Although it's known as the Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City seems to do an even better job of growing motels, restaurants and other tourist-related sites: It's the center of the popular vacation destinations in the northwestern Lower Peninsula. Located 240 mi/390 km northwest of Detroit, the city sits at the foot of Grand Traverse Bay, an absolutely beautiful area where the water is various shades of blue and forested shores rise up from the bay.
Traverse City celebrates its cherry heritage at the National Cherry Festival (concerts, parades, regatta), which usually takes place in early July. For a look at the fruit industry, take one of the orchard tours at Amon's Orchard—they run regularly during the festival and by appointment at other times of the year. You can pick your own cherries at Amon's in season (late June-early July). Although lots of orchards are still found in the area, they seem to be becoming fewer and fewer. In many cases, they're being replaced by vineyards.
A lot of Traverse City's activity happens along Highway 31/72, where most of the motels are located. Traverse City State Park and several other beaches are also along this stretch. Downtown Traverse City is a lively place loaded with specialty stores, bars, brewpubs, coffeehouses and restaurants. The Old Town Playhouse offers stage productions.
East of town, overlooking Grand Traverse Bay, is the Grand Traverse Resort, home to The Bear, a golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Spruce Run and Gary Player's The Wolverine are also part of the resort.
To the north of the city, a long, thin peninsula juts out into the bay. For a great scenic drive, head north on Highway 37, which runs the full 16-mi/25-km length of the peninsula, past cherry orchards and wineries. At the far end, in Old Mission, is a reconstruction of the building where Peter Dougherty ministered to the Ottawa and Ojibwa peoples in the 1800s. At the very tip of the peninsula are a lighthouse and park.
North of Traverse City, around the east side of Grand Traverse Bay, are a number of inland lakes surrounded by summer cottages and small villages. These are great waters for small pleasure boats, because many of the lakes are linked together by channels. Torch Lake is the gem of this string, an 18-mi-/28-km-long stretch of water that is a very intense shade of blue. Though parts of the lake are very deep, there are sandbars that function as drive-up beaches for boaters, and there are also a number of restaurants that cater to boat traffic. We spent an enjoyable day cruising various lakes, stopping in for refreshments as needed.
To the northwest of Traverse City is the Leelanau Peninsula (which forms the tip of the pinky finger when you view the Lower Peninsula as a hand). This is a region of scenic roads (many of them popular with bicyclists), farms, charming villages and vineyards (including Leelanau Wine Cellars, Black Star Farms and Good Harbor Vineyards). In addition to Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, which surround the peninsula, there are several inland lakes, including Lake Leelanau.
Leelanau is also the place to go for gambling: Suttons Bay (25 mi/40 km north of Traverse City) is where the Chippewa tribe runs the large and spiffy Leelanau Sands Casino and Lodge (a far cry from the smoky, cabin-style casino we remember from years ago). Suttons Bay also has a number of shops, galleries and restaurants. A little farther north, in the tiny village of Omena, make a stop at the Leelanau Cheese factory, which specializes in making raclette cheese.
On the west coast of the peninsula, on Lake Michigan, is Leland, a small village that's one of our favorite spots in this part of the state. Fishing charters, cruises and ferries to the Manitou Islands depart from the harbor, and the town has a small museum with exhibits about the history of the area. There are also several beaches in the immediate area, which yield views of North Manitou Island. Jimmy Buffett fans may want to stop in at The Blue Bird, a downtown restaurant and bar. It's rumored to serve the dish that inspired Buffett's song "Cheeseburger in Paradise." And no visit to Leland would be complete without having a drink at the Cove, an open-air bar and restaurant, where you can watch charter boats docking and kids fishing in the river.
Although ski hills are spread throughout Michigan, two resorts of note are in this part of the state. The slopes of Sugar Loaf Resort and Crystal Mountain are northwest and southwest, respectively, of Traverse City. Sugar Loaf has 25 slopes and a 500-ft/155-m vertical drop with beautiful views of Lake Michigan. Crystal Mountain offers 34 slopes on a 375-ft/116-m vertical drop. Both are snowboarder-friendly. Traverse City is .
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