‘Glad to see them come, glad to see them go,” our waitress said, nodding over her shoulder at the lively street scene of Charlevoix, Mich., before bustling to the next table. A stream of vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians with ice cream cones and shopping bags paraded past the window on this late July day.

Clearly, my wife and I had stumbled onto a favorite summer destination. Like many coastal communities in this part of the Lower Peninsula, Charlevoix is blessed with a mixture of bucolic inland lakes and woods as well as beaches and lighthouses along the vast blue of Lake Michigan.

Just days before, we had rolled off the SS Badger — a car ferry that traverses Lake Michigan between Manitowoc, Wis., and Ludington, Mich. — with a plan. We would head straight across the state, linger along the shore of Lake Huron and eventually hop over to Mackinac Island. Lucky for us, instead we took an impulsive left turn as we drove off the ferry.

“Why don’t we wander up the coast instead,” my wife, Margy, said after we consulted a map in downtown Ludington.

Maybe we were influenced by the four-hour ferry ride, floating on open water with no shore in sight — in itself an adventurous leap. But once in Michigan, we abandoned our itinerary. Our main goal had always been to seek big waters and sandy beaches, minus the salt, and that was already at our fingertips (and toes).

Even as the Badger docked, we eyed the white, squat North Breakwater Lighthouse, one of two lighthouses in Ludington.

Not much later in the day, we were sitting on a broad, sandy stretch of shoreline known as 1st Street Beach, in Manistee.

In this Victorian port city, population 6,100, we ambled down River Street, passing brick buildings with sweeping windows; 27 of the structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. We walked the nearly 2-mile Riverwalk, a paved, pleasant path that stretches along the Manistee River from Manistee Lake to Lake Michigan.

Our hike ended with a dramatic flourish at the beach, where we took off our shoes and soothed our feet in the frigid waters. Nearby, families played in the sand with the North Pierhead Lighthouse in the background, across the river on the 5th Street Beach.

We arrived in Frankfort, farther up the coast, the next morning and were delighted to catch the weekly Frankfort Farmers Market, open every Saturday year-round. We browsed the stands bursting with local produce and crafts and filled our bags with famous Michigan cherries, homemade bread, cheese and sausage.

With lunch in hand, we drove to the Point Betsie Lighthouse and beach, 5 miles north of town. The lighthouse, one of Michigan’s most photographed beacons, stands out against Lake Michigan, with its white siding and red roof. The lighthouse is open for tours and operated by the Friends of Point Betsie Lighthouse. The enticing public beach next to the lighthouse is easy to get to, though the roadside parking is tight on nice days. We took a few turns before squeezing into a spot on the Saturday we visited.

The beach was worth the wait, though. Fresh breeze, soothing surf, the sunny expanse of Lake Michigan and the backdrop of the Point Betsie Lighthouse made for a memorable picnic. To top it off, a kite-surfer entertained us with aerobatics over the lake. We lingered over lunch and let the sand and water play over our feet before wiping off and heading up the shore.

Sleeping Bear Dunes

Next stop: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. This showpiece park stretches along 35 miles of unspoiled Lake Michigan shoreline, featuring dozens of sugar sand beaches, more than 20 inland lakes, hiking and biking trails and engaging historic sites. North and South Manitou Islands, also part of the park, are accessible via the Manitou Island Transit ferry, departing daily from the docks in Leland.

On a previous visit, our family clambered up (and tumbled down) part of the renowned Dune Climb, a 260-foot, two-tier mountain of sand that is a kids-of-all-ages magnet. With no kids along this trip, Margy and I opted instead for the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, a 7-mile self-guided car tour.

We picked up an interpretive guide for the drive at the Empire Visitor Center but spent most of our time pausing at the spectacular overlooks of the Glen Lakes, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Lake Michigan. Our favorite vista was the Lake Michigan Overlook, a short walk from the parking lot. The observation deck is about 450 feet above the lake, offering a gull’s-eye view of the lake, the shore and the sunsets.

But the splendor of a Lake Michigan sunset was not in the cards. Darkening clouds blanketed the sun and the first sprinkles inspired a retreat to our car.

We drove to Petoskey, near the head of Little Traverse Bay. Here we found a comfortable B&B and decided to spend a couple of days, hoping to use our bikes.

Our hostess suggested biking on the Little Traverse Wheelway, a 27-mile paved path linking Charlevoix and Harbor Springs. We started at Bayfront Park in Petoskey, cycling 17 miles west to Charlevoix, where we enjoyed our window-seat meal before heading back to Petoskey. The prettiest part of the route was a lakeshore stretch east of Charlevoix from a Michigan highway roadside park at the Susan Creek Nature Preserve to a picnic overlook by the Loeb Nature Preserve.

In Charlevoix, our friendly waitress suggested we drive back to town that evening to join in the city’s Venetian Festival, with boat parade, fireworks over Lake Charlevoix, music and a carnival. She also suggested touring the Boulder Park neighborhood, where developer Earl Young built a delightful collection of fairy tale mushroom houses beginning in 1918. Taking her advice, we returned that evening, seeing firsthand why visitors fall in love with this region of exceptional charm and beauty.

The next morning, we biked east and north of Petoskey toward Harbor Springs on the Wheelway, lingering on the sandy beach at Petoskey State Park. Following another tip from a local at an ice cream spot in Harbor Springs, we postponed our trek to Mackinac City for the afternoon.

Instead, we ventured onto the Tunnel of Trees (M-119), a 16-mile Scenic Heritage Route between Harbor Springs and Cross Village hugged by a hardwood forest. Along the way, we stopped at the Good Hart General Store in the hamlet of Good Hart, a throwback country store noted for its chicken or beef potpies. We stopped at Legs Inn, an eclectic structure crafted from driftwood, log, stone and old stove legs (hence the name). This is one of northern Michigan’s most notable eateries, built in the late 1920s by Stanley Smolak, a Polish immigrant. The restaurant is still in the family and is a local favorite for Polish-American dishes, live music and atmosphere, including distinctive gardens and a bluff-top view of Lake Michigan. After our meal, we stopped at the Three Pines Studio, a gallery featuring the work of northern Michigan artists and offering a menu of classes and workshops.

By the end of the road — and nearing the end of our vacation — we felt as embraced by nature as that roadway. We’d missed Mackinac, but had all the sand and surf we needed — with some unexpected surprises thrown in.


Jim Umhoefer is a travel and outdoor writer and photographer from Sauk Centre, Minn. Find him online at www.candidperceptions.com.