Perched on the shore of Lake Michigan's cerulean Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City is a booming cultural center that boasts a thriving downtown, award-winning wineries, a restaurant scene featuring local foods and culinary-school-trained chefs, and because of its well-tended natural beauty, it's a mellow year-round playground whose activities are guided by four distinct seasons.
Spring ushers in the fragrance of blossoming fruit trees and vineyards on Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas — verdant fingers of rolling farmland that jut out for miles and respectively define the Big Lake's east and west bays. It's also the season for morel-hunting, golfing, fly-fishing, kayaking and canoeing on the storied Au Sable in nearby Grayling or the Boardman, which runs through downtown, or watching a semi-pro game at Wuerfel Park, home of the Traverse City Beach Bums.
Summer is a celebration of tart cherries, the weeklong National Cherry Festival along downtown's shoreline in early July, as well as fine-art fairs, wine and jazz festivals, equestrian competitions, sandy beaches, über-boating, dune-climbing, trail-blazing and cottage living for the many downstaters and out-of-towners who flock Up North to their second homes and double the populace. Autumn's blaze of yellow and crimson offers a divine backdrop for apple picking, horseback riding and country drives to the north's fabled restaurants. The annual Traverse Epicurean Classic brings in top cookbook authors, culinary stars and dining extravaganzas all over town, and the Detroit Red Wings training camp at Centre I.C.E. Arena offers cheap seats for fans of these National Hockey League heroes. Winter kicks off around Thanksgiving, when the ski resorts reopen their slopes and trails and all that downhill and cross-country spirit reignites.
Iron chef Mario Batali summers in this laid-back region, as do stars like Madonna, whose papa owns Ciccone Winery, and filmmaker Michael Moore, founder of the popular early August Traverse City Film Festival and galvanizer of the stunning resurrection of downtown's State Theatre, home to the weeklong fest and open year-round with first-run movies and kiddie matinee specials. That's just up the street from the fabulously restored City Opera House. The ornate 1891 gem, Michigan's oldest historically intact opera house, acts a community center for performance and visual arts, Traverse City Orchestra concerts, and the year-round "Dinner and a Movie" series, in which the price of a ticket includes a sizable dinner discount at many downtown restaurants. Another year-round entertainment venue is the venerable Interlochen Center for the Arts, whose Summer Arts Festival includes a Shakespeare Festival, Guitar Festival, and concerts with top-name talent.
A stay at the seventeen-floor, green-certified Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, with its championship golf courses, private beach, 24-hour shuttle service and central location in Acme is always a good bet, and just four miles east in Williamsburg is its brand-new sister, the $116-million, eco-consciously designed and built Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel. If B&Bs are your thing, the Antiquities' Wellington Inn, a few blocks from downtown's main drag, is a spectacularly redone 1905 manse with eleven rooms on several levels and a ballroom, plus a carriage house with two separate residences and full kitchens. Or head out to the center of Old Mission Peninsula to Chateau Chantal, which is a B&B, winery with tasting room and live music on its Jazz at Sunset evenings. You can see for miles atop Chantal, looking for all the world like the French Riviera — the sparkling azure bay on either side of the peninsula and all the little islands in between.
Another special spot is Black Star Farms on the Leelanau Peninsula, just before the village of Suttons Bay. The marble-clad B&B sits on acres of land that includes vineyards, orchards, equestrian training and housing facilities, riding and hiking trails, a creamery and a tasting room with award-winning wines and a cheesemaking facility whose owners, Anne and John Hoyt, regularly win the world gold for their Leelanau Cheese aged Raclette.
TRAVERSE CITY DAY 1: Traverse Area Recreational Trail, Clinch Park Marina, Leelanau Sands Casino
Start at downtown fave Omelette Shoppe, whose enormous egg concoctions will fill you for the day's excursions.
The best way to get to know a place is on foot or by bicycle. Rent one at McLain's or Brick Wheels, both on Eighth Street a few blocks from downtown near the library. You can also rent an electric car, Zapino electric scooter or a Vespa gas scooter at Ecocarstc at the old railroad station. Ask for a map of the paved Traverse Area Recreational Trail, TART for short, which runs 10.5 miles across town and winds past city neighborhoods as well as the marina and beach Grand Traverse Bay. It also connects with the Leelanau Trail, which continues another 15.5 miles into Suttons Bay. Before you hop on, grab a picnic pack or a Eurodog for later from the Eurostop Italian deli in historic Railroad Place, which overlooks Boardman Lake. Or plan an après-ride lunch at the French bistro Patisserie Amie, ask about the day's soup and pair it with bleu-cheese-topped salad.
Stop downtown and check out the shops, all locally owned, and find goods that range from all-cherry (Cherry Stop, Cherry Republic) — Traverse being the self-proclaimed tart cherry capital of the world — to high-end art and handmade furniture (Belstone Gallery, the Artcenter Gallery). Cali's Cottons stocks stylish boutique clothing, shoes, jewelry and French imports; Annie's is great for funny cards, games and gag gifts; Plamondon and Golden Shoes offer top-quality footwear for hiking and walking. If antiques are your thrill, Wilson's boasts four floors of fun and treasures such as Roseville and McCoy pottery, vintage postcards and magazines, leaded-glass windows and iron or brass beds.
After shopping, cross the Boardman River and Grand Traverse Parkway and put your toes into the bay near Clinch Park Marina, then start back toward your hotel to rest before dinner. Tonight's choices: Aerie, atop the Grand Traverse Resort, where chef Ted Cizma creates seasonally inspired feasts with local ingredients such as morels, asparagus, perch and whitefish. Red Mesa Grill is a lively place for Latin foods and margaritas. Downtown, the sophisticated Red Ginger soothes your yen for all things Asian, and Amical is great for people watching from the patio, sipping on wine and dining bistro style on thin-crusted pizzas or seafood.
If you're heading back to the peninsulas, Old Mission Tavern is a stellar place for steaks, chops, fish and fine art — a gallery of local artists, Bella Galleria, is just beyond the door to the restaurant, and next door is owner/sculptor Verna Bartnick's working studio. Drive all the way out M-37 to the fingertip (22 miles total) and find the Old Mission Peninsula Lighthouse Park, complete with an 1870 lighthouse and 1858 log cabin. Along the way, there's the General Store, whose owner and former soap star, Jim Richards, might be belting out something deep and operatic behind his 1850-era counter, and the 1842 Dougherty House, restored in honor of early settler Peter Dougherty, who is credited with planting the Montmorency cherry trees that cover the landscape.
For casual tastes, try Boone's for great burgers, meatloaf and fried fish dinners.
If you're up for more action, try the Leelanau Sands Casino a few miles up M-22 in Peshawbestown (twenty miles north of Traverse City), where you can play the slots or catch a concert in the 1,000-seat showroom. Likewise, the new Turtle Creek Casino offers nightclub acts in the Level 3 Lounge as well as gaming galore. If you feel like dancing to live acts, Shimmers at the Holiday Inn West Bay is usually throbbing with 40-somethings and Kilkenny's Irish Public House pulls an eclectic audience for its brews and live tunes.
Beyond the many melodic outdoor events that fill the region's summer calendar (Suttons Bay Jazz Festival, Manitou Music Festival, Sleeping Bear Blues and Dunegrass Festival), there are countless indoor venues for music and libations, among them the often-jammed Piano Bar at the Beacon Lounge, with its eye-popping panorama of the bay from the top of the ten-story Park Place Hotel, downtown's tallest building.
* Images courtesy of the The Traverse City Visitors Bureau