It’s a picture-perfect fall day, with the bright sunlight warming the other- wise crisp morning air, as we steer our way north on M-37 out of town and into another world. Like every trip to the gorgeous Traverse City region, my clubs are close at hand, but this time I’m seeking grapes, not greens.
In addition to being one of the best golf destinations in America, the Grand Traverse region near Traverse City, Michigan, has quickly become known as the “Napa of the North,” for its winery scene. With 17 stellar golf courses, nearly a dozen microbreweries and more than three dozen wineries on the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, the Traverse City area has evolved into the perfect “big kid” playground, to go along with its oft-celebrated, family-friendly amenities.
“It’s a different sort of a place than you’ll find in a lot of golf destinations,” explained Traverse City Tourism’s Mike Norton. “Traverse City itself is a great base for playing golf, and you don’t have to stay at a resort, either. We’ve got great nightlife here, and obviously the wine country is a draw and the restaurants are great.
“The whole Traverse City feel — it’s not your daddy’s resort area. We’ve got a lot going on, but with a laid-back feel.” Wherever you point your compass here, you’ll find an incredible array of shops, eateries, and wineries, great golf and above all, stunning scenery. Here’s a look at the Traverse City area from every direction.
While boutique vintners can be found all around the Midwest these days, you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful stand-in for California wine country than here on Old Mission Peninsula. The two-lane M-37 highway runs along the peninsula’s raised ridge, offering expansive views of vineyards and clear blue bays on both sides. The time of our visit, with fall color adding streaks of crimson and gold to the landscape’s primary-color palate, it feels even more like a storybook vacation than simply another golf getaway.
Stretching 22 miles from stem to stern, Old Mission Peninsula is the epicenter of the Traverse City wine country, with eight great wineries throughout. One of the finest — and most photogenic — is Chateau Chantal (chateauchantal.com), located in the enviable position of one of the highest points on the peninsula. The elegantly designed winery doubles as a boutique bed-and-breakfast, and offers unbeatable views to go with its award- winning wine.
Some of the peninsula’s other offerings range from the contemporary vineyards at 2 Lads Winery (2lwinery.com), to the boutique Bowers Harbor Vineyards (bowersharbor.com), not far from the Mission Table restaurant and the Jolly Pumpkin Brewery. The newest vintner on the peninsula, Hawthorne Vineyards (hawthornevineyards.com), has incredible views and a gold medal-winning gamay noir.
Old Mission Peninsula has much more than wine, of course, including b&b’s like the Neahtawanta Inn (oldmission.com/inn) and Tesoro (tesoroinn.com). It also has terrific restaurants like The Boathouse (boathouseonwestbay.com), one of the area’s few waterfront eateries, and the Bad Dog Deli, a hidden gem in an area famous among the foodie set.
There’s plenty of vintner variety off Old Mission, too, including Left Foot Charley (leftfootcharley.com), found in the Grand Traverse Commons (thevillagetc.com), an eclecticcollectionofshopsandeaterieson the site of a former state asylum. If you prefer your beverages by the pint, North Peak Brewing (northpeak.net), is another excellent option for casual fare and great local beer, or the 7 Monks Taproom (7monkstap.com), which boasts 46 beers on tap. If you’re still thirsty, try Right Brain Brewery (rightbrainbrewery.com) and the iconic Mackinaw Brewing Co. (mackinawbrewing.com).
When you work up an appetite, Traverse City has a wide variety of eateries for every palate (in fact, it was even named the No. 1 “Foodie City” in America by Livability.com). For down-to-earth waterfront dining, try the Apache Trout Grill (apachetroutgrill.com), a favorite of tourists and locals alike. One of the area’s finest restaurants is Trattoria Stella (stellatc.com), with traditional fine Italian fare in Grand Traverse Commons.
Traverse City’s downtown offers a vibrant hotbed of shops, restaurants, bars and beaches, too, with no shortage of sights and places to explore.
The Traverse City area’s lodging options are varied and plentiful, with more than 5,000 rooms to choose from. While the resorts are always a fine choice, the Country Inn & Suites of Traverse City (countryinns.com) is perennially one of Traverse City’s top-rated hotels, with all the amenities and free breakfast, to boot. For rooms with a contemporary flair, Cambria Suites (traversecitycambriasuites.com) offers big-city style in an up-north setting. For on-the-water lodging, the Tamarack Lodge (tamaracklodgetc.com) is a sweet retreat right on the beach.
For those looking for one-stop shopping, Grand Traverse Resort & Spa (grandtraverseresort.com) is tough to beat and easy to find. You can even see the resort’s iconic, 17-story tower from nearly everywhere in the area.
Located in nearby Acme, Grand Traverse is a destination all by itself, offering everything from lakefront lodging and luxurious rooms, to on-site shopping, dining and of course, its three championship courses. Its golf has the resort ranked No. 48 in Golf Digest’s Top 75 Golf Resorts in America. Best known is the Jack Nicklaus-designed stunner called The Bear, one of the best tests for your game you’ll find anywhere.
The resort also offers the pretty-and- playable Gary Player-designed Wolverine — the perfect yin to The Bear’s yang — and Spruce Run, the resort’s original Bill Newcomb design.
