Just back: Northern Michigan
By DAVID LANDSEL
Last Updated: 10:50 PM, July 23, 2012
Posted: 3:52 PM, July 23, 2012
If you ever wanted to understand how Michigan’s mighty economy crashed down to earth so spectacularly, you should probably just go hang out in the northern part of the state, where pristine lakes and quiet rivers are filled with happy people in boats, dragged up from the industrial flatlands, mostly behind giant, American-made pickup trucks.
Work? Who needs it. When you’re here, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the picture. Particularly when you’re on one of the boats yourself, as I was last week, with some guy I met at a bar who asked me and my buddy if we’d like to go out for a spin. After discerning that he was indeed a pretty cool dude — from Detroit, of course; in the auto industry for decades, also of course — and also that his name was Mark, we wandered out back, jumped on board and cruised around Lake Leelanau for awhile as the sun went down, the waters so perfectly clear that even in the shadows of the evening, you could still see it beaming that crazy, tropical, blue-green that the lakes up here are so famous for.
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is beautiful indeed. In a part of the country like this one, up at the northeast corner of Lake Michigan, where the seasons play out like Currier & Ives prints amped up with high-resolution-picture perfect and also kind of unreal — nature becomes a serious distraction. In-the-dark coastal types might have raised their eyebrows, when “Good Morning America” dubbed Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the “Most Beautiful Place in America” last year, but the show really wasn’t kidding.
It’s both good and bad that the region is so distant from everything — four to five hours by car from Chicago or Detroit is a bridge too far for most people who do not live in either metropolitan area. That helps cut down on traffic, which is great, but this part of the world is really something that everyone should see, at least once. Strolling the dunes on a sunny summer day, eyeballing the whites and blues and greens of the park’s pristine and simple landscape, you kind of get it. I’d say I’m developing an acute fondness for the region, but in reality, it’s more like a feverish obsession. After all, don’t we have perfectly good beaches and beach towns and whatnot back east? Honestly, I don’t really care about all that right now.
At least I’m in good company, with my weird problem. Mario Batali, who vacations with family on the neighboring Leelanau Peninsula, can hardly shut up these days about Michigan this, Michigan that, giving anyone who will listen more than an earful.
Of course, there’s a lot to talk about, and it is difficult to get it all out at once. Wineries, beaches, little towns like Glen Arbor, bustling and cosmopolitan Traverse City, endless back roads and open spaces. Really, this is one of those sweet spots, like California’s Sonoma, both rural and sophisticated, hip but not hipster, rarely all that exclusive and never terribly up itself. Majestic lakeside mansions rumored to belong to this or that celebrity you might have heard of often share the same lakefronts with tiny workman’s cottages and even the odd trailer. No matter where you go, people are friendly, nobody drives terribly aggressively. Prices are fair. Service is good.
Is it perfect? Kind of. The locals are kind of worried these days, too, with all the attention. They should probably relax. It’s a trek from Chicago and Detroit and pretty much a full day’s adventure from anywhere beyond that, whether you fly in and drive north or drive all the way from home. (From New York, you’re looking at a solid 14 or 15 hours — worth it, I say.)
Simply: You have to want to get here. And you do, you really do — even if you don’t know it yet. One boat trip out and around Leelanau or Torch Lake or Grand Traverse Bay, one walk on the Sleeping Bear Dunes, one dinner on the patio at Mission Table or at the bar at the hyper-convivial Riverside Inn in Leland, one sip of the local booze (try L. Mawby’s excellent Blanc de Blanc, or the Belgian sour-style beers from local brewer Jolly Pumpkin), one slice of pie at Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor ( still perfect even if this year’s cherry crop is pretty much a wash with all the weird weather we’re having), and it’s a good chance you’ll be hooked. If not? Fine. More room for the rest of us who are pretty much done doing summer anywhere else.
For more information on the region, visit traversecity.com.