Leelanau County, Michigan boasts pristine beaches, great hiking and award-winning wineries

If you think of a place with pristine beaches, great hiking and award-winning wineries, the West Coast is probably on your mind. But there’s a vacation spot 2,000 miles east that boasts all three.

Welcome to Leelanau County, which would be located at the tip of your pinky if you map the mitten-shaped Michigan on your right hand.

Lake Michigan sunsets are breathtaking.

(Cory Oldweiler)

The county occupies a peninsula in the northwest part of the state, with Lake Michigan waters on three sides. It’s slightly larger in square miles than New York City, but while more than 28,000 people cram each square mile in the five boroughs, in Leelanau County, it’s fewer than 70.

For me, the heart of the county is the community of Leland, where I lived and worked for more than 15 years. It started out as an Ottawa fishing village and its biggest draw remains Fishtown, the collection of shanties and shacks around the harbor that now house shops. It’s small-town life at its best. Go there. Shop there. Eat there. And stay there, at the Leland Lodge, if you can.

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Regardless of where you sleep, explore the county’s numerous public lands during the day. Leelanau Conservancy properties (leelanauconservancy.org), such as Whaleback, south of Leland, are free, generally easy hikes.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore ($15 for a week-long parks pass) was named the most beautiful place in the U.S by “Good Morning America” in 2011 and is a must-see. Start with Pierce Stocking Drive, a seven-and-a-half mile loop that includes a spectacular overlook atop a dune nearly 450 feet above Lake Michigan.

At Pyramid Point in Michigan, you can climb out of the forest onto a wide dune and hike down to the beach for a swim

(Katie Mae)

My favorite hike is Pyramid Point, 20 minutes north of Pierce Stocking. The main trail is a moderate 1.2 mile hike, but the right fork is even more rewarding. A steep, sandy path through the canopy deposits you on a sprawling dune with trails to the water.

Public beaches dot the peninsula, on Lake Michigan and inland lakes, so be sure to take a swim. But try to get out on a boat, too. Charter a fishing trip out of Fishtown or take the ferry to South Manitou Island. And if you love antique boats, visit the third weekend in September to see a parade of wooden Chris-Crafts on the Leland River. I rode to dinner with friends on the Waterboy, a 29-foot express cruiser built in 1940, and it definitely beats New York’s 7 train.

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The Leland River is full of beautiful boats, such as this 1940 Chris-Craft.

(Cory Oldweiler)

Winemaking is big business in Leelanau, growing from four wineries in the 1980s to two dozen today. The Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail website (lpwines.com) has info on them all, as well as companies that provide transportation and a (sober) driver. One of the originals is L. Mawby (lmawby.com), which makes exclusively sparkling wines. Tasting fees vary, but at Mawby, the first one is free. After that, get the $9 tasting flight with two sparkling wines, along with crackers and cheese.

Leelanau County vineyard acreage quadrupled between 1997 and 2012.

(Cory Oldweiler)

Hard cider is seemingly everywhere in the county, too, but you can’t beat Tandem Ciders (tandemciders.com). The ciderie uses locally grown fruit and the specific varieties are listed on the tasting menu. My go-to is Scrumpy Little Woody, a small batch cider aged in oak with apple brandy. After tasting, grab a pint of your favorite, order a pickled egg and pitch a game of horseshoes.

 

1 | 2 The tasting room at Tandem Ciders in Suttons Bay, Michigan is almost always packed. (Cory Oldweiler)

For beer drinkers, stop at Hop Lot Brewing Co. in Suttons Bay. Choose your own tasting flight from their rotating taps, which all utilize local hops. On a hot summer day, try the crisp Papa Pete’s Pils under an umbrella in the rustic beer garden here.

Before leaving Suttons Bay, drop by Leelanau Cheese (leelanaucheese.com) to pick up their medal-winning raclette, with black truffles if it’s in stock. You can call ahead to find out their cheese-making schedule.

A quarter of county land is used for farming and by late summer you can — and should — do most of your shopping at roadside stands and farm markets. Be sure to boost your antioxidants with plenty of cherries, since the county grows more than anywhere in Michigan (the top cherry-producing state).

There are dozens of restaurants to choose from, including the always reliable Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern (fischershappyhourtavern.com), run by the third generation of the family who opened it in 1970. Six miles north of Leland, Fischer’s serves quality pub fare — burgers, fish, broasted chicken — and standout soups. Come early for chicken noodle (Mondays) and clam chowder (Fridays). And the raspberry pie (in season only) is worth a special visit.

 

1 | 2 Every Hop Lot Brewing Co. beer includes at least one locally sourced hops. (Cory Oldweiler)

The newbie Figs (202 W. Main St.), in blink-and-you-missed-it Lake Leelanau, features locally sourced ingredients and a different brunch menu every Sunday. Rhubarb Crepes and a Sweet Potato Hash (with poached duck egg) were sell-out hits when I went.

No matter when you go, be ready for a true escape. Cell service is spotty to absent in much of the county and you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to stay connected. Just enjoy checking out.

If You Go…

Getting there:

Through Labor Day, United flies direct to Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan out of Newark for $400-$450 round-trip. It will cost you about the same out of LaGuardia on Delta or American with a layover in Detroit, Minneapolis or Chicago.

Getting around:

You’ll need a car. Avis, Budget, Hertz, Enterprise and National all rent from Cherry Capital Airport. A quick search on Kayak showed availability for around $50/day.

Stay:

The Leland Lodge (lelandlodge.com, 231-256-9848) is the county’s best, but they only have mid-week availability through the fall. Check Airbnb for weekend options from multi-room beach houses to RVs. Or just camp.

The 100-year-old State Theatre in Michigan hosts the Traverse City Film Festival from July 25-30.

(Cory Oldweiler)

For film buffs:

From July 25-30, take a break from sandy bluffs to catch a film at the nearby 13th Traverse City Film Festival (traversecityfilmfest.org). Founded by documentarian Michael Moore in 2005, the action centers around the century-old State Theatre, which he restored to host the fest. Screenings at other venues include the beach (free) and on boats ($35). Most films are $12.