16 Reasons Why You Should Visit Northern Michigan

A lake view from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Seashore Pauline Frommer

Relaxation—true relaxation—requires a very particular mash-up of elements, at least when it comes to travel. Natural beauty is a must, but so is culture. Good food is also essential, plus activities to help burn off those calories. And heck, if you can throw in a festival or two, you’ve got me on board.

That would be on board a flight to the airport in Traverse City, Michigan, which has all of those things and more.

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Vacationers trudge up the dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Pauline Frommer
About 35 minutes west of Traverse City, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is famous for its "perched" dunes. That’s a geological term for the way they were formed (long story short: glaciers, erosion, high winds), but it might just as easily describe the fondness visitors have for perching at the very top of them to gaze down at the electric blues of Lake Michigan. Pictured here is an overlook from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Though visitors are warned that if they go down the dunes at this very steep point it could take a full 2 hours (or a paid rescue!) to get up again, many people ignore the Park Service's advice (as you can see).
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Vacationers at the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore Pauline Frommer
Just about 2 miles from the scenic drive is a dune area that visitors are encouraged to climb since it is (marginally) easier going. From the parking lot there's one steep ascent, and then several more hills (pictured) before you come to spectacular lake views.

From there most head to Glen Haven Village, also part of the National Park, which includes a blacksmith shop, general store, and a fascinating Maritime Museum dedicated to 19th-century "surfmen." These heroes were responsible for rescuing shipwrecked sailors on Lake Michigan. They often used a cannon (I wish I had a photo of it) to shoot a zipline-like device to the sinking ship. Those onboard would attach one end to the mast of the ship, and then climb into an oversize pair of trousers dangling from the metal rope and zip to safety on shore. Once a day during summer, rangers demonstrate the device with the help of visiting children.
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The World Youth Symphony Orchestra performing at Interlochen Center for the Arts Pauline Frommer
Head 15 miles southwest of the city and you’ll come to the lovely little town of Interlochen, home to the arts-centered summer camp and boarding school of the same name. So why am I sending you to a place for kids? Because Interlochen hosts some of the world’s top names in music and entertainment for performances open to the public (Diana Ross, Vince Gill, Gregg Allman, Melissa Etheridge, and the Enso String Quartet are just a few of the recent guest artists). And because the students here, from all over the country, are so preternaturally talented, seeing a symphony, dance concert, or Shakespeare play that they put on can be revelatory. The World Youth Symphony Orchestra (pictured) is so impressive that its concerts are broadcast live on public radio.
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A crowd waits to get into Moomers, an ice cream parlor in the area between Interlochen and Traverse City. Pauline Frommer
After a concert at Interlochen, many make the 10-minute drive to Moomers, a local creamery (you can see the cows out back) and ice cream parlor that has a devoted following. In 2008, Good Morning America named it the best ice cream parlor in the nation. Having tested its wares in 2019, I can verify that the title is well deserved.
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A colorful "quilt barn" on the Old Mission Bay Peninsula Pauline Frommer
Just on the doorstep of Traverse City is the Old Mission Peninsula, which juts 19 miles north into Traverse Bay, serving as a divider between its east and west sides. Idyllic beaches line this 2- to 3-mile-wide spit, the interior being given over to farms, some of which are part of the national Barn Quilt Trail. Started by an Ohioan in 2001, the project now includes over 2,000 barns in 22 states. Participating structures feature quilt patterns painted on their exteriors as a way of honoring the many generations of (mostly) rural women who created quilts for their families. Stop at pretty much any shop, restaurant, or attraction on the peninsula to get a copy of a free pamphlet with info about why a particular pattern was chosen for each of the 19 historic barns that now sport these lovely designs. The barn pictured here is over 100 years old and still owned by the family who built it.
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The Hesler Log House on Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan Pauline Frommer
As you might have guessed from its name, Old Mission Peninsula has some historical significance. The place was settled in 1840 by Christian missionaries hoping to convert Chippewa tribe members. Two of the area's early settlers were Joseph and Mary Hesler, who lived in this log cabin from 1854 to 1856. A free cellphone tour will fill you in on such details as the type of logs used (hemlock), how long it probably took to build the cabin (two weeks with the help of the neighbors), and other fun facts.
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The 1870 Mission Point Lighthouse on Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan Pauline Frommer
Just next to the log cabin stands this handsome 1870 lighthouse. Inside is a small museum about the lighthouse keepers, and a gift shop manned by a park ranger who also gives out information and maps for the many hiking trails in the area (they transform into cross-country skiing trails in winter).
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Vacationers sit under colorful beach umbrellas on the beach at Mission Point Park. Pauline Frommer
And right in front of the lighthouse is a lovely beach—one of the many, many stretches of sand abutting the marvelously cool freshwater lakes of the region.
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Branches loaded down with cherries Pauline Frommer
Northern Michigan is the world's leading supplier of sour cherries and you'll see cherry farms almost everywhere. The trees pictured here are from a "u-pick" farm on the Old Mission Peninsula.
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People taste wine at Black Star Farms on Old Mission Peninsula in Michigan Pauline Frommer
Old Mission Peninsula—and the neighboring agricultural regions around Suttons Bay and Torch Lake—is on the 45th parallel of latitude, a line that not only marks the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole, but has long been a geographical marker for areas with particularly good conditions for winemaking. 

