Finding the good life in food, drink, beaches of Traverse City, Mich.

sunriseYou know life is good when seagulls are your alarm clock, a miles-long morning walk doesn’t require shoes and breakfast begins with peaches, cherries or blueberries grown down the road.

It is a rare treat for me to book only “time for observation” on a morning work docket that begins with sleepy clicks of the red-orange hues of sunrise. The next priority: Secure a blue-and-white beach lounger for gawking and snoozing, then lie quietly enough for a pair of ducks to waddle over and claim a chunk of shade underneath.

My location? Michigan, which seems as mysterious as Mars to some Wisconsinites because the great lake between us is both a beauty and driving obstacle. Others dismiss the Wolverine State and its shoreline as more of what we already know – not a real vacation.

Such a pity. Western Michigan beaches tend to be sandier, more plentiful and swimmer-friendly than what you’ll find along Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. This is especially true in and near Traverse City, whose two bays help calm and warm the peninsula waters.

Consider Michigan’s motto: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice.
Translation: If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.

I plop near the north end of a 3.5-mile-long beachfront that includes Traverse City State Park, whose 47 acres contain a campground that is open all year. Within eyesight are parasail takeoffs, kayak rentals, kids bouncing on a trampoline that floats, standup paddleboards and vacationers who wade surprisingly far before water reaches their waistline.

I’m told it’s not unusual for an adult to be able to wade one mile from shore around here.

What else happens besides sun worshiping and watching ducks close enough to nibble at your sleeping feet? It is easy to drink and eat well.

Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas are on the 45th Parallel, halfway between the equator and North Pole. This northern latitude is considered ideal for agriculture worldwide; locally produced Rieslings are among those that gain international acclaim.

About three dozen wineries dot the area, which also contains a mix of mansions, tiny towns and fruit farms. Roam on your own or book a tour; choices include Twin Peninsulas Shuttle., 231-642-7886

My favorite winery: the hilltop Chateau Chantal, operated by a former priest and nun who married. Visitors sip $5 glasses of wine on a big outdoor deck that overlooks vineyards. Some reserve a $75 seat at a seven-course wine dinner (Wednesday and Friday nights, until Oct. 30) and spend a night at the winery’s bed and breakfast inn (rates start at $190)., 800-969-4009

A must-stop for my teacher friends: Peninsula Cellars, a converted one-room school from 1896. One blackboard welcomes us to detention and is filled with this hand-printed repetition: I will only drink good wine!!! Two others describe wine specials and grape farm locations., 231-933-9787

Add around 10 microbreweries and artisan distilleries for a full exploration of the area’s stash of hootch.

Earning my attention: pear-in-a-bottle brandy ($75) from Black Star Farms and White Pizza (ricotta, bacon, sliced redskins and white sauce – “like scalloped potatoes” on crust, a companion aptly concluded) at The Jolly Pumpkin’s rustic, rural restaurant., 231-944-1270;, 231-223-4333

Where else is there to eat?

Cherries – dried, in pop, in salsa, chocolate-covered and dressed many more ways – from Cherry Republic. Make a little road trip to the home base in tiny Glen Arbor, where the funky grounds include a café and bakery., 800-206-6949

Ice cream is most interesting at the farmstead base of Moomers, just outside of Traverse City and judged best nationwide by “Good Morning America” staff in 2008., 231-941-4122

A small but choice farmers’ market operates downtown on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until late October. It is between the boutiques of vibrant Front Street and the beachfront Clinch Park, whose recent $3 million revamp ensures that it continues as a city showcase.

Hot restaurant choices often incorporate locally grown ingredients and earn Traverse City a top five ranking in Bon Appetit’s and Midwest Living’s magazine lists of best foodie towns. The city presents its first Taste of Traverse City and Foodie Film Festival on Sept. 13-15., 231-714-4646

More longstanding is the area’s National Cherry Festival (which began in 1925 as the Blessing of the Blossoms Festival) and Traverse City Film Festival (co-founded by filmmaker/rebel Michael Moore in 2005). Both are mid-summer events. For more about the area, consult, 800-872-8377.

My base while in Traverse City was the Sugar Beach Resort Hotel, just north of town, where rates for a room facing the water start at $119 as of Labor Day. That’s less than one-half of high-season summer rates. Accommodations include a microwave, small refrigerator, coffeemaker and breakfast buffet.

For details:, 800-509-1995. Under the same ownership and comparable in price is the adjacent Grand Beach Resort Hotel.

About 25 miles north of Traverse City is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, worth a day of exploration. Swimming, hiking, biking, dune climbing and museum tours are options., 231-326-5134