Summer Girls’ Vacation to Michigan

This summer, we took our first multi-generational girls' vacation; just Grammy Eats, Mini Eats, and me. It's been on my mom's list to visit Mackinac Island in Michigan for many years (we have relatives outside Detroit and my mom spent summers visiting as a child), so I decided to plan a trip for us. (Side note: Mackinac and Mackinaw are both pronounced as Mackinaw.)

Southern/Central Michigan
We started out in southern Michigan, where we stayed overnight in Coldwater on the way to Mackinaw City. Southern Michigan is dotted with small towns (townships) like Coldwater that are popular with boaters and other lake-goers as well as apple farms and apple mills. Most have a quaint downtown area with beautiful homes, many of which are Dutch and English styles from the late 1800s.

For dinner, we ate at Coldwater Garden Family Dining. It was an unassuming place that from the outside, reminded me of a Shoney's, but I was actually pretty impressed with the menu. Y'all, they had saganaki! I love saganaki (flaming cheese swimming in white wine, served with pita bread), so I was very happy. Also, Mini got to order blintzes for dinner, I also had a nice salad, and Grammy got to have her meatstuffs, so we were all very happy.

The next day, we stopped in another town along the way and ate at the most delightful Mennonite-run deli in Ithaca, Michigan, Hearthstone Oven. The breads and pastries at this restaurant were unbelievably good. I had a grilled cheese on fresh-baked sourdough that was fantastic. Mini had her first brioche sandwich. Also featured: soft drinks with the good ice!

Before getting back on the road, we stopped by the Apple Barrel Cider Mill for apple cider slushes and caramel-apple cider donuts. You absolutely must stop by a cider mill when you're in southern Michigan. What a treat.

Be sure to stop by a cider mill for treats, including cider slushies.

I booked our vacation only three months in advance, so accommodations were limited. Almost nothing available on the island and very little selection in Mackinaw City. I thought Mackinaw City would have a lively, walkable downtown (like Estes Park or Gatlinburg), but it was not very busy and many stores were closed. Dining options were limited. Everything was limited! There was not even a drug store in town. So if you plan to go, book well in advance to stay on the island. An island stay requires leaving your car in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace and taking the ferry over. No motorized traffic is allowed on Mackinac Island.

Regardless of where you stay, there are several things you must do:
1. Take a drive over the Mackinac Bridge (it connects the Mitten to the Upper Peninsula, not to Mackinac Island). If you don't want to drive yourself, there are trolley tours available.
2. Take the ferry to Mackinac Island. We took Shepler's Ferry and got advanced tickets online for a discount. We also took a morning trip that included an extra 20 minutes to sail under the bridge.
3. Spend a day on Mackinac Island
4. Take a trip over the bridge and up to Sault Ste. Marie.

Drive over Mackinac Bridge and stop at the park on the other side for a photo

Mackinac Island
Our visit to Mackinac Island started off with a box of fudge (tourists are called "fudgies") and a horse-drawn carriage ride (very worth it). I bought fudge at a number of places, but my favorite was from The Murray Hotel. As advertised, it was the creamiest! Our carriage ride offered a great tour of the island, including a stop at Arch Rock. After the tour, we walked around a bit looking for a place for lunch. The plan had been to go to the Grand Hotel, but it stopped serving lunch at 2 p.m. and also had a dress code (oops). Additionally, we thought we'd visit the hotel, but they charge $10 per person (even children) just to access the property. We decided it wasn't worth it. Luckily, we were able to get lunch at The Gate House, which is associated with the Grand Hotel and had excellent food and service, reasonable prices and a lovely patio.

View of Mackinac Bridge from Shepler's Ferry
A "fudgie" poses in front of her carriage
Arch Rock overlooking Lake Huron (note the beautiful water)
Mackinac's Grand Hotel (about as close as you can get to it without paying admission)
Mackinac Island
Marquette Park on Mackinac Island
Fudge shop and carriage on Mackinac Island

Sault Ste. Marie
Lake Huron is beautiful and the beaches in Mackinaw City are generally nice, but the water is too cold for my southern blood, so we didn't spend much time on the beach. Instead, we took a day trip to the Upper Peninsula to Sault Ste. Marie ("Soo Saint Marie"). While there, we visited Sherman Park to dip our toes in a second Great Lake and watch the industrial water traffic float by.

Afterward, we parked downtown and had lunch at the Lock View restaurant. I had my second of what I have now deemed The Michigan Salad (greens, nuts, and dried cherries with varying other toppings). I'm now hooked on dried cherries in a salad! Post-lunch, Grammy Eats went to view the Soo Locks (where the boats pass on St. Mary's River between Lake Superior and Lake Huron) while I accompanied Mini Eats through the shops. Sault Ste. Marie was lovely and I discovered that Sasquatch hunting is a big tourist draw, so I was definitely among my people. The land between the Mackinac Bridge and Sault Ste. Marie in the UP was sparsely populated and largely forested, so I can understand why locals needed a reason to give tourists to spend some money.

As much as I enjoyed shopping and talking with the locals (all very nice), I do regret missing out on seeing the locks. So make some time for that if you go. And the shipwreck museum as well.

We spent three nights in Mackinaw City, which was just long enough to spend a day on Mackinac Island, visit the UP, and spend a little time in the area.

