Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan

To those familiar with northern Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula translates to wine, charming coastal towns, lighthouses, and plenty of beautiful blue Lake Michigan water.  Which are all the reasons we decided to pay this part of upper Michigan a visit.  The peninsula (highlighted portion of the map) is often referred to as the "little finger" of the mitten-shaped lower peninsula.
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This area of Michigan is known for it’s production of cool climate wines like Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.  The steep terrain and large bodies of water produce a milder microclimate than the more temperate areas further inland which means Leelanau Peninsula American Viticultural Areas is known as one of the best Michigan wine regions.  Bisecting the peninsula is the 45th parallel which you will also find running through some of the world’s great wine regions.  Think Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone of France and the Piedmont Region of Italy. 

There are 24 wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula of which 10 are in the “Northern Loop” of the Leelanau Wine Trail and within a short drive of where we were staying.  These wineries and tasting rooms are as diverse as the varietals they produce.  Tasting rooms vary from an old schoolhouse to a modern glass framed structure to one that is a “Boathouse” set along waters edge where you can paddle up to.  Many have that Napa feel where you are immersed in rows of grapes but here the distant views of Lake Michigan provide a serene backdrop and the feel of the New York’s Finger Lakes wine region.  The area is also a productive fruit region growing apples and tart cherries.  When you drive up and down the peninsula you realize just how many fruit trees and vines thrive in this area.

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We parked the rig at a centrally located RV park that some friends had recommended called Wild Cherry RV Resort (review to follow in another blog).  From here we were surrounded by numerous wineries within an easy grasp, cute towns and plenty of things to do and see in the super cute towns of Suttons Bay, Leland, Lake Leelanau, Fishtown and Northport.  So every day we set out to explore the peninsula with dog in tow.  Our routine was such that morning were reserved for hiking and Spirit fun time, followed by lunch out, a little sight-seeing, a wine tasting or two, and back home to the RV for dinner and more socialization at the RV Resort!  

The main road running through the peninsula is state highway M-22.  M-22 spans nearly 117 miles from Manistee on the southwest side of the state to Traverse City and includes popular tourist destinations like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Leelanau Peninsula wine country.  The road is what you expect from a Pure Michigan Scenic Byway where you find numerous turns and hills, charming villages, stunning lake views, and spectacular fall colors.  M-22 has such a following that the Michigan Department of Transportation had to modify the road signs because of rampant theft.  With Michiganders love for this beautiful road it is no wonder you see t-shirts, bumper stickers, wine glasses, and plenty of other goods with the M-22 logo.  And yes, there is a M-22 wine. 

Just down from our campground on M-22 lies Suttons Bay - a year-round community not far from Traverse Bay in miles but way different in vibe and pace.  Suttons Bay is the kind of town you fall in love with on your first drive thru.  Cute shops, a brewery, eateries with foodie followings, lively wineries, a downtown park and harbor, galleries with local art and glass, active people walking the streets, and homes that look lived-in and loved.  There are no fast food franchises, no parking meters, heck there isn’t even a stoplight.  We met some RV friends, Stacey and Don, at Hop Lot Brewery for a leisurely lunch and to catch up and then moved on to visiting some of their favorite wineries…four in fact (one of which, Willow Vineyards, had a super cute cat named Frank). 

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When we drove through the town of Lake Leelanau we spotted a boat ramp that would be perfect for dropping the kayaks in the water and taking Spirit for a paddle.  It has been over a year since 20170602_135726Spirit was in the kayak with me and she did great - not even attempting to jump out when a gaggle of geese swam by.  The lake extends 13 miles and covers some 8,000+ acres with a narrow stretch of wetlands (appropriately called “The Narrows”) between the north and south parts of the lake which was perfect for us to paddle. Native Americans named this area "lee-lan-au," which means "delight of life" and by seeing all the boat traffic and houses along the lake it is no wonder people find this place delightful.  This area was perfect for an afternoon paddle and even had a winery with a boat dock in case you get thirsty.  The thing we are really loving about Michigan is that there is water everywhere.  And, it is so clear with no alligators lurking in the deep.

