Waypoint: Little Traverse Bay, MI
Throttle back and find an easy pace in this laid-back locale with an old-fashioned, all-American ambience.
Lake Michigan is one of those places that can make even seasoned skippers feel a wee bit uneasy. “Those who haven’t done any boating here have preconceived notions about turbulent water and terrific storms, but once they try it, they’re pleasantly surprised,” says Jim Favors. That’s because a nice day on Lake Michigan is really as nice as it gets.
Jim and his wife, Lisa, live in Michigan and know the waters of this inland sea well. They’ve also done the Great Loop twice aboard their Ranger Tug, and during their travels spent countless hours in cockpits with new friends, encouraging them to make the time to explore the big lake. “Many Loopers spend much of the summer in Canada and then do a fast run down Lake Michigan on their way to Chicago. But there’s a lot to see here, particularly in the northeast corner.”
That corner—which is where the pinky finger might be in the oven mitt that is the state of Michigan—is home to Little Traverse Bay, the kind of place that can make even the most ambitious cruiser want to just stop moving for a moment, so as to stand at the edge of a dock and inhale the sweetwater air.
There’s something restorative in the atmosphere. The protected anchorages, quiet beaches, preppy towns, tall bluffs, smiling pedestrians and summer cottages with welcoming porches can revive a visitor’s sense of inner calm in a way a meditation app never could. Those things have been lulling boaters for years.
Among the most ardent fans of Little Traverse Bay are the Midwesterners who keep their boats here in the summer to take advantage of the light crowds, even in the prettiest places. Many of these people spent their childhood summers fishing, swimming and cruising in the area and look back on that time with fondness. So, they make the pilgrimage year after year, careful to maintain family traditions that stretch back for generations.
Little Traverse Bay isn’t especially large, but there are many places to explore. “The trifecta is Harbor Springs, Petoskey and Charlevoix,” says Favors. “They’re small towns with an old-fashioned, all-American ambience, yet they’re modern at the same time. Marinas, for instance, are all up to date. And just as important, the locals know how to welcome boaters.”
Harbor Springs is often the first stop for those heading east into the bay from Lake Michigan. They’ll swing hard to port once past the historic Little Traverse Light and point the bow toward the 100-foot-deep harbor. Pristine homes and white church steeples face the waterfront, and within walking distance from marinas are galleries, sweet shops and wide sidewalks for lazy strolls. The port is laid-back and refined, the tone established in the 1930s when the Fords and Wrigleys built summer homes here in the Newport of the Midwest.
Across the bay in Petoskey, cruisers enter Ernest Hemingway country. His parents had a house nearby, and the hemlock forests and streams he observed as a kid informed his writing later on—Hemingway used Petoskey as a setting for some of the Nick Adams stories. That says something about the tenor of the town. If Hemingway wrote about a location, it was typically one of the more interesting places of the moment. Today, a big municipal marina is within walking distance of a nice family-friendly waterfront park and shopping in the Gaslight District. Just a few miles down the coast and within the city limits of Petoskey is Bay Harbor. It’s more luxury residential community than cruising outpost, but some crews will make the time to pull into the world-class marina and head ashore to check out the impressive equestrian center, golf course, shopping and dining.
And then there’s Charlevoix, accessed through a channel that leads from Lake Michigan through the center of town and onto lovely Round Lake. There, Adirondack chairs are pulled up along the shores of a community that bears a resemblance to the family retreat in the movie Dirty Dancing. The town of Charlevoix is a busy place with an active waterfront that seems to host an outdoor concert or festival every weekend. Visitors tie up and look for dinner at the Weathervane Restaurant on the canal, where they watch the bridge raise for boat traffic and see children with fishing poles running toward the piers that face Lake Michigan. Yes, conditions on the lake can get feisty, and fickle weather patterns do occur, but that’s not reason enough to avoid cruising here. Says Favors, “Wait for the proper day and time to travel, and respect the water. The experience is worth it.”
This quiet corner of Lake Michigan surprises first-time visitors who don’t anticipate water tinted a pretty shade of Caribbean-like aquamarine.
Things To Do
Little Traverse Bay is the ultimate family-friendly cruising destination, with sandy, swimmable beaches, old-fashioned ice cream and fudge shops, hiking and biking trails, historic lighthouses, fishing holes and protected waters for tubing and skiing.