6 secrets hiding in Michigan

IT’S EASY TO THINK of Michigan as just another “Midwestern” state, but dig a little deeper and it’s clearly anything but. For starters, it has the longest freshwater coastline of any region in the world, and when you’re here, you’re never more than six miles from a freshwater source.

But it’s not just a water wonderland, either. A trip to Michigan can take you to southern Germany, to the Shire, to wine country, to underwater depths and back again. Here are six awesome places you probably didn’t know existed in the Wolverine State.

1. Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royal National Park Michigan

Photo: Ray Dumas

American national parks are rugged chunks of natural beauty — and also well-trod tourist hot spots. But Isle Royale National Park, a cluster of islands in Lake Superior practically on the Canadian border, sees fewer than 20,000 people a year. To put that in perspective, some other parks get 20,000 a day.

What explains the discrepancy? Well, basically, this national park is for thrill-seekers. It’s only accessible by ferry, motorboat, or floatplane, and it’s fully closed in winter. The waters of Lake Superior can be pretty unpredictable, as can the weather. Combine that with a northern latitude, and you’ve got a recipe for the most rugged, untouched national park of them all.

For visitors, this means more than just tranquility — it also means shipwrecks. Largely preserved and intact, too (though, as you’ll see further down the list, Isle Royale isn’t unique in this regard). Then there’s the moose, the wolves, and the miles and miles and miles of hiking, backpacking, and scuba routes to explore. No hopping on a shuttle with 20-some other fanny packs to get from Falls #1 to Falls #2 — here, it’s isolation. Just you, your hiking boots, and a camera.

2. Headlands International Dark Sky Park

Michigan aurora

Photo: Paul*Nelson

Yes, you can see the Northern Lights here. No, you don’t have to book a 12-hour flight to Iceland. Yes, you can view them from a dock on Lake Michigan, wrapped in a blanket. Yes, it will be perfect.

Your best bet for this experience is to get to Headlands, ideally around the spring or fall equinoxes when the aurora normally shines the brightest. Pick a spot on the two miles of shoreline or enjoy the skies from the depths of the woods, taking in (for once) what true darkness feels like — until you look up.

PS: This better-than-reality experience is completely and totally free, and the park is open 24/7, year-round.

3. Old Mission Peninsula

Here’s a tip on how to interpret what someone means when they say they want to see the Old Mission Peninsula — it’s 10 wineries in five miles, just north of Traverse City. And while it may not have the notoriety of the wine produced in, say, California, Michigan wine comes with a handful of other accouterments worthy of touting in addition to its well-reputed quality — like the fact that none of your friends have experienced this, and that the trip doesn’t come with those famous California price tags.

When you’re up here (in the tip of the ring finger, that is), hop on M-37, or Center Road. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you’re surrounded by orchards, fruit stands, and hills that run from shoreline back to rolling hill. At the top of the largest of those hills, you’ll find the vineyards of Chateau Grand Traverse and views on both sides looking down into the bay. On your way back, two notables are Mari Vineyards and Peninsula Cellars. The first is an Italian stone villa and the area’s newest spot; the second is housed in an old one-room schoolhouse. Bring a picnic and your camera, because no one will believe this little enclave of “charming” actually exists.

Hint: For you oenophiles out there, this area is right along the 45th parallel — just like the Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône regions of France and Piedmont in Italy. Go for the Reisling or Chardonnay, and you won’t be disappointed.

4. Frankenmuth, MI

Wine not your thing? Michigan thought of that, too, which is why Frankenmuth is here to save the day, and we’ll give you one guess how…yeah, it’s beer.

You can close that Kayak tab now, because Little Bavaria is smack dab in the middle of the continental 48. So is the World’s Largest Christmas Store, but that speaks for itself. Frankenmuth is a little piece of southern Germany not far from Saginaw, and it goes to the nines with German shops, architecture, and festivals all year long. The World Expo of Beer and the Bavarian Festival feature in summer, while Zehnder’s SnowFest is winter’s highlight (you won’t see snow sculpting like this anywhere else). And then, obviously, Oktoberfest — Frankenmuth’s was the first in the world to be sanctioned by the City of Munich.

And while the town is a great place to knock back a stein any time of year, it’s important to know it’s also famous for its chicken. Hit up the Bavarian Inn for both and you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.

5. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve

Thanks to those thousands of miles of shoreline, Michigan has an equally impressive number of underwater preserves and sanctuaries. This one is on Lake Huron (the eastern side of the mitten), and you can check out the history of lake travel in the form of everything from 1844 sidewheel steamers to more modern 500-foot-long German freighters.

But we’re not talking docked vessels. This place is known as Shipwreck Alley, and it’s clearly earned its moniker — it currently protects an estimated 116 “historically significant” shipwrecks. Not 116 shipwrecks, 116 big ones, some observable, others in hundreds of feet of water and out of sight. However, nothing’s out of sight if you’re looking for a scuba adventure. You can paddle and kayak here, too.

6. The Hobbit Houses of Charlevoix

Hobbit house Charlevoix Michigan

Photo courtesy of Visit Charlevoix

Move over New Zealand — Charlevoix has its eye on you. Or, rather, Earl Young does. From the 1920s to the 1950s, he was busy constructing “hobbit houses” in the town of Charlevoix. Nowadays, you can tour the streets of town, marveling at these slanted-roofed dwellings and their curved lines, limestone boulders, and other natural architectural features. The Half House (306 Park Avenue) is the most famous, but word to the wise: Many of the homes are private residences, so be sure to admire from a distance.

At least, be sure to admire the private ones from a distance. Others can be marveled at from the inside — they’re available for rent. Who wants a hotel room downtown when you can live like Frodo in the Shire? Earl Young was successful in proving that a small house could be just as inspiring as a castle — after all, it’s the unexpected things that really make you look twice.

 

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This post is proudly produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.

 

9 adventures in Northern Michigan

WHEN PICTURING MICHIGAN, we often think of the heyday of Motown and the automobile boom of Motor City. We envision the historic buildings of Detroit and lazy cottage-goers relaxing on weekends along the shores of one of its more than 11,000 inland lakes.

But while visiting Northern Michigan in the summer, we learned there are exciting outdoor adventures we didn’t even know existed in the Great Lakes State. So we thought we’d give them all a try.

1. World-class scuba diving

Scuba Diving Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

The waters of Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior are littered with hundreds of shipwrecks resting on their sandy floors. It’s normal to think of scuba diving as confined to ocean environments, but it can be amazing in lakes, too. The world-class scuba diving here has attracted the likes of Jean-Michel Cousteau and the discoverer of the Titanic, Robert Ballard.

We had the chance to explore a couple of wrecks around Beaver Island as we sailed around the beautiful archipelago with Paradise Bay Charters. Many wrecks lie in super shallow waters, but avid divers will want to (and can) explore the ships that have sunk to more remote depths.

2. Stargazing at a dark sky preserve

Star gazing Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

One of our favorite things to do when we get out of the city is marvel at the night sky. The lights and pollution of urban centers often block the dazzling nighttime display, but Northern Michigan takes you away from the streetlights, office buildings, and billboards. Much of the state is free of city lights, and that’s why Headlands International Dark Sky Park is located right here.

Beaver Island offered us clear sky views, and Rockport State Park has a dedicated dark sky preserve. These are three excellent locations, but there are great spots all over Northern Michigan to sit back, enjoy the stars, and marvel at the Milky Way.

3. Stand-up paddleboarding around a marine sanctuary

SUP Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

Whenever we go abroad, we always seem to try stand-up paddleboarding (SUPing); it never occurred to us to try it closer to home. Northern Michigan is the perfect spot to give it a go — in the calm waters of secluded bays and harbors, you can hop on a board and explore the coast or head out to see some of those shipwrecks.

Just off the shores of Alpena, there’s the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, where nearly 100 shipwrecks lie at the bottom of Lake Huron — and that’s just within the sanctuary. Many wrecks can be explored from shore, and the most exciting way to get out to them is definitely by SUP. If you aren’t experienced at paddleboarding and don’t know the waters, we highly recommend hiring a guide. Instructors can be booked through Performance Locker in Alpena.

4. Hunting for ancient fossils

Fossil hunting Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

Entering an abandoned, roughly 300-acre limestone quarry just outside of Alpena feels like you’ve stepped onto the moon. As we walked along the rugged trail in Rockport State Park, we stopped at a lookout to take in the views of Lake Huron and the lunar landscape. The quarry is covered with 400-million-year-old fossils. Blanketed, even.

At first we didn’t know what to look for, but armed with our fossil chart, we quickly learned to spot the endless supply of fossilized prehistoric creatures. If you’re an avid fossil collector, be sure to bring a bucket with you. Visitors are allowed to take 25 pounds per person each year. Yep, they’re that abundant.