The town of Leland is nestled between Lakes Leelanau and Michigan and marries historic and hip in the same breath.  Travel one block from main street in downtown Leland towards Lake Michigan and you will find yourself in the most quaint rustic shanty town called “Fishtown.”   This historic town is one of the last working and thriving fishing districts on the Great Lakes and is very popular with tourists because of its weathered fishing shanties (many of which are now home to local businesses), smokehouses, overhanging docks lined with fish tugs, and charter fishing boats.  Fishtown was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1973 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

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Definitely come here hungry so you can feast on edibles from the Village Cheese Shanty.  They have fine local wines, exotic cheeses and interesting sandwiches made on their famous pretzel bread.  For a mere $6.50 you get a huge sandwich or upgrade to the $10 “beer bag lunch” where you get a sandwich, beer, and chips.  We enjoyed our lunch at a picnic table by the water watching boats come and go in the harbor while the summer afternoon sun warmed our bodies and the food filled our bellies. 

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Travel north on M-22 to the tip of the peninsula and you will find yourself in the appropriately named town of Northport.  We started with a visit to Leelanau State Park for a walk along part of the 8.5 miles of hiking trails that wind through beautiful woods and along the water.  The centerpiece of the park is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse – a restored 19th-century lighthouse with a museum that showcases the life of a light keeper in the 1920’s – 30’s era.  A four-dollar admission fee is charged to enter the museum and access to the top of the lighthouse.  We felt the price was well worth it and enjoyed wandering through the museum.  Also located on the grounds are a lighthouse and fog signal building with exhibits on area lighthouses, foghorns, shipwrecks and local history.  Both museums were very well-done with interesting and interactive exhibits.

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Before heading home we stopped in downtown Northport  for a bite to eat and wander around the shops and galleries since coastal villages don’t come much cuter than this.  On our way home we stopped at 45 North Vineyard and Winery.  Turns out the couple that was working in the tasting room are also full-time RVers and we had a great time tasting wine and swapping travel stories including those about our Africa adventures.  

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On our last night, we met up with some friends who volunteer with us in Florida, Neil and Sharon.  They introduced us to a great winery (Bluestone Vineyards) where we enjoyed a late afternoon glass of wine, some catching up and a fun dinner with great conversation.   

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We really, really liked this area and would certainly come back…maybe even for an entire summer.  The towns are just our size which means they are intimate and everything counts.  What we mean by that is that stores are local (no chains), restaurants serve solid food, galleries are unique, and gathering space is important so there are plenty of parks and green space for people to gather.  From our campgrounds location there is plenty of things to do and places to go.  If you want to head to the big city of Traverse City (population 15K) or to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for good hikes you are just 20-30 minutes away.  Don’t think that just because these towns are small they are sleepy.  In fact, just the opposite happens.  There are weekly farmers markets, plenty of summer festivals, outdoor concerts, and lots of outdoor activities. 

More travel tips:

  • Hit the Leelanau Cheese Company in Suttons Bay for amazingly delicious Raclette cheese - a French and Swiss style cow's milk cheese that melts beautifully.  
  • For fresh food check out 9 Bean Rows which operates a restaurant, farmstead, and bakery.  
  • If you are looking for a little stronger libation there is the Grand Traverse Distillery in Leland and the Northern Latitudes Distillery in Lake Leelanau.  
  • Great hiking can be found in Leelanau State Park ($11 daily admission fee) and at Houdek Dunes and Clay Cliffs Natural Areas.  We bought an annual Michigan State Park pass for $32. 
  • The V.I. Grill in Suttons Bay makes a burger that is to die for.  The French Onion Burger is simmered in au jus and topped with Swiss cheese and crispy onions.  











Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

The National Park Service has done it again.  They have managed to protect one of America’s most amazing places.  Seventy-one thousand acres of beauty, in fact.  Last year, ABC’s Good Morning America dubbed Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore “America’s Most Beautiful Place.”   The park is guaranteed to awe and amaze visitors that come to marvel at it’s towering dunes, crystal clear waters, soaring pines, rich maritime cultural history, and serene lakes.

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Let’s pause for a minute to thank President Woodrow Wilson who signed the National Park Service into existence in 1916.  Pause!  Now let’s move on to marvel in the splendor of Sleeping Bear Dunes NL and one of Michigan’s treasured National Parks.

