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Falling into Michigan

A (Safe) Pandemic Getaway

semi-overcast 15 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: St. Joseph, Holland, viewpoint at Arcadia Overlook/Dunes, Frankfort
- Day 2: Sleeping Bear Dunes Park
- Day 3: Scenic drive: Point Betsie Lighthouse, Glen Haven, Glen Arbor (cherries), Leland/Fishtown, Suttons Bay, and Traverse City
- Day 4: Grand Rapids, South Bend

Where to Stay
- Chimney Corners Resort in Frankfort, MI (open May 1-October 31)

Where to Eat
- St. Joseph: Arriba! Taqueria and Kilwins St. Joseph for dessert
- Empire: Shipwreck Cafe
- Frankfort: Stormcloud Brewing Company
- Benzonia: Roadhouse Mexican Bar and Grill
- Glen Arbor: Cherry Republic/Public House, Leelanau Coffee Roasting Co., Art’s Tavern was recommended (but we didn’t actually eat there)
- Leland/Fishtown: Village Cheese Shanty

My Travel Diary
October 21-24, 2020

Having spent a couple of pandemic months in Chicago, I was feeling tired of looking at skyscrapers instead of trees and avoiding people like, well, the plague. In sum, I wanted a vacation in nature, without the noise of construction cranes and with the serenity of quasi-solitude. Fortunately, Chicago is a good base from which to take a road trip. One of the most beautiful regions to explore in the fall is Michigan, particularly its M-22 scenic highway drive. Even the drive to the scenic drive was fairly scenic! We had visited St. Joseph before and appreciated its tidy downtown area, perfectly walkable with a nice view of its beautiful central beach. Located just under two hours’ drive from Chicago, it’s a convenient daytrip, weekend getaway, or rest stop on a longer road trip. The first time we went we made the mistake of eating Mexican food at the “authentic” Azul Tequila restaurant. Frankly, the food wasn't good and the huge portion sizes didn't help. This time, we opted for Arriba! Taqueria and we were pleasantly surprised. The portions were more reasonable and the quality was superior – we opted to share multiple dishes, which seemed like a good idea until I wished it was all mine. Given that I have the appetite of a high school hockey player, I was still perfectly happy to indulge in some post-lunch dessert at Kilwin’s in the downtown core. It’s never too cold for a milkshake – you just may need to wear gloves to hold it, that’s all. St. Joseph is a very strollable town, including its gem: Silver Beach. Near the beach, you can also see the 1910 carousel, playgrounds, a pavilion, older lighthouses, and even a kids’ museum. If Silver Beach isn’t right for you, there are six other beaches nearby to explore. No shortage of sand in this area.


Our next stop on our northern route was Holland. Although it’s just a small town and not a small region of a small country, we managed to find a very big windmill. Windmill Island Gardens was our primary entertainment: from the authentically Dutch architecture to the pristine grounds. The high point was seeing De Zwaan windmill, originally constructed in 1884 in Vinkel, Noord Brabant, it fell into disrepair and was later erected in Holland, U.S.A. in the 1960s after years of negotiations and approvals from the Dutch government (windmills are protected there as national monuments). We were the only people on the grounds, so it almost felt like a post-apocalyptic amusement park – not too far from the truth, I suppose.


A more natural scenic site was the Arcadia Overlook, also known as Inspiration Point. It’s a short climb up the wooden stairs to a platform that gives you a good view of the lake and forests. I highly recommend visiting in the fall for all of the richness of the leaves’ colours, but I’m sure any time of year would be wonderful (just maybe not winter, unless you’re good at walking on icy stairs!). It’s the kind of spot that feels like it belongs on a guidebook for romantic getaway vantage points. A book I would happily write, as long as it came with perks like free massages and endless chocolate-dipped strawberries.


Our base for the trip was the versatile Chimney Corners Resort, which I chose for its excellent reviews and lack of proximity to people. Our little cabin had its own entrance, and we were able to come and go as we pleased without having to see or speak to anyone. Again, pandemic travel is a different beast. I’d recommend the Lakeview Cottages for their views, easy parking, privacy, and for the feeling that the lakefront beach is your front yard. Although we visited in the fall, we still took advantage of the beach for short strolls, and more drawn-out tetherball matches (which I always won). One note of caution: the internet wasn’t always reliable, which posed a challenge as I had meetings to attend. Fortunately, before there was internet there were phones – a fact we sometimes forget – so I was able to just use my cell phone instead of my laptop to conduct my “business”.


Near Chimney Corners Resort, we enjoyed visiting the little towns of Frankfort, Benzonia, Beulah, and Empire. We particularly enjoyed the Roadhouse Mexican Bar and Grill, and Shipwreck Café. The latter would be a great place to pick up a sandwich before hiking at Sleeping Bear Dunes Park. You purchase your pass for the park in Empire at the Philip A. Hart Visitor Center down the street – at the time it cost us $25, and the volunteers provided us with a map, a smaller handout, and incredibly helpful information about the hiking trails and local wildlife. Based on their advice, we chose to do two: the Dune Climb, and the Empire Bluffs Trail.

