When we moved to America from England eight years ago, we had great plans of taking advantage of the travel opportunities that living here would afford us. We hoped for weekends in New York, regular jaunts to California, and chance to explore the mountains, deserts and national parks in between. Two kids later and the realization that internal flights weren’t the bargain we’d expected, we’ve taken to exploring by car several times a year; our furthest adventure so far has been Chicago to Charleston with a few days spent in the Smoky Mountains.
But when we haven’t got the time or inclination to venture halfway across the country, a little area in north Michigan has pulled us back again and again. With beaches that look like they belong in the Caribbean, outdoor pursuits for every energy level, distilleries and wineries for a little relaxation, and some good food options, the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has won our hearts. It’s still a decent drive of between six and seven hours from Chicago depending on the number of stops you make, but is worth venturing past the vacation towns in southwest Michigan for a little taste of paradise.
The tagline for the local M22 brand, — so named for the route that connects several small towns in the area — “it’s a way of life,” couldn’t ring more true for our little crew.
So where should you stay, eat, and what should you do?
Since the kiddos came along, renting a house or apartment has become our preferred way to stay away from home — it’s so much nicer to put the kids to bed and have space to relax in the evenings, rather than lie in the darkness watching Netflix under the covers! We have rented a number of cottages/cabins on Glen Lake that are mostly pretty basic, but the setting is truly outstanding. Many offer their own little bit of beach for making sandcastles from sunrise to sunset, and often come with kayaks/boats so you can get out on the water yourself. If you can rent somewhere on the eastern shore, the sunsets are spectacular. AirBnB, VRBO and Homeaway have plenty of options in the area, or you can rent through a local company, Leelanau Vacation Rentals.
If you’re looking for something with a few more amenities, The Homestead Resort just outside the town of Glen Arbor has houses and condos to rent, along with hotel rooms for a little more luxury. And with pools, restaurants, golf and even winter skiing onsite, this can be another great option. Or check out some of the B&Bs in the town if you’re taking an adults only vacation.
Let’s be clear – you’re not in Chicago anymore, so don’t expect a huge variety of cuisines or fine dining options. But for burgers, sandwiches, salads and fish, Glen Arbor’s bars and restaurants can’t be beat! Check out Boone Docks for its amazing patio, live music and ice cream shop. The Western Ave Bar and Grill also has a great patio and menu, but the real ‘don’t miss’ place for us is The Cherry Republic. Pretty much every menu item, from soup to nuts, features cherries — this area of Michigan isn’t known as the ‘Cherry Capital of the World’ for nothing — and once you’ve finished eating in the café or public house, you can stop by the general store and pick up even more cherry-based deliciousness. The outpost of this store in nearby Traverse City even has a small play area — perfect for a rainy day.
Well, you can do as much or as little as you want. If you’ve got a lakefront cottage, a patch of sand, a grill or fire pit and a couple of kayaks, there’s little reason to go anywhere. But when you want to stretch your legs, head to The Cyclery in Glen Arbor and rent bikes to travel the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail. They have everything you need, including trailers for the little ones, to take on the full length of the trail should you so choose. But if you’re not quite ready for the challenge, the four-mile section from Glen Arbor to the Dune Climb provides plenty of activity for a morning.
The Dune Climb is strenuous, but worth the slog when you’re rewarded with views across both Glen Lake and Lake Michigan. There are hiking trails that you can follow all the way to Lake Michigan, but be prepared. It can be hard going walking on sand, and it’s easy to get disoriented; probably not a hike to take on with very small people in tow. But you don’t have to venture too far to make the most of the dune — what goes up, must come down, and it is compulsory to run!
There are, of course, plenty of hiking options in the area that are more suitable for little legs. Make the short drive to Port Oneida and walk up to Pyramid Point. The views are outstanding, and the beach close by is generally deserted and perfect for an afternoon’s play. Check out the Sleeping Bear visitor center in nearby Empire for maps of local trails
If you want to enjoy the scenery at a different pace, kayaks are available for a gentle paddle on the Crystal River. Little ones are given their own paddle and the front seat of your boat — which can make steering a little challenging — and the shorter route is perfect if you’re inexperienced. The water never gets more than a couple of feet deep, and with turtles, fish and all manner of flora and fauna to enjoy along the way, it’s a floating natural history lesson!
There are many other things to do in the area, but if you can only squeeze in one more, try the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. The route loops through forest and over sand dunes, and each stopping point provides a different vista. Stops nine and ten are truly spectacular, with boardwalks built out across the top of the dunes — perfect for a low energy afternoon.
The ‘Do’ section of this article could easily have stretched to another couple of pages, but I’ll leave you with one other parenting hack this wonderful destination offers. It’s just a one-hour time difference as you hop over the border into Michigan. Don’t tell the kids and they’ll think they’re getting to stay up late! And when they sleep an hour later the next morning, the psychological effects of thinking you slept in past 7 a.m. are worth the drive!