The park was established in 1970 and what a treasure to have so much land.  Even better is that almost half of the park is designated as “Wilderness” under the Wilderness Act of 1964 which is defined as "an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" and "an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions".

What’s in a name?  Sleeping Bear Dunes NL has a history dating back to the Native American people.  Folklore has it that a mother bear and her cubs were driven from the Wisconsin shoreline into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire.  The young cubs tried to keep up with the mother but lagged behind.  Tired, the mother bear finally reached the shores of a tall sandy bluff and looked out to wait for her cubs.  The cubs never made it.  They drowned in the long crossing.  Today, “Sleeping Bear” is a 460-foot dune that marks where the mother bear looks into the lake over two smaller islands – her two bears – known as North and South Manitou Islands.  Love that story.

We originally were going to spend four days in the area but quickly extended our stay so we could enjoy the park to the fullest. We were there in late May so the summer tourists had not arrived in droves that are sure to come.  This meant that many times we were the only ones on the hiking trails and alone at scenic overlooks.  A “must-see” in the park is the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This seven-mile loop guides visitors through woodlands to sandy cliffs with amazing views looking over the blue waters of Lake Michigan and out to the Manitou Islands.

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A popular activity at the park is a hike up the Dune Climb.  Most places that have dunes readily request that you “keep off” the dunes for ecological reasons.  But here is one place where you can climb up and roll down a massive sand dune.  This is great exercise that offers awesome views.  Note the tiny rectangular thing in that parking lot that is a school bus.

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One Saturday we visited the historic town of Glen Haven which was celebrating the beginning of summer with their annual “Glen Haven Days” that amounts to maritime history 101.  This tiny village was home to several hundred people that were employed by one very busy entrepreneur by the name of D.H. Day.  Mr. Day had his hand in the shipping business, logging, cherry farming and canning, and taking tourists on automobile dune rides.  Today, the restored 1920’s era town is under the care of the National Park Service who interprets life from a different time.  The buildings house a general store, blacksmiths shop, and cannery/boathouse.

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The U.S. Coast Guard had a presence here and played a crucial role of saving lives in the treacherous waters of the Manitou Passage where shoals and submerged rocks proved deadly for mariners.  The old station house is now a museum with interesting exhibits and demonstrations.

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Sleeping Bear is nestled along the tiny towns of Empire and Glen Arbor.  Both are quaint, small, and swell during the summer tourist season.  There is a smattering of shops, eateries, and galleries but don’t expect more than an hour or so to stroll through the town streets and see all they have to offer.  (If it’s a bigger town you want, head west 25 miles to Traverse City.)  One place we did spend a bit of time (on multiple occasions) is at the Cherry Republic whose flagship store is in Glen Arbor.  Everything cherry is here . . . wine, barbecue sauce, chocolate covered cherries, cherry sausage, dried cherries, cherry chocolate covered pretzels . . . I think you get the point.  After sampling over two dozen of their products in the store, we headed to the building that had the wine tasting, and finally to the ice cream shop for some more cherry goodness.

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Sleeping Bear Dunes NL is really a “must-see” if you are coming to northern Michigan.  We enjoyed the peaceful walks in the woods, marveling at the beautiful lakes, spectacular views, and learning about the areas rich history.

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Sunday, June 4, 2017

Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan

Who do you thank for the ability to grab quick cash from a machine in the mall or convenient store?  President Gerald R. Ford is who.  He was the man who signed legislation making it legal to get cash from an ATM.  This is just one of the many factoids about Ford’s presidency that you discover at his Grand Rapids, Michigan Presidential Museum.  

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Of the nine official presidential museums we have visited this was one of our favorites.  The recent $13 million renovation (completed in 2016) has been credited with a renewed interest in the museum and an appeal to younger generations thanks to modern engaging technology.  The museum is bold with brighter color, giant pictures, interactive video screens and lots of audio technology and recordings revealing key decisions of Ford’s presidency.  When presidential museums can be static and boring, this one is not. 

Gerald R. Ford was born as Leslie Lynch King, Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska to Leslie and Dorothy King on July 14, 1913.  When her son is two months old Dorothy flees the abusive relationship she is in and relocates to live with her parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  In 1917 she finds love with Gerald R. Ford, Sr. a respective businessman and renames her son Gerald R. Ford, Jr.  Young “Jerry” was active in scouting and a sterling football player named to the “All City” and “All State” teams.  He attended the University of Michigan, studied Business Administration and played center for the Wolverines, where in he is awarded the Most Valuable Player on the 1934 team and plays in the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star Game.  His success on the football field earned him contracts with the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions. 

