With beaches galore around its shores, Lake Michigan is a US holiday hotspot. Beyond the stretches of beautiful beach there are so many fascinating places to explore, adventures to be had - and fine wines to be tasted. Here are my own six of the best things to do around the third largest lake in America.
Lake Michigan is the third-largest of the five Great Lakes that lie along the US-Canadian border. Its name comes from a Native American word meaning ‘great water’, a description that many would say is a perfect fit. With a multitude of beaches lining its shores, cool breezes and warm, refreshing waters, the lake is a Midwestern Mecca for beating the heat during the summer holidays.
But there’s much more to enjoy here beyond the beach. From wineries and fabulous food, to arts festivals and towering dunes, here are six - and a few more - of my suggestions for great things to do on two of the lake’s best stretches: Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and the Michigan Shore.
The soft, light-beige sand that covers so many of the lake’s beautiful beaches has a special quality. It’s called ‘singing sand’ because the high quartz content makes a squeaking sound when you walk across it. You can meander for hours along stretches of uncrowded beach amidst sand dunes covered in green beach grass and sand cherries, breathing in the solitude of a coastal wilderness as you gaze across the lake’s vast waters stretching beyond the horizon.
In fact, the east shore of Lake Michigan contains the largest freshwater dune system in the world. In many places, the dunes tower over a hundred metres above the water. This fragile ecosystem is protected in State and national parks and forests, which you can visit all along the lake's shore.
One of the best places to see the dunes is just outside Glen Arbor, Michigan, at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With dramatic dunes rising 121 metres high, they stretch south along the coast for 35 miles. In 2011, this area of dunes was voted the 'Most Beautiful Place in America' by viewers of the national television programme, Good Morning America.
Within the park, drive or cycle the seven-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. Built by a lumberman who wanted to share its special beauty with visitors, the track runs through stretches of pristine forest and dunes, with some breathtaking scenic overlooks above the lake. Or, drive two hours south to Silver Lake State Park for an even more exhilarating ride. Here, you can rent a dune buggy or join a guided jeep tour with Parrot’s Landing or other operators for a roller-coaster ride among the park’s 2,000 acres of dunes.
Both parks have areas for dune walks and climbs. The western side of Lake Michigan has smaller dune formations, such as those at Wisconsin’s Whitefish Dunes State Park, directly across the lake from the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
A Very Cherry Place
A 40-minute drive east of Glen Arbor brings you to Traverse City, known as the 'Cherry Capital of the World'. The surrounding area produces the bulk of the nation’s cherries, particularly the Montmorency cherry, a tart variety used in pie baking.
In early July, the city celebrates this fruity bounty with the week-long National Cherry Festival. Among the tasty events there are pie-eating contests, parades, live bands and fireworks.
But Lake Michigan’s gastronomic life is more than just a bowl of cherries. Long hailed as one of the country’s top foodie towns, Traverse City restaurants, along with those in the surrounding region, were serving farm-to-fork fare well before the label was invented. Whether you opt for a cosy café, a trendy food truck or a fine dining establishment, you’ll find changing menus of fresh, seasonal ingredients from local farms, orchards and the waters of Lake Michigan in the eateries here.
If holidays give you a chance to unleash your inner chef, stock your larder at the many summer farmer’s markets in Traverse City, Glen Arbor and Empire. Or pick your own blueberries, peaches and apples at Buchan’s Blueberry Hill. For foodie gifts, try Benjamin Twiggs or Cherry Republic in Traverse City and Glen Arbor; they are chock-full of gourmet cherry preserves, salsas, chocolates, wine and other treats.
The bounty continues across the lake. Door County is another prime cherry-growing region. From mid-July through to mid-August, grab a bucket and pick your own at Soren’s Valhalla Orchards near Sturgeon Bay.
There are orchard farm markets up and down the peninsula where you can buy freshly picked strawberries, raspberries, cherries, apples and more. Try Wood Orchard Market at Egg Harbor, Seaquist at Sister Bay, or Koepsel’s at Baileys Harbor, which also sells jams, fruit butters and canned goods made from old-time recipes.
Weekly farmers' markets, bursting with fresh produce and local crafts, are held May to October in many towns. This state is famous for its cheeses, so pop into the Wisconsin Cheese Masters store in Egg Harbor to pick out some of the best local varieties to enjoy while you’re here.
And be sure to experience a traditional fish boil. Originally a means of feeding large groups of fishermen or lumberjacks, local restaurants now stage these rather dramatic dining events, where fresh whitefish from Lake Michigan is boiled with potatoes in a cast-iron pot and finished off in a burst of flames. Other culinary must-try’s include a Wisconsin Friday night fish fry, or a traditional, family-run supper club.
The rich, sandy soil and lakeside microclimate that sustain the orchards are perfect for wine growing too. Lying on the same latitude as the renowned vineyards of Bordeaux, the two peninsulas jutting into Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay are among the Midwest’s key viticulture regions. Together they have around 40 vineyards that you can visit.
To the east of Glen Arbor, the Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail is divided into three loops for easy touring. You can enjoy award-winning wines at more than two dozen wineries, relaxing in rustic corners or elegant tasting rooms with picturesque views. Some also serve food. Various events are held throughout the year, such as the Spring Sip and Savor weekend in May which offers wine and food pairings at many wineries.
