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.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Perfect Northern Michigan (Part II)

There was so much that kept us busy in Petoskey it makes me wonder how we found time to do it all.  This was our ideal town – small size, cute and compact downtown, beautiful water views, friendly people, plenty of outdoor activities, and lots of good eateries and drinking establishments.  Definitely a place we would come back to and even inquired about seasonal sites for next summer. 


The first thing you will learn about when you come to Petoskey are Petoskey stones.  These “stones” are actually coral from a remnant ancient sea floor that was here some 350 million years ago when the glaciers covered this area.  Polishing the stones brings out their unique and attractive coral features and you quickly understand why they are fashioned into jewelry, turned into decorative items for the home like clocks and coffee table tops, and even incorporated into the stems of wine glasses.  Searching for Petoskey stones along the shoreline is luring and a popular activity.  However, a local told us that most of the stones have been plucked from the easily accessible shoreline in Petoskey so you really won’t find any but other areas in the region you will still find them.   


Downtown Petoskey was a place we found ourselves quite often.  Food, breweries, and the farmers market were some of the biggest draws but there is more.  The downtown is a very busy place and easily walkable and entertaining.  Storefronts in the old gaslight district are full with a mix of interesting shops, galleries, restaurants, hardware stores, and even a J.C. Penny. (When is the last time you saw Penny's in a historic downtown?)  The downtown is visually appealing with an array of buildings adorned with potted flowers, plenty of green space available for afternoon picnics, historical artifacts, and no trash.


The weekly farmers market held every Friday downtown was a magnet for me as I couldn’t resist fresh greens, super sweet strawberries, and plump vegetables.  After the farmers market we walked a couple of blocks to the Crooked Tree Art Center.  The center is housed in a 135-year old church and recent renovations have made the inside warm and welcoming while retaining the visually appealing historical features like the theater.  The art center is more than just a gallery to view works of art. It attracts visitors and comes alive with concerts, live theater, classes and workshops and various exhibits.  When we were there there was an Ansel Adams exhibit called “Through the Lens” that displayed 48 of his black and white images and live music was playing in the concert hall.


From downtown it is an easy walk down to the waterfront where the breakwater and lighthouse are a draw for people to take a stroll, cast a line, or just get a different view of the downtown.  The neighboring marina is busy in the summer with boaters from Chicago looking for a little peace and quiet and the parks are filled with people soaking up the sun and kids braving the cold Lake Michigan waters.

Near the marina is the Little Traverse Historical Museum.  The museum resides in a restored 1892 train depot and displays various exhibits on the city’s history which are yours for the viewing for a suggested $3 donation.  Some of the historic features of Petoskey are still visible today such as the Wheelway, churches, and the Perry Hotel.  Some of the interesting exhibits are those that have historic photographs paired with a photograph of the same place today showing the town's transformation or preservation. 


Michigan is beer crazy … which is not a bad thing!  And, let’s face it we would be doing an injustice to our readers if we did not sample some of Michigan’s pride and explore this side of Petoskey.  Anyone believe that?  Within five miles of town are three breweries all of which 20170618_154459have different styles and atmospheres.  Breweries range from those who brew in the Belgian saison style to another that puts a charred marshmallow in its porter.   We started at Beard’s Brewery in downtown Petoskey for an afternoon flight and both enjoyed the selection and the dark chocolaty porter.  The beer and atmosphere lured us back for lunch where Betsy slurped down a bowl of pho with smoked pork and I dove into a lamb gyro.  Of course, beer was the beverage of choice at lunch and we found the saison quite delicious.  Just a few miles north of town is Petoskey Brewing where it is hard to get a table so we set our sites on an early lunch to beat the crowds and are glad we did because the black and blue burger and black bean burger were delicious and the beer selection broad and delicious.  Lastly we tried Burnt Marshmellow Brewing Petoskey's newest nano brewery.  This place sits just south of town on land where the tasting room (which is also associated with a winery) opens up to outdoor tables, a bocce ball court, fire pit, and plenty of room for kids to roam.  All in all, it is a great atmosphere for enjoying a glass of beer or wine outside.  Their signature beer actually comes with a burnt marshmallow floating on top. 

