Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula—a relatively narrow outcropping just north of Traverse City, with its collection of lakeside towns, farms, beaches, and rolling hills—was a fairly well-kept secret until a few years ago. That’s when Mario Batali, the New York-based celebrity chef who has a summer home in Northport, started promoting the farm-to-table restaurants, cafés, shops, and farmers’ markets like only a TV personality can. The buzz is deserved and the peninsula’s towns are thriving on the attention. Connecting them all is M-22, a gorgeous stretch of road that follows Lake Michigan.
Head up M-22 north of Traverse City, where the road winds along the shores of Grand Traverse Bay and Suttons Bay. You’ll soon see signs for Ciccone Vineyard (10343 E. Hilltop Rd.; 231-271-5553), a local winery also known for the winemaker’s world-famous daughter: Madonna. Not long after, you’ll encounter Black Star Farms (10844 E. Revold Rd.; 231-944-1270), a gorgeous agriculture estate and winery. Park your car and walk around the property, which includes a stately inn, horse stables, tasting rooms, and a distillery. It will be the first of many moments when the Leelanau Peninsula reminds you of Northern California. Stop for lunch at The Hearth and Vine Café (231-944-1297; entrées from $10); the kitchen makes a fine wood-fired pizza.
A few miles north on M-22, Suttons Bay (see “Hot Hood,” below) is one of the more popular destinations on the peninsula for its walkable central area and boutique shopping. Continue inland on M-204 toward the town of Lake Leelanau, a gold mine for fresh produce. Local farmers set up humble stands on both sides of M-204. These typically operate on the honor system—look for a basket and leave what you think you owe.
Stay on M-22 as you leave Suttons Bay, and the road will lead to the adorable tiny town of Omena. Just steps from the water, the tasting room at Leelanau Cellars (5019 N. West Bay Shore Dr.; 231-386-5201) has a wall of windows overlooking Grand Traverse Bay. While there—or at any Michigan winery, for that matter—pay special attention to the rieslings, chardonnays, and other whites, since the region’s short growing season favors white varietals over reds. Across the street from the tasting room is another treasure: Tamarack Gallery (5039 N. West Bay Shore Dr.; 231-386-5529), a decades-old shop that represents more than 60 artists from around the country.
M-22 rolls and winds for another five miles before reaching the rustic town of Northport. If you get there early enough, grab your coffee and an old-fashioned doughnut or cinnamon twist at Barb’s Bakery (112 N. Mill St.; 231-386-5851) before they’re gone. The town offers a wealth of outdoor activities: Wander by the Northport Farmers’ Market at the marina, hike the dunes of Cathead Bay, walk along Christmas Cove, jump in the lake at any of the quaint beaches, and visit the historic Grand Traverse Lighthouse.
For a casual lunch or dinner, head south to Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern (7100 N. Manitou Tr., 231-386-9923; entrées from $11), on a section of M-22 that runs along the western edge of the peninsula and through some of its most breathtaking vistas. Fischer’s has the cozy ambiance of a backwoods lodge and serves great no-frills classics: fried chicken, fried mushrooms, fried cauliflower, and some nonbattered items like burgers and fish. During the dinner rush, expect a considerable wait—but don’t leave. Get a drink at the bar and sip it on the restaurant’s porch.
Continuing south from Northport, M-22 cuts through gorgeous rolling hills, orchards, and forests before reaching the town of Leland. In a perfect world, your trip would include at least one of the following: the Leland Wine & Food Festival (June 9); the town’s Fourth of July parade, which oozes small-town Michigan charm; or a boat or fishing trip with one of the local charters, such as Manitou Island Transit (231-256-9061; day trips $20 to $35).
You can certainly squeeze in an afternoon stroll through Fishtown, a bygone fishing village where shops and charters still operate out of weathered shacks. Head to Carlson’s (205 River St.; 231-256-9801) for the day’s fresh catch, as well as smoked chub and whitefish (the adventurous will love the fish sausage). If you’re looking for a sit-down meal, locals will direct you to the 80-year-old Bluebird (102 River St., 231-256-9081; entrées from $16) and suggest that you order the whitefish or perch. The restaurant at The Riverside Inn (302 E. River St., 231-256-9971; entrées from $21) is great for something more formal.
South of Leland and inland a bit, Maple City is home to two restaurants where area chefs are known to dine on their day off: La Bécasse (9001 S. Dunns Farm Rd., 231-334-3944; entrées from $24) and Funistrada (4566 W. MacFarlane Rd., 231-334-3900; entrées from $25). But the biggest attraction is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a breathtaking stretch of sugar-sand dunes, beaches, and cliffs.
Watch the sun go down over Lake Michigan from the dining room at Blu (5705 S. Lake St., 231-334-2530; entrées from $25) in nearby Glen Arbor. This town feels livelier than most, especially when weekend crowds come to shop and sit outside at the restaurants and bars. At some point, pop into the Cherry Republic (6026 Lake St.; 800-206-6949), a store that pays homage to the county that “grows more cherries than any other county in the country” by—you guessed it—selling cherries, food with cherries, and trinkets involving cherries.