While I do love traveling to remote and/or exotic places, I am not beyond enjoying the delights found closer to home. Case in point: Traverse City, Michigan. It’s just two states over, and yet I never managed to get there until last year. Now, I’ve visited two years in a row, just returning about a week ago from my most recent foray. It’s an incredibly beautiful area, with verdant national forests, lush vineyards and orchards, and rolling hills, all surrounded by beautiful beaches and the sparkling waters of Lake Michigan. It also happens to be a world-class foodie destination. Good combination, I think.
Traverse City faces the water and is nestled at the base of two hilly, green peninsulas, the Leelenau and the Mission Peninsulas. When I speak of Traverse City, I am referring to this entire, sprawling area of woods, water, and wineries, not just of the city itself. However, the city’s downtown area is incredibly charming, streets lined with wonderful old buildings, all housing great shops and dandy eateries. Cherry trees decorate the sidewalks, so you can always tell whether the cherries in the surrounding orchards are in bloom or getting ready to pick. And that’s a big deal here. Traverse City and environs is the cherry capital of the United States, producing around 75% of the nation’s tart and sweet cherries.
The cherry orchards are not alone. There are loads of apple orchards and miles of vineyards. In fact, when you get to town, you can pick up a “Wine Trail” map that will guide you to all the area’s wineries. Brys Estate, Chateau Chantal, and Black Star are notable, but they’re all fun, offering everything from excellent versions of traditional wines to yummy dessert wines that take advantage of the local cherry crop. (And while you’re at Black Star, check out their cheese, too. Their aged raclette is an award-winner.)
While winding along the peninsulas visiting wineries, you might also want to stop at Tandem Cider. It’s a bit off the main road, in a stunningly bucolic valley nestled between forest-covered hills—almost worth it just for the scenery. I sought out Tandem because I have a great love of good cider. Expressing interest in the ciders brought an explosion of enthusiasm from the owner, with books being dragged out, an animated discussion of trying the different versions (sweet, dry, still, sparkling, English style, French style) — and, of course, plenty of tasting.
Probably the best restaurant in TC is The Boathouse, up on the Mission Peninsula. Happily, since it was May while I was there, it was the middle of morel season, and the morel bisque at The Boathouse was to die for. Of course, the lobster Benedict and tempura asparagus weren’t bad, either. (It was also asparagus season, and the weekend before the local asparagus festival.)
If you’d prefer a picnic, the Old Mission General Store, an antique building dating back to the early settlement of this region, has a surprisingly sophisticated selection. The store is packed with antiques, as well, but they also have a very nice little selection of cheese (including a wonderful 10-year-old cheddar) and sausages, the usual chips and things, a decent wine selection, and a number of hot items, from homemade soups to Michigan pasties, a state specialty introduced long ago by Cornish miners.
The Blue Bird on the Leelenau Peninsula offers splendid preparations of locally caught fish, juicy fried clams, and good burgers. After you dine there, stroll down the block to Fish Town. Fish Town is a wonderfully preserved cluster of old fisheries. While most of the ancient buildings have been transformed into shops selling everything from cheese to gifts, Carlson’s is still a fully operational fishery. The generations-old fish shop offers fresh and smoked fish, and the smoked whitefish paté is not to be missed.
Other foodie destinations on the Leelanau include the Cherry Republic, a complex of buildings that features dozens upon dozens of products made from cherries, including cherry salsa, cherry jam, dried cherries, and chocolate-covered cherries. The Grocer’s Daughter Chocolates offers lovingly hand-made artisanal chocolates that use all natural ingredients—and the meltingly luxurious honey-based caramels are astonishing. My other “must visit” spot here is Pleva’s Meats, an artisanal butcher and sausage maker, where the toothsome offerings include such astonishing delights as smoked bratwurst with cherries and pecans.
Actually, the Grocer’s Daughter Chocolates is just one of your chocolate options in the Traverse City area. There is, in fact, a deep-seated chocolate culture here—a fact not missed by Jacques Torres, who, when he decided to open a chocolate shop outside of New York City, picked downtown TC.
You don’t want to miss Moomer’s, just outside TC. It’s an ice cream shop right on the dairy farm. There are lots of flavors of rich ice cream from which to choose, but you should probably include at least one scoop of Cherries Moobilee, a vanilla ice cream packed with cherries and chunks of chocolate.
There’s more to this area than food and wine. There are towering sand dunes to climb and long forest trails to explore. There are several old lighthouses and a surprising range of museums. There is art and culture and antiques and shopping. In the summer, there is boating and swimming, and snowmobiling and cross-country skiing are big in the winter. But the thing for which this area is becoming most widely noted is the delights of the table—and that’s all right with me.
If you’re thinking of going, the Traverse City Visitor’s Bureau has a dandy site that can help you plan your visit. http://www.visittraversecity.com/