Not long ago in Traverse City, September brought a chill independent of the thermostat. Cottages boarded up, kids returned to school and many businesses reduced schedules. Local residents let out a collective sigh, some with exhaustion, others with worry for the lean months ahead. However, that has changed as visitors are now drawn year-round to the region’s entertaining blend of nature, culture and gastronomy.
Imagine a crisp fall day on a bike path, then a farm-to-table dinner followed by a movie at a historic cinema. Or a winter snowshoe jaunt through hibernating vineyards, capped with sandwiches and a craft brew in an igloo. Really!
Even in November, acknowledged as the bleakest month, enticements abound. Work up a sweat with thousands of cyclists in a 30-mile mountain bike race. Chill out with brew and food pairings during Traverse City Beer Week (November 8-15, 2019). Or get a head start on holiday shopping at chic galleries, boutiques and craft fairs.
“Our calendar is fuller in fall than in summer,” says Jenny Jenness of the Traverse City Tourism office. “Summer is just a slice of the pie. You need to see this place in its full beauty. Have you seen Sleeping Bear Dunes (National Lakeshore) covered in snow?”
Increasingly, visitors are answering yes. The bureau tracks the steady growth of “off- season” occupancy rates, and that doesn’t include the explosion of Airbnb rentals.
Those who make the trip after Labor Day find enchantment beyond beaches. Fall color tours, literary events, wine tastings, fine dining and outdoor pursuits are among the highlights. Nature’s backdrop here is spectacular. In autumn, hardwood forests put on a show of gold and red, yielding to a winter blanket of soft, snuggly quiet.
Fall packages offer excellent value at area golf resorts, which shift to skiing in winter. Crystal Mountain near Thompsonville has some of the best slopes in the Midwest and is convenient to the small-town charms of Frankfort, Beulah and Manistee.
The region is on the map for world-class cycling. Hundreds of miles of non- motorized trails and scenic rural roads beckon road and trail riders. The Leelanau Harvest Tour on the second Saturday of September offers up to 100 miles through the orchards and vineyards of Michigan’s Little Finger.
Casual peddlers will enjoy the TART network of paved trails linking Acme to Suttons Bay. When the snow flies, many trails are groomed for cross-country skiing. State parks and recreation areas also have trails for outdoor enthusiasts. Try the Sand Lakes Quiet Area off M-72 east of Traverse City.
And that igloo? It’s on the edge of Suttons Bay at Hop Lot Brewing, close to the Leelanau Trail.
For culture, turn a page at one of several independent bookstores or at the National Writers Series, the year-round literary festival founded by author Doug Stanton that brings A-list writers to Traverse City’s City Opera House to discuss their work. The venue also hosts musical and theatrical performances.
For films, the beautifully-restored State Theatre or its smaller sister, the Bijou, are not to be missed. Under the management of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, and run by volunteers, these community cinemas get much of the credit for keeping Traverse City’s downtown lively all year.
Downtown offers numerous dining options. For brunch, Towne Plaza serves up creative benedicts. Grab tacos and street corn at Mama Lu’s. Dinner could be anything from the exquisite farm-to-table fare at The Cooks’ House to a burger and beer at Seven Monks Taproom.
For late-night drinks, downtown Traverse City is fully stocked. Bonus points if you find the secret speakeasy fronted by a respectable tea room; an online reservation will get you the password for the atmospheric Teetotallers.
Winery touring is a premier all-season activity. Area vintners are utilizing a diverse variety of grapes and production styles to capture the region’s terroir in the bottle. New wineries open so frequently that Riesling-obsessed locals bemoan their inability to keep up. The two peninsulas— Leelanau and Old Mission—offer dozens of tasting rooms. (Note: winter hours for some smaller wineries are weekends-only.)
The wineries on Old Mission Peninsula appeal to even non-oenophiles. With designer architecture and boutique shopping, as well as spectacular bay views, these tasting rooms invite lingering and photo-taking.
A few miles north of Traverse City, a Tuscan-style villa and its wine cave dominate the ridge of Mari Vineyards, owned by The History Channel’s Marty Lagina. Mari’s popular tasting room has an expansive patio with a gorgeous bay view. But don’t dismiss this as a flashy celebrity winery. Lagina has invested his fortune well, with an experienced winemaker and vineyard innovations that have Italian grapes prospering on the 45th Parallel.
At the far end of Old Mission is 2 Lads Winery, which gets almost as much attention for its contemporary tasting room of steel, concrete and glass as it does for its chemical-free wines.
Those who want to sleep among the vines can book a room with a view at Chateau Chantal or Chateau Grand Traverse. For elegant waterfront dining, The Boathouse serves up wagyu beef and caviar with sunset views over Bowers Harbor. Or go casual at the Jolly Pumpkin with pub food and craft brews.
On the Leelanau Peninsula, just south of Suttons Bay, the powerhouse winery is Black Star Farms, a diversified operation with an inn, restaurant, horses, numerous events and the best Riesling in the world.
A cork pop away is Mawby, a venerated producer of sparkling wines. Its woodsy tasting room is as cozy and memorable as the bubbly. And their cheekily-named wines (“Sex” being one of them) top off your visit.
The opposite of flashy can be found a few miles north of Suttons Bay. A hand-painted sign on the roadside announces “winery ahead” and that’s all the advertisement for Nathaniel Rose at Raftshol Vineyards. This young winemaker gets major buzz for his Bordeaux-style reds and tantalizing orange Marsanne. He also makes a killer mead.
Much is fermenting in the region. Sample it all in downtown Traverse City with an easy walk to craft breweries, distilleries and cider houses. A pedal-powered pub offers group tours through the fall.
Another fun place to shop, dine and play is the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. A massive historic redevelopment project, this former state psychiatric hospital houses a winery, brewery, coffee roaster, shops and restaurants. Stella Trattoria offers some of the best dining in Michigan; its accolades include James Beard Award nominations for chef Myles Anton. Outside, 480 acres of parkland provide trails for hiking, cycling, skiing and snowshoeing.
- Sept. 28: Leelanau Uncaged, Northport
- Oct. 4-5: Empire Hops & Harvest Festival
- Nov. 2: Iceman Cometh Challenge mountain bike race
- Nov. 8-15: Traverse City Beer Week
- Nov. 30-Dec. 1: Holiday in the Village, Suttons Bay
- Dec. 31: Cherry Ball Drop, downtown Traverse City
- Feb. 8-9, 2020: North American VASA Festival of Races
Photos provided by Traverse City Tourism
This article originally appeared in the 2019 fall/winter 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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