Hooked On Michigan
You know that the entrepreneurial spirit of a region is in full flight when the Roman Catholic church gets in on the act by growing its own grapevines to produce altar wine!
Welcome to Michigan, ‘The Mitten State’ or ‘The Great Lakes State’ depending on your perspective, where marijuana is legal (with caveats!), wine flows (and grows) freely and spitting is actively encouraged: in Traverse City leastways!
More specifically ‘pit-spitting’, not on a daily basis of course, but so long as you confine your activities to an eight-day period in early July, then you’ll most probably be celebrated for decades to come, especially if your ‘pit’ (aka cherry stone), flies with abandon and lands you a place in The Guinness Book of World Records!
Traverse City is in the heart of America’s cherry growing region, the largest producer in the US, and, every year since 1926, has staged the National Cherry Festival, a mammoth event staffed by just a handful of full timers who marshall more than 2,400 volunteers to deliver what can only be described as an amazing event wrapped around the Fourth of July and its array of Independence Day celebrations!
And if cherries are your thing then brace yourself: cherry pies, cherry jam, cherry ice cream, cherry sundaes….the list goes on.
There is also the equivalent of a Red Arrows Air Display – in the US America’s military finest are the Air Force’s Thunderbirds – along with a classic car show, arts and crafts, nightly concerts and a firework display to rival anything you might see off the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve!
It’s a grand affair and yearly thousands of people flood into the small town of 15,000 residents, swelling its local population to 500,000 during festival week, when hotels are rammed, restaurants maxed out and some 150 events come to life in a week of endless celebration.
But Michigan and Traverse City, along with its spectacular surrounds, are more than just about cherries.
With the longest freshwater coastline in the United States, pristine beaches, lakes that feel like oceans, glorious sunrises and sunsets, travellers can experience a four-season state with vibrant crimson and golds in The Fall, ice fishing, downhill and cross-country skiing in the Winter, 2m cherry blossoms in the Spring and, of course, sunshine in Summer!
There are snow-capped peaks, water sports, an abundance of natural wilderness and the joke goes that the ‘sea’ you can observe each day is, most probably, some aspect of Lake Michigan where there are no sharks and you won’t swallow any salt.
The expanded lake network accounts for more than 20% of the world’s freshwater supply and, such is its scale, that you can spy the occasional ocean-going vessel or even a fast-sailing clipper ship bobbing across the huge expanse of water.
Located at the head of the East and West arms of Grand Traverse Bay, a 32-mile-long bay of Lake Michigan, divided into arms by the 17-mile long Old Mission Peninsula, Traverse City and the surrounding area is known for its viticulture industry and is one of the Midwest’s main wine producing regions, thanks to its favourable micro climate, boasting some 40 wineries.
Tourism is important in these parts and local vino businesses have come to recognise the need to be more than just a producer, many estates now offering themselves as wedding venues or simply places to sample and buy local produce, whilst enjoying a plate of cheese or chillout time on a spectacular panoramic viewing deck.
One such place is Black Star Farms Suttons Bay to the West of Traverse City on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Nestled among rolling hills at the heart of the Traverse Wine Coast, you pass through a scenic hillside vineyard to reach the 160-acre family-owned estate, where an equestrian-inspired mansion, now a 10-room Inn, offers pastoral views of horses, barns, creative cuisine and, of course award-winning wines and tasting opportunities.
A shining star on the Leelanau Peninsula
However, the largest contiguous winery estate on the neighbouring Old Mission Peninsula, at 155 acres, is the Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery, a family affair opened in 2005 as a retirement project for Walt and Eileen Brys but now run by their son Patrick.
So Nice in Brys - Michigan's comprehensive answer to the French!
It is one of only three producers of Pinot Blanc in Michigan and corks around 175,000 bottles of red and white every year. It also has the most wonderful viewing platform!
Another glass sir?
We were en route to the Mission Point Lighthouse at the northerly tip of the Peninsula.
Our guide was pointing left and right, pausing briefly as we passed the 64-acre European style Chateau Chantal, which claims one slight difference to all of its rivals: it was originally set up by Robert and Nadine Begin after he left the priesthood and his future wife had said goodbye to her life as a nun! Now Heaven on earth you might say!
Chateau Chantal: Heaven on Earth!
The area is full of quirky stories that add to its colourful tapestry of tales. St Joseph’s RC Church on the Old Mission Peninsula had some spare land and now grows enough grapevines to produce its own altar wine, co-produced with the help of Chateau Chantal!
Lighthouse keeper for a week?
Further north, at Mission Point Lighthouse, now a historic building restored in 1948, you can stump up $200 a week to stay on the premises with your other half, as part of the Lighthouse Keeper Program, on one condition: you have to have an eye for retail and be able to run the lighthouse gift shop each day whilst you’re there!
However, in return you get to stay in a setting to die for and, each evening, cycle, walk, or run in some of the area’s most spectacular scenery. Alternatively you can simply dip your toes into the lake at the bottom of your garden!
And, within a very short car ride of wine country there’s the iconic Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, part of the national park system since 1970.
At 71,000 acres Sleeping Bear is one of America’s most profoundly beautiful landscapes: a 64-mile curve of beaches, coves, islands and hills along the west coast of Leelanau and Benzie Counties. Walking the ever-moving sand dunes can take a little longer than you might imagine!
Michigan, as its undulating landscapes might imply if they could talk, is a chilled-out state, so chilled out that in late 2019 legislators decided to legalise marijuana and, in Traverse City, you can indulge yourself at the likes of the Skymint Premium Cannabis retail outlet where the serving staff are among the happiest people you are ever likely to meet!
However, for those who prefer a different type of relaxation other than wine or, indeed, marijuana, the area boasts some spectacular golf courses and microbreweries like Russell Springstein’s Right Brain Brewery…
It's a No Brainer!
….or you can simply indulge your love of…..you’ve guessed it…..cherries at Glen Arbor’s quirky Cherry Republic, where you can partake of some retail therapy including ice cream and savouries!
Traverse City proved itself an eye opener and a region of complete contrasts: middle class, well-heeled America at its best. Boats, farm to fork food options, beer, wine and scenic backdrops to die for.
We had sampled Italian cuisine at Trattoria Stella…
…. and breakfast at S2S, both in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons….
Inspired cuisine at Jonathan and Stephanie Dayton's S2S eatery
…. a spectacular community of shops, food outlets, condos and retirement living homes in what was once North Michigan Asylum.
The former North Michigan Asylum, now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons: home to apartments, restaurants, shops and retirement living
It had been a whistlestop tour but dinner in one of the former asylum’s beautiful eateries had left me with a taste for more, and a certain feeling that I could easily be mad for Michigan!
Definitely a place to return to.
The State of Michigan in the American Midwest is known as The Great Lakes State, with an international airport in Detroit. Travellers from the UK can choose from two daily direct flights via London with Delta Virgin Atlantic. However, for Northern tourists, there is a brand-new Manchester Airport to Detroit flight, via Iceland, with Icelandair. A domestic 40-minute onward connection will get you to Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City. Details:https://www.icelandair.com/en-gb/
North American Travel Services (NATS) sell holidays to Michigan. To book click here