Summertime in North Michigan

A cool breeze of nostalgia and simple pleasures

It was summertime in Northern Michigan.
Splashing through the sand bar, talking by the campfire
It’s the simple things in life like when and where.
Kid Rock, All Summer Long

I could hardly remember a time when I irrepressibly celebrated summer and rued the day it would leave. Turns out it was all simply lying dormant within me like a fragile flower in the long searing heat of a Florida summer.

As we all know, “long” is an understatement when talking about Florida summers and our own brand of cabin fever. That’s why I jumped at a couple of invitations to high-tail it to Northern Michigan last July. It sounded like a refrigerator door opening into hell’s kitchen.

So there I was, before I knew it, whisked from the Traverse City airport by six friends en route to the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail. The local airport, by the way, is officially called the Cherry Capital Airport, and the National Cherry Festival just so happened to be happening when we drove through.

Winery #5 and still standing!

We stopped at Folgarelli’s, a foodie haven in this foodie town on the shores of Lake Michigan, for deli sandwiches and dried cherries before making our way around five of the seven wineries. Naturally they all bottle their different versions of cherry wine – from sparkling to cherry sangria, but they also pour samples of better-than-decent grape and other fruit wines.

My favorite and our last, in fact, grows its own Malbec grapes and bottles them in Argentina before shipping the wine to Michigan’s Chateau Chantal. Overlooking the gorgeous green hills of summer memories, it affords a view that reaches all the way to Grand Traverse Bay on both sides. The rest of the wineries more typically deal in Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes.

Our journey up the skinny flap of peninsula in “the mitten’s” pinky finger bay ended with a picnic at the Mission Point Lighthouse and, for good luck, touching the big round rocks that pimple the shallow bay. Then it was off to The Dockside on Lake Torch in Bellaire for magical fireworks, mini lighted hot air balloon launches, and dancing.

Equally magic was the effect of seeing everyone out on the water glorying in summer’s permission to play outside. The thermometer hovered around the high 70s in the middle of the day, which effectively coaxed my own inner friskiness out of dormancy. Evenings are long near the 45th parallel, and the fun kept up into the dark. For live music and great pizza and burgers with crispy homemade chips, The Ole Barn is the place to hit in the town of Grayling.

Northwest Michigan, besides its Great Lakes purchase, streams with rivers and lakes, chill waterways that refresh to the degree of swiping your breath. I made my headquarters at Treetops resort in Gaylord, known as “the Alpine Village,” the highest city on the lower Michigan peninsula, and the headwaters of five rivers.

On one river I kayaked, on another I rafted, and still another I learned how to fly fish. Rivers in Michigan: Gotta love them. The current is strong enough to carry you along with minimal effort on your part. They’re shallow and lined with rock or sand. And most importantly, there’s no worry about alligators.

We kayaked the Manistee River, but the AuSable around Grayling is another famed destination for paddlers and headquarters for the annual 120-mile canoe marathon in late July. North of Gaylord, an operation called Big Bear Adventures shuttles you up the Sturgeon River with your choice of conveyance. The three of us chose a rubber raft, upon learning that the canoe tip rate is 80 percent, and headed downstream. Not what you’d consider whitewater, but fast-moving water over rocks and logs offered challenge.

Not nearly the challenge, however, of mastering the basic fly-fish cast without catching a tree or (in my case) your leg. Guide Phil Croff turned out to be a master of patience as well as fishing and building beautiful custom drift boats out of local wood. Our group of five that day scored only one of the brook trout we sought. Nighttime excursions turn up bigger, more coveted brown trout on a catch-and-release basis.

Besides its vital watersports scene, Northern Michigan touts its golf, and Treetops claims five of the region’s best. The sheer elevation and piney beauty of the lay contrasts sharply with Florida golfing.

“Bent grass greens is a big deal for golfers,” said Elvis Anderson, a Florida golfer I caught up with at Treetops. “The greens up here are so perfect – a finer blade of grass as opposed to Bermuda grass in Florida. Plus  that really raw, fresh nature that I like a lot about Michigan is also on the golf course.”

Treetops Resort

In the winter, Treetops turns into a ski resort with three lifts and a tubing hill. “But golf is our bread and butter,” said golf pro Kevin McKinley. Rick Smith designed three of the highly ranked courses and operates a golf school on-property. Robert Trent Jones, Sr., and Tom Fazio were the architects for the others.

With its Legends on the Hill and Sports Bar overlooking the ski slopes and serving fresh Michigan walleye and hand-thrown pizza, Treetops is a destination in itself, but don’t pass up an opportunity to explore tiny but tantalizing Gaylord. Let me just say this: a resident herd of elk, one cool microbrewery, and a festival where they carve parsnips into lanterns, burn an effigy called Boogg, and have contests for best ladies ankles and men’s knees.

Sister city to Pontresina in Switzerland, Gaylord wears its Alpine look like lederhosen year-round. During Alpenfest, five days mid-July, they dial it up a digit, and everyone dons their Swiss costumes and sense of community for festivities that revolve around a legend of William Tell’s nemesis, Herr Gessler, who defected to Gaylord.

Herr Gessler in Gaylord, MI

Prepare to stuff yourself with sausage, or choose instead to hit one of the local eateries for a sit-down taste of local cuisine. Smack dab in the middle of Main Street, the Sugar Bowl Restaurant has been a Gaylord tradition since 1919. For a taste of the lakes, try the sampler of perch, walleye, and Lake Superior whitefish, all tenderly seared. Stop next store at the Alpine Chocolat Haus for ice cream or a handful of chocolate-covered raspberries.

Off the beaten path, the newer Bearded Dogg Lounge has Midwest flavor with inventive pop – sinfully rich steak stuffed with shrimp and feta under creamy pesto sauce, for instance. The Big Buck microbrewery, outside the main downtown area, is worth finding. There I relished a pint of Buck Naked Light beer with a tender, tasty venison Rueben in an atmosphere of antlers and skins.

Bear, deer, and elk motifs are huge in northern Michigan. Gaylord’s Elk View Park affords an opportunity to see some of the natives up close. Here, the city maintains a herd of about 70 fenced within 108 acres. Look for them next to the Elk’s Lodge (ironic?) or from Aspen Park trails.

Watching elk calves cavort, enjoying the Zen of fly fishing without catching a thing, sipping Michigan wine along the lakeshore as the sun sinks into Chardonnay waters, and, as Michigander Kid Rock sang it, “singing Sweet Home Alabama all summer long:” In Northern Michigan, it is the simple things.

IF YOU GO:

Alpine Chocolat Haus, 989-732-1077, www.alpinechocolathaus.com

Bearded Dogg Lounge, 989-619-0298, beardeddogglounge.com

Big Bear Adventures, 231-238-8181, www.bigbearadventures.com

Big Buck Brewery & Steakhouse, 989-732-5781, www.bigbuck.com

Black Star Farms, 231-944-1300, www.blackstarfarms.com

CC Guide Service (Phil Croff), 231-330-5762, www.croffcraft.com/cc-guide-service.php

Chateau Chantal Winery & Luxury Inn, 800-969-4009, www.chateauchantal.com

The Dockside, 231-377-7777

Folgarelli’s City Market & Wine Shop, 231-941-7651, www.folgarellis.net

Gaylord Alpenfest, 800-345-8621, www.gaylordalpenfest.com

National Cherry Festival, visit.cherryfestival.org

The Ole Barn, 989-344-1760

Old Mission Peninsula, www.oldmission.com

Peninsula Cellars, 231-933-9787, www.peninsulacellars.com

Sugar Bowl Restaurant, 989-732-5524

Treetops, 888-TREETOPS, www.treetops.com

Wineries of Old Mission Peninsula, www.wineriesofoldmission.com

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