Traverse City turned out to be a foodie paradise (Iron Chef Mario Batali has a home in the area). That wasn’t the big surprise, though. It was the wine.
The resort town earned its reputation thanks to its geographically elite position on Lake Michigan. Grand Traverse Bay sits northwest on the state’s lower peninsula, surrounded by forest, sand dunes and farmland. Think Door County, but bigger and with more cherries.
On a map, two peninsulas – Leelanau and Old Mission – splay out on the east side of the lake like skinny fingers. In the middle is Traverse City. It’s the location that allows the area to host a wine trail that, although small by California standards, can meet even a wine snob’s expectations.
During the first trip, we went in with only a half-baked plan and a restaurant name – Cook’s House. It was early June, about a week before the official start of tourist season. Prices for lodging go up when school lets out.
The Beach Haus, a vintage hotel with a private beach on the north end of town, had rates so cheap I asked why the room could be had for under $80 a night when most other beachside hotels started at $100 or more. The clerk gave two reasons: It was a preseason rate and the hotel’s décor was old. But it was clean and the staff was friendly, she assured me.
Right on both counts.
We brought the family, three grown daughters, a significant other and the family dog, for our second visit over Memorial Day. It cost $1,500 a week to rent a four-bedroom house on one of the area’s smaller lakes that we found on www.vacationrentals.com. The price included two kayaks. We would have had to pay $550 to use the pontoon boat for the week, but the weather and our pocketbooks didn’t cooperate, so we skipped it.
Instead, we timed the wine tours for the drizzly cold weather, which left the nicer days and nights open for cooking paella on an open flame, kayaking, taking in a minor-league baseball game, shopping and more eating.
The Cook’s House, the restaurant that got us to Traverse City in the first place, moved to quarters bigger than the tiny storefront that we dined in on our first trip. The night of our visit, the restaurant manager set the hospitality bar high by giving us suggestions for wineries to visit and other restaurants we might like, including one set on the grounds of the former state hospital.
The Cook’s House shifted to an old house only a block away from its former location to border Traverse City’s downtown, an intact shopping area where T-shirt shops blend with the stores selling all things cherry (Traverse City has unofficially dubbed itself the cherry capital). The town is small, and it’s easy to walk from one end to the other. A bustling downtown farmers market on Saturdays is overshadowed only by picturesque glimpses of Lake Michigan.