The rural beauty of Northern Michigan, with charming B&Bs and its gentle pace, can be the perfect getaway for big city singles.
If you’re not familiar with Michigan, any mention of the state conjures up images of smoke stacks, unemployment, grease and grit. That may be the case in Detroit, but most of Michigan is lush and beautiful — especially the Northern regions near the Great Lakes. Road tripping there, along lakeshore roads, yields seemingly endless miles of quaint villages, beach towns, lighthouses and cherry orchards.
Take Traverse City for example, a lovely resort town on an inlet of Lake Michigan. I stayed at the historic Wellington Inn, a 1905 neo-classical mansion that sits in a residential district two blocks away from the quaint downtown strip. This remarkable B&B is in a neighborhood of turn-of-the-century homes and adorable cottages from the post-industrial era.
Everywhere you look, there are white, wrap-around porches with rocking chairs, as if Norman Rockwell himself had designed the neighborhood to create scenes for his paintings. When I inquired about local police activity, the consensus? There isn’t any. So if you’re expecting crime in this sleepy town, you’ll have to commit it yourself.
The Wellington Inn was once the home of the Hull family, owners of the Oval Wood Dish Company. These dishes were trays made out of thin slices of hardwood and used by butchers to sell portions of meat. With 325 people on the payroll, it was the largest employer in Northern Michigan.
After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, Illinois contractors came to Michigan in search of lumber to rebuild the Windy City. Overharvesting led to the depletion the area’s trees so the Hull’s had to move their business to New York, taking 50 families with them — nearly 250 people — devastating the local economy.
Now restored to its original condition, the renovation of The Wellington Inn took 5 years. Owners Barbara and Hank Rishel (61 and 73, respectively) pulled this place together with stunning flare. Each wall is intricately hand painted and stenciled. Every vase, dresser, table and chair is true to the era and hand-picked to accent each room.
I whole-heartedly agree with a comment written in the Wellington’s guestbook that reads, “Barbara has put history back in style.” In fact, her antiques are so impressive that I asked if she kept close ties with local antique dealers. She winked and said, “Why do you think I throw a Christmas party for them every year?”
The breakfasts at The Wellington are a fellowship of new friends. The day I started my Michigan adventure, there were about 20 guests in the dining room eating French toast stuffed with a mixture of ricotta and cream cheese, topped with simmered peaches and orange zest. My second morning we sat down to a breakfast casserole of eggs benedict bread pudding. The coffee is smooth and strong and all of the meals are served on vintage china.
I spent my days driving along shorelines, finding peninsulas and lighthouses, and then turned inland to find more lakes, old barns, art galleries, fresh fruit stands and orchards. Michigan is a true heavyweight in the agricultural industry. In fact, the Traverse City area alone produces over 75 percent of the world’s tart cherries. Michigan peaches are among the finest summer fruit in America and the state is gaining speed as a formidable producer of fruit wines.
Sutton’s Bay is a cute town at the 45th parallel, which means it sits at the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole. Just north of this geographical landmark is an unmanned, self-serve vegetable stand that operates on the honor system. There is a cash box and sign that reads, “Take what you want, and drop the money in the slot.”
The stand offers a treasure of fresh zucchini, sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and much more, with the cheapest prices I’ve ever seen. I got a cob of sweet corn and ate it right there, totally raw. It was so fantastic, I ate two more! There was something so summery, precious and youthful about eating a raw ear of sweet corn on the spot. And I liked the honor system —being trusted — no ID, no fingerprints and no background checks. Perhaps TSA should book training seminars here.
Although Californians might not think of Michigan when considering vacation getaways, it’s a good choice. There are no traffic jams or crowds, and the cost of accommodations and restaurants are surprisingly affordable. This peninsula-rich area has a working-class feel and the unpopulated beaches are pristinely clean.
The town of Northport, for example, is truly charming. Most of the locals said hello as I walked by so I felt very welcome. Only later did I realize I had unknowingly popped a button on my shirt and the sight of my bra was visible to the townsfolk. Perhaps the word spread about my “indecent exposure” before I’d even reached the end of the block. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the town’s pastor, but I must say it was very civilized and polite of the residents to avoid embarrassing me.
One of my guilty pleasures is to wander through thrift stores and antique shops. Northern Michigan has plenty, all very reasonably priced, at least a third less than what you’d expect in Los Angeles. While in Northport, I found a cute resale boutique called Pot of Gold, and purchased a three-foot by three-foot antique-iron wall sconce for $35. The shipping cost triple, but the combined total was still cheaper than treasure hunting in LA.
I shoved my lucky find into the car and then ducked into the Kamp Grounds Coffee and Creamery across the street, where the specialty is home-roasted cherry chocolate coffee and their very popular, toasted marshmallow latte, topped with a big marshmallow and graham cracker.
While visiting Sleeping Bear Dunes, another pristine stretch of beach along an inlet of Lake Michigan, I happened upon a red barn with a blacksmith demonstrating his trade for passersby. I watched him stoke the fire, heat iron, and swing his hammer onto an anvil, shaping a black metal rod into beautiful fireplace poker.
If fine dining is what you’re after, reserve a spot at Chateau Chantal Winery for their wine pairing dinner. You’ll relish the seven-course meal, coupled with seven different wines. My taste buds were in ecstasy during this heavenly experience. The feast included grilled baby leek and shiitake mushroom risotto cakes paired with malbec; roasted parsnip bisque with toasted pine nuts paired with chardonnay; pan seared salmon in caper beurre blanc and crisp pancetta paired with pinot noir; and wok-seared duck breast with tart cherry glaze and wild forest mushroom ragout, paired with a cabernet franc/merlot/pinot noir trio. At only $50 a seat, the price is a third of what you’d expect to pay.
Returning to the Wellington Inn from my day of exploration, I joined other guests sitting in the parlor, exchanging stories and travel tips. The social camaraderie is a regular occurrence at this lovely B&B. It was thoroughly splendid to reconvene with other tourists for a nightcap in such a classic and relaxing environment.
I miss it already.
Copyright © Barbara Bloom / 2010 Singular Communications, LLC.
For more travel tips visit: http://www.michigan.org/