FRANKFORT, MICHIGAN–Over the years there have, of course, been comparisons made between Northern Michigan and Cape Cod or the Hamptons; all are summer getaways with charming beach towns that attract everyone from preppy golfers and wealthy boaters to college students who wait tables at beachside restaurants by day and hone their sailing skills at dusk.
At yacht-club fundraisers the crowd is equally mixed: gilded philanthropists arrive in vintage MGs and dune buggies, others kayak in from their log cabins. While wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers such as the Rockefellers and the Carnegies chose to build summer homes in Southampton and Edgartown, the big families of Detroit, Chicago and St Louis came here. Henry Ford owned a private island in Grand Traverse Bay; the Dows have homes on Crystal Lake, ringed by clapboard mansions. F Scott Fitzgerald may have immortalised summers in the Hamptons but it was Hemingway, whose family owned a cottage on Walloon Lake, who set many adventures on these waters, featuring his autobiographical character Nick Adams.
This is the USA’s Third Coast, where lakes such as the mighty blue Michigan and Huron are so large you cannot see the other side; on a boat cast out in the middle, there is no land in sight in any direction. When you finally reach a bank, there are long beaches and sandy bluffs, behind which lie a whole, wondrous waterlogged region dotted with smaller lakes, gin-clear pools and ponds that give way to thick forests of pine, oak, cedar and birch, wild-flower meadows, apple and cherry orchards, and beyond, rolling farmland.
Every summer I return to this place of my childhood (my family has been holidaying here for more than a century) and take a walk from our cottage across the oak-tree-canopied street and along a lane to Point Betsie lighthouse. I scamper down the golden ridges and hummocks to the right, past horsetail, dune grass and baby’s breath – its scent thickly sweetening the air – and head straight for the sea-foam green and turquoise waters.
I kick off my flip-flops, sink my feet into the wet sugar sand and inhale the smell of pine trees and BBQ fires. Often I’m alone. Few people come to this beach, one of many along the foreshore. I’ll stoop down to see if I can find a Petoskey stone, a grey fossil rock unique to the Great Lakes and hard to find for an untrained eye.
And while the area hasn’t changed since I was a little girl (and that’s why I keep coming back), I sense it is on the way. Perhaps that can be best felt in Traverse City, a delightful town that spurns chain stores for independent bookshops, galleries and cafés. At Warehouse MRKT, set in a converted industrial building with high ceilings and big windows that face Grand Traverse Bay, there’s Wood & Cloth selling patterned tableware and Senegalese woven baskets, and Grey Wolf Creek for antique chandeliers and funky modern lamps.
Here is also the best place in town for coffee, BLK MRKT, a hipster haven that also serves homebrewed iced sencha. Across the street is the slick new Hotel Indigo, with sparkling views of the bay, and a short walk from downtown and the historic State Theater, the hub for the annual Traverse City Film Festival held in July, which was founded by filmmaker Michael Moore and has actors Jeff Daniels and Christine Lahti on the board.
But perhaps the most exciting addition is Alliance, the latest venture of Harlan ‘Pete’ Peterson, a culinary legend in these parts. For 25 years Peterson owned and ran Tapawingo in the tiny hamlet of Ellsworth, which became a destination for foodies from across the Midwest. At Alliance, Peterson is doing something different again, not least because he’s not cooking. The night I go, the place is hopping – the small bar is jam-packed and the sunny terrace, which doesn’t take bookings, has a queue of people waiting.
I order the tomato and watermelon salad, which has a slightly spicy kick, and then try locally grown carrots topped with a chimichurri sauce, and freshly caught rainbow trout with pepper salad and chilli. A mix of young regulars and smart travellers pore over the wine list, and I spot LA-based actress Amy Smart and her husband Carter Oosterhouse, a TV presenter, model and wine-maker.
Alliance’s chef, James Bloomfield, was a former student of Peterson and shares his ethos for cooking local. Bloomfield enthuses about the vegetables from Loma Farm up on the Leelanau peninsula (he says he is in love with the tangy lemon cucumbers). He’s not the only chef in town taking advantage of the fantastic regional bounty; chefs from the city’s growing food-truck scene snap up produce from Loma, Bare Knuckle and other farms in the area.
At the upbeat Little Fleet bar, with large doors that fold out onto a car park in the summer, New York transplants Gary and Allison Jonas host food trucks from May until September. In winter, they invite chefs to their LTO (Limited Time Only) pop-up space in the bar, to test-run ideas. I loved the smoky lamb and fried avocado burrito at the Happy’s Tacos van, as well as Pigs Eatin’ Ribs for its pulled-pork tacos and chopped brisket with gouda, and White on Rice’s sushi rolls with lump crab and avocado, or eel and cucumber. The Little Fleet itself serves freshly mixed Margaritas and biting Whiskey Sours, as well as apple-cider-vinegar and fruit-based shrubs.