Ford declined both professional football contracts to pursue his dream of going to law school at Yale.  After law school, he has a brief stint in a law firm in Grand Rapids before enlisting in the Navy as the U.S enters into World War II.  Ford shined in the Navy as a leader and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and highly decorated.  After the war, he returns briefly to his law firm and became interested in Michigan Republican politics.

Fast forward some 27 years and through Ford’s impressive 13 terms serving the Republican Party in Congress.  In August 1973, Ford is appointed Vice-President by Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigns his post as Vice-President under investigation for accepting bribes and income tax evasion while Governor of Maryland.  During the eleven months Ford serves as Vice-President, the White House, Congress, and the American people are in turmoil as Nixon is being investigated in the growing Watergate scandal.  On August 8, 1974 Nixon resigns in a televised address and the next day Ford is sworn in as the 38th President. 

Ford stepped onto the presidential stage with major issues stirring in the American people's minds and hearts.  Nixon brought the office to disgrace and a distrust of government to Americans, there needed to be closure to the Vietnam War, inflation rose uncontrollably as the cost of living was increasing yet more workers were losing their jobs, an energy crisis was in the midst, and the Democrats controlled the Congress. 

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One of the most important decisions Ford made was pardoning Richard Nixon.  The move was controversial and divisive.  The story is told though engaging video explaining the Watergate scandal and audio of Ford’s radio address to the nation explaining he pardoned Nixon.  The dilemma for Ford was this - a pardon would jeopardize his political standing, but, forgoing the pardon would risk the country not moving forward and addressing other pressing needs that affected American’s daily lives – like an energy crisis and rising inflation.  His words “My fellow Americans, our national nightmare is over.” resonated and his decision will forever be judged but it put an end to the dilemma.

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Another key point of Ford’s presidency was finally ending American occupation in Vietnam.  The Fall of Saigon (the South Vietnam capital) was imminent as the North Vietnamese gained key strongholds in the city.  Preceding that Ford ordered the largest helicopter evacuation in history.  With all the Americans safely out of the city, Ford turned his attention to the plight of the South Vietnamese people.  Ford urged Congress to authorize a $722 million humanitarian aid package to assist the beleaguered South Vietnamese who were sure to suffer at the hands of the North Vietnamese.  He was appalled that Congress refused to help and persisted until they authorized the 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act which appropriated $455 million toward the costs of assisting the settlement of Indochinese refugees in America. In all, 130,000 Vietnamese refugees came to the United States in 1975 followed by thousands more that escaped in the years that followed.  The museum houses the original stairs that were used to board helicopters during Operation Frequent Wind where so many people walked to freedom.

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Ford and his wife Betty raised four kids in the White House and their story is told as well.  There is an exhibit dedicated to the life and contributions of Betty Ford.  She championed women’s rights and equality and encouraged her husband to appoint women to powerful political roles such as his Cabinet and the Supreme Court.  When she acknowledged her alcohol and drug abuse, she became a face of so many American women struggling with addiction. 

Ford spent 895 days fulfilling the Office of the President – the shortest of any other President – and the only person to serve as Vice-President and President without being elected.  He survived two assassination attempts and lived to be 93.  Ford was awarded many medals and awards for his service to the United States.  

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A little interesting fact relating to us.  Betsy met Ford in 2001 when she received an award from the Silicon Valley-based Tech Museum of Innovation.  Ford was the keynote speaker presiding over the first year the museum was honoring what they dubbed as “Technology Benefiting Humanity” that recognized technology specialists who “improved the quality of life around the globe.”  Pretty impressive award if you ask me.  The competition was amazingly talented and forward thinking.  More than 1,000 people attended the black-tie ceremony and, to be honest, we were a little nervous.  Huge screens projected short films highlighting the work by the 25 finalists whittled down from more than 390 applicants from individuals and organizations around the globe.  Categories included health, education, environment, economic development, and equality.  Other winners included a doctor who developed socketless prosthetic limbs that weigh and cost less than those commonly used.  The health award went to a professor working to identify genes that are essential to surviving the parasite that causes malaria.  A South African company won the education award for their development of a wind-up solar powered radio that is used in disaster relief and education initiatives in Africa.  And Betsy’ won the $50,000 environment prize for “innovative applications of technology to preserve biodiversity” (which she donated to her research program at the Audubon Nature Institute’s Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans).   Just one of the many awards she received during her successful career, I might add!




Monday, May 22, 2017

RV Park Review–Holland State Park (Holland, Michigan)

Website:     Holland State Park 
Location:    Holland, Michigan
Date:          May 2017
Price:         $39/night (Each day requires a separate $11 pass or we chose to buy an annual Michigan state park pass for $32
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Holland State Park is popular for its expansive sandy beach along Lake Michigan and Lake Macatawa where swimming, sun bathing, fishing, and boating are popular activities.  Holland SP has two campgrounds – the Lake Macatawa Unit and the Beach Campground (which is where we stayed and the focus of this review).  The Beach Campground is essentially a parking lot as the sites, patios and roads are paved with little grass among them.  It is nestled between dunes which adds to the scenic value and blocks the strong winds coming off of Lake Michigan.  The Lake Unit campground is much larger (211 campsites) than the Beach Campground and has more of a state park feel with trees, grass, and fire pits. 

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Site description:

The Beach Campground has 98 RV sites of which 31 are 50 amp full hook-up and two camper cabins.  Some sites towards the northern section of the park have great views of Lake Michigan but be warned that strong winds can come off the lake and really shake your RV.  When we were there in early May the winds were very strong with blowing sand which made us really glad we were not near the water.

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Campsites are plenty wide to fit your RV with slide outs and car next to it without feeling cramped.  Utilities are at the very back of the site so you may need an extension for your sewer hose.  All sites were level.  Every site has a picnic table.  There are no fire pits at individual sites but community ones are located near the beach and you are permitted to use your own fire pit if you have one. 

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We were able to get nearly two dozen television stations with our antenna and had no problem locking into a satellite with our roof-mounted dish.  Verizon phone and hotspot worked well. 

So is this park big rig-friendly?  In general, yes.  Our site was certainly long (and wide) enough to fit our RV and the tow car next to it.  However, we did have the back five feet overhanging the sand at the back of the site.  This was no problem for us because our stabilizing jacks are in between our back tires.  We were also there at a time when the park was fairly empty so backing in and pulling out was no problem.  The sites are all set at an angle to the main road which makes backing easier. 

20170509_103856Amenities:

By far the beach is the biggest draw to the campground.  The wide beach lures sunbathers out in warm weather and is popular for a walk at sunset.  There is a playground, picnic area, community fire pits, dump station, boat launch and concession stand.  There is one restroom/shower house that was very clean but no laundry facilities.

What we liked:

We loved that fact that this campground was so close to water and the nice paved path for walking and hiking trails in the main part of the campground.  Within 50 yards from our site we could be walking along Lake Macatawa or along the sandy shores of Lake Michigan.  The beach is wide and expansive and is the place to be for awesome sunsets.  When we were there the beach was not crowded because it was cold and windy but it would be a great place to enjoy a good book under an umbrella. Definitely liked the fact that this was a full hook-up state park with level sites.

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What we didn’t like:

The park is essentially a parking lot with little grass and trees.  What really surprised us was how many cars drove through the campground that were not staying there.  There apparently are no restrictions on who drives through the park so many day-use visitors came by just for a look resulting in unnecessary traffic.

Be advised there is a “no alcohol” policy in the park and campground and you have to sign a piece of paper saying you will abide by that rule.  The rule states that “Possessing or consuming alcohol is prohibited in all areas of the park throughout the entire year” even inside your RV. 

In order to enter the state park you must have a Michigan Recreation Passport which costs $32 for an annual non-resident OR you have to pay $11/day to enter the park even if you are camped there. 

Spirit’s two cents:

There are plenty of places to walk dogs here and access points to water if your dog likes to swim.  Unfortunately, they are not allowed on the beach but there is a long walking path and within the main part of the park are miles of hiking trails and a nice overlook.  This park does not have an unleashed dog park; however, there is one within five miles at the fairgrounds.