I could not be more excited to share this Northern Michigan family vacation travel guide with you. Not only because it was such a wonderful and beautiful place for our first family vacation with baby Ben, but also because this post was written by my husband Nick! Hope you enjoy:
Around Milwaukee you’ll occasionally spot a sign for the lake Michigan Circle Tour. Whenever Philia or I saw these signs we would always say that we would love to take that trip someday. Over the years some our favorite trips have included mini-road trips and exploration whether it be searching for lighthouses in Maine, driving up the Oregon coast, or exploring the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix or the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska on our honeymoon.
Therefore, when it came time to take our first vacation with Ben the choice seemed obvious, there was no way he would sit still on a plane and we didn’t want to try and fly with all his accessories, so why not take a road trip we’ve been talking about for years and take an opportunity to explore the Grand Travers Bay region of Michigan.
This past July we packed up an SUV with all Ben’s stuff (Pack and Play, Stroller, a Metric Ton of Diapers…you know the basics) and a few things of our own and set off for a trip around our local Great Lake to explore the opposite shore. The first leg of our journey took us around the southern portion of Lake Michigan.
We quickly made our way through Chicago, a familiar trip for us as Phi is from Chicago and we make frequent visits to the Windy City, and around the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Since our previously mentioned trip to Maine, almost 8 years ago now, I take every opportunity to sneak at least one lighthouse visit into our trips. Lighthouses always have interesting history and make for striking coastal pictures. This South Haven South Pier Lighthouse was no different.
The pictures and the view of the light from a nearby overlook at North Beach were absolutely worth our barefoot scramble over burning hot sands. We were disappointed we didn’t have time to enjoy some swimming at the beautiful and sandy shores of North Beach as we set back off on our journey after letting Ben run around a bit to stretch his legs.
Our destination for the week-long vacation was in Torch Lake on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay. We spent the rest the day driving up Michigan’s lower peninsula with a brief stop at an old Midwest favorite, a Big Boy restaurant, for lunch. As far as I can tell, these only exist in Michigan now, but used to be a favorite of my parents in Milwaukee. We grabbed a few silly souvenirs for them and hit the road again.
By late afternoon we arrived in Torch Lake and pulled into our cabin (we rented a little cottage via Home Away). We spent a good portion of the first night baby-proofing the place and taking pictures of the beautiful sunset on our own little stretch of beach on the bay. The sunset was especially exciting for Phi and me as we’ve both spent our lives on Lake Michigan’s western shore, only able to watch sunrise over the lake.
We spent an amazing week in and around the Grand Traverse Bay region of the Northern, Lower Peninsula of Michigan. There are many cute little towns, farms, restaurants and other activities to enjoy. At one point during our trip I told Phi that all the little towns felt like those impossibly idealistic small towns from Hallmark movies. I’m convinced some of the below were the inspiration for those
Things to do in Bellaire, MI: Bellaire was the first little town we visited, with a cute downtown just off Bellaire Lake. We had lunch at Short’s Brewing Company Pub. Phi enjoyed their Strawberry Short’s Cake specialty beer (she said it was super summery), and Ben got a kick out of the extra tall high chairs for use at their pub tables.
After we lunch we stopped at Ruthann’s Bake Shop where Phi oohed and aaahed the beautiful cookies, she got one that was shaped like Lake Michigan and was beautifully decorated-with sand and wave details that looked so real! We also made a quick stop at Little Treasures Toy and Gift to get a little toy for Ben. They had an amazing wide selection of toys for all ages, I even caught myself eyeing up a few board games.
Things to do in Boyne City, MI: We stopped in Boyne City on a drizzly afternoon. Located on the southeastern end of Lake Charlevoix, this was the perfect stop considering the weather. There were a lot of little shops to explore on the main street. We ate at the lovely Café Santé, a European-style café with French influences. Ben’s favorite food is blueberries so it was especially exciting that it was blueberry week at the café, he especially enjoyed the blueberry bisque. We stopped at a bookstore and bought these buttery delicious pretzels at Boyne Country Provisions (it’s a liquor store and a cafe-the food looked amazing-and they sell snacks!)
On the way out of town (not too far outside of Charlevoix proper and in Boyne city) is the Lavender Hill Farm. It’s certainly worth a visit as the striking purple fields make for gorgeous views and pictures.
Things to do in Charlevoix, MI: The city of Charlevoix may have had our favorite little downtown area. Situated on Round Lake/Pine River (which connects Lake Charlevoix to Lake Michigan) the main street is full of little shops and restaurants on one side and a lakeside park on the other. The park had a bandshell that hosts various movies, speakers, and musicians and there’s a weekly farmer’s market every Thursday. Also, downtown you can book a tour of the city’s well-known Mushroom Houses (houses shaped like
mushrooms!). Additionally, we really loved a tucked away Mexican restaurant called The Cantina that we found just off the main street. The food was so good, if we had been there longer we would have gone back multiple times. Phi loved all the shops and the American Spoon (jams & spreads) store best (we bought cherry jam for family to bring home).