So how does the wine here compare to what's being grown in, say, France's Bordeaux region (also on the 45th parallel)? They do white-wine lovers right, with tipples that have a pleasant level of acidity, and complex notes of grass and grain. The reds are less satisfying, unless you go to a place like Black Star Farms (pictured, with vineyards on both the Old Mission Peninsula and Leelanau Peninsula) which has very nice Cabernet Franc, and the finest Sauvignon Blanc (released in 2017) I've ever tasted. Tastings tend to run $4 for six sips at most places, making this a very affordable way to while away an afternoon.
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Northern Michigan's popular cideries Pauline Frommer
How do you like them apples? In this part of the world, they like them juiced and hard, thank you very much. And Leelanau County's cideries are giving nearby wineries some fizzy competition. Tandem Ciders (pictured, with owner Dan Young holding a glass of Smackintosh) features full-bodied brews made entirely from Michigan fruits. Nearby Suttons Bay Ciders also uses local apples, but blends them with freshly grated ginger, lavender, mint, jalapeño, and other ingredients for drinks that are distinctive, refreshing, and never too sugary. Suttons Bay Cider is a local hangout for its sweeping views, and Tandem is one, too, for its busy dart board.
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Pedestrians on Front Street in Traverse City, Michigan Pauline Frommer
Traverse City, the hub of the region, is well worth visiting in its own right. A bustling small city, it boasts excellent farm-to-fork restaurants, boutiques, a hopping nighlife scene (especially in the once industrial Warehouse District), and not one but three friendly, well-stocked bookstores.
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Several boys man the fresh cherries booth at the National Cherry Festival. Pauline Frommer
Traverse City is also notable for its many festivals. In the summer, these include the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival, which brings some 1,200 handsome horses to town; the Traverse City Film Festival, curated by Oscar-winning documentary maker Michael Moore; and the National Cherry Festival (pictured). About half a million annual attendees show up for that last and most famous fest. Founded in 1925, this celebration of all things red and tart includes parades, air shows, concerts, the crowning of a Cherry Queen and her court, pit-spitting contests (the world record is over 80 feet!) and cherry pie eating and baking contests.
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A woman sells cherry products of all sorts at the National Cherry Festival. Pauline Frommer
I'd say the heart of the cherry festival is the array of booths set up to sell an astounding variety of cherry products—everything from cherry-flavored dog treats to cherry-infused peanut butter to several varieties of cherry sodas. If you can't make it to the festival, don't despair: many of the products are sold year-round in Traverse City at Benjamin Twiggs and Cherry Republic.
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Northern Michigan is a golf mecca. Rachel Kramer/Flickr
That's the name Northern Michigan has given to itself, but it's appropriate. When other top golf areas are sweltering in the summer (we're looking at you, Florida, Arizona, and South Carolina), cooling breezes from off the Great Lakes keep the greens cool in Michigan. More importantly, these courses are smartly designed, often by such top names as Trent Jones, Sr. and Jack Nicklaus, with distinct features like fairways carved through deep forests and bent grass.
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Walleye at the Cook's House in Traverse City Pauline Frommer
It shouldn't come as a surprise that in an area known for golf courses and music festivals, the grub is darn good. Such restaurants as The Cook's House (its walleye with roasted tomato is pictured) are foodie pilgrimage targets. A farm-to-table ethos is common among the region's higher-end tables. A few restaurants celebrate fun traditions, like Black Star Farms' weekly "Michigan Fish Boil" (it involves a large pot set over an outdoor fire pit that boils over right before the fish and vegetables are ready). And on the casual end of the scale, there's the nightly party that is The Little Fleet, a permanent pod of food trucks in downtown Traverse City; they gather around an open-air bar/restaurant and a stage for musicians.
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The sun sets on boats in Traverse Bay Pauilne Frommer
We've only scratched the surface of all there is to see and do in Northern Michigan. What I haven't covered: historic Mackinac Island (click here for an article on that delightful place), the region's watersports, drive-in movies, theaters, amusement parks, and much more. Northern Michigan truly is a vacation wonderland.
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