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Traverse City: A Festival Of Fun For Families

By Julie Hatfield

There’s a problem when you visit Traverse City with the family. Whether you’re there for a weekend or a month, you simply cannot fit everything into your stay. This small town with a population of 15,000 is located between the fourth and fifth finger at the top of the mitten, which is the map of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and lies on the shore of beautiful Lake Michigan. Traverse City was named by Trip Advisor as the Number 2 spot on their “Top 10 List of Charming Small Towns,” second only to Carmel, California, and therein begins the fun. It’s also the source of the problem, because there’s so much for families to see and do.

First and foremost, it’s a great, clean, sparkling place to swim, and in summer, when it stays light until 9 p.m., we took a lovely before-bed swim in front of our hotel, the ParkShore, which also has its own boat, jet-ski and parasailing rentals. At sunrise (or sunset) you can take a hot air balloon ride over the coastline here, and right in town you can rent a sailboat, water trampoline, or take a ride on a historic two-masted schooner across Grand Traverse Bay.

With the expanse of one of the greatest of the Great Lakes in front of the hotel window, it can be easy to forget that this part of the country also offers a wide variety of rivers and streams for canoeing, tubing, kayaking and fishing. The Boardman, the Platte, the Betsie and the Crystal rivers, all scenic and all within a few minutes of downtown Traverse City, provide a variety of paddling, from lazy and easy to challenging. If you are an experienced paddler, try the Platte’s nine-mile upper segment, fast and challenging, with narrow turns among logjams and other obstacles. All four rivers are teeming with fish. In fact, anglers consider the Boardman one of trout fishing’s great streams, renowned as a Blue Ribbon Trout stream where wily brook and brown trout flourish (even through part of the Boardman actually runs right through downtown Traverse City!) The Betsie is best for a two-day 27-mile paddle through the Pere Marquette State Forest between the Grass Lake Wildlife Flooding and Dair’s Mill Landing. The trip features abundant bird-watching opportunities for bluebirds, meadowlarks, Eastern kingbirds, and in spring, a number of migrating birds.

If you want to make sure to catch a trout, and don’t want to go to the trouble of buying a license, bringing rod and tackle, etc., the Jordan Valley Trout Pond (telephone 231-636-1200) a few miles northeast of Traverse City is stocked, gives you all of the equipment, and if you want to eat your catch, they’ll pack it in ice for you as well.

For all of its attractions, the Traverse City area is known best for two things: cherries and sand dunes. This is the tart cherry capital of the country, and if you want to participate in the lively and popular cherry festival in the second week of July, best to reserve accommodations well ahead, as the town is filled to the brim with people and activities all related to cherries.

The Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore located about a half-hour drive west from Traverse City, is part of a wonderful protected national park of scenic drives, overlooks, hiking trails, lakes for fishing and swimming and camping, and dune climbing. The giant Sleeping Bear dune, which indeed looks like a sleeping bear, is said to be the mother of two cubs, all three of whom swam across Lake Michigan to avoid a raging forest fire in Wisconsin. Mother Bear made it and sleeps still, waiting for her cubs to arrive, while the cubs did not make it and now comprise North and South Manitou islands, both of which can be visited by ferry. But the most fun is to climb Sleeping Bear to reach the vista of Lake Michigan, and then roll, slide, and climb back down, for a wonderful day of great exercise and fun for children, parents, and depending on their agility, grandparents as well. You can also drive through the gorgeous Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and stop at all the vistas of the lake, or hike shorter hikes through the woods or along some of the lakes that are in the park, and camp in designated areas of the park.

Children can get a Ranger Rick badge by joining a park ranger at specified times and days (www.nps.gov/slbe) the dunes and hiking, watching a re-enactment of a turn-of-the-century shipwreck rescue, explore a ghost lumber town, take a guided walking tour of historic Glen Haven village, watch a firing of the line-throwing cannon that was used by the U.S. Coast Guard to rescue shipwreck victims, and study the bugs of the dunes, water and woods. These activities are available free from June through August, and although the Traverse City promoters urge visitors to come any time of the year, many of the activities, especially around the dunes, happen just in summer.

We brought 8-year-old Sam with us to this playground of the north, in the middle of July. While Sam is an avid swimmer, dune climber, fisher, and tuber, when he spotted the Pirate’s Cove Adventure Park practically across the street from our hotel, he was hooked. For two full days, he enjoyed every activity at this regional chain of parks, none of which are anywhere near his New Mexico home, and he checked each one off as he completed it. First was the ropes course, a series of unbelievably frightening rope and wood slat walks that get higher and higher until the worst one (best, in Sam’s view) was about 60 feet off the ground. Scared but thrilled, he completed that and then ran to the zipline which heaved him from one wickedly high perch to another, fast. He loved the go carts and bumper boats, the latter where he and his dad had a water fight with their dashboard water guns, but saved his favorite activity – the enormous twisting water slides – for last. Although this feels like kid heaven, Sam noted that there were plenty of adults enjoying this exciting park all by themselves, in addition to the family groups.

It seems there’s a toy store about every other doorway in downtown Traverse City, and the town abounds with “fun food,” i.e. pizza and hot dogs and the like. But it is also surprisingly rife with restaurants that would be acceptable in larger, supposedly more gourmet-friendly cities such as New York and San Francisco. We tried two: the Tuscan Bistro and La Cuisine Amical, the latter a delightful French restaurant with outdoor patio on the main drag, Front Street. Sam negotiated that he would sit quietly and politely while we enjoyed the Michigan whitefish broiled on a bed of eggplant relish and white bean soup at Tuscan Bistro and the bean soup and steak frites at Amical, if afterward we would take him to the famous Moomer’s ice cream shop, called by Good Morning America’s television show the best ice cream shop in the country. Moomer’s boasts 100 different homemade flavors (including, of course, two kinds of cherry) and a deck where you can watch the cows that produced the cream for your cone.

Although the weather was perfect when we visited in the second week of July, and we felt we were outdoors about 23 hours of the day, if it should turn stormy and cold the town has plenty of indoor water parks, a children’s museum, and game parks that are covered and protected from the elements. Traverse City is also Festival Central, with some kind of festival just about every week, from the Mother Festival, the Cherry, to the Film Festival often visited by filmmaker/Michigan native Michael Moore, to the Microbrewery and Music Festival, the Third Coast Bicycle Festival, Interlochen (Michigan, not Switzerland) Guitar Festival, The Latin Touch or Acoustic Mastery, Wine & Art Festival, Rubber Ducky Festival, and on and on. You will probably find yourself in the midst of a festival when you come to Traverse City, but you don’t need one to have a ball here, as the whole town is a festival.


Julie Hatfield is an award-winning travel writer who was fashion editor of The Boston Globe for 22 years and continues to write travel stories and a philanthropy column for The Globe. She lives in Duxbury, Massachusetts, with her husband, and is the mother of three, stepmother of two, and grandmother of two.

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