North of Traverse City, Old Mission Peninsula is just 19 miles long and three miles across at its widest point. Its 10 wineries are within five miles of each other, so you can easily cover its wine trail in a single day.
Both red and white varieties are grown here, but northern Michigan is especially known for its Riesling wines. Be sure to try its speciality fruit wines and, if available, the delicious ice wine that is sometimes produced by letting Riesling grapes freeze on the vine.
Across the lake, follow the Door County Wine Trail to visit the eight wineries along the peninsula. They’re noted for their cherry and apple wines, as well as estate-grown grape wines. Or you can leave the driving to someone else and hop aboard the Door Country Trolley at Egg Harbor. Its Premier Wine Tour includes cellar door tastings at several wineries. You can taste wines from all eight wineries at the Door County Wine Festival, held in late June in Sturgeon Bay.
Embrace The Arts
With its laid-back lifestyle, stunning waterways and landscapes, it’s no wonder Lake Michigan inspires a creative community all along its shores. It’s been a magnet for artists since the 1930s and today you’ll find artists of every stripe in rural studios, bustling town markets and delightful galleries.
The easiest way to connect with them is at the numerous arts and crafts shows, which take place throughout Door County, spring through autumn. They include the Fine Art Fair in Sturgeon Bay (late May), the Blessing of the Fleet Festival Arts and Crafts Fair in Baileys Harbor (early June) and the Door County Festival of Fine Arts in Sister Bay (mid-August).
Visit the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay to see its collection of outstanding Wisconsin artists, along with changing exhibitions. The nationally acclaimed Edgewood Orchard Gallery in Fish Creek displays art in a restored stone fruit barn and has a woodland sculpture garden. In other towns across the peninsula, you’ll find galleries and open studios dedicated to the works of local potters, painters, glass blowers, photographers, wood carvers, fibre artists and more.
A holiday on Lake Michigan might also be the time to discover your own artistic talents. At Björklunden lodge in Baileys Harbor, you can take week-long watercolour classes and other studies in art, music and literature. Set in historic buildings amidst forest and meadows, the Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay offers one- to three-day workshops in a wide range of arts and crafts. The Peninsula School of Art in Fish Creek is another great place for art classes for all ages.
Glen Arbor also has a strong community of artists and a number of art galleries and venues. The Glen Arbor Arts Center is a focal point for exhibitions, art lectures and art classes for adults, children and teens.
The center also stages Manitou Music, a summer-long concert series. You can hear classical jazz, folk, Americana, concert bands and more in idyllic settings around Glen Lake. Some, such as the Dune Climb Concert on Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, are free.
From Sister Bay to Sturgeon Bay, music rings out across the Door Peninsula all summer long. Concerts In The Park is a free outdoor music series, with a variety of bands playing in different communities every evening, Monday to Friday. From Shakespeare outdoors and original musicals under the stars, to concerts in a century-old dairy barn, there is an exciting range of theatre and musical entertainment.
See The Light
The shores of Lake Michigan are dotted with historic lighthouses, some of which have guided ships to safety since the mid-1800s. There are 11 lighthouses on the Door Peninsula alone. They include the iconic Cana Island Lighthouse, reached by walking across a stone causeway; the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse and museum in Peninsula State Park, and the Baileys Harbor Range Lights. These picturesque structures make a pleasant destination for a scenic stroll. And they’re even more impressive when you take a boat ride on the lake and see them from the water.
These lighthouses are so treasured by the community that they’re celebrated twice a year with the Spring and Fall Door County Lighthouse Festivals, held in June and October respectively. You can join guided hikes, trolley tours, boat trips and kayak excursions, as well as visit lighthouses that are normally closed to the public.
From Glen Arbor, a half-hour drive north brings you to Leland, where you can explore the rustic shanties, docks and smokehouses of Fishtown, a 150-year-old fishing village. Then catch a ferry to North or South Manitou Island, which are part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. At the latter, you can visit a lighthouse and a shipwreck. Or continue to the tip of the peninsula, where the Grand Traverse Lighthouse stands in Leelanau State Park.
To delve deeper into Lake Michigan's nautical history, visit the Door County Maritime Museum on the waterfront at Sturgeon Bay. The town is an historic shipbuilding hub and, once a year, in May, several shipyards are open to the public for tours of local vessels and a behind-the-scenes look at how they are built and repaired. In early August, the Tall Ship Festival brings vintage and Viking ships to the bay for races and other events.
Back To Nature
The shores of Lake Michigan are blanketed with stunning natural landscapes that offer idyllic holidays all year round. Whether you’re walking through meadows bright with summer wildflowers, or leaf peeping at swathes of autumn colour from a scenic overlook, the opportunities to enjoy nature are endless.
A good place to start is The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor, where you can hike through old forests to see rare orchids and dozens of bird species. Cycle along the Sunset Bike Path past historic sites and scenic viewpoints in Peninsula Park, or explore a changing wilderness landscape on the Hotz Trail in Newport State Park, north of Sister Bay.
From the challenging Dune Climb to easy loops through the woods to the stunning lakeside lookout at Inspiration Point, Glen Arbor is surrounded by a wealth of nature trails. Some of the best options lie along the 27-mile Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail, where you can hike, bike or even ski through this spectacular landscape.
Whichever you choose - the beach, the dunes, the arts, the food, the wine, the scenic trails - it all adds up to a memorable holiday beside Lake Michigan’s great waters.
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