Dune Climb:

I found the Dune Climb more tiring, and because it started raining, we turned back before we made it all the way to the water views on the other side. Either way, once you get to the top you’ll see multiple lakes, forests, and sand dunes – endless sand dunes weren’t quite what I was expecting when I thought of the northern U.S., but I was happy to explore them!

Empire Bluffs Trail:

The Empire Bluffs Trail was well-maintained, but overall not super accessible, so I would be cautious if you have mobility devices and/or are experiencing a flare-up. That being said, age shouldn’t be a factor. We befriended a lovely couple in their 70s/80s who were visiting from Chicago. I would say “small world”, but it’s fairly unsurprising when Chicago is only a 5.5 hour drive away and Illinois isn’t exactly a hiking destination! As a note: along our hikes, I don’t remember seeing many spots to sit, and don’t recall having seen toilets or drinking fountains along the way either (only in the parking lot of the Dune Climb). You also have to watch out for ticks and poison ivy – check often! If you’re more adventurous you could try camping there, fishing/hunting, and even a snowy winter snowshoe or skiing trek!


A much more accessible outing is the scenic M-22 drive. To start off from Frankfort, you can stop at the Point Betsie Lighthouse, which was built in 1858. We paused there for a few minutes just to take it all in. I felt a lot of gratitude standing by that lighthouse looking out and imagining all the passing ships – mainly just pleased I wasn’t trapped on one of them, weak-kneed, queasy, and vomiting from sea sickness from the windy waves. Once that thought subsided, I was even more thankful to have the opportunity to explore this natural region with my partner during the pandemic: travel restrictions were rightfully in place, but this was a little piece of paradise that we could safely (legally) explore in relative peace and quiet.


We then hopped back in the car to continue on to Glen Haven and Glen Arbor: similar names, very different experiences. Glen Haven is a historic little town with an old cannery boathouse museum, historic blacksmith shop and so on, while Glen Arbor is a thriving contemporary town that’s also known as the cherry capital of Michigan (and arguably, the U.S.). We made the most of it by trying a few cherry products at the Cherry Public House/Cherry Republic, the biggest restaurant in town. Their tea was my favourite product, but my partner seemed to enjoy the ice cream – again, it’s never too cold for a good milkshake or ice cream! While wandering town, we came across the Glen Arbor Arts Center. It’s a gem. They cycle through different exhibits, but also have fun initiatives like the equivalent of a free library but for art: “take a piece, leave a piece”. They’re open Monday through Sunday, but hours differ so it’s worth looking into it in advance so you don’t miss out. Down the street, I couldn’t resist making a purchase at the Cottage Book Shop. With a façade that looks like an old-timey trading post, its interior is supremely welcoming and cozy.


Speaking of the olden days, our stop in Leland and Fishtown was an unexpected blast from the past. The town has great shopping and restaurants, but also serves as one of the last remaining commercial fishing towns in Michigan (and possibly the U.S.). Once we had grabbed some food from the Village Cheese Shanty (which I highly recommend), we wandered by the rising waters around the old wooden structures of Fishtown. Apparently, its heyday was the first three decades of the 1900s, but nowadays it’s still a pretty popular tourist destination. As I mentioned, there’s good shopping there so I’d recommend setting aside some time to explore the small artisanal shops.


We drove through Suttons Bay on our way to Traverse City, and if we had had more time we may have also stopped at Grand Traverse Lighthouse and Leelanau State Park. As it stood, we really wanted enough time to check out the city and especially the Grand Traverse Commons: an expansive commercial and residential area that was formerly a hospital and before that the Northern Michigan Asylum. It’s a great place to shop, eat, and travel back through time. I wish we’d arrived earlier so that we could have done the two-hour tour to find out more about Dr. Munson and his “beauty is therapy” approach to mental healthcare – the grounds are surrounded by forests, and patient rooms (now converted condos) were spacious and light. They have a variety of tours, so it’s worth considering whether one would meet your needs. For us, after grabbing a quick bite in the tunnels, we ventured to the downtown where I bought some lavender products from Harbor View Lavender Farm.


To end off our trip we had decided to visit Grand Rapids and South Bend. It turned out that when the time came neither of us were really interested in stopping to explore either city, so we basically paused at the Notre Dame campus, took some photos, and headed back toward Chicago. We spent our newfound time walking and eating our way through Pilsen: an historically Hispanic neighbourhood with vibrant street art, music, and delicious Mexican restaurants. This quiet, tree-lined Michigan getaway is a world apart from the raucous, concrete jungle of Chicago, yet I felt happier being back in Chicago knowing that nature was well within reach.

Posted by madrugada 19:15 Archived in USA Tagged lakes lighthouses leaves hiking beach fall autumn holland sand_dunes roadtrip empire michigan traverse_city pandemic frankfort leland fishtown st.joseph glen_haven glen_arbor

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