Best Driving Vacations: A Wine Lover’s Getaway
Michigan’s Grand Traverse region is booming with vineyards, boundless natural beauty and all sorts of sights and secret gems to explore.
Grand Traverse, MI | 431 miles away | 6.5-hour drive
Bracing and complex. Artistic and inspiring. These words describe not only Grand Traverse wine but also its wineries, dotted across the lush landscape. “It is beautiful, gorgeous, full of rural backroads—its own little slice of heaven in northwest Michigan,” says Greg Knorr, owner of Grand Traverse Tours. “Out of 40 wineries, they all have their own little personalities.”
The Grand Traverse region is best known for its National Cherry Festival and the classic Lake Michigan summer ambiance, but the area’s ideal wine-growing conditions have made it a magnet for tourists who want to sip throughout their trip. Start at the wineries—scattered around the hub of Traverse City, six and a half hours north of Columbus—and you also will find hidden gems of natural beauty and rich culture.
“It’s a world-class-quality wine region within driving distance of the Midwest, in a really gorgeous area,” says Matt Lundy, distribution manager of Chateau Fontaine winery in Lake Leelanau. “It’s a jack-of-all-trades destination.”
The first vineyards were planted in the region in the late 1960s, when vintners realized that the excellent glacial soil and temperate conditions favorable for growing cherries and apples were also good for grapes. Today, Michigan has 3,050 acres of wine vineyards. Most wineries of the Grand Traverse region perch on two peninsulas just north of Traverse City—Old Mission and the Leelanau.
“The Leelanau is rural, with cornfields, cherries and many wineries tucked down country roads,” says Knorr. “Old Mission is the long, skinny peninsula with orchards, vineyards and high-end homes, a lot of elegance.”
In the last 20 years, lofty ambitions and serious money have created wineries with stylish tasting rooms and scenic verandas to pamper guests. The most highly regarded varietals are crisp riesling, citrusy pinot gris and sparkling wine. But as the vineyards age into maturity, all the wine is getting finer, Lundy says. “After 20 years, we’re getting to a point where we can compete on a worldwide scale.”
In 2020, workarounds to the coronavirus moved winery events outdoors and inspired new ideas. In 2021, some of those good ideas will be retained, especially outdoor, sit-down wine tastings, Lundy predicts.
The wineries also serve as gateways to this shimmering blue-and-green land, whose hidden trails and secret spots invite visitors to relax in the northern Michigan fresh air of these three mini regions.
In brief: The starting point for all visits. A creative, bustling downtown with arts, dining, shopping and wine tasting. The Boardman River winds through town, and Grand Traverse Bay is just two blocks from the main drag.
Locals call it: TC
Wineries: Left Foot Charley is a wine-making enterprise right in town. Using grapes from area vineyards, workers make wine in a building on the grounds of what used to be the Northern Michigan Asylum—now called The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
Secret gem: Boardman Lake Loop Trail, a local favorite
Cool spots: Front Street retains charm despite a trendy buildup of bars, restaurants and shops. One great store is Votruba Leather Goods, with its original wooden floors and high ceilings.
Don’t miss this: The amazing Horizon Books, 59 years in business. Exactly what a bookstore should be.
Get around: Walking, bike, car
Old Mission Peninsula
In brief: An 18-mile peninsula just north of downtown Traverse City. Hugged by the eastern and western arms of Grand Traverse Bay. Low-key elegance. Lots of vacation homes, but residents regularly fight to preserve the rural character of
Locals call it: Old Mission
Wineries: Ten wineries make up the Old Mission Peninsula Wine Trail. They range from the continental formality of Chateau Chantal to the sleek, low-key Brys Estate. Chateau Chantal has an inn, cooking classes, jazz, wine dinners and cellar tours. Some smaller wineries simply have wine tastings and beautiful views. Most showcase the stunning sight of vineyards cascading down to Grand Traverse Bay.
Secret gem: Stop for a Bad Dog Reuben at the Bad Dog Deli. It is halfway up the peninsula in the tiny burg of Mapleton.
Cool spot: Pyatt Lake Natural Preserve is a wooded dune and lake beloved by locals.
Don’t miss this: The Mission Point Lighthouse at the peninsula’s tip is on the 45th parallel, which marks the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole.
Get around: By car or bicycle. If you’d rather run than walk, try the annual Bayshore Marathon, a scenic course that takes runners up and down Old Mission.
In brief: Bigger than Old Mission, it used to be mostly cherry and apple orchards. Now it features far more wineries and people. A combination of agricultural and trendy, it is bounded on the east by Grand Traverse Bay and on the west by mighty Lake Michigan.
Locals call it: The Leelanau
Wineries: You could spend days rambling around the Leelanau Wine Trail, which has 25 members. Among the standouts are Blustone Vineyards in Lake Leelanau and Mawby in Suttons Bay, which only produces sparkling wines. Visitors are impressed to learn that the family of Michigan-born pop singer Madonna owns the Ciccone Vineyard & Winery. Chateau Fontaine is a wonderful, small, rustic winery that has an unassuming façade for its elegant products.
Secret gem: Farm Club, a relaxing combination farm, market, brewery and restaurant on 35 acres.
Cool spots: Suttons Bay, Northport and Leland are small towns with great shopping. Leland’s Fishtown, a favorite, boasts shops in old fishing shanties.
Don’t miss this: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. These are not wimpy dunes. These are mighty mountains of 450-foot-high sand. In 2011, Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear the most beautiful place in the United States. Since the secret got out, it is being loved to death. Go early in the day or in the off-season.
Get around: By car. People do ride mountain bikes, but the terrain is hilly, so be prepared.
Most wineries welcome individual visitors to drop by. Still, many people choose to take a winery tour, leaving the driving to someone else. One of the busiest is Grand Traverse Tours, offering four-hour public options or specialized private tours. You choose either Old Mission or Leelanau wineries.
Where to Stay
The inns attached to Chateau Chantal, Black Star Farms and Chateau Grand Traverse wineries provide scenic options. Others include the Wellington Inn bed-and-breakfast in town, Vineyard Inn in Suttons Bay and many waterfront hotels along Grand Traverse Bay. Campers can try the state park campground in Traverse City or campsites at Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore. Unless you really want to be out in the country, keep your lodging search within a 15-mile radius of Traverse City proper. For links to lodging options, seetraversecity.com.
Five More Attractions
Golf: Ardent golfers can challenge themselves at The Bear, which was designed by Upper Arlington native Jack Nicklaus and is one of three fine courses at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.
Watersports: Beaches, boating, swimming, kayaking, sailing—water is everywhere. You also can take sunset cruises on the Tall Ship Manitou.
National Cherry Festival: The annual, world-famous celebration of all things cherry is July 3-10, 2021.
Outdoor art: Michigan Legacy Art Park, south of Traverse City in Thompsonville, has 40 sculptures and is open year-round. It’s at Crystal Mountain, which is also a great family ski resort.
Winter fun: Skiing, snowshoeing, fat tire bike rentals. And remember, many wineries are open all winter.
Ellen Creager is a Detroit-based travel writer who has reported from across Michigan and the world. She’s a fan of mellow Old Mission pinot gris.