Photos by Traverse City Tourism

When Bruce Woll was a youngster — some 50 years ago — he traveled with his family to Mackinac Island in northern Michigan for a vacation he remembers fondly. Now retired, Woll had always planned on a return trip.

So when a friend suggested visiting Traverse City — also in northern Michigan — with a day or two on Mackinac Island, he and his wife Val jumped at the chance.

“My buddy said Traverse City was a beautiful place with lots to do, just an overall great getaway,” says Woll, who lives in Pekin. “He was right. In fact, we had such a good time in and around Traverse City that we never made it up to Mackinac Island. I guess we’ll have to save that for another vacation.”

The Wolls visited Traverse City, which is about 320 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, in September. It was before the leaves had turned crimson and gold, but after the summer busy season when Traverse City, population 15,000, draws many families and others to its beaches, parks and surrounding attractions.

“We really liked the old-fashioned downtown, its shops — including the fun and quirky Cherry Republic store — and great restaurants,” says Woll.

“There was one pizza place [Paesano’s] just off the water we enjoyed, and a burger joint in an old house, as well as finedining restaurants downtown, too,” adds Woll, who now has the freedom to travel because his working days are done.

One day, his group chartered a sailboat, complete with a captain and first mate, to explore Grand Traverse Bay, on which Traverse City is located. Other sailing options out of this recreation mecca include the Tall Ship Manitou , a 114foot, 62-passenger schooner that offers three two-hour cruises across the bay daily, plus a number of specialty food and music cruises.

There’s also the Nauti-Cat , a 47-foot-long and 29-foot-wide catamaran that hosts up to four cruises a day in the summer. (And boy can it fly, often moving as fast as 14 knots on a windy afternoon.)

Woll enjoyed hiking on the towering sand dunes in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which runs along the eastern edge of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles west of Traverse City.

“We climbed to the top of one of the big dunes in about 15 to 20 minutes and had amazing views of Glen Lake back to the east and Lake Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Bay,” he says.

Another afternoon, they made the scenic drive out to the tip of the 22-mile long Old Mission Peninsula, where they toured the Mission Point Lighthouse — which is halfway between the North Pole and the equator on the 45th parallel. They also hiked around Lighthouse Park.

“The whole area was real pretty and I’d definitely recommend it to friends. I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, we may go back there again ourselves. We liked the small town, well-preserved look of Traverse City and just the overall feel of the place.”

Long a destination for families, the Traverse City area has excellent trails for hiking and biking, some of the top golf courses in the state, more than 100 small lakes for boating, fishing and kayaking, to say nothing of cool shops for antiquing, wonderful parks and beaches for picnicking, festivals, art galleries and a sophisticated, thriving cultural scene with not one, but two symphonies.

Those are just a few of the reasons it’s been dubbed one of the “10 Best Small Towns in America” by Fodor’s and on the list of “25 Coolest Midwest Vacation Spots” by Midwest Living Magazine.

It’s also garnered a good deal of attention in recent years from food critics, thanks in no small part to its orchards and the blossoming of wineries, craft breweries and even a couple of distilleries in the area. USA Today has called Traverse City one of the “Top 10 Places to Enjoy Local Wines” and Bon Appetit labeled it “One of America’s Five Top Foodie Towns.”

Marie-Chantal Dalese lives 12 miles out on the Old Mission Peninsula and is in the thick of the food, wine and inn scene. She runs the upscale Grand Chateau Chantal B&B, which her parents — Bob and Nadin Begin — named after her when they built the winery and inn back in 1993.

When people ask her why they should visit the Traverse City region, she tells them “because it’s truly one of the most beautiful parts of the country and right here in Northern Michigan.

“It’s got loads to do for families with resorts that are right on the beach and a thriving wine scene with 30-plus wineries, brew pubs, a pair of distilleries and tons of delicious farm-to-table restaurants that focus on local cuisine.

“There’s a good reason why we have been nicknamed the ‘Napa Valley of the Midwest,’” says Dalese, whose 65-acre estate grows the northern European vinifera species of grape vines and produces Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and other wines from its grapes, as well as a cherry wine.

Dalese says she believes the Traverse City area is still relatively undiscovered by people from Chicago and other parts of Illinois. “But I think that’s changing as our reputation grows for our wines and food, to say nothing of the other reasons to travel here, including the stunning physical beauty of the landscape.”

Wine aficionados might want to stay at the French-style Chateau Chantal, where each of the 11 guest rooms is named after an Impressionist painter such as Cezanne, Renoir or Degas. All the rooms — most are suites — have reproductions of one of the artists’ paintings, from which the color themes of the rooms are taken.

Guests receive a full gourmet breakfast and a private tour of the estate’s wine cellar, tastings and the use of patios that overlook both the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay — thanks to the inn’s location on the top of a hill.

In addition, Chateau Chantal offers seven-course wine dinners four nights a week during the summer that are a delightful way to experience the local wines and food in a singular setting.

She also recommends the Old Mission Tavern, a long-established restaurant and gallery filled with works by artists who call the region home. “It has a well-earned reputation for being a local’s favorite for the food,” she says.

In Traverse City, she suggests to her B&B guests that they try the Cooks House or Trattoria Stella, the latter a James Beard Award finalist for the Midwest Region.

“We have a lot of culinary talent around here that results in people having a lot of excellent choices for dining,” she says, noting that Traverse City is home to the Great Lakes Culinary Institute.

Dalese says the Traverse City Wine and Art Festival (June) is a fun way to combine exploration of local wineries, see regional artists work and sample wonderful food.

Other summer celebrations include the National Cherry Festival, which is now in its 86th year; the Traverse City Film Festival, started about seven years ago by director Michael Moore; the Northwest Michigan Fair; the Traverse Bay Outdoor Art Fair; the Peshawbestown Traditional Pow Wow; and the Tall Ships Festival.

Though her inn is on the Old Mission Peninsula, she suggests that visitors also take a drive out to the nearby Leelenau Peninsula — sometimes called the little finger of the Michigan mitten — where travelers can experience small villages and towns that are full of quaint shops.

Last but not least on the must-see list, especially for those with an interest in architecture and history, is the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. The main structure was built in the Victorian Italianate-style in 1885 and served as Northern Michigan’s state mental hospital for more than a century prior to being closed in 1989. It was then abandoned, many of its windows broken, a spooky place for local kids to explore.

But even when it was rundown, it retained a special beauty. In 2000, the Minervini Group began renovating the structures, putting restaurants, galleries, shops — even a winery in the old laundry — on the ground floor and condos in the upper levels. Set in a wooded, 300-acre complex, the village is actually inside Traverse City, but shielded from the outside by trees.

“It’s really a great place to visit and is one of the largest historic restoration projects in the country right now,” says Mike Norton, a former columnist for the Traverse City newspaper. “I wandered around in there myself when I got to town years ago. But if you’re coming here to check out the arts, food or winery scene, it’s definitely a neat place to experience.”

For more information on the Traverse City area, contact Traverse City Tourism at (800) 872-8377 or see

This article originally appeared in the 2014 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article. 

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