Photograph by Brian Confer
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Stops on the drive include Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Photograph by Brian Confer

Road Trip: The Coast of Lake Michigan

Soak up the scenery and stop along the way for wine and cherries along the shores of Lake Michigan.

From the July/August 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Beyond the auto factories, powerhouse universities, and bustling urban centers of southern Michigan lies an idyllic coastal region that often surprises newcomers to the Great Lakes State. “I was astonished to realize how beautiful the landscape is. There are towering bluffs made of sand, and the waters are breathtakingly clear and blue,” says local writer Mike Norton, who grew up in Grand Rapids and spent his early adult years in coastal areas such as Monterey and Miami. “I hadn’t expected to stay, but once I returned, I never left.” The northwestern part of Michigan’s mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula offers a small-town, pastoral escape. In an area contoured by the waters of Lake Michigan, Grand Traverse Bay, Little Traverse Bay, and several inland lakes and rivers, road-trippers will find quiet harbors, historic lighthouses, award-winning wineries, and charming towns that reach their scenic peak during the mild summer months.

Traverse City is the gateway to this fertile region and self-proclaimed “cherry capital of the world.” Surrounded by tart cherry orchards that bear fruit by midsummer, it is home to cherry-related shops, the Cherry Capital Airport, and, in early July, the National Cherry Festival, an eight-day event featuring races, parades, concerts, and pit-spitting and pie-eating contests. “We grow 72 percent of the U.S.’s tart cherries in the Traverse City region,” says Susan Wilcox Olson, the festival’s media relations director. “Although the town turns red with cherries in July, we celebrate the health benefits of this superfruit all year round.”

Galleries and emporiums fill Traverse City’s manicured downtown area; stock up on everything from dried tart cherries to cherry-emblazoned sandals. There are flicks at the State Theatre and concerts at the Victorian-era City Opera House. Bicyclists pedal along the sailboat-dotted shore (rent bikes from Brick Wheels).

A short detour leads to the Old Mission Peninsula, which cleaves Grand Traverse Bay in half and plays a key role in the state’s lucrative wine industry. Nurtured by lake-effect weather patterns, the seven wineries here include Peninsula Cellars, whose tasting room was a 19th-century schoolhouse, and Chateau Grand Traverse, which features bay views and several nationally recognized Rieslings. Try the cherry chicken salad at the weathered Old Mission Tavern, check out the lighthouse in Peninsula Township Park, and bed down at Chateau Chantal, a European-style B&B and winery.

West of Traverse City lie the pebble-strewn beaches, hardwood forests, nostalgic farms, inland lakes, and famous rolling dunes (up to 400 feet high) of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. As long as you don’t mind the sandy, windblown feeling, attempt the Dune Climb. Your reward: incomparable views of Glen Lake.

Continuing up the coast of the Leelanau Peninsula, head to the preserved fishing village of Fishtown in Leland and the 19th-century Grand Traverse Lighthouse. There are more wineries here, including Leelanau Cellars (try its Pinot Grigio and Rieslings), and the Ciccone Vineyard and Winery, owned by the father of pop icon Madonna (request a sip of its Dolcetto and Cabernet Franc blend). Stay the night at Black Star Farms, an eight-room B&B producing artisanal wines and cheeses.

The east coast of Grand Traverse Bay challenges golfers at the Grand Traverse Resort in Acme or the A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort overlooking Torch Lake near Kewadin. Nongolfers can skip the links and explore the five-mile-long stretch of beaches and dunes along Lake Michigan.

Perfectly situated between Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix, the town of Charlevoix is for lake lovers—the bustling harbor offers services for boating and fishing.

Charlevoix has its own homegrown architecture, characterized by curving roofs, whimsical chimneys, and stone hearths. Designed by native son Earl Young, the structures resemble the domiciles of elves, gnomes, and hobbits. Book a room at the Weathervane Terrace Inn and enjoy waterfront dining at Stafford’s Weathervane Restaurant—both designed by Young.

Another, perhaps more notable character to emerge from this corner of the Great Lakes is Ernest Hemingway, who spent childhood summers on nearby Walloon Lake. The museum in Petoskey, a town on Little Traverse Bay, features an exhibit about its adopted son. True fans might relish a side trip to the 19th-century Horton Bay General Store, once frequented by the young man. Relax on the inviting porch or enjoy root beer floats and other treats at the old-fashioned soda fountain.

The region continued to inspire and shape Hemingway’s fiction, even after he moved to Paris. Spend your last night at Stafford’s Bay View Inn, opened in 1886, or Stafford’s Perry Hotel, the canary-yellow resort where the celebrated American writer once stayed. Though Michigan may lack Paris’s panache, it surely has a natural American beauty Hemingway could never have forgotten.