Traverse City Michigan: A Favorite Getaway

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Outside of Traverse City heading toward the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore, these two barns lie quietly in the snow.
Outside of Traverse City heading toward the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore, these two barns lie quietly in the snow.

Traverse City: A Beloved Getaway for Michiganders

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Tasting wines at the Black Star Farms winery in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Max Hartshorne photos.
Tasting wines at the Black Star Farms Winery in Suttons Bay, Michigan, one of more than 40 local wineries in the area. Max Hartshorne photos.

On my last night in Traverse City Michigan, I realized how important this small city is to people from Michigan.

I was in a Jacuzzi with a vivacious 40-year-old blond woman who had traveled here with her friends for a girlfriend’s getaway.

They had hit many of the local wineries, and they had enjoyed some wild times up on the hotel’s tenth-floor bar. The woman we met couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the town where we were, Traverse City.

A Valhalla

She who works in corporate sales and lives 2 ½ hours south of here, Traverse City is her Valhalla, her place to get away, and quite simply her favorite place on earth.

“I’ve been coming up here since I was a kid—and as an adult, whenever I can, I drive up to enjoy time with family in this city. It’s the best!”

She told me about the famous Leland blue rocks that she finds in the lake, pretty blue rocks that are a byproduct of iron ore mining and make lovely jewelry. She described the city as having everything she loves, great wines, a pretty lake to swim in, and people who are down to earth and real. She also told me what they affectionately call tourists in this tourist-centric town—“Fudgies.”

Michael Moore's State Theater staffed with volunteers, plays art films and supports the community in many ways.
Michael Moore’s State Theater staffed with volunteers, plays art films and supports the community in many ways.

Local Celebrities in Traverse City

Traverse City is also home to celebrities who embrace the calmness of the Lakeshore and the beauty of the inland rolling hills and forest. Celebrity Chef Mario Batali summers here.

Rocker Kid Rock, filmmaker Michael Moore and even Madonna all hang out up here and are a part of the local community.

Madonna’s father owns a local winery, Ciccone Vineyard in Suttons Bay, Moore restored and curates the State and the Bijou movie theatres and Batali shops at the local farmer’s markets and does book-signings at Horizon books.

Kid Rock has a vacation house on Torch Lake, north of Traverse City, and has included local places in some of his song lyrics.

More than 40 vineyards dot the coast of Lake Michigan in and around Traverse City.
More than 40 vineyards dot the coast of Lake Michigan in and around Traverse City.

Horizon Books: Open Late

Horizon Books and Cafe is the only bookseller I’ve ever heard of that’s open seven days a week from 7 am until 11 pm! Talk about full service—those hours would put even corporate titans like Barnes and Noble to shame!

Every July, Traverse City’s population swells during the National Cherry Festival, where the locally grown Montmorency and Balaton tart cherries are celebrated with parades, fireworks, pie-eating contests, and music.

The lakeshore is a busy place during the summer months with many other concerts and festivals. There’s also a movie theater, the Bijou that shows art films right on the lake. Next to the lake is the Boardman river that’s perfect for kayaking, there are is also an 8-mile bike trail that’s plowed for winter use. There are also thousands of boat slips in Traverse City for locals and for seasonal visitors. There is a new bike/hiking trail being built around Boardman Lake that should be done around spring 2022.

The Lay of the Land

Traverse City has two peninsulas that stick out into Lake Michigan.
Traverse City has two peninsulas that stick out into Lake Michigan.

Traverse City is located in northern Michigan, about four hours to the west and north of Detroit and about 107 miles south of the Upper Peninsula, known here as the UP and famous for its mosquitoes, harsh winter weather, and overall desolation. There are now 17 direct flights to TC from places like Dallas, Florida, New York, and Arizona.

Still, it’s beloved by residents of Traverse City and many still go up there for vacations and holidays.

The city has a population of about 15,000 which is larger during the summer. Many of the summer residents stay in summer cottages along the shoreline of the Bay and Lake Michigan.

Two narrow peninsulas jut out into the lake, to the right is Old Mission and to the left is the wider and larger Leelanau peninsula.

The city was named in the top 10 places to retire in the US by TripAdvisor, and in 2009, it earned accolades as the number two small town travel destination in the US.

The famous Cherry Republic store in Traverse City...legendary. Traverse City tourism photo.
The famous Cherry Republic store in Traverse City…legendary. Traverse City tourism photo.

On our first day, as snow squalls blew a light dusting of snow over the road, I joined longtime resident Michael Norton to see the small village where he lives, in Old Mission. Here you can find a tidy beach and the remains of an 1800s mission along with nine wineries whose vines line the narrow road, along with cherry orchards that are everywhere.

On the Leelanau Peninsula, there are more than 40 more wineries!

Traverse City: The Cherry Republic

Traverse City is the cherry capital of the US—more orchards produce varieties like Balaton and other sour varieties than anywhere else in the US.

Sunset at Sleeping Bear in Traverse City.
Sunset at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

You can find everything cherry at a local store that’s made cherries famous called the Cherry Republic, founded in 1989 by Bob Sutherland.

He takes cherries grown by dozens of large local producers and creates a huge variety of products—from coffee flavoring to trail mix, pies, jams jellies, and many other products.

They do a big mail-order business and also have a store in downtown Traverse City, along with their flagship in the summer village of Glen Arbor.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

As we headed north on the Leelanau peninsula, winding along the Manitou Trail, M-22, the road veered close to the lakeshore and we entered the green area on the map that denotes this national park.  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had record attendance both of the last two years, with so many people looking to get out into the open and enjoy a safe vacation spot.

