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Friday, July 8, 2011

Traverse City: Enchantment on the Bay

By: Mike Norton

Recreational boaters cruising the eastern shore of Lake Michigan are sometimes tempted to skip the 30-mile “detour” down Grand Traverse Bay to Traverse City.

But those who venture into this sheltered deepwater fiord are well rewarded for their initiative, because Grand Traverse is the gateway to one of the country’s prettiest and most sophisticated regions—a place rich in scenic vistas, lush orchards and vineyards, superb wines, innovative cuisines and excellent shopping.

Chicago businessman Perry Hannah got his first glimpse of this beautiful spot on a quiet evening in 1851, as he stood on the deck of a small schooner sailing into the bay:

“We rounded Old Mission harbor just as the sun was going down behind the tops of the tall pines that stood on the ridge in the center of the peninsula,” he wrote. “It was one of those serene and beautiful evenings … a more beautiful picture I never saw in my life.”

In the end, Hannah liked the place so much that he stayed to become the founding father of the town that eventually grew up around the southern end of the bay. And although the Grand Traverse region is a much busier place today, it’s just as charming as it was on that long-ago evening. Every year, thousands of people discover its serenity and beauty.

The most obvious and most wonderful of the region’s many natural advantages is an abundance of clean fresh water. This is one place where the expression “crystal clear” means exactly what it appears to say—you can look down into 30 or 40 feet of water and see every detail on the sandy bottom. And with hundreds of miles of Lake Michigan shoreline—including the majestic Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—the area offers almost limitless opportunities for boating and sailing.

The bayside villages of Northport, Suttons Bay and Elk Rapids are charming port towns with marinas that are open to transient boaters, but the undisputed star of the bay is Traverse City itself. Its tree-shaded and pedestrian-friendly downtown has scores of fascinating boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and galleries, and lots of places to sit and relax, while the ornate homes of Perry Hannah and other 19th century lumber barons stand above the Boardman River nearby.

Reminders of the past are everywhere: lonely lighthouses and humble mission churches, grand old hotels, quaint summer cottages—and even a few castles. Just a few blocks from Traverse City’s waterfront is the Grand Traverse Commons, a 480-acre wooded park that contains the turreted buildings of a 19th-century mental asylum—now a fascinating “village” of shops, restaurants and homes.

The city’s main transient marina is at Clinch Park, just a block from downtown, but there are other harbors nearby at Greilickville and Acme. And Traverse City offers a wide selection of comfortable lodging options—from full-service resorts to cozy beachfront hotels and historic inns.

Grand Traverse Bay is surrounded by deep, fragrant forests crisscrossed with trails for hikers, horseback riders and cyclists, and more than 20 golf courses with million-dollar views and some of the most striking configurations ever designed. This is Michigan’s “Golf Coast,” an area Golf Digest ranked number 12 on its list of the World’s Top 50 Golf Destinations.

Even the farms here are surrounded by incredible scenery, built on rolling glacial hills and surrounded by sheets of deep blue water. Long known as the Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City is also an increasingly famous wine-producing region, with more than 20 wineries that offer tours and tastings of their award-winning vintages. During the summer, the area’s markets and roadside stands are bursting with fruits, vegetables, pies, jams and other seasonal treats, and its restaurants are building a national reputation for their fresh, innovative regional cuisine.

Thanks to the wealth of performing talent on tap in this part of Michigan, nightlife in Traverse City includes cool jazz in local restaurants, cutting-edge rock in Union Street bistros, and symphony concerts at the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts. Interlochen has produced some of the world’s most talented performers—Emmy-winning vocalist Norah Jones is a recent graduate—and its year-round Arts Festival features such top-notch acts as the Canadian Brass and Tony Bennett.

Traverse City is filled with museums, galleries, theatres and music festivals, and the area’s two casinos—Leelanau Sands and Turtle Creek—are always open for business.

Actually, if you listen to the locals, you’ll think there are two Grand Traverse Bays. They’re known to geographers as the bay’s east and west “arms”—but everyone who lives there calls them simply “East Bay” and “West Bay.” West Bay is more urban in character, a former industrial harbor that’s now an enchanting zone of parks, marinas and public beaches. Resort-oriented East Bay, almost entirely outside the city limits, is lined with hotels, resorts and private homes.

The shore of East Bay is relatively smooth, with only a single natural harbor near the tip of the peninsula. The West Bay shoreline is much more rugged; it boasts four smaller bays (Suttons Bay, Bowers Harbor, Omena Bay and Northport Bay), three islands (Power Island, Bassett Island and Bellows Island) and the mouth of a major river system. And while the sandy shoals of East Bay extend out as far as a mile from the beach, West Bay stays deep all the way to its southern edge.

The two are separated by the narrow Old Mission Peninsula, noted for its beautiful orchards and vineyards. At its tip is the picturesque Old Mission Point Lighthouse, built in 1870. The nearby village of Old Mission, which boasts an excellent recreational harbor, marks the site of the first European settlement in the area, established in 1837 by missionary Peter Dougherty. On the peninsula’s western shore are the sheltered Bower’s Harbor and Power Island, a 205-acre park that’s a favorite retreat for boaters.

Every summer, thousands of visitors flock here for the National Cherry Festival, a weeklong party of games, entertainment and excitement that’s been occurring for the past 80 years. More recently, the town has become known for the Traverse City Film Festival, as well as a four-week equestrian festival known as Horse Shows by the Bay. And fans of classic wooden boats should make plans to come in August for the annual “Boats on the Boardwalk” show, which features dozens of these beauties tied up along the Boardman River walkway.

Tall ships are deeply woven into the history of this region, and Traverse City has more of them than any other port on the Great Lakes. Boaters on the bay are almost sure to encounter at least one of them in the course of a trip. And if you’d like to see many of them together, make sure to come to the area on the weekend of Sept. 10 to 12, when the Michigan Schooner Festival brings an entire fleet of these magnificent vessels to town.

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