5. Sea kayaking the many waterways

Kayaking Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

If you haven’t caught on yet, the Great Lakes are as big and beautiful as an ocean. When paddling on them, you feel like you’re kayaking in the sea. Waters can be as smooth as glass, or at other times rough and wavy. With rugged cliffs, towering dunes, and remote beaches, a sea kayaking trip along the shores of one of the Great Lakes is an adventure you won’t want to miss.

Avid paddlers can kayak on their own, but if you’re new to the sport, hire one of the many local guides in places like Charlevoix, Petoskey, or Beaver Island to take you out for an afternoon or a multi-day trip camping along the coast. There’s no better way to get in touch with nature and explore the vast waters of Michigan than in silence, paddling the endless waterways of the state.

6. Snorkeling over shipwrecks

Shipwreck Snorkelling Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

You can leave your scuba gear at home if you can’t fit it in your carry-on — but do bring your snorkel gear. Some of the aforementioned ships are resting in shallow watery graves, and you can snorkel right over them. The waters off the coast of Alpena are some of the most rugged in the area. More than 200 ships have gone down right off this coast — nearly 100 have been protected within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and are waiting to be explored. We snorkeled over ships resting in as little as 15 feet of water, and there are plenty more all over Northern Michigan that are just as accessible.

Be sure to hire a local guide to navigate these waters and help you find the best wrecks. What you’ll see is living proof of just how treacherous and unforgiving the Great Lakes can be.

7. Searching for mysterious sinkholes

Sinkholes Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

Rockport State Park has plenty of trails for mountain biking and hiking, but if you’re looking for something unique, step off the path in search of sinkholes. There are a dozen sinkholes within the recreation area — the deepest plunges almost 100 feet into the earth. Some are filled with water that scuba divers and scientists have tried to explore. They’ve gone down as far as 80 feet into sludge, but no one has reached the true bottom. Nobody knows just how deep these sinkholes go.

The natural forest surrounding this karst landscape is pristine, and the sinkholes have their own ecosystem with fish and amphibians thriving in the unique environment. Just be sure to grab your 25 pounds of fossils after your hike — you don’t want to be lugging those around on your sinkhole hunt.

8. Going Caribbean-style…

Beaches Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

Michigan has a whopping 3,288 miles of shoreline. For reference, that’s pretty much the same amount as the entirety of California! When visiting Northern Michigan, it struck us just how much the beaches were reminiscent of those in the Caribbean…it was hard to believe we were standing in the heartland of America. The powerful Great Lakes feel more like oceans, complete with rolling waves splashing against endless sandy beaches.

But in Michigan, the beaches are secluded — you’re not fighting over towel space or dealing with hordes of loud teenagers (and no one expects you to have an amazing tan). We had a stretch of sand all to ourselves to bask in the sun and dip our toes in the water as we watched the sky explode with color at sunset over the waves.

9. …but then witnessing the Northern Lights

Northern lights Michigan don't re use

Photo: ThePlanetD

Most people think you have to go to Alaska or somewhere equally remote to see the Northern Lights. But Northern Michigan, true to its name, is surprisingly far north — if conditions are right, you will see the aurora borealis. They normally sit a little low in the sky, so be sure to park your eyes somewhere with an unobstructed view of the horizon, like near the water. Lake Huron and Lake Superior are both great places to watch the sky light up.

During one of our many evenings staring at the night sky, we saw the lights dancing above us. At first we weren’t sure what our eyes were witnessing, but as we drove farther from town, we saw the Northern Lights flashing vivid colors of greens and pinks. It went on for hours, moving across the sky, forming a band, and then changing to lines and dots. In a word, it was spectacular — just like our entire trip through Northern Michigan.

 

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This post is proudly produced in partnership with Pure Michigan.

 

Love at first sight: Detroit

Love at first sight Detroit

Photo by author.

Hello Detroit.

I have a confession: I’m the kind of person who likes to visit places other people usually don’t say good things about. I don’t know why, but I feel an odd necessity to visit these places to show that people are wrong. And that’s what happened with me and you. I’m sorry, but it is true: Your reputation is not the best .

But I’m writing so that others may realize how interesting you are.

We became neighbors last November as I moved to the other side of the Detroit River. I’d see your skyline from almost anyplace I stood in Windsor. It’s funny to live on a border, to check out another country on any random day.

And yet the day I first decided to visit you was not the most opportune: A cold January Monday, when most of the museums are closed.