Across the road at The Cooks’ House, a small restaurant in a neighbourhood of huge, 19th-century lumbering mansions, they also use ingredients grown on the Mission and Leelanau peninsulas. Celebrated New York-based chef and restaurateur Mario Batali (who owns a cottage about 20 miles away in Northport) raved about the place when he told me his favourite spots in the area, and you have to book weeks in advance for a table. The night I sneak in I devour the regional speciality: hay-smoked whitefish, a meaty catch from Lake Michigan.
Elsewhere, I find locally grown vegetables such as heirloom tomatoes, Swiss chard and asparagus, raclette from Leelanau and Alpine-inspired montasio from Kingsley’s Boss Mouse Cheese. At La Bécasse, chef Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux specialises in country recipes and notes on the back of his menus where ingredients are sourced, such as the porcini and shiitake mushrooms in the risotto from Winter Wonderland Forests, and goat’s cheese for the fondue from the Rice Centennial Farm down the road.
Inland from here, the farmlands and orchards have long been a source of not only the region’s best supplies but the whole country’s. Most renowned are the cherry trees for their sweet and tart fruit, credited to the sandy soil and crosswinds sweeping across the lake. But the extreme seasons here have also caused the crops to fail and farmers have been diversifying into grapes, apples and hops, making wine, cider and beer.
There are now almost 40 vineyards dotted around the lakes. Over a glass of crisp Pinot Gris at Bonobo Winery, I chat to the owners, brothers Carter and Todd Oosterhouse. ‘We wanted to cater to the demographic who were saying “We don’t want to go to a bar or a restaurant; we’d like a few glasses of wine and some heavy appetisers,”‘ Carter says. ‘That’s why we created a 6,000-square-foot space that looks out over the water, not somewhere you just come in for a tasting and go.’ Batali, Carter’s friend, curates the small plates of cheeses, fruits and smoked meats that are paired with the wines.
Glen Arbor, a pretty beachside town, is an excellent base to explore the vineyards and lakes. Le Bear, on the shores of Lake Michigan, may be an apartment block but its interiors have a cosy, woodsy feel and it’s open all year, for explorers keen on skiing and snowshowing as well as lazy summer walks on the beach. Down the scenic M22 highway is The Homestead, a delightful inn as well as several smart cottage rentals set around the woods, on the beach or near the relaxing babble of the Crystal River.
At Northern Latitudes distillery in the village of Lake Leelanau, Mark Moseler, a former high-school history teacher, tells me he was inspired to make rum when he noticed the oversupply of sugar beets in the region. He took a distillery class and decided to try vodka, whiskey and gin too. Five years on, his bottles are some of the most sought-after. His bestseller is Apollo vodka, made with a hint of horseradish that’s perfect for Bloody Marys. He gives me a small shot, muddled with his own tomato mix. It’s a hot day and I am already feeling drowsy; the spiky cocktail is a jolt. ‘It has a cult following,’ he says, adding that Michigan has very tight distribution laws for spirits so that you can only buy his products at his shop. ‘To get them you have to come up here yourself and that helps restaurants and grocery stores and farmers’ markets and hotels, so everyone benefits.’
But it’s the landscape that drives most folk to come Up North – the colloquial term for northern Michigan, with its miles of white beaches, rivers so clean you can drink from them, and sheltered cedar and birch woods where the only sounds are of brown squirrels chasing each other over fallen tree trunks. On a searing hot summer day you can hear the surging crescendo of grasshoppers in the fields. And while everyone clamours for the dunes at Sleeping Bear – a massive fortress of soft sand that on one side drops dramatically, 450 feet straight down, into Lake Michigan – I prefer the gentler coastline near Peterson Beach.
This is one of my family’s favourite places: down a remote two-mile dirt road where, on more than one occasion, we would have to brake suddenly so as not to hit a doe or a raccoon. Then, over the last hill, you see the deep blue of the lake and the haunting, lonely islands of North and South Manitou, their sand dunes visible from Peterson’s shore. With Point Betsie way down on one side and the Empire Bluffs jutting out on the other, the beach is essentially a cove, and the water here is warmer than the open stretch. When I get the nerve to dunk my whole body in, my head tingles from the coolness. I pop out of the lake and yell with happiness. After five generations of my family beating a retreat here I am not about to break with tradition.
1st) Frankfort Pier, courtesy Ulf Svane; 2) Point Betsie, courtesy pointbetsie.org; 3rd) Outside Cook’s House, courtesy Ulf Savane; 4) Peterson Beach, courtesy National Park Service