From top to bottom: Downtown Traverse City, Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, and the lighthouse at Old Mission Point.
To the uninitiated, it could mean anywhere. Cleveland, maybe. Or Glendale. Or Juneau.
But to longtime Greater Cincinnatians, “Up North” means just one place — Northern Michigan. Specifically, the communities that sit on or near the long, craggy arc of coastline in the northwest corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula.
Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve probably heard of the names: Glen Haven, Torch Lake, Cherry County, Cross Village, Petoskey and, of course, the epicenter of life for summering Cincinnatians, Traverse City.
Summers Up North are filled with delectably long days, crispy cool nights, sweet-smelling forests and beaches that nuzzle up to bodies of water that are inevitably a little too chilly for lingering.
But the real appeal of this land of cottages is that, while is wonderfully different from life back home, tourism there is easy. No rush hours or cranky bosses. Up North has all the comforts of home without the irritations you have to deal with the rest of the year. The shopping is great. The dining is fabulous, whether you’re a lover of haute cuisine or quirky joints. And everywhere you turn, there’s an abundance of retro Americana, holdovers from a blissful and innocent era that existed only in our minds.
“There have been such big changes in this region,” says Mike Norton, director of media relations for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Thirty years ago, local hotels took turns closing for the winter. Let me tell you, that doesn’t happen anymore.”
Today the entire region is awash in year-round activities.
In fact, there are so many Up North treats, it’s hard to know where to start. Plan badly and you could end up with something that resembles the rat race you live the rest of the year. That is definitely to be avoided. Remember, life Up North is supposed to be savored at a leisurely pace.
Veterans of the Up North experience discovered a solution years ago. Pick a town, book a room and then use it as a base camp to explore the region. Nothing’s very far. This isn’t like driving across Montana. Traverse City to Charlevoix is an hour’s drive. Glen Arbor to Northport, near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula, is less than 40 minutes.
“There are 20 wineries within an easy drive of Traverse City,” Norton says. “And by the end of the summer, that number will probably be as high as 25. And these aren’t just places that were built to be cute. These are wineries that are out competing with the best California wines.”
So find yourself a place to stay — we can suggest a few — then start eating and playing your way from one end to the other of this region that is so abundant with the pleasures of the good life.
Here are a few favorites:
Interlochen Arts Festival
During the year, Interlochen is an arts academy for high school students. But like most of northern Michigan, when the weather gets warm, everything changes. There are top-notch summer programs for young performers. But Interlochen also hosts a major arts festival with dozens of performances. For the orchestrally inclined, there are performances by the World Youth Symphony Orchestra. (They’re stunning, by the way. Close your eyes and you won’t know you’re listening to the junior version of anything.) This year’s festival begins June 20 and cuts a remarkably wide swath across the world of entertainment: REO Speedwagon, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, satirical troupe The Capitol Steps, the Golden Dragon Acrobats of China, Loretta Lynn, Billy Bob Thornton and, to top it all off, Rick Springfield.
Various venues, Interlochen, (800) 681-5920 or www.interlochen. org/arts_festival.
Hartwick Pines State Park
A couple of centuries back, Michigan was covered with a dense forest of white pines. But after a few decades of intense lumbering, the old growth forest was almost completely gone. Fortunately, an heir to a timber fortune named Karen Michelson Hartwick decided to withdraw a small chunk of the forest near Grayling from active lumbering. Today, what remains is a 49-acre stand of old growth forest, the largest remnant of the crop that once defined the region. At 150-160 feet, the trees are among the tallest in the eastern United States. With 9,672 acres, the surrounding state park gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the forest experience. And for those who care about how all this happened, there is Hartwick Pines Logging Museum.
Near Grayling and I-75, no phone, www. michigandnr.com
Summers Fly Rods
In 1956, Bob Summers took a job with the Paul H. Young Rod Co. in Detroit. In the world of fly-fishing, Young’s handmade rods were legendary. Young passed away in 1960. But Summers kept making and improving on the rods, which were made of fine Tonkin Cane, a particularly strong and flexible type of bamboo. Summers still has a shop in Traverse City. And he still makes and sells his extraordinary rods. (It’s rumored, though, that the waiting list for a new Summer road is upwards of five years.) He sells used ones, as well; many made by other master rod-makers. They’re not cheap but they are works of art — or engineering marvels, take your pick. This is the quintessential northern Michigan activity.
90 River Road, Traverse City, (231) 946-7923 or www.rwsummers. com.
Sleeping Bear Dunes Yes, it’s just sand. And more sand. Enormous hills of it that seem to go on and on forever. And you thought you’d have to go to Africa to see this much sand. It’s more than just sand, though — the park is filled with a unique sand-and-water eco-system unlike anything else in this part of the world. There’s a seven-mile scenic drive and a first-rate visitor center. But what everyone really wants to do is climb the dunes. Stop at the visitor center first to get directions and safety tips.9922 Front St., Empire, (231) 326-5134, ext. 328 or www.nps. gov/slbe/index.htm.
