My earliest memories of visiting Traverse City as a youth revolve around two things: Gordie Howe-themed restaurants and mini golf. If I had let my childhood nostalgia serve as the guide for my recent #MittenTrip up north, it would’ve been a very shortsighted, albeit still pretty fun, weekend.
Sadly, Gordie Howe’s Tavern & Eatery was shuttered long ago. But luckily for me and my travel companion/girlfriend, Rose, I was able to look past my disappointment. Instead, I had planned a weekend full of wine tasting on the Old Mission peninsula, relishing Lake Michigan and all of its blue, breathtaking views and rediscovering why Traverse City is one of the most scenic and serene summer getaways in our Great Lakes State. Also, mini golf. We totally had to play mini golf at Pirate’s Cove or our entire weekend would basically be ruined.
Leaving Metro Detroit early Friday morning, we picked out Clare, MI to be the ideal pit stop for two reasons: it served as a half-way point in our drive, and it just so happens to house Cops and Doughnuts, a fried dough hot spot that my doughnut devotee of a partner was itching to test out. After sampling some of the lauded local fare (I boringly chose a plain, glazed donut. No regrets.) we continued our trek up north.
We arrived in Traverse City in the early afternoon, checking into Cambria Hotel and Suites. Situated about a mile and a half from Front Street and the heart of downtown, our accommodations for the weekend served as the perfect place to recharge and regroup before venturing out on the day’s first excursion.
My affinity for Michigan lighthouses has not really been a lifelong fascination. I’m not even sure if you could call it an affinity. However, whenever I have a chance to see a historic Great Lakes lighthouse in person, I don’t like to pass up on the opportunity. But my longing for lighthouses would have to wait until after our first stop on the Old Mission Peninsula: Bonobo Winery.
Started by TC natives Todd and Carter Oosterhouse (of HGTV fame) and with a small plates menu curated by renowned chef Mario Batali, the sheer starpower of the winery was too good to pass. We enjoyed a standard tasting as well as a charcuterie board while taking in the views of the Grand Traverse Bay from the winery’s spacious and scenic patio. The only thing that was missing was a tour from Carter himself (I shouldn’t have left my all-inclusive press pass at home).
Content with the day’s first tasting, we meandered past more vineyards, roadside cherry stands and the occasional tractor skirting the two-lane road. As the road began to narrow and the lapping waves of Lake Michigan could be seen through the trees, we had finally arrived at the point of peninsula. I guess I didn’t do my due lighthouse-diligence, because when I saw the Mission Point Lighthouse I expected it to, you know, look more like a lighthouse.
In its defense, it technically is a house with a giant light on it, but I was anticipating something larger and more grandiose to grace the peak of the peninsula (should’ve hit up that Google Image search harder). My surprise aside, the lighthouse — along with the historic Hessler Log Cabin — still make for a striking one-two punch and serve as a picturesque foreground to the blue bay behind them.
After my lighthouse surprise, I figured another wine tasting would calm my nerves — this time at Brys Estate Vineyard and Winery. Upon entering the grounds, we were greeted with rows of vineyards as far as the eye could see and an inviting bocce set sprawled across the luscious green grass.
After a quick tasting (we were cutting it close to the winery’s 7pm closing time), we decided to walk down to the Secret Garden to see what it was all about. Pro tip: you can actually drive to the Secret Garden. Don’t be like me and drag your girlfriend on a “scenic walk just down that hill over there,” that actually ends up being a half-hour trip on foot.
With our abbreviated tour of the Old Mission Peninsula in the books, we headed to downtown Traverse City for dinner. We made our way to Georgina’s thanks the recommendation of Awesome Mitten head-honcho, Alex Beaton. With a blend of latin and asian cuisine, Georgina’s was the perfect meal after an activity filled day. I ordered the special of two tacos, two sushi rolls (a truly ingenious pairing) and was ready to call Friday a wrap.
I most recently visited Glen Arbor and Sleeping Bear Dunes two summers ago with a crew of friends, and the middle day of the #MittenTrip weekend was the ideal time to revisit the quaint coastal town. Art’s Tavern was a necessary stop if we wanted to carb up and successfully descend and then scale (ok, maybe more like crawl back up) the Sleeping Bear Dunes. I polished off my Western Omelette, crossed paths with a number of “Lost Soles” and then hit the road again for the day’s first true activity.
Meandering down the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, the day’s weather was remarkably better than it was during my previous visit. Instead of overcast skies and temperatures in the 60s, we had a bright, sun-shining day with nothing in our way (unless you count the giant hill of sand formed by thousands of years of wind and erosion).
It was my first attempt at conquering the dune, and I came out with two key pieces of advice after living to tell the tale: 1. Take your time on the climb up. Breaks are your friend. 2. The sign warning visitors that it takes “two hours” to climb back up the dune is malarkey. Unless it actually took you two hours. Then you probably took my first bit of advice a little too literally.