Food was a draw for us and many restaurants appealed to us with their creative menus.  We ate at Palate Bistro twice – once for lunch with our friends Paul and Loanne and another time for dinner – both of which we were highly satisfied.  Petoskey Pretzel Company always has a line out the door but was worth the wait.  Happy Taco makes authentic Mexican street tacos served with a cold cervasas that costs less than a soda.  Grand Traverse Pie Company seems to be everywhere – which is not a bad thing when you want a slice of cherry pie.  Symons General Store is a great place to pick up a sandwich or some gourmet foods and take them to the park.  Just north of town (across from Petoskey State Park) is a shopping center that we frequented many times.  Someone recommended the fish tacos (on Tuesdays) at Freshwater Grill and they did not disappoint.  Next door is the Crocked Tree Bakery which has the most delicious baguettes that rival those in Europe.  And at Toskey Sands you will find great cuts of meat and fish, a large wine selection, and plenty of cheeses.  One place that is always popular is Kilwin's Chocolate Kitchen where you get a free tour of how the hand-crafted chocolates and other sweet items are made followed by free samples.  Love the word “free.”  Tours are at multiple times during the day but be warned this place is pretty popular in the summer. 


Petoskey attracts people downtown in the evening with “Petoskey Rocks.”  This is a weekly summer event that brings people downtown with the wafts of music and sights of a movie.  When the sun goes down after the concert a family-friendly movie hits the screen (of which we did not stay for).  There are also carriage rides, a ghost walk, plenty of stores open late for shoppers, and dining.  After the concert, we opted to walk down to the waterfront to the bay front park along and out the breakwater to witness a sunset in a place that is dubbed “Land of the Million Dollar Sunsets” and it certainly was pretty.  And the sunrises weren’t bad either.


There are plenty of places to get out and be active in Petoskey.  From boat launches and beaches to drop in your paddle board or kayak to mountain biking or a leisurely walk in the woods.  The Little Traverse Wheelway is a paved 26-mile paved path dating back to the late 1880's that runs from Harbor Springs to Charlevoix.  In downtown Petoskey the Bear River Recreation Area is a 36-acre, 1.5-mile long waterway and valley that underwent a $2.4 million dollar makeover to create a white water paddle attraction with its class 3-4 rapids.  Alongside  the river are hiking trails that are a great place to walk and enjoy the water.  Back in the mid 1800’s the river was an important industrial area housing grist, paper, and lumber mills and a dam that supplied continuous water to a power plant.  When the mills closed the area was abandoned until the city created the Bear River Recreation Area and brought new life back to the area.

For hiking, we found the Little Traverse Conservancy Nature Preserves were ideal.  There are some 200 of these preserves scattered about northern Michigan many of which are less than a hundred acres but some number in the thousands.  Many preserves have a trail system that range from a short two-mile hike to five or six miles.  The trails are very well marked and at every intersection is a laminated map to help guide you.  Only a couple of times did we ever encounter other people on the trails which made for a very peaceful walk.


One morning we headed about five miles east of downtown to the Michigan Fisheries Visitor Center.  The facility has a small interpretive area and gift shop and they offer daily guided tours in the summer.  You are also welcome to stroll around the grounds on your own where you can walk by the hatchery, raceways, and rearing ponds.  Bring quarters because they have fish food to attract the brown and rainbow trout over for a better look.  Outside the visitor center is a restored antique rail car that was used to transport small fish from hatcheries to rivers and lakes across Michigan.  The exhibit is really interesting and highlights a portion of Michigan’s conservation past.  

Petoskey (and the surrounding towns of Charlevoix, Harbor Springs, and Boyne City) has so far been our favorite area in Michigan.  We would recommend anyone traveling to upper Michigan to put this on their list of places to see. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Perfect Northern Michigan (Part I)

Petoskey, Boyne City, Charlevoix, and Harbor Springs make up a beautiful part of Michigan's northern mitten (sometime look at the shape of Michigan's lower peninsula and you'll get the idea!)  These are the types of towns that we love…small harbor towns with gorgeous water views, alluring farmers markets, plenty of flowers planted along the streets, and few chain businesses. We fell in love with these towns from the moment we drove in.  It was quite the change from Traverse City which is larger, has more sprawl, and a feeling of lots of people.  Let’s be clear about something – a town of 5,000 is a perfect size for us.  So Traverse City with a population of 15,000 is not really large but a little big for us.  Oh, and did we mention the cool temperatures!

We opted to stay at Petoskey RV Resort due to the lower price (although not cheap!) than at Hearthside Grove and less kid-infested than the KOA.  There are many other camping options (especially for those of you with shorter RVs) including Petoskey State Park just north of town right on Lake Michigan and Magnus County Park which has a great downtown location.  We really liked the park we chose and settled in right away with a great site.  Since we found so much to do during our two-week stay, there are going to be two blog posts to cover everything.

