By Mike Norton
When I moved to Traverse City from Miami almost 40 years ago, I assumed I was making a trade-off. In return for the chance to surround myself with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, I’d be giving up a few little things — like great restaurants, nightlife, and culture.
I quickly discovered that my anticipated concessions couldn’t have been further from the truth — in fact, those initial thoughts seem downright absurd as I consider the Traverse City of today. This unexpected little paradise on the shores of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay does have miles of beautiful beaches, gentle hills, and shady forest glades… but it also has award-winning wineries, imaginative restaurants, eclectic shopping, and an abundance of art, music, and drama. More than just holding its own, this city on the bay is now becoming known for the outstanding quality of its food and drink.
The crystalline waters and glacier-sculpted ridges that make Traverse City such an attractive vacation spot also make it the perfect microclimate for growing fruit. Already known as the nation’s leading producer of cherries, in the late 1970s local growers discovered that the area contained the unique combination of elements necessary to nurture and give birth to wine grapes. Traverse City’s nutrient rich earth is situated on the 45th parallel — halfway between the North Pole and the Equator — the same parallel as the renowned wine regions of France and Italy. Lake Michigan adds a benefit unique to this an already ideal microclimate. The area’s two wine trails are located on the picturesque Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, both stretching out into the sapphire blue waters of Lake Michigan. The water surrounding these peninsulas serves several purposes: In the fall, early frost is held at bay thanks to the water’s lingering warm temperature, while during the winter the vines stay cozy under thick blankets of lake-effect snow. In the spring, early budding is rare thanks to the still-chilly temperatures of the Bay. Because of this unique microclimate, By the 1980’s Traverse City had emerged as a significant wine-growing region; today the wines produced in the nearly 40 wineries of the nearby Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas have won a loyal following.
The local wine industry also helped launch Traverse City’s growing reputation as a food destination. Talented and inventive local chefs had been working for years to develop a homegrown cuisine based on fresh local ingredients from our woods, waters, and farms, and suddenly the rest of the world started noticing. In 2010 Traverse City was named one of the country’s “Top Five Foodie Towns” by Bon Appetit, and Top Chef Mario Batali calls it a hidden “gastro-paradise.”
Michigan is second only to California in the bounty and diversity of its food production. Traverse City cuisine is characterized by a generous and innovative use of fresh ingredients. In fact, the region’s farm-to-table culture can be found in a surprising variety of places, from small tavern-style eateries to the growing fleet of food trucks found on city streets. Meanwhile, the city’s craft brewing industry (there were almost 20 brewpubs and microbreweries at last count) has been recognized as one of the most vibrant in North America.
Naturally, many of the town’s celebrations revolve around food and drink. They include the National Cherry Festival in July, the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival, two Microbrew & Music festivals (one in summer and another in midwinter), and a plethora of wine trail events.
For nearly a century artists, craftsmen, and musicians have made their homes in and around Traverse City, giving the community a surprisingly rich cultural life and providing almost endless opportunities for shopping and browsing in its many galleries and studios. For a real treat, step into Traverse City’s tree-shaded and pedestrian-friendly downtown or the nearby Village at Grand Traverse Commons, where the castle-like buildings of a 19th century mental asylum have been restored into the perfect destination for an unforgettable shopping excursion.
Thanks to the region’s wealth of performing talent, nightlife in Traverse City can be an evening of cool jazz in a local restaurant, some cutting-edge rock in a Union Street bistro, or a symphony concert at the renowned Interlochen Center for the Arts.
Of course, there are all those scenic views and recreational opportunities that brought me here in the first place. There’s probably no single place in the Midwest that evokes the spirit and magic of the great outdoors quite as perfectly as Traverse City. This special place is often referred to as “the Caribbean of the North,” a bit of hyperbole that becomes understandable once you’ve watched the sparkling waters change from transparent aquamarine to deepest cobalt, or walked these wide golden beaches.
Some of the nation’s finest trout streams are located here, and the nearby lakes and rivers are perfect for sailing, boating, swimming, and canoeing. There are hundreds of square miles of state and national forests, dozens of nature preserves and wildlife refuges for hikers and backpackers. Perhaps the best example of this beauty is the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a 64-mile curve of beaches, coves, islands, and hills that was voted “Most Beautiful Place in America” by viewers of Good Morning America.
As it turned out, my move to Traverse City 40 years ago didn’t involve a trade-off of any kind. I found glorious scenery, wonderful food, and great wine, all in one lovely spot.