Michigan’s little finger strikes the balance between adventure and relaxation
Looking down from the top of the dune, the descent appeared threateningly steep. The sand was marked with countless dimples — the footprints of voyagers that had come before me. Their feet had left deep dents in the hill, dug forcefully into the ground to slow their trip down the hill to a responsible, steady pace. Standing at the peak of the dune, vacant aside from me and my companion, my inner child was jumping up and down and screaming one thing: “Run!”
I pushed off and for a few seconds, I was airborne, running hard down the side of one of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore’s massive sand dunes. My steps were clumsy and irregular, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was flying. My laughter disappeared into the wind that rushed past me, my hair whipping behind me in a mess of tumbling curls.
I reached the bottom of the dune and noted the wooden marker in the sand: I was halfway to Lake Michigan.
Sleeping Bear Dunes is one of countless attractions in the Leelanau Peninsula. It’s a favorite stop for tourists and locals alike, and one I was sure to visit while taking a trip through the Leelanau Peninsula last summer.
Sometimes known as Michigan’s “pinky,” Leelanau has been a favorite destination for me and family for years. It holds a special place in my heart, as well as the hearts of many other Michiganders.
For those of you yet to discover the beauty of the peninsula, the downtowns, natural scenery, and abundance of food, arts, and lodging are sure to captivate.
Leelanau boasts a number of downtowns and shopping centers, each one oozing small-town Michigan, but all different in their one way.
Particularly popular is Sutton’s Bay, a village nestled on the east coast of the peninsula, north of Traverse City. With its vibrant downtown and multitude of parks, Sutton’s Bay is the perfect place to explore - with or without your kids in tow.
Sink your toes into the sugary sand of Marina Park and wade into the calm waters of Sutton’s Bay. After, wander through the rainbow-tinted downtown and check out the many specialty shops and restaurants.
Further inland you’ll find both Cedar and Maple City. These towns are often overlooked because of their inland locations, but are no less worthy of a visit.
“Maple City and Cedar maintain a feel of old-style Leelanau county,” said Mike Norton, the media relations manager at Traverse City Tourism. His family settled in the Leelanau Peninsula 150 years ago, and Norton has been a resident of the area for over 40 years.
Cedar is known for its Polish traditions, including its famous Polka Fest. This year, the festival takes place June 22-25, according to cedarpolkafest.com.
The Leelanau Peninsula is full of festivals in the summer, and dates for all of them can be found at leelanauchamber.com.
Leland boasts one of the biggest of Leelanau’s festivals, the Leland Wine and Food Festival. It is also the home of Fishtown, a place like absolutely no other.
Walking through Fishtown is akin to walking back in time. The historic fishing village is a collection of wooden shacks, built by fishermen as early as 1880. Today, it remains the home of a working fishery and charter fishing business as well as shops like the “Dam Candy Store.”
A favorite store of mine since I was a child, the Dam Candy Store is filled with an assortment of treats. The store always smells wonderfully sweet, its aroma a welcome break from the fish scent outside. Walk in, grab a bag, fill it with your favorite goodies, and enjoy. Time in a candy store as comforting as this is a pleasure for kids and adults alike. And if candy isn’t your sweet of choice, the store’s superman ice cream is the best I’ve ever had.
As badly as you may want to stay within the sugar-coated walls of the Dam Candy Store, perched at the very tip of the Leelanau peninsula is Northport, a small village that has captivated celebrities such as Mario Batali and Tim Allen - and is sure to enthrall you as well.
In a “love letter” written to Traverse City (featured on the Huffington Post), Batali said, “I am madly in love with the Leelanau Peninsula and everything about it.”
Northport holds many of its own festivals as well as a summer farmer’s market. Set up adjacent to the marina, the market is a great place to buy fresh produce as well as take in views of the harbored boats.
The downtown, though small, is a relaxing and quaint, and the locals are as friendly as can be.
“The people [of Northport] have raised it out of the build rooms and made it a really fun place to be,” said Norton.
Arts and Eats
With beauty so prevalent in the landscape of the Leelanau Peninsula, it’s only natural that it inspires artists to create. The arts are a prevalent aspect of life and culture in the peninsula. Evidence of the art community surrounds you everywhere, from colorful decorations in downtowns to the multitude of galleries and art events.
