Grand celebration begins in Traverse City

My 50th birthday is behind me, but not without a long stretch of celebrations that involved friendly strangers as well as friends, 2,000 miles away as well as at home.

This life is as miserable, bittersweet or divine as we want to make it. That applies to our attitude about being away from home as well.

I can dwell on the stench of portable toilets, 10 miles into the Grand Canyon, or the way the incredible canyon walls light up under a full moon.

I can frame Las Vegas as an unappealing city of excess or a wondrous assortment of initiative and creativity.

I can describe a business trip to northwest Michigan as a pokey, 10-hour drive, or a successful treasure hunt for jewels on the other side of our Great Lake.

The past month has been a series of grand celebrations, rustic to elaborate, camping in the Grand Canyon to staying at Mackinac Island’s splendid Grand Hotel.

This four-part series begins with dinner, at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, near Traverse City, Mich. It will end at the MGM Grand, with seats at KA, one of the hottest Cirque du Soleil tickets in Las Vegas.

They are special pleasures, for special occasions, for your consideration as you approach another milestone.

There are four walls of windows, each with a fetching view, from lush and rolling golf courses to a curvaceous swimming pool and never-ending lakeshore. Our perch is 16 stories above ground, as a flaming orange-red sun melts into Lake Michigan.

Dinner has begun at the Trillium Restaurant, named after the plant that has three leaves, three white petals (when abloom in spring) and three pointed sepals (leaves under the petals).

The gentle name is a contrast to the imposing Grand Traverse Resort, which houses the restaurant and 17th floor Trillium Lounge. The glistening tower is easily the tallest building for miles, surrounded by 900 resort acres that follow Lake Michigan, 6 miles northeast of Traverse City.

There are 30 North American species of trillium, none of which can be harvested in Michigan, and one of which is endangered. The latter – painted trillium – exists only in pockets of one eastern Michigan county, Saint Clair.

And the restaurant? It is a rarity, too, a mix of exotic and local cuisine – like the peanut crusted rack of lamb, served with ginger and pepper sticky rice, plus a hot-sour cucumber salad and curry-coconut aioli.

We arrived for our business gathering as the seasons were changing, and so was chef Juan Martinez’s menu. It was both ambitious and enlightened.

Consider the bookends of one incredible meal, whose key ingredients come from Black Star Farms, “an agricultural destination” near Suttons Bay, in winery-rich Leelanau County.

To start: a rich raclette fondue, to which a cherry liqueur has been added. The French cheese is handmade by John and Anne Hoyt, who learned the craft in the Swiss Alps before opening their Michigan business in 1995.

To end: sips of 80-proof pear eau de vie (fruit brandy), made at Black Star Farms with 15 to 20 pounds of fruit per bottle. The pear brandy is a collector’s item: Bottles are tied over branch buds in spring, so a Bartlett pear grows inside of each. (Cost is $60 per 750 ml bottle.)

Entrees at the Trillium can be an eclectic assortment, jerk pork tenderloin with fried plantains to Amish chicken breast with wild mushroom risotto. My choice was crepes filled with white asparagus and Spanish Arico cheese, topped with a light cream sauce. Not as rich as it may sound.

A friend shared tender, grilled ostrich, marinated in a balsamic butter sauce, served with toasted barley. These meals are not meant for a casual night out; it is $22 to $37 for the main plate, plus another $6-13 for a salad (like the Fuji apple/candied walnut/bleu cheese with vanilla bean vinaigrette) or appetizer (including seared duck breast slices with celeriac and apple slaw).

For more about the resort, owned by the Grand Traverse Band of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes, go to or call 800-748-0303. About $12 million in upgrades have been made since the 2003 property purchase.

For more about Black Star Farms, see or call 231-271-4882. There is a tasting room, and an eight-room bed-and-breakfast (off-season rates of $150-295 kick in Nov. 1); call 231-271-4970. Guests can stable their horses at the farm and use its equestrian facilities.

Leelanau Peninsula Vinters host the annual Toast the Season wine tastings on Nov. 12-13 and 19-20. Tickets are $35 (or $60 per couple). Learn more at or call 231-938-1811. Products from a dozen wineries are tasted; they are matched with holiday themed food.