A Northern Michigan Road Trip Itinerary
Last year, I was invited on a road trip that would not only introduce me to a part of the country I was unfamiliar with but also immediately make a Michigan fan out of me. My Northern Michigan road trip introduced me to the Cherry Capital of the world, an incredibly remote area that is etched in American history, Mushroom houses, ghost encounters, and gorgeous scenery.
Behold, here are how my adventures in Northern Michigan played out. You can retrace the exact itinerary I had and fall in love with this area just as I did.
Arriving In Northern Michigan
For this Northern Michigan road trip itinerary, the closest affordable airport to fly into is Traverse City, whose airport is called Cherry Capital Airport. From there, drive 2 1/2 hours to Mackinaw City and park your car at Shepler’s Ferry. Bring your luggage with you and make your way to the ferry.
For those of you who have not been to a place that required you to leave your car and ferry across, the procedure is super simple. Ferry attendants will direct you where to park your car and tag your luggage if it is being taken to a hotel on Mackinac Island. They will take the luggage from you and deliver it to the hotel you’ve indicated. Purchase your ferry ticket and wait until boarding time. The ride is about twenty minutes and the scenery is grand!
Upon arrival at Mackinac Island, take some time to peruse the darling shops along the front street, sampling fudge from the fudge capital of the world, and taking in the beautiful photo-ops. The only way to get around on the island is by foot, bicycle, or horse-drawn carriage.
A private island tour is a great way to see the whole island. You’ll also hear the local stories and history. Jack’s Livery Stable is a great service provider for this tour.
FYI: Perhaps you noticed the difference in the spelling of Mackinaw City versus Mackinac Island. They are still both pronounced Mac-kin-aw.
Where to Stay on Mackinac Island
There are two exceptional places to stay on Mackinac Island. For a luxurious splurge, the Grand Hotel is one of the most famous hotels in the country. This grand dame has hosted five US Presidents, seen several movies filmed there, and has a rocking-chair lined porch that makes the top lists for exceptional properties.
For my stay, we chose the Mission Point Resort. This gorgeous property is riddled with history, elegant restaurants, amenities, and afforded me waterfront views.
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Relax and unwind at Mission Point Resort, popping downstairs to Chianti to enjoy a memorable dinner. Having sampled the antipasti, Fettuccine a la Carbonara, and baby gem lettuce (salad) myself, I give this beautiful dining spot a 10/10 for food quality, the taste of dishes, and stellar service.
If you aren’t ready to conclude your evening, walk over to the Pink Pony for cocktails and music. It is a local’s fave.
The Northern Michigan Road Trip’s Second Day
On day two of your trip, enjoy the buffet-style breakfast that is included in your Mission Point Resort stay before checking out. This is a great time to indulge in a spa service, as the facility is primo.
I took the 1 PM ferry out of Mackinac Island, so I had plenty of time to see more of this special place. One thing I loved about Mackinac Island was the artwork. There were dozens of small galleries, paintings outside, and sculptures, all highlighted by the gorgeous blooms of the incredible flower scene on Mackinac Island.
A tour of historic Fort Mackinac should also be on your travel itinerary. This military outpost doubled as soldier’s barracks for quite some time and is also the oldest building in Michigan. Costumed interpreters shared the stories of life at Fort Mackinac circa 1780, which was the first designated National Park in the National Park System, but most recently changed to a state park.
Fort Mackinac’s wide array of charming cottages, bungalows, and a New England cloned town set the stage for incredible pictures to remember this unique place.
For lunch, we enjoyed a tasty sandwich or salad from the Fort Mackinac Tea Room, on the Terrace of Fort Mackinac, but managed/owned by The Grand Hotel. The views were incredible and the food delicious. Then, we departed for the ferry.
Heading to Petoskey
Back at your car, drive 45 minutes Southwest to Petoskey, Michigan. The Terrace Inn is a 100+-year-old hotel that will be perfect for your stay. I found The Terrace Inn enchanting, with interesting nooks and crannies, bay views, and a lovely onsite restaurant. It offers 38 cottage rooms (queens or two twin beds) with private baths and an awesome complimentary breakfast.
Caution: The Terrace Inn has a ghost, which touched my foot as I laid across the bed. If that sort of thing freaks you out, this may not be the property for you.