Just up the street you’ll find Turtle Creek Casino (turtlecreekcasino.com), which like Grand Traverse Resort, is owned by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. If you’re like me, your odds of winning here are considerably better than on the Bear.
There’s plenty more golf options close to the city limits, too. Just up the street from GTR is a lovely club called LochenHeath (lochenheath.com), a fun Steve Smyers design with incredible Lake Michigan views and just the right amount of intrigue. Not far from the Grand Traverse Mall (grandtraversemall.com) is The Crown Golf Club (golfthecrown.com), with “up north” style golf throughout the rolling terrain. Just south of the city center is Elmbrook Golf Club (elmbrookgolf.com), offering views of both East and West Grand Traverse Bay and affordable play.
Taking the scenic M-22 west out of town around the West Bay, you’ll find the Leelanau Peninsula, which is home to more than two dozen delicious wineries, especially the daytrip-worthy Blackstar Farms (blackstarfarms.com). One of Northern Michigan’s most underrat- ed golf clubs also calls the peninsula home, the Leelanau Club at Bahle Farms (leelanauclub.com). It’s a rollicking, roller coaster of a course, and a must-play on any trip to Traverse City.
The peninsula itself is dotted with quaint towns like Suttons Bay, known for its art scene, Northport, with eclec- tic shops and a fine farmer’s market, and Leland, with its famous Fishtown (lelandmi.com/fishtown). Keep fol- lowing M-22 (you’ll probably buy the bumper sticker by the end of this trip) and you’ll find Manitou Passage Golf Club (manitoupassagegolfclub.com). Set alongside the former Sugarloaf Ski Resort, Manitou Passage is an Arnold Palmer design that offers classic Northern Michigan golf in a tranquil setting.
Further down M-22 is the supreme beauty of Sleeping Bear Dunes (sleepingbeardunes.com), a national park named the “Most Beautiful Place in America,” by Good Morning America. Sleeping Bear is unlike anything else in the country, and well worth the day-trip. It’s supernatural.
Of course, the Traverse City area is “bookended” by beauty on all sides. To the east, you’ll find the beautiful Bellaire, punctuated by the transcendent Torch Lake, which has been ranked among the world’s most wonderful, for its “it-can’t- possibly-be-that-blue” waters. (Spoiler: yes, it really can.)
We called this side of Grand Traverse Bay home during our trip, finding it within easy access to all of Traverse City, yet still secluded in an ecosystem of resorts and points of interest all its own. One of the most underrated resorts in Northern Michigan is A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort (a-ga-ming.com), on the shores of Torch Lake. The club has 54 holes across three very varied tracks. A-Ga-Ming also has 30 excellent condominium homes available for stay-and-play deals, perfect for foursomes, eightsomes or more. The resort’s best-known course is the fun, friendly and photogenic gem called The Torch, which offers dramatic views of the eponymous lake. The Torch’s (and maybe the resort’s) signature hole is the dramatic, 235-yard par-3 seventh hole, which overlooks Torch Lake. Take your camera to the tee (you’ll see). A-Ga-Ming’s newest track is the Sundance Course, which opened in 2005 to rave reviews. At 6,900 yards, Sundance is the most modern and argu- ably the most majestic of the three, with views of Torch Lake as well as Lake Michigan. The Sundance’s stellar 17th hole is one of Northern Michigan’s best par-3s. The resort also offers the Antrim Dells course, which offers views of Lake Michigan and has been a local favorite in Northern Michigan for more than 30 years.
Just down the road from A-Ga-Ming is the double-dose of The Chief Golf Course and Hawk’s Eye Golf Resort (golfthechief.com). The Chief offers classic Northern Michigan golf and views of Lake Bellaire. The newer Hawk’s Eye, designed by John Robinson, is a 7,011-yard stunner.
One of the finest four-season get- aways in Northern Michigan is the stellar Shanty Creek Resort (shantycreek.com), with a lineup of award-winning golf, sensational skiing and plenty more.
Shanty Creek offers four fantastic courses, 420 varied and recently remodeled accommodations, and three restaurants, as well as a mouth-watering view from the main lodge, overlooking beautiful Lake Bellaire below.
The resort’s four courses are quite a sight, too, starting with the Arnold Palmer-designed Legend. The course offers lake views and rolling hills over its 6,700 yards. Shanty Creek’s Tom Weiskopf-designed Cedar River course is a 6,900-yard fan favorite named one of the Top 100 resort courses in the country by Golf Week.
Shanty’s Schuss Mountain course offers plenty of Northern Michigan chal- lenge, while the resort’s original course, The Summit, is a great way to end your stay — and ensure your return.
The Bellaire area is also home to Short’s Brewery (shortsbrewing.com), one of the very best in the Midwest. Stop in for a bite or a pint of their Bellaire Brown or Soft Parade. (Or both.)
It doesn’t take long to see that the Traverse City area offers beauty and big- kid fun in every direction. It’s an area that can hold its own on its golf alone, but there’s so much more to be found here. With its wine country, dining, nightlife and scenery adding to its magical mix, Traverse City transcends the traditional golf getaway.
And that’s certainly something worth toasting to.
For more information about the Traverse City area, including an online golf trip planner, visit www.traversecity.com.