Eager to explore on our first day we took a drive about 30 minutes north of town to see some tourist sites that were jumping off the pages of every brochure we had - the Tunnel of Trees and Legs Inn.  The Tunnel of Trees is a 20-mile stretch and recognized as one of the most scenic drives in Michigan.  The southernmost part of the drive left us a little under-impressed.  We thought this was going to be a drive through a closed canopy of amazing trees where we felt blanketed by forest but it was more like driving a winding road through a neighborhood.  Towards the end of the drive there was a little more feel that you were being draped with greenery but it still was not what we expected.  However, once you pop out in the little town of Cross Village you head to the only place in town that has a full parking lot (other than the post office) which is Legs Inn.  Named for the inverted stove legs fashioned on the railings on the building's roof, this place draws people from miles away with their tasty authentic Polish food and quirky decor.

The historic landmark took several decades to complete by a Polish immigrant named Stanley Smolak who settled in the area in the 1920’s.  I’m not really sure how to describe the inside decor – it’s the Black Forest of Europe clashing with Native America Indian culture.  Every inch is adorned with an animal carving or body part mixed with whimsical carvings made from wood or stone.  Burls with faces stare at you while you eat delicious pierogies and goulash.  Your eyes are so saturated with the restaurants decor that you may not even realize the people sitting at the bar are real.


On our way home we stopped at the Pond Hill Farm.  This farm is just five miles north of Harbor Springs and well worth a stop.  Inside an old barn is where you will find fresh fruits, vegetables and various jarred goods but they also have a restaurant, ice cream shop, winery and brewery.  Outside on the grounds are hiking trails running through fields of produce and barnyard animals and a trout pond to feed the fish.  During the summer the farm hosts a number of events including pig roasts, farm to table dinners, and barn dances.  All are family-friendly and make this place really appealing. 

Since our trip home went through Harbor Springs we decided to stop and take a look around.  This is a beautiful little harbor town on Lake Michigan that seems to swell in the summer when beautiful weather and boating abound.  The main street has nice boutiques and galleries while the harbor provides beautiful views and is a buzz with boating life. 


One Saturday we headed south along Lake Michigan about ten miles to Charlevoix where an annual art festival was getting in full swing.  Charlevoix is another pretty little coastal town like Harbor Springs where the streets are lined with shops, restaurants that overlook the water, and boats sail in and out of the harbor.  The town feels like Mayberry U.S.A.  The streets are lined with over 65,000 petunias and bring color to what could be very drab city streets.  The Harbor is the heart and soul and where you will find all the annual festivals, fairs, and weekly farmers markets and concerts.  One of the most popular features is the city’s famous 1949 bridge that opens every half hour during the summer to let boats pass thru the Pine River Channel.  The art festival was a pleasant surprise with interesting works by talented artists who obviously find inspiration in the beauty of Michigan. 

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We found ourselves back in Charlevoix a couple of times especially on farmers market days and visiting the library.  The library is housed in an old school that has been lovingly restored and is a gem of the city.  One room houses a wide selection of books for sale operated by the “friends” group.  The most expensive book is $3 and the selection is fabulous.  I drug Betsy in so I could buy some books and she wandered around the building admiring the restoration and historic photographs.  One of the city’s most recognizable features are the mushroom or hobbit houses.  Earl Young was a resident and builder who created 30 whimsical structures with stones, boulders and cedar shake roofs from 1919 until 1954.  These unique structures have become so popular there are guided and self-guided driving and walking tours of them.


Just south of Petoskey and to the east of Charlevoix is the little town of Boyne City which anchors the southern end of Lake Charlevoix.  We started off with a hike just south of town at Boyne Mountain Resort which is a ski resort in the winter and a nice place to hike or mountain bike in the summer.  We enjoyed the view from the top and the walk up wasn’t to punishing. Since it was lunch time we drove to Boyne City for a bite and beer at the 7 Monks Taproom.  It was Saturday and the place was hopping with live music as they were celebrating their anniversary.  We split a burger, but not the beer, and found it to be exceptionally delicious.  There are a couple of downtown parks winding along the lake and the Boyne River. 


Our day was pretty full but we had time for one more stop at a highly touted Lavender Hill Farm.  The farm was established in 2003 and is the largest commercial lavender farm in Michigan.  The organically grown lavender has a myriad of uses from aromatherapy, culinary, perfumery, medicinal and floral.  The farm grows some 25 varieties and the fields are beautiful with the spectrum of hues ranging from deep purple and bluish flowers to softer pale.  The farm recently renovated a large barn that is now used weddings and luncheons.  You can also enjoy the farm by walking the self-guided tour and labyrinth or enjoying a lavender lemonade overlooking the fields. 


In no time we found that there was lots to do in this area of northern Michigan.  Petoskey is a nice place to base out of and puts you within 10-15 miles of lots of other towns that were a great place to walk around and grab a bite to eat.  It was clear we were going to find lots to do during our two-week stay.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula

Just north of downtown Traverse City lies a finger of land extending into the azure waters of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay called the Old Mission Peninsula (OMP).  The OMP is situated at the globe’s 45th parallel which has proven to be an ideal location for growing wine grapes.  In the last 10 years, Michigan wine makers have doubled their acreage of vineyards and it ranks fifth among states in wine grape production.  But the OMP is more than just wine.  It is one of Michigan's most scenic areas so as you drive the 19-mile peninsula up M-32 you are treated to spectacular views of Lake Michigan and a patchwork of rolling hills, densely wooded forests, and orchards interrupted by charming harbors.


Eight wineries dot the landscape in this appellation producing a number of varietals and giving this region recognition.  Grapes such as Riesling, Pino Grigio, Pino Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Franc thrive in the micro-climate of the OMP.   The peninsula is an ideal growing climate thanks to the deep lake waters of Grand Traverse Bay.  In the fall, the warmer water temperatures linger and help stave off early frosts while in the spring the cold water temperatures prevent premature budding when air temperatures start to warm.  Winter generates lake-effect snow vital to keeping vines insulated and protected. 

The wineries are as distinctive and unique as the wines they produce which is why it is fun to see multiple ones.  You can certainly do the wine trail of the OMP in one day but we liked the area so much we went back multiple times to savor in the quietness and less busy feel of Traverse City where we were camped.  Being as there is a lighthouse in the far northern tip we decided to start our visit up there and work our way back south.  The Mission Point Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn mariners from the dangerous shoals extending into Grand Traverse Bay at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula.  The lighthouse is surrounded by a park that allows beach access, picnic facilities, historical exhibits, and plenty of hiking/skiing trails.  Since Spirit was along for the adventure we decided to take a long walk and are glad we did.  The woods were dense and beautiful and had a few spots that led down to the water where our four-legged companion was all too happy to cool off in the chilly water.  Best part - dogs are allowed to be off-leash if they are under control.  


On some friends recommendation we stopped at the Jolly Pumpkin in Bowers Harbor for lunch and to try their craft beers.  The Jolly Pumpkin is quite popular among locals and tourists and includes a casual restaurant, a farm to table restaurant, distillery, and brewery.  The building it's housed in was originally an Inn dating back to the turn of the century and has some architecturally interesting features.  What makes the building even more intriguing is that it is reportedly haunted.  Rumor has it that the original owner Genevieve Stickney, an obese and jealous woman, had an elevator installed in the Inn for ease of moving between floors.  Soon after, Mr. Stickney hired a nurse to help care for his wife.  Genevieve, the jealous one, grew concerned that her husband and the nurse were going to have an affair.  She was right.  Genevieve feared her husband would leave her for the mistress leaving her penniless.  She was right again.  Her husband gave her the Inn while he took everything else and scooted with the mistress.  Some believe the situation drove Genevieve into severe depression that led her to hang herself from the rafters in the elevator shaft.  Some claim to have seen her ghost in the elevator and about the Inn.  We chose the stairs just in case Genevieve was in a bad mood or one of us resembled the mistress. 

No visit to the OMP would be just without visiting a winery or two.  Just down the street from the Jolly Pumpkin was Bowers Harbor Vineyards who produce over 30 wines and ciders.  Their tasting room is non-pretentious and relaxing.  Outside are chairs inviting you to relax or you can opt for a walk on their self-guided nature trail that winds through the vineyard.  Kevin, the nice man pouring our tastings, was a great wealth of information about wine making in the area.  He explained that 2015 was a devastating year for grape production due to uncooperative weather.  Mild winter temperatures did not produce the much needed "lake effect" snow that is critical to protecting the vines in winter.  Combine that with untimely late spring frosts and a hail storm and you have a year in which grape production was almost non-existent.  Fear not, the wine is flowing again and all indications are that things are looking good for grape production in 2017.


Wednesday nights at Chateau Grand Traverse are “Wine Down Wednesdays” where live music fills the air and discounted wines and small bites bring lots of people to the winery.  We relished in the perfect summer evening sitting outside on their patio which is perched upon a hill that has expansive views of their vineyards and the waters of Traverse Bay.  After a glass of their award-winning late harvest Riesling, we set off back to the Jolly Pumpkin.  I was eager to try their farm to table restaurant called Mission Table that had a pleasing rustic atmosphere and an intriguing menu.  On the table in front of us appeared an amazingly delicious array of food that included creamy asparagus soup, seared scallops over sweet pea couscous with lemon chive cream, and a creamy risotto decorated with peas, morels, and creamy raclette cheese.  We love it when we find delicious food in interesting places.  


After two weeks in the Traverse Bay area we felt like we did a pretty good job of seeing all there was to see, not to mention all the wine we tasted!  The OMP is a beautiful part of Michigan that draws visitors there year-round and it is easy to see why.