Next, make your way to downtown Petoskey to check out the local shops, Crooked Tree Arts Center, or one of the many tastings available in this hip little area. Enjoy in a beer flight at Beards Brewery, coffee at North Perk Coffee, a spirit tasting at Gypsy Vodka, wine tasting at Petoskey Farms Vineyards, or like me, a handcrafted soda flight at Roast & Toast. Petoskey has some adorable shops for souvenirs and gourmet foods, like Grandpa Shorter’s Gifts, North Goods, and Threads.
Fun Fact: Hemingway wrote a lot about Petoskey and Northern Michigan in general.
Perhaps the most well-known thing to do in Petoskey is to hunt for native Petoskey stones, which you will find at Magnus Park, Bayfront Park, or Petoskey State Park. These stones (both rock and fossil) are flat, smooth, and have ringed (circle-like) designs in them, which is more noticeable when wet. Wade ankle-deep into the freezing Michigan crystal-clear waters knowing that you will come out with a handful of these beauties. If you do not find any, you can purchase them all around town.
For dinner, head over to Stafford’s Pier Restaurant. This is a perfect place to try oak-planked whitefish, the local Northern Michigan fish that is a highly-regarded favorite. I tried it–it was light and not too fishy. Stafford’s makes excellent Cherry Praline Profiteroles (with hot fudge) for dessert, so be sure to save room.
After dinner, a fun option is to take a tour on the Pointer Boat where you get to ride in a comfy pontoon boat. The expensive houseboats and waterfront homes along the drive are highly impressive. I did not know this much wealth existed in this part of the country. Everything was so clean and pristine. The evening concluded with a nightcap at the Terrace Inn.
Note: Petoskey is in the snow belt part of the state. It gets LOTS Of snow.
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Day Three in Northern Michigan
On Day three of your Northern Michigan road trip, you’ll be exploring Charlevoix and Traverse City; but first, breakfast at the Terrace Inn. The buffet-style breakfast is included with your stay, and you won’t want to miss it. Delicious eggs, fresh fruit, muffins, bagels, breakfast meats, and a potato casserole were some of the things to choose from, along with juice and coffee.
It is a 30-minute drive from Petoskey to Charlevoix (char-la-voy), an adorable seaside French-sounding town. If you need a stop in between, keep the Horton Bay General Store in mind. This unique store has antiques, a tavern, and tasty looking restaurant. Across the street is a tiny bookstore, Red Fox Inn, with souvenirs, clothing, and other fun items.
The first thing you’ll want to do in Charlevoix is to book the Mushroom House Tour at Elements Gallery. It was my favorite thing to do on my Northern Michigan road trip! A GEM car takes you around Charlevoix on this cool tour to see the exotic mushroom houses designed by the local artist Earl Young. There are 26 quirky gnome-like houses in total, some of which can be rented. One of the signature elements of a mushroom house is that the stonemasonry walls have wavy eaves, which look like they have melted. The chimneys and roofs are almost always a dead giveaway. The tour lasts one hour.
An important detail about Charlevoix is that it is on four bodies of water: Lake Michigan, Round River, Charlevoix River, and Pine River. It is an idyllic waterfront town and all things related to boating, fishing, and water sports are in full force here. Charlevoix is adorable and dotted with cute cafes, souvenir shops, clothing stores, art galleries, and a killer taffy shop. The hanging flower baskets add a special touch to the already charming landscape.
Depending on how you want to spend your afternoon, here are two choices. You can stay in Charlevoix to explore more of the downtown shopping and local attractions or drive to a great waterfront dining spot across town. If you choose to stay in town, pop in The Cantina for incredible Queso Dip and Tacos, chased by a cold margarita. Head over to The Landing for amazing burgers, fish & chips, and PB&J Sweet Potato Fries if you opt to drive across town.
Traverse City, Michigan Bound
When you’ve shopped all you can, and you’re finished exploring Charlevoix, rev up the engine and head South to Traverse City, the Cherry Capital of the World. It’s about an hour away. The Hotel Indigo offers lovely and stylish accommodations for this leg of your Northern Michigan road trip.
After freshening up a bit, partake a fantastic wine tasting at Mari Vineyards. The scenic drive to get there made me feel like I was back in Italy rather than in the United States. At the vineyards, you can opt to have a tasting or a private tour. The tour allows you to visit the basement of Mari Vineyards where you can take a selfie at the Game-of-Thrones-ish door. My favorite wines of the tasting were the Proefectus Red and Scriptorium Riesling.