These dunes are a highlight of any visit here—a tremendous series of dunes and dramatic cliffs that plunge down from a high point to the shore of the lake. On one side, the dunes are bald, the greenery has been blown away by cascading sands, and then it evolves into forestland.

A great lakes fishing vessel with enclosed top, where men worked during the cold months.
A great lakes fishing vessel with an enclosed top, where men worked during the cold months.

Out in the lake, you can see the two uninhabited islands, North and South Manitou, that in the 1800s had small towns and were settled. Today, the islands are a great place for hiking and picnicking and are served by a seasonal ferry that departs from Leland, north of the park.

Though dune-climbing is discouraged in the park, there is a spot about 50 yards wide where people are encouraged to climb up, and some do it with sleds to slide down on the slick sand. Be warned, though, it’s higher up than it looks and the ride down could be pretty bumpy!

Hiking along a snowy path, even in November with the requisite longjohns and sturdy hats and jackets were comfortable and the silence was therapeutic…just the sounds of footprints and nothing in view as we swept the vast view of the lake, the dunes, and the distant islands. Magical!

Smoked salmon and beef at Carlsons in Leland, Michigan.
Smoked salmon and beef at Carlsons in Leland, Michigan.

Fishtown in Leland

To an easterner like me, it was fascinating to learn about the history of fishing on the Great Lakes, and a place to see the treasures taken from the lake can be found in Fishtown, in the small village of Leland.

In 2021, with the level of Lake Michigan rising,  huge cranes were brought in, and foundations were rebuilt and the shanties were lifted then put back in place. Here the Carlson family has been smoking whitefish, lake trout, salmon, and chub over maple-fueled fires for five generations.

The only people who are guaranteed the right forever to commercially fish in the lake are the local native Americans, and the tribesmen sell their wares to the Carlsons, sturdy Norwegian-Americans who have perfected the art of fish and beef smoking.

During our visit, we watched as a Carlson stoked up the fire and showed us the delectable salmon and beef hanging up drying.

There is a stream that runs just behind the Carlson’s fish market, here you can see salmon swimming upstream for the annual spawn.

Leland fishway, behind the fish market.
Leland fishway, behind the fish market.

Sportfisherman can catch salmon, chub, lake trout, and whitefish and during the season this village is bustling with people taking the ferry to the islands or buying smoked fish and fresh fish at the market.

“Everyone has their own recipe for whitefish dip,” Mike told me, “it’s a local tradition. In recent years the chub and whitefish harvests haven’t been as plentiful as in the past, but there is hope to see a rebound with the continuing restrictions.

Lamprey eels have done great damage to the fishery of Lake Michigan as having invasive species of mussels and other creatures who never were able to get into the lakes until the St Lawrence seaway and clandestine invasive hitchhiking mussels got in. Nobody knows how many lampreys there are but they love eating whitefish and chub so they’re hated by fishermen.

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

Homemade pies at the Grand Traverse Pie company.
Homemade pies at the Grand Traverse Pie company.

Traverse City has a famous landmark built in the late 1800s that today has become a model for how to repurpose a gigantic building and its surrounding grounds.

We met the developers who have turned quarter-mile-long Building 50 at what was once a village for people with mental problems into a vibrant mecca for dining, shopping, and other events.

The building complete with its Victorian spires goes on forever and has been completely rebuilt for the 21st century. One end is upscale senior housing, and many other buildings on the grounds are being developed into conference, retail, and housing, all keeping the best of the old building and adding modern amenities.

Festivals on the Riverfront

While Traverse City is a cold place for much of the year, during the spring and summer, locals and tourists enjoy many concerts and festivals along the long riverfront facing Lake Michigan. The Bijou Theater, renovated by filmmaker Michael Moore and partners, is one of the places next to the lake that brings crowds, it’s open all year round for movies and other events. Traverse City is known as a boater’s mecca, with thousands of sailboats and yachts that take to the lake during warm times of the year.

Inside the Mercado at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The downtown is a throwback to when people would actually shop in a busy main street and not the mall. Traverse City has locally owned boutiques, the already mentioned three-story Horizon Books, and many other clothing, cookware, and specialty shops along with dozens of restaurants, cafes, and breweries.

The mercado is a repurposed building with many shops called Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
The Mercado is a repurposed building with many shops called Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

Traverse City Shopping and Eats

I was pleased to find a camera store full of knowledgeable photo experts and a shop called Momentum that has unbelievably cheap prices on outerwear like fleece jackets. I stocked up on four delightfully warm vests and jackets for a total of just $32.00!

Some of the culinary highlights of the city are Red Ginger on Front Street, where they have a great deal on sushi and apps before 6 pm daily, and the friendly Jolly Pumpkin, out on the peninsula, where we sampled their delicious version of whitefish dip, and their sour Belgian beers, which take a little getting used to. They also distill all manner of hard liquors, and their location with a view of the lake on Old Mission Peninsula, can’t be beaten.

Bon Appetit Magazine identified TC as a Foodie Town due to the farm-to-table vibrancy and classically trained chefs. In one place, Farm Club, you can literally see the produce growing right in front of their restaurant (can’t get any fresher than that.)

For breakfast or lunch, the Grand Traverse Pie Company has two locations in town plus more than 13 others around the region. Their cherry pie and their chicken pot pie comes highly recommended!

 Find out more about Traverse City at their tourism website.

This trip was sponsored by their tourism board, but all of the opinions expressed are the author’s own.