in the state. The immense dunes were deposited by wind and water as glaciers carved Lake Michigan. That’s the technical stuff.

The reality is that it’s a chore to climb the dunes but really fun to run down or watch people hop to the parking lot in this sort of step-run-peg-leg movement as their arms flail. The scenic Pierce Stocking drive gets you closer to the top so you can save your energy for digging downward through the sand.

Save your energy for what? Well, more cherries. From the dunes, and still with sand in our shoes and mouths, we head to Cherry Republic, a grand emporium of all things cherry in the lakeside village of Glen Arbor. I eat cherry-studded vanilla ice cream and have a sip of someone’s cherry soda.

It’s late afternoon, and I am aware of the air again. Not heavy at all, but warm and welcoming. Kayakers from nearby Crystal River return from their paddles. Bikers lean their two-wheeled transportation against fences for a break. Grandfathers push strollers. There’s nothing but vacation written on everyone’s face.

Why can’t we live here?


Visiting Northwest Michigan: If you go …

Where to stay: The Inn at Black Star Farms just south of Suttons Bay offers a gourmet breakfast daily. You can also get guided tours of the farm and stop in the wine-tasting room and cheesemaking facility for samples. There are 10 rooms in the inn, each named for stars. We stayed in Betelgeuse, and when we turned in for the night, stars appeared on the ceiling over the bed. Rates begin at $225. For more information: or 231-944-1251.

There are many hotels, some of them well-known chains, in Traverse City and environs, plus lots of homes and cottages to rent for weeklong stays. Websites, plus and, are helpful, as is the state’s main tourism site,

Where to eat: Besides the stunning breakfasts at Inn at Black Star Farms, we loved the food at Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen in Elk Rapids (617 Ames St.; Get the crawfish cakes, for sure, and take a chance on any specials. Chef Charles Pizza (147 River St.; in Elk Rapids is also good for a casual bite. We also liked Harbor 22 (12719 S. West-Bay Shore Drive; in Traverse City. Great water views and delicious smoked whitefish pate. If you’re walking around the shops in downtown Traverse, duck into Grand Traverse Pie Company (526 Front St.; for savory or sweet pie. There are several Cherry Republic locations (

What to do: The Leelanau Peninsula is an outdoor lover’s paradise, with plenty of boating, biking, hiking, golfing and fishing opportunities. Any hotel you stay in will have information about these activities.

The Manitou schooner offers several daily excursions during the summer out of Traverse City. Tickets range from $22 to $60 a person depending on age and activities offered on the cruise, such as meals or wine-tasting. or toll-free 1-800-678-0383. Reservations recommended.

Annual events worth putting on your calendar include the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, which is July 5-12 in 2014. About 500,000 people attend the many events, including a carnival, concerts and a cherry-pit-spitting contest. Filmmaker-activist Michael Moore’s annual Traverse City Film Festival brings a slate of interesting movies to the city every summer. Moore, who lives near Elk Rapids, has restored several historic venues in the city. He is a common sight at the festival, as are other famous directors and actors. The 10th festival will be July 29-Aug. 3, 2014.

Lighthouse lovers can find maps and information about the state’s many beacons at

Information on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore can be found at Besides a scenic drive and hiking, there are also campsites.

(Contact Tampa Bay Times travel and food editor Janet K. Keeler at

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