In Sutton’s Bay, enjoy the Art Festival in August or pay a visit to the Painted Bird, a gallery for art of all kinds - including jewelry, sculpture, and home crafts.
Glen Arbor has multiple art galleries as well. The town is home to its own community of artisans, and the arts prove to be one of its bigger draws for tourism. The Glen Arbor Art Fair celebrates the arts within the town, and is well worth checking out the summer. Learn more about it at visitglenarbor.com.
The Leelanau Peninsula is also well known for its cuisine. Bakeries such as 9 Bean Rows in Sutton’s Bay bake fluffy, flaky, and mouth-watering cherry pastries, and restaurants like the Hop Lot Brewing Company offer great beer as well as a family environment.
Beer and wine have become huge parts of the Leelanau economy, with distilleries and craft breweries, such as Northern Latitudes Distillery in Lake Leelanau, really beginning to grow, according to Norton.
Wine trails are a fun and romantic way to explore the area, but the amount of wineries now present in Leelanau makes tasting each wine pretty much impossible.
“The idea is to pick a loop, enjoy the scenery, have a meal and do some tastings - pace yourself,” Norton said.
Whether you prefer to stay in a tent, hotel, or a resort, Leelanau will make you one happy camper. The key for any kind of lodging is to book as quickly as you can, as places to stay book up fast.
As a lifelong lover of camping and all things outdoors, the campground at Leelanau State Park , near Northport, has become my home base for adventures in the Leelanau Peninsula. The rustic campground offers little in terms of modern day amenities (good-bye, showers and flushable toilets), but its sites feature walk-out access to Lake Michigan and plenty of privacy, as well as a closer look at the natural environment of Leelanau.
If you’re a little too timid to rough it, no worries. There are plenty of inns and hotels in the area. Popular stays include the Riverside Inn in Leland, and, for those looking to spend a bit extra, Black Star Farms in Sutton’s Bay.
The Leelanau Peninsula provides adventure in excess. The natural landscape of the peninsula provides endless opportunities to explore beautiful Michigan terrain, in any form.
You can do just about anything in Leelanau - from fishing to hiking to taking a drive.
A favorite adventure of Mike Norton’s is South Manitou island, but it’s not a trip for the thin-skinned or faint-hearted.
“It’s remote enough that people have to work to get there,” Norton said. “You feel like you’re a member of a special group when you’re out there.”
Those interested in seeing South Manitou can take a ferry service from Leland.
Fans of lighthouses can check out the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Leelanau State Park. The light has been a popular tourist spot for years, its beauty and accessibility draw in visitors from across the state.
As I mentioned earlier, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a popular place to visit and, in my opinion, is a must-see. Whether you choose to hike the dunes or simply drive along the Pierce Stocking Scenic drive, the masses of sugar-sand dunes are sure to take your breath away.
Time passes gently in the Leelanau Peninsula. It washes slowly over you, rippling slowly as you drift through sunny days and splashing waters. Morning hikes blend into afternoon strolls through countless downtowns, then carry you into nights warmed by bonfires and the comforting taste of craft beer.
The winding curves of M-22 tease you with views of sparkling Lake Michigan and wineries perched on hillsides. You’ll find yourself losing track of time deep in the woods of Leelanau State Park, breathing in morning mist as you venture to the lakeshore.
Somehow in Leelanau, adventuring and relaxing fit hand-in-hand. Exhausting hikes through the peaks and valleys of Sleeping Bear Dunes are countered with romantic wine tastings along the many wine trails. Hours spent swimming and lounging on the beach are followed by dancing at festivals and checking out delicious local restaurants.
Leelanau blends all things rustic and natural with the divine aspects of modern life and Michigan culture. And though there hardly seems to be time enough to see it all, there’s no hectic scramble to fit every destination in. You already know this is a place you’ll visit again and again for years to come.
That’s the magic of Leelanau. You’ll look back on sunny days spent there and find the memories tinted gold, producing images that color your dreams for years to come. Plan a visit - Leelanau is sure to become your go-to getaway (if it hasn’t stolen your heart already).