Traverse City, Michigan, is a gorgeous waterfront town. Clinch Park offers a choice of shopping boutiques and quite a few restaurants. Mary’s Kitchen Port, an upscale kitchen and food emporium, was my favorite. If you would like to get out on the water, try renting kayaks or stand-up paddleboards. Be sure to check out State Theatre Bijou by the Bay, a stunning historical movie theater with great neon lights that shows classic and indie films. Other Traverse City attractions include nearly 20 golf courses, six distilleries, and 20 breweries.
A Delicious Dining Opportunity
Before dinner, drive to the Mission Point Lighthouse, which is closed but still a great photo opportunity. Have dinner at Mission Table, a farm-to-fork establishment with a tantalizing, seasonal menu and romantic fireplaces. The restaurant is housed in a 1880s home and has lovely decor. The menu changes often so I cannot recommend any dishes because they are probably no longer on the menu.
Mission Table was my first time trying rabbit and I truly enjoyed it in the form of a rich and decadent pasta dish. Try a local beer while you at Mission Table; they have several to choose from. I loved the Jolly Pumpkin.
With a full belly, make your way back to Hotel Indigo to rest up for your final day on the Northern Michigan road trip.
Northern Michigan’s Day Four of Travel
Though the mushroom houses were my favorite thing on the trip, day four was my favorite full day of all.
Traverse City has an exceptional restaurant, Patisserie Amie, that I had heard about through magazine articles and from friends. While I’m sure the menu is excellent at any time, I lucked out and had brunch there.
Patisserie Amie is of the top 10 restaurants (of 233) in Traverse City on TripAdvisor. It is a small French bistro that only seats a handful of diners at one time. I had to wait a bit for a seat, but trust me, it is well worth it. I tried a Raspberry French Soda (they make wonderful ones!) and the open-faced Croque Madame for brunch. This meal made my “Best Eats in the USA 2018 Edition” post.
Next up, is a drive to the Leelanau Peninsula. Located about 45 minutes away, this awesome part of the state has to be one of Michigan’s best-hidden gems.
More Stamps for My Passport
The first stop was Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in Empire, Michigan, with 35-miles of shoreline and towering dunes. It is part of the National Parks Service so you can get a stamp in your National Parks Passport if you have one.
People climb down the sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes to reach the water’s edge and then crawl at a snail’s pace to get back up. It isn’t a sport for the faint of heart, as the altitude, incline, and slippery sand terrain are grueling. It is not uncommon for people to not be able to make it back up the mountain, requiring them to be airlifted (at a fee) from their 450-foot descent. Signs indicate it could take two hours to get back to the top.
Next, explore Glen Arbor’s Cherry Republic Great Hall mega-store in the Cherry Capital of the World. You’ll find cherry salsa, candies, jams, syrups, and chocolates, to name a few. Cherry wine tasting is a thing, too. Only steps away, you may want to browse Cottage Book Shop, a cute local bookstore with souvenirs, or sip your favorite coffee drink at Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company.
An Unexpected Find on the Northern Michigan Road Trip
Fishtown Leland was the third stop of the day. This commercial fishing village on Lake Michigan is in the Leelanau Peninsula. Known as Fishtown, it is a 150-year old town with 19th-century shanties that was saved by the locals 11 years ago for preservation. Fishtown, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, made for great photo-ops.
Be sure to have sandwiches from the Village Cheese Shanty before leaving. Check out the menu in front of the tiny shop and place your order. Orders will be called outside when they are complete; no need to wait inside or worry about missing your call. I recommend the Third Coast with chicken breast, German mustard, and Maytag Bleu cheese on a pretzel bun.
Leland and Lake Leelanau offer some fun shops including Leland Gal, River & Main (a candy store), Tug Stuff, Greta’s of Leland, Two Fish Gallery, The Fish Hook, and Leelanau Books. Several wineries and distilleries are in the area, too, should you wish to try them.
Michigan, I Love You!
I enjoyed my Northern Michigan road trip so much that I’m sure I left a piece of my heart there. I’d been savoring the trip details, photos, and story waiting to share them with you for almost a year.
If you plan a special trip in the future, I hope you will come to see the stunning landscape, beauty, and unique attractions in Northern Michigan. I can see why so many Michiganders vacation in their home state; I never understood that until now. It is just another example of how Midwest travel is where you will find some of the best adventures of your life.
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Read more about Michigan here:
Thanks to Pure Michigan for hosting my travels. As always, opinions and reviews are 100% mine and unbiased.
To learn more about these unique areas, visit the corresponding tourism board sites below: