Exploring Michigan with Laura Martone

1. What are your top recommendations for enjoying Michigan in the winter?

While the state literally blossoms in spring and summer (personally, my favorite times to visit the state), Michigan is equally beautiful (if bitter cold) during the winter months. In recent years, it’s become a popular cold-weather destination. With many downhill ski slopes around Charlevoix and Ironwood, hundreds of miles of cross-country skiing and snowmobile trails, and thousands of inland lakes perfect for ice-skating and ice fishing, Michigan is definitely a winter wonderland. For a memorable wintertime experience, I’d recommend two spots: the 4,500-acre Shanty Creek Resorts which offers numerous downhill skiing runs and a fantastic trail network for cross-country skiers, and Frankenmuth, a Bavarian village filled with quaint shops, restaurants, and a year-round Christmas store – a sweet spot to spend the holiday season.

2. How would you describe the differing spirits of Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas?

For most residents, Michigan feels like two states in one. Some out-of-towners forget that the Upper Peninsula is even part of the Great Lakes State–but indeed it is. While the Upper and Lower Peninsulas both house picturesque lighthouses, intriguing museums, historic cities, wild rivers, and vast forests, they are each unique regions, linked only by the five-mile Mackinac Bridge. Like rival siblings, the two peninsulas try hard to distinguish themselves. Most Michiganders dwell in the Lower Peninsula (known as the “Mitten” due to its shape), making it much more crowded in places than any spot in the U.P. The Lower Peninsula is a more popular destination for travelers, filled with museums, amusement parks, inland lakes, beaches, and other attractions. But the U.P., which might seem more uncivilized than Michigan’s lower half, is a more laidback region, with deeper woods, wilder rivers, and more deserted beaches. It’s truly a wildlife lover’s paradise. “Yoopers”, as U.P. residents are called, are fiercely proud of their untamed northern half as well as their mining and shipping history, memorialized in several interesting museums and cultural sites, including the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and the Keweenaw National Historical Park.

3. What’s the best way to explore Michigan’s natural wonders?

Remember that Michigan, for all of its natural beauty, is still the birthplace of the automobile. So oddly enough, the best way to explore Michigan’s natural wonders is via a driving tour. The Great Lakes State takes enormous pride in its highways and byways, especially charming routes like the River Road Scenic Byway, a 22-mile pass in northeastern Michigan that showcases the high cliffs, wooded lakes, and white pines of the Au Sable River Valley. Another gorgeous route is Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This pathway offers lovely overlooks of Lake Michigan and the impressive sand dunes, even in the winter months. Of course, if you’re a true outdoors lover, I’d highly recommend parking the car and venturing into the wilderness. The absolute best way to experience Michigan’s natural wonders is by fishing in the state’s numerous lakes, canoeing in the many rivers, venturing into the woods of the Upper Peninsula, or climbing the Lake Michigan dunes themselves.

4. What festival or special event should visitors not miss?

Michigan hosts a ton of annual festivals, from wacky events like the wintertime Outhouse Classic in the U.P. to longtime traditions like the Tulip Time Festival. Of course, the most popular events occur in the summer months. And while this might sound obvious, the two festivals that visitors should definitely not miss are the Woodward Dream Cruise, a mid-August showcase of vintage and one-of-a-kind automobiles northwest of Detroit, and the National Cherry Festival, perhaps the state’s biggest, most popular event. If you don’t mind crowds, you should definitely experience the Cherry Fest, which offers everything from cherry pit-spitting contests, bed races and air shows, cherry-related luncheons, and, of course, fireworks.

5. What are some of the best places to go with kids?

Michigan is an extremely family-friendly state, with an assortment of beaches, state parks, museums, train rides, boat tours, amusement parks, and ice-skating facilities, many of which are geared toward kids. Young visitors will especially enjoy attractions like Michigan’s Adventure, an amusement and water park near Muskegon. Many hotels even cater to kids, such as Zehnder’s Splash Village Hotel and Waterpark in Frankenmuth. For some great outdoor fun, let your children climb the impressive sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore or take them to Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling, where you can tour a logging museum, watch 19th-century activities like a vintage baseball game, and participate in several logging-related festivals throughout the year.

6. Michigan is known for its award-winning wines. What’s your favorite winery?

As a former resident of California (and a big fan of the wineries in Napa Valley and the Escondido area), I’ve been pretty impressed by the caliber of Michigan’s wines. While you can tour wineries all over the state, even in the Upper Peninsula and the southeastern portion of the Lower Peninsula, the three principal wine-producing regions are the southwestern coast, the Leelanau Peninsula, and the Old Mission Peninsula north of Traverse City. The state boasts so many award-winning wineries, I find it’s difficult to pick my favorite one. Still, I would urge any first-time visitor to stop by Black Star Farms in Suttons Bay on the Leelanau Peninsula. Not only will you find terrific wines in the on-site tasting room, you’ll also encounter a creamery, a café, a farmers market, and a luxurious bed-and-breakfast inn.

7. Besides pasties, what other Michigan delicacies are worth trying?

While Cornish pasties are indeed a must-have for any visitor to Michigan, the state offers a wealth of other scrumptious treats. Southeastern Michigan, for instance, contains a wide variety of ethnic enclaves, each of which boasts its own unique cuisine. You’ll find, among other delights, Polish pierogies in Hamtramck, Middle Eastern dishes in Dearborn, and Bavarian bratwursts in Frankenmuth. Unless you’re a vegetarian, be sure to treat yourself to a Coney Island, available in various Detroit-area hot dog stands, as well as fresh seafood from the state’s inland lakes (and the Great Lakes, of course). Pan-fried walleye is a particularly popular dish, especially in the northern half of the Mitten. And of course, no one should leave the state without sampling some homemade fudge on Mackinac Island, all manner of cherry-related products at Cherry Republic, and Michigan-made syrups, salsas, preserves, and other condiments at places like Michigan Peddler and American Spoon.

8. What do you love most about Michigan?

Michigan has so many incredible distractions–from U-pick strawberry farms to auto museums–that I find it hard to name my favorite feature. Still, as much as I love perusing the gourmet shops in northern Michigan and the ethnic villages in the south, I’m a big fan of Michigan’s great outdoors. Three of my favorite activities include swimming in the inland lakes, picking wild blueberries in July, and hiking in the woods of northeastern Michigan.

Leave a Reply