But it was still easy to discover the beautiful things you can show. I stopped in the Guardian Building and was impressed by its Aztec-inspired structure. I discovered how Woodward Ave leads me through other districts. I stopped along the riverside (although I confess it was so could that I just stopped to take a picture). I will be back for a long walk.

Photo by author.

Leaving the river and following Woodward Ave I found more surprises. The Wayne County building stood out in the middle of the city with the roman baroque style. Next was Harmonie Park. I didn’t know it was a jazz place from 1920s to 1950s, I had to read a guide to get this information. And guess what? I could feel the vibe once I saw the Music Hall Center right across Gem & Century Theaters, I’ve already made a note to catch a presentation in the Musical Hall.

Photo by author.

The Casino from Greektown was packed when I stopped at Astoria Pastry Shop to grab a treat for myself. It was here that I realized the buildings have speakers on it so people on the street can listen. Nice, Detroit. I must say I liked it.

Following Woodward I got to the Theater District. I think we have to thank Mr. Mike Ilitch — owner of Little Caesars Pizza, Detroit Tigers baseball, and Detroit Red Wings hockey teams — to renovate the Fox Theater.

I could add details about the Detroit Institute of Art as the International Institute of Metropolitan Detroit or the Detroit Historical Museum but I’ll leave this for readers to check on the internet.

Photo by author.

I’ll tell you a secret: I love to eat and want to discover more about Mexicantown and Eastern Market. I think I have a lot to learn from them.

I can’t believe I have written so many words without mentioning the importance of the automotive industries to you. I apologize for that. Henry Ford transformed the city forever, and the known “Big Three” (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler) changed you. You should be proud. The world has changed in your land, history was made. Even though the 2008 crisis tried to show differently, the motto you used on the fire of 1805 “Speramus meliora; resurgent cineribus” should be remembered after 2008 as it translates “We hope for the better things. It will rise from the ashes”. You believe it, so do your people.

I feel sorry for tourists who do not try to get to know you, to discover your soul. They would see many things to do and discover if only they gave you a chance.

Thanks for having me.

9 abilities all Michiganders have

1. We can tread water in freezing temperatures.

The Great Lakes are gorgeous and we love them, but they don’t get very warm, even in the summer. If we have a really cold winter, they might even have ice until mid-June. But a true Michigander has the ability to jump in the chilly water and enjoy our short-lived summers while they last.

2. We can negotiate with anyone.

Before Michigan was allowed to become a state, we spent several years arguing with Ohio over the Toledo Strip, a piece of land which is now part of northern Ohio along the Michigan border. In the end, Michigan gave up the Toledo Strip in exchange for the Upper Peninsula, which provided us copper, iron, and timber, as well as one of the most gorgeous places in the midwest.

3. We can dodge a pothole of any diameter.

Home of the American auto industry, but also home of the nation’s worst roads… Thanks to all of our snow and ice and salt and rain and the economy, Michigan’s roads almost have more potholes than not, even on the highways. So, we’ve all become experts at avoiding them.

4. We can wear shorts in 40-degree weather.

Michiganders are accustomed to so many different kinds of weather that it’s not uncommon, especially after a long, cold winter, to wear shorts in colder weather, even if it’s snowy out.

5. We’re really good at driving in snow and ice.

Michiganders know how to get from point A to point B, even if it’s snowing, icy, hailing, pouring rain, windy, or all of the above. We often make fun of southerners, who tend to shut down entire cities when they get even a dusting of snow and cold.

6. We can always adapt.

Michigan weather is unpredictable, so its residents have learned to prepare for anything. It’s smart to dress in layers, always bring a sweater, an umbrella, and an extra pair of shoes on an outing.
And never trust the weather forecast.

7. We can survive in a tough situation.

Michigan has faced a lot of challenges in the last 50 years, with the downfall of Detroit, the auto industry, and the housing market. Michiganders, however, have learned to adapt to tough situations, turn them around, stay positive, and come back.

8. We can be spotted from space.

Michigan is surrounded by some of the largest lakes in the world, and its mitten shape can be seen from space. While the rest of the continent blends together, our glacier-formed mitten is distinguishable from the mass.

9. We can make a snow day happen.

As children in Michigan, we all knew when a big snowstorm was coming. During recess, we’d all make a pact to wear our pajamas inside-out that night and do a snow dance in hopes that the storm came late enough and fast enough that school would be canceled the next day. The tradition may or may not continue into adulthood…