Long Weekend: Leelanau Peninsula

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's Empire Bluff Trail

Photograph Provided by Traverse City Tourism

In the pinkie finger of Michigan’s mitten is a fertile, 45th-parallel vintner paradise. A drive up the spine of M-37 on the Old Mission Peninsula reveals panoramic views of the Leelanau Peninsula and indigo flashes of Grand Traverse Bay. Orchards and vineyards zigzag across sunny hilltops, while deep shadows fall over the hollow sculpted by a mile-high glacier that melted and left Lake Michigan, as well as the microclimates that make winegrowing magic. Think Sonoma with sprawling, dune-filled beaches.

Bordered by Lake Michigan to the west and Grand Traverse Bay to the east, the fertile Leelanau Peninsula has 763 farms, 140 vineyards, and plentiful Great Lakes fish and game. In the last couple of years, restaurants have jumped on the farm-to-table movement, and around seemingly every bend lies a roadside farm stand or one of 40 regional vineyard tasting rooms.

First, head up the Old Mission Peninsula, outside Traverse City, and stop for an impressive cab franc tasting at the angular, glass-and-corrugated-steel 2 Lads Winery or under a sunny arbor at Bowers Harbor Vineyards. After that, make for the iconic 1870 white-clapboard lighthouse that marks land’s end and once warned Great Lakes schooners off the rocky shoals of glacial litter. As the cherry trees blossom, food and wine festivals begin: Sip and Savor takes place at 23 Leelanau wineries May 1, and the Old Mission Blossom Day festival happens May 14.

Barrels at 2 Lads Winery
Barrels at 2 Lads Winery

Photograph Provided by Andy Clapham

After the sun drops into the lake, head over to Mission Table, tucked into a wooded grove. The lights of Leelanau will beckon across West Grand Traverse Bay over lake trout and fingerling potatoes in ramp butter with foraged wild onion, leeks, and a local beet salad, decked with pickled paper-thin radishes and creamy cheese from Leelanau Cheese.

In this neck of the Northwoods, sybarites make base camp at two Lake Michigan beach resorts with distinctly different vibes but plenty of indulgence: spas, golf, tennis, kiddie camp. For the new school crowd, the smoked glass tower of Grand Traverse Resort and Spa rises 17 stories over 54 holes of golf. Urban sophisticates will find the luxe, monochrome decor more Manhattan than Michigan rustic, but you’ll need to take a van shuttle across the highway to the beach club.

On the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, The Homestead is a rustic-chic 500-acre resort directly on Lake Michigan and the Crystal River. Pine-timbered cottages and condos dot the creeks, golf courses, and beach, sporting river rock fireplaces and decks overlooking the Sleeping Bear Dunes, where a new hiking and biking loop will open this year. You can park the kids at Camp Tamarack to tackle the Northern, Sleeping Bear, and Grand Traverse Bay wine trails, or to slip out for cocktail hour around the firepit and dinner a deux at the intimate, rustic-Italian Nonna’s, where chef John Piombo tailors the spring menu around foraged morel mushrooms, leeks, asparagus, lake perch, and smelt.

Boats in Leland Harbor
Boats in Leland Harbor

Up M-22 on Glen Lake is La Bécasse, a funky cinder-block cottage more reminiscent of grandpa’s hunting camp than a French country restaurant run by a Parisian chef. The menu favors locally farmed and fished ingredients in traditional Lyonnaise style: whitefish in a citrus beurre blanc, local pork tenderloin in cognac cream sauce, and wild-caught Great Lakes Walleye—but don’t leave without trying the ganache-drenched profiteroles. Score freshly smoked whitefish pâté at the Leland wharf and the best marcona almond broiled whitefish at The Cove, overlooking the rapids. Across the street, on the Leland River, the Riverside Inn builds its menu around local cheeses, produce, and game.

Leelanau is coming into its culinary own as California and Continental chefs set up camp—and you can really work up an appetite hiking the Sleeping Bear Dunes, kayaking the Crystal River, or wandering wine trails. Just don’t forget the marshmallows for the beach campfire after dinner.

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