After surviving one dune, we decided to enjoy the scenic view of the Empire Bluff courtesy of the Empire Bluff Trail. An easy 1.5 mile round trip complete with board walks and minimal elevation gain, it was a nice cool down after the day’s earlier summit. The views of the lake and the bluff were spectacular. And unlike the throngs of crowds at Sleeping Bear, the trail was sparsely populated — a welcomed slice of serenity on the shores of Lake Michigan.
As we returned to the hotel to get ready for a night out on Front Street, we decided to take full advantage of Cambria’s shuttle service. With the Traverse City Film Festival wrapping up and parking at a premium downtown, the shuttle was a welcomed lift by our accommodating hosts.
I had spied the old, brick warehouse-looking building that housed North Peak Brewing Company the previous evening and now had a hankering for a slice of pizza and an ice-cold brew. I was amazed at how packed the brewery was and equally as impressed with the interior and atmosphere inside. Rose and I split the Fresh Mozzarella and Bison pizza along with the Peak Burger, while I enjoyed a Northern Light and she sampled a flight of seasonal beers.
Our bellies full, and with twilight upon us, we ventured down Front Street to get a sense of the nightlife in the Cherry Capital. But first, fudge. Any trip up north deserves a trip to Kilwin’s, and even though I do not usually partake in sweets as sweet as the chocolate treat is, I at least wanted to do some window shopping and check the location off my list. Plus, I had a different sweet taste in mind — an ice cold Short’s beer.
After stopping at two different restaurants without any luck, we made our way to Dillinger’s and then through the man-made entry way into Bootleggers. The bars are affectionately known as “The Double Wide.” The bars also did not serve any Short’s beers. Fortunately 7 Monks Taproom was directly across the street, and I was able to get my fix of Soft Parade for the evening. Cambria’s shuttle service came in clutch once again, and I dialed up our driver to transport us back to the hotel (along with a bachelor party, which almost made it feel like a party bus) in no time.
Our lodging for the weekend is also the home of Reflect Bistro and Lounge, which made the early morning scavenge for breakfast much less painful. We both enjoyed forms of the french toast, with Rose going with the classic plate while I went for the Cherries Jubilee prepared with local cherries. Couple that with the side of blueberries, strawberries and fresh orange juice, and it was truly a fruitful breakfast (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Feeling the need for some fresh water activities, we ventured down to Clinch Park and stumbled upon Paddle TC, where we were able to secure a pair of paddle board rentals. For an hour, we paddled around the area and the shores of the Grand Traverse Bay, content with enjoying another day of beautiful weather and crisp, clear water.
Working up an appetite after our morning jaunt, we made our way toward The Little Fleet, a open-space bar and food truck venue with an awesome aura for a Sunday afternoon. Since I had yet to partake in any fish or seafood, the blackened white fish tacos from Roaming Harvest were a logical choice for lunch. I could’ve (and probably should’ve) gone back for seconds.
With lunch in the rearview mirror, the whole reason for the trip was finally within my sight: a round of mini golf at Pirate’s Cove. As previously mentioned, I had fond memories of hitting the miniature links at the well respected adventure park in my youth. I was now ready for part deux — the prodigal son returns home.
Before we lined up for the first hole, I was caught off guard by the scorecard. Every hole was listed as a par 2. I honestly had to do a double take. My memories included a challenging and diverse course with all kinds of obstacles and pirate-themed shenanigans. We enjoyed playing the course and I stayed true to my 6 handicap in mini golf, but I’m not sure it lived up to my childhood expectations of true euphoria and amazement at this once-magical place.
Just as Brys Estate picked up my spirits after the “Great Lighthouse Debacle of 2016,” we opted for a more family-friendly treat to rebound from mini golf and cap off the day: Moomers Ice Cream. As we made the trek out of town, the surrounding farms and several winding two-lane roads looked like anything but Traverse City, prompting us to double and triple-check Google Maps to make sure the address was correct. But sure enough, we finally stumbled upon Moomers and were greeted with a line out the door of hungry customers.
Continuing with the cherry theme, I enjoyed my Cherries Moobilee in a homemade waffle cone, made even better by admiring the farm and cows directly next to the creamery. With our stomachs full and our cherry cravings complete, we officially put a cherry on top of our Traverse City weekend trip.
My return journey as an adult to Traverse City did not disappoint. I was impressed with the combination of outdoor activities as well as restaurants, wineries, breweries, distilleries and just an all-around welcoming atmosphere that this city created. I guess I can let the lackluster mini golf and lack of Gordie Howe-centric restaurants pass this time.
What is your favorite thing to do in Traverse City? Let us know in the comments!