The cherry bowl drive-in
The Cherry Bowl has been open continuously since 1953. But by the time Harry and Laura Clark left their corporate jobs in Detroit and moved Up North in 1997, the Cherry Bowl had hit on hard times. The two were diehard drive-in fans so, in a rash moment, bought the place. Today, driving into the Cherry Bowl is like driving back in time. Everything always seems freshly painted, as if this retro gem had opened just last week. Harry is something of a purist, so the amplification system still employs tubes instead of transistors. The menu includes roasted chicken dinners and nicely tart BBQ ribs.
9812 Honor Hwy., Honor, (231) 325-3413 or www.cherrybowldrivein.com.
Cornish pasties are a century-old tradition from the mining communities of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But these delectable meat pies managed to sneak their way south. And they found a stronghold here in northern Michigan’s foodie heaven, Traverse City. You can find pasties in many local restaurants. But Cousin Jenny’s Gourmet Cornish Pasties is famed for them. Start out with the traditional ones, which are a hearty blend of beef, onion, potatoes and rutabagas. Then you can move on to all the scrumptious variations, among them the Italian pasty, steak pasty and, of course, the sausage breakfast pasty.
129 S. Union St., Traverse City, (231) 941-7821.
Traverse City is home to the Great Lakes Culinary Institute. But most agree that the modern-day food scene in northern Michigan kicked into high gear when Tapawingo opened in nearby Ellsworth in 1984. There are those who regard it as the finest restaurant between Chicago and New York. Wherever it may fit in one’s personal rankings, it is one of the nation’s culinary highlights. This spring’s menu, for instance, included an extraordinary selection of locally raised dishes: cassoulet of Michigan morels, asparagus and fiddlehead ferns in a morel cream sauce; sassafras-roasted, center cut bone-in pork loin; oyster andouille gumbo sauce, potato puree and grilled Copper River salmon with caramel orange butter, crab risotto and spring peas.
9502 Lake St., Ellsworth, (866) 588-7881, (231) 588-7971 or www.tapawingo.net.
Dam Site Inn
Usually, a restaurant that offers an all-you-can-eat option is a place worth passing by. And one that has a double entendre for a name? Even worse. But forgive the Dam Site Inn its frailties. Don’t stop in expecting haute cuisine. The key words here are “hearty,” “fresh” and “flavorful.” Sitting next to the Maple River — and yes, there is a dam — the Dam Site Inn brags about its country dining, Kluski noodles, never-frozen whitefish, lots and lots of yummy red meat. And for those all-you-can-eat fans, there is the pan-fried chicken dinner, with peas, gravy, mashed potatoes and ”oodles of noodles.”
U.S. Route 31, Pellston, (231) 539-8851 or www.damsiteinn.com.
Douglas Lake Steakhouse
“Upscale comfort food” is how the folks at Douglas Lake describe their fare. And it’s true that they do an extraordinary job with several regional favorites, especially the Great Lakes planked whitefish. But like so many of the region’s top-notch restaurants, the heart of the menu is meats: Steak au Poivre, herb-rubbed pork chops, barbecued ribs and Maple Leaf Farms duck breast. Be sure, though, to save room for the fruit pies. Northern Michigan is known for its berries, and the kitchen at Douglas Lake has an uncanny knack for making extraordinary desserts with them.
7314 Douglas Lake Road, Pellston, (231) 539-8588 or www. douglaslakebar.com.
Grand Traverse Resort
Located just outside of Traverse City, this huge resort was a highly controversial addition to the region’s tourism offerings. And it’s true that physically, it is wildly out of scale. The centerpiece is a glistening 17-story tower that dwarfs everything around it. There’s a six-story hotel, too, and 190 condominiums, along with all the other amenities you’d expect from a full-sized resort — spa, swimming pools, restaurants, golf course and more. It was a shock to the system for people who still thought of Traverse City as a sleepy little town that catered to the occasional traveler. But for those who want luxury, the Grand Traverse is it. And its unstinting push for quality has had the effect of forcing other hotels to pay attention to their service. No one seems to be complaining anymore. Not the visitors, at least.
100 Grand Traverse Village Blvd., Acme, (888) 335-7045 or www.Grandtraverseresort.com.
There are fancier hotels in northern Michigan. As the name suggests, however, the grand dame of the state is the grandest of them all. Situated regally on a hillside overlooking Lake Huron and the sprawling Mackinac Bridge, it is an elegant relic of an earlier age. You’ve almost certainly seen photos of the Grand, which opened in 1887. It was featured in that heart-tugging film somewhere in Time . (For lovers of the film, they host a Somewhere in Time weekend every year.) Its 660-foot-long front porch is purported to be the world’s longest. The Grand is not for everyone. It has many modern amenities, but the island, which permits no cars, is a place for a slower, more refined holiday. You can ride bicycles around the island and stroll along streets with gracious architectural relics of the 19th century. The hotel offers golf, tennis, swimming, horseback riding and a spa. All this grandeur comes at a price, though. In-season rates range from $225 to $675 per person, though children up to 11 are free and youngsters 12-17 are just $55 per night. Since there is no tipping, there is an added service charge of 19.5 percent. But this isn’t just another hotel. Staying at The Grand is like stepping back in time.
1 Grand Ave., Mackinac Island, (906) 847-3331 or www. grandhotel.com.