What to do in Elk Rapids, MI: On a warm afternoon we happily wandered into Elk Rapids during a summer street fair, loaded with shopping booths, games, music and food vendors. We tried some ribs at the fair then stopped into Cellar 152 a wine shop/bar for some classier fare. Phi also made sure we stopped into Wildflower Soapworks for some handmade soaps. On the way back to our car we noticed Edward C. Grace Memorial Harbor, and took a leisurely walk around it to see all the big lake boats before heading home. Later in the week we made another stop in Elk Rapids at Ethanology, a cool little distillery on the edge of the downtown area. The had an ultra-informative tasting and tour that we enjoyed, including a spirit made from honey. Phi loved their cocktails while I found their barrel aged gin to be excellent. Absolutely wish we lived near this distillery because we’d be regulars. Also, the water in Elk Rapids was so striking and beautiful – it was turquoise!
What to do in the Torch Lake Area: Our cottage was in Torch Lake Township, but on Lake Michigan rather than Torch Lake
itself. There was no little downtown like I’ve talked about in the other entries, however, Torch Lake itself was quite beautiful. The lake was very beautiful with plenty of opportunities for fishing, swimming, and other water sports. A great secondary option if nearby and want to avoid the rougher waters of Lake Michigan. We did have dinner one night at the nearby Torch Lake Café and especially
enjoyed their pizza. Also, make sure to check the calendar on their website for nightly live music, little Ben certainly enjoyed dancing in his high chair. Additionally, nearby is Mammoth Distilling in Central Lake. They have a cute little tasting room and we both enjoyed their bourbon. While travelling in and out of our cottage, it became quickly apparent that cherries are the crop of choice in the region. You can enjoy picking your own or tasting delectable cherry treats. We especially loved cherry picking at King Orchards and on the way home discovered cherry donuts at Friske’s Farm Market.
I think I ate about 6 donuts for breakfast on our drive home. We wish we would have found out about the donuts sooner because we would have gone every morning, we heard they’re made fresh every day- ours were still warm!
What to do in Traverse City, MI: Traverse City is the true city of all the little towns we visited, even sporting a regional airport with some
reasonably priced flight if you wanted to fly into the region. You could certainly spend a whole week here, a beautiful beach and loads of shopping and restaurants. Unfortunately, with all of our exploring we only spent a brief afternoon here. Talking a walk down the main street and then heading over to The Filling Station for dinner. A converted train station turned family friendly pizza restaurant and microbrewery. We really enjoyed their creative pizzas, with our favorite being the Cannonball, loaded with ingredients including kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, red onion, feta, rosemary, and spinach.
What to do in Mackinaw City, MI: We didn’t think Ben could swing the wait and ferry ride over the more famous
Mackinaw Island, so we only made it as far as Mackinaw City. However, we still had a lot of fun exploring little shops and then letting Ben wander around the park at Old Mackinaw Point. He especially enjoyed running around a little gazebo we found in the park. Bonus points from me for getting to visit Old Mackinaw Point Lighthouse and bonus points from Phi for still being able to find Mackinaw Fudge in
Mackinaw City after missing out on going to the island for it.
What to do in Petoskey, MI: We almost never stopped in Petoskey. On one of our other jaunts we passed through and frankly the town didn’t look like much from the highway, which skirts around the downtown, between the city center and Lake Michigan. However, we were getting hungry on the way back to our cottage and decided to find somewhere for lunch. We settled on the Twisted Olive, to scratch Phi’s itch for Mediterranean Food. Once we made our way into town we treated to a large cute downtown with lots of shopping and restaurants. The Twisted Olive had great food and amazing views of Lake Michigan. After eating we wandered up and down the streets, Phi spent a lot of time in Cutlers of Petoskey, a kitchen store, and bought a Petoskey stone ornament at a different store, and we grabbed some ice cream (Petoskey stone flavored-mint, dark cherries and Oreo bits-which was SO GOOD) and enjoyed letting Ben wandering around Pennsylvania Park in the heart of town. The whole town as so idyllic, it was gorgeous and had so many little stores and restaurants. This was the town that made me think of Hallmark movie settings. We Phi and I wished we could have spent more time in Petoskey.
As the week drew to a close we headed north and crossed the massive Mackinaw Bridge and took scenic highways back home through the Michigan Upper Peninsula and Northeastern Wisconsin.
Overall, we were wowed and charmed by the entire region. There were loads of opportunities for hiking, swimming, shopping, dining, and exploring. Hopefully we can go back some day to check out some of the things we missed and revisit our favorite spots!
Have you ever been to Northern Michigan or to any of these places? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!