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Off the Beaten Path

Northern Michigan’s hidden gems help visitors enjoy the region while avoiding the crowds

By Corinne Minard

There are certain attractions that come to mind when one thinks about Northern Michigan—Lake Michigan, Mackinac Island and the National Cherry Festival for example. However, if you’re able to break off from the crowds, the region is filled with activities and attractions just off the beaten path.

Petoskey Marina | Photo credit: www.PetoskeyArea.com

One attraction that Jenny Jenness, media relations manager for Traverse City Tourism, recommends is the Hillside Homestead in Suttons Bay. Everything in the home is as it would have been in 1910, from the wood-burning stove and wrought-iron beds to the livestock and garden.

“When I was there last with a group in the fall, we made cider and then [owner Susan Odom] brought us inside and she made homemade chicken noodle soup for us,” says Jenness. Visitors can stay the night, take a class on topics like canning or traditional holiday cooking, or even have dinner made on the old-fashioned stove.

“That’s been really authentic—just a gem of an experience. Definitely something that’s a little more intimate that you’re not going to see the bigger crowds heading to,” says Jenness.

While Hillside Homestead is all about using local products in traditional ways, Alliance, a restaurant in Traverse City’s Warehouse District, uses area produce with modern techniques. Opened in 2016, the menu changes regularly to reflect what is in season and available and Carla Hall of The Chew said she had one of the best meals of her life at the restaurant.

“There’s three seatings throughout the evening so you do have to make reservations in advance,” says Jenness.

While you wait for dinner Jenness recommends exploring the district as it has a very different feel from other parts of Traverse City. She particularly recommends spending some time at Hotel Indigo’s

Leland Fishtown

rooftop bar.

“It has a little bit more of a gritty modern edge to it on that side of town. Not as much of that maybe glossy sophisticated charm that downtown Front Street has,” she says.

According to Diane Dakins, assistant manager of the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau, another unique food experience can be found in Petoskey.

“We have in Petoskey America’s first and only maple winery,” she says. Called Maple Moon Sugarbush and Winery, it produces a variety of maple products, including maple sugar, maple candy, maple cream, maple root beer and, of course, maple syrups. However, it is the maple wines that are attracting many food lovers.

“They don’t just add maple syrup into their wine; the wines are actually fermented with the sugars in the maple syrup,” says Dakins. The wines range from semi-dry to sweet, and Dakins says they are very smooth.

If you need to burn some calories after enjoying Maple Moon’s many maple products, Petoskey has a mile-long white water trail that goes through its downtown. Bear River was transformed into this trail six years ago and has Class 1 to Class 3 rapids. Dakins says it’s ideal for kayaking.

“You see paddlers out there, particularly when the snow is melted. They’ll come from all over and come up just to do this. [It’s a] short run, but gives them a lot of experience,” she says.

Hotel Indigo’s rooftop bar in Traverse City

Traverse City has also found fun new uses for its downtown river, the Boardman River. A business has started offering what it calls the Kayak, Bike & Brew. Participants will stop at several different breweries in Traverse City and they’ll get to each stop by either bike or kayak. “It all depends on which tour you go on, but many of them end right on the beach of Lake Michigan and West Grand Traverse Bay. I always tell people so that’s when you take a nap,” says Jenness.

While outdoor recreation is bountiful in Northern Michigan, the region has many quality spots and trails that tend to be less crowded.

Dakins points to Sanctuary Island in Alanson 8 miles northeast of Petoskey. To get to the island visitors take a self-propelled ferry with a hand crank. Once there, visitors can take in the view and stroll the boardwalk. “It’s right off the highway but far enough off the highway that unless you’re looking for something you’re not going to find it. And it’s well worth the turn off,” says Dakins.

One of region’s newest nature spots is the Sunset Coast Birding Trail, says Dakins. The trail feature 35 sites in three counties to view the region’s 400-plus bird species.

Jenness recommends the Village at Grand Traverse Commons for those looking for new trails. She says the village has about a dozen trails that go through the arboretum and go up on the bluffs to overlook the water.

“It’s also historic so you’ll see old water towers that had been built,” she says. “You get a cool mix of the old and the new.”

Those looking to explore shops and restaurants instead of nature can also find something of interest. Jenness says Fishtown in Leland is a great place for just that. Previously a commercial fishing village, many of the fish shanties have been renovated into restaurants and shops. “There’s a few restaurants and candy shops, but what they’re really known for—and this is my favorite sandwich in Northern Michigan—is their pretzel bread sandwiches [at Village Cheese Shanty],” she says. “There’s also a smokehouse out there so when you get to Fishtown you can actually smell that smokiness in the air.”

After spending your days exploring the hidden gems of Northern Michigan, April Carroll, manager of Visit Up North Vacation Rentals, suggests coming back to a house instead of a hotel.

“It’s really exciting to stay in some of these homes,” she says. “Sky’s the limit. We have everything from one-bedroom cabins to high-end luxury homes.”

She says rental homes provide privacy without sacrificing convenience. Many homes even come with canoes or kayaks.

If you’re interested in a renting a property, Carroll recommends giving them a call.

“We’ve been in all of these properties. We know what the beach is like, we know what the house is like, how far it is to get from here to there and things that a person who doesn’t live here wouldn’t know,” she says.

To truly beat the crowds though, Jenness and Carroll recommend visiting the region in the spring or fall. “It’s glorious here other parts of the year,” says Carroll.