The second of FOUR "Michigan Salads" I had. Dried cherries and nuts made salads something I looked forward to!
A big activity in the Upper Peninsula is Sasquatch hunting. We found one! I loved this store, by the way.
The Lock View restaurant was across the street from Soo Locks and was a fun old-school place with great food.

Northern and Western Michigan
We took the scenic route from Mackinaw City to our next destination, Empire. Highway 31 took us through numerous towns along Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, including Petoskey, Charlevoix, and Traverse City. It was definitely worth it to drive through these beautiful towns. Lovely architecture and lake views often on both sides of the road.

Empire/Glen Arbor
Empire is a small town that is actually within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore designated area (and is the location of the official visitors center). We stayed at the Empire Lakeshore Inn, which technically walking distance to the very popular Empire Beach (though it was a bit long for my preference). The hotel was lovely and no-frills, but having booked so late in the year, I was happy to get it. Vacation rentals are the way to go in this area (particularly in Glen Arbor), but should be booked a year or so in advance.

Though the beach is lovely (Lake Michigan is stunning) and the locals swim there, the water is still very cold for the average southerner. I'd estimate it was in the upper 70s, which is at least 10 degrees too cold for me. I enjoyed it anyway. Note: Empire Beach gets particularly busy around sunset because the view is just spectacular. Sunset is late in the summertime, though--9:30pm!

The must-visit restaurant in the area is Cherry Republic in Glen Arbor. In addition to the restaurant, there is a gift store with all things cherry for sale. It's a fantastic place. I also visited Tiffany's Cafe, Shipwreck Cafe, and Joe's Friendly Tavern in Empire and enjoyed all three. There's also an amazing chocolatier in town, Grocer's Daughter. Their products--particularly the handmade chocolates and fudgesicles--are worth the trip.

Cherry Republic gift store and restaurant
cherry ice cream at Cherry Republic--a must!
Tiffany's Cafe in Empire--grab a Vernor's ginger ale with lunch!
Empire Beach near sunset (taken about 8:30 pm!)

Sleeping Bear Dunes
The real highlight of this portion of our trip was Sleeping Bear Dunes. I'm not much of a hiker these days, so we started out with an early (started around 8:30am for good photos) drive on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. There are a number of stops to take great photos and the views of both Glen Lake and Lake Michigan are amazing. After the scenic drive, we went to the dune climb, which was lots of fun. It's important to note that even though it seems like you can get to the top of the dune and see Lake Michigan, no, you cannot. At the top, there's more dune (a second top!) and then from there, it's another hour or more in the sand to get to the Lake Michigan overlook. If that's what you want to see, take plenty of water! You will get to see a great view of Glen Lake, though. Another important note: do the Dune Climb before 11 am or so or in the early evening because the sand gets hot and it's difficult to climb in shoes.

Lake Michigan overlook with the "sleeping bears" far in the background
Lake Michigan overlook with "sleeping bears (the green-covered mounds) in the background (and South and North Manitou Island)
panorama of the Dune Climb (from our second visit)
first visit to the Dune Climb
the second "top" of the Dune Climb. Lake Michigan is way off in the distance over more dunes
the second dune "top"; from this view you can see Little Glen Lake (off to the right is a view of Alligator point)

While in the area, we also visited several lighthouses and other towns and beaches as well as two local orchards (Northern Michigan features cherries, which were just coming into season in mid-July). Here are the must-do activities for this area:
1. Sleeping Bear Dunes. Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and Dune Climb
2. A swim or visit to Empire Beach. There's a great playground and wonderful views of Lake Michigan.
3. Go to Cherry Republic. Buy dried cherries for yourself and for friends. Eat at the restaurant and have cherry pie and cherry ice cream for dessert.
4. Visit Historic Glen Haven. This restored village is now essentially a collection of small museums. It also has a wonderful beach.
5. Visit an orchard (or two or three). We visited Gallagher's Farm Market and Bakery and got cherry donuts, wine, and other treats as well as blueberries and cherries (and visited the petting zoo, too). Across the street at Jacob's Corn Maze, we got to pick our own cherries, blueberries, and the absolute best raspberries I've ever tasted.
6. Take a scenic drive on M22 and up to Leelenau State Park and visit the lighthouse. Be sure to stop in Leland for lunch or dinner. We had lunch at the Village Cheese Shanty, which was delicious. But other restaurants have lakeview seating.
7. Look for "Petoskey stones" along any of the many lakeshores.

Lake Michigan from Glen Haven Beach. In the distance are North Manitou and South Manitou Islands (accessible via ferry from Leland but there's not much there)
Gallagher's Farm Market
Cherry treats at Gallagher's Farm Market
picking cherries at Jacob's Corn Maze
Historic Fish Town in Leland, Michigan
Grand Traverse Lighthouse

We didn't do much else while in the area (I took some time to visit a friend), but there are lots of other activities, like boating and kayaking as well as swimming (for those who can tolerate cold water).

Overall, we had a great visit to Michigan. I'm already planning another visit, though I plan to stick with western Michigan. I'll definitely visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes area again but also would like to visit Holland, Michigan to go to the Dutch Village, the museums, and the gardens.

One thought on “Summer Girls’ Vacation to Michigan

  1. Love this recap, Lesley! I've not ever been to Michigan yet - just a few flyover/stop-throughs in the Detroit Airport. I'd love to go in summer/fall, though, as cherries and apples are some of my favorite. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

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