Even the owner of my hotel had the good sense not to be where I was. In a couple of weeks, he said as I checked in at the Whaleback Inn in Leland, Mich., he and his wife would head to Florida to begin a weeklong Caribbean cruise. “Winter gets long here,” said Scott Koehler, who has run the Whaleback for 15 years. “The ice melted on the lake last year in April.”
It was a sentiment I heard often: Leelanau Peninsula winters are long. Very, very long. Last year, it was 265-inches-of-snow long. (By comparison, Chicago had 82 inches.) While that might be a fair argument not to live on the peninsula, it’s no argument not to visit in wintertime; sometimes being in the right place at the wrong time is all the reason to be there.
The Leelanau Peninsula is a spit of land stretching into Lake Michigan like the pinkie on the back of the left hand that is Lower Michigan. For much of the year — especially summer and fall — Leelanau attracts the masses who seek a gentle, pastoral Midwest: rolling landscape, glowing sunsets, twisting rural roads and two dozen wineries. But in winter? Not so much interest.
It’s understandable. The landscape turns brown and bland, then icy and white. Sunsets are swallowed by steely winter skies. Half the businesses are shuttered until spring. Single-digit temperatures are not uncommon.
Winter in Leelanau is sort of in transition. For instance, Martha’s Leelanau Table, a restaurant in Suttons Bay, is experimenting for the first time with staying open this winter: Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday brunch. The night I happened in, the specials were geared toward their winter experiment, including a cassoulet and turkey pot pie.
“The pot pie has a cheesy biscuit top,” my server said.
“Very wintry,” I said, and looked around. Only one other table was occupied.
“Do you expect to have enough customers to make staying open during winter worthwhile?”
“We’ll see,” she said.
The next morning I peeked through the hotel blinds to spy a steely gray sky — like most winter mornings here — and Lake Leelanau lightly crusted with ice and snow. Bare tree branches quivered in a 33-degree breeze that felt much colder. A storm was on the way.
I walked up the road to embrace winter the best way I know — on foot. Just down the road from the Whaleback sits the Whaleback Natural Area, where I hoofed across a trail matted with ice and snow atop a bed of crunchy brown leaves. What can best be described as a “wintry mix” soon began to fall, the tiny ice pellets that make a crackly static sound on your hood. Except for my own steps and breath, there wasn’t another sound.
For much of the walk, I was able to grab views of green-gray Lake Michigan through the spiny trees that, in summer, would have been flush with leaves. Somewhere beyond the pines, I could hear large waves beating the shore. I took my sweet time on the two-mile trail, savoring the quiet, trying not to slip and appreciating the absence of another human for who knows how far.
Back at the hotel, I climbed into my car to tour the peninsula; up its western edge to the northern point, then back down the east shore before crossing back over. I stopped less than a mile down the road, at the town of Leland, which I recognized from a previous trip when the sidewalks were teeming with shorts- and T-shirt-clad visitors.
Today it was quiet and still, and I took stock of a town that was half open (Trish’s Dishes restaurant, Hullabaloo party-supply store) and half closed (Main Street art gallery, Tampico Imports jewelry shop).
I wandered into Leelanau Books, on the town’s short main strip (called Main Street, naturally), and bought a postcard showing something close to the scene outside: a few boats in the Leland harbor, everything caked with snow and ice below a stilted gray sky. It turned out the woman working the register had taken the photo.
“Someone asked how I got the sky to look that steely gray,” Lori Wegener said. “I told him that’s just what it looks like here in winter — every day.”
She said she’s lived on Leelanau for 42 years, then added, “Come February, you say to yourself, ‘And we live here because …?’ ” Yet she stays.
“If we get sunshine, no matter what, it’s a beautiful day,” she said.
After a turkey Reuben at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern, I was directed by Kristi Fischer toward one of her favorite places to play: Leelanau State Park, 1,300 acres of shore and woods at the peninsula’s northern tip. That includes 8½ miles of incredibly well-marked hiking trails, which prompted my second wintry walk of the day, this time toward a long, narrow beach.
I slowly worked my way to the great sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan, where the lakeshore looked like a layer cake: white (snow), beige (sand), greenish-blue (water), icy gray (sky).
As dusk fell, I headed back south, with enough time for one drink to warm me up. I remembered a cider maker, Tandem Ciders, housed in what looks like an old barn on a quiet road in the middle of the peninsula.
With its dark wood bar and deep red walls, the tasting room feels as much like a rural English cottage as a cidery in rural Michigan. I took a seat and ordered a blend of Tandem’s sweeter cider, Smackintosh, blended with a tart, purplish plum cider.
A couple of locals sat at the bar, one of whom ordered his usual: a blend of Smackintosh and a dry, mouth-puckering cider made from crabapples called the Crabster.
“Mostly Smack?” the bartender asked, referring to the man’s usual preference.
“Nah,” he said. “Two-thirds Smack, one-third Crab.”
The bartender paused, briefly thrown by this change in routine toward a more hardy blend.
“Well,” he said, “I guess it is winter.”