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Best-Kept Family Vacation Secret

Erin Zammett Ruddy

One of the many reasons I’m glad I married Nick: If I hadn’t, I doubt I’d have ever visited northern Michigan and I think it’s one of the best places in the country, hands down. We just returned from a week up there and I can’t wait to go back. 

For the first 10 years Nick and I were together, the only place in Michigan he ever took me was Flint, where he grew up. Um, well, you can imagine my surprise the first time we drove up north and I saw crystal-clear Lake Michigan and the surrounding towns and lakes and their undeniable beauty. I was blown away. Nick’s parents now live in Traverse City, which is one of the coolest places I have ever visited (and I have visited some cool places--Portland, Oregon would be my other fave). Northern Michigan is the perfect summer vacation spot—seriously, check it out. It’s super laid-back (flip flops and sneakers will have you covered), has fantastic restaurants (our current favorite, Stella, is run by a friend of Mario Batali, who also vacations up there--see what he says about Traverse City as a foodie destination), local, fresh foods abound, there are great beaches, vineyards, microbreweries, shops, water sports galore, super-nice people, amazing parks and activities and it’s surrounded by tons of little towns that dot the gorgeous shoreline. I am a coastal, ocean girl through and through (which is why I had no idea Lake Michigan was such a hot spot—I'm sure those of you in the middle of the country are thinking, duh) but I am now also a Michigan girl by marriage and at heart and I plan to spend lots of summers up north getting to know it better and showing my kids the ropes. Here are this year's photo highlights. 

They make a lot of wine up in northern Michigan (Madonna’s family has a vineyard!) and it’s not half bad. Also not bad: The incredible vistas from the tasting rooms. This place is called Chateau Chantal and it’s out on Old Mission Peninsula which juts into Grand Traverse Bay so there’s water everywhere you look. Their oak-barreled reserve chardonnay was dynamite.

This is the famous old tugboat in historic Fishtown, a place we love to visit mostly for the little shop that sells Tug Stuff (overpriced clothes with the cool tugboat logo—love!). Also love Alex’s tee, which his grandma bought him here. It says Lake Michigan: Unsalted. Get it?

Endless miles of paved trail—aptly named The TART Trail, like the cherries that grow in abundance up there—snake through vineyards and cherry orchards and tons of farmland. Nick and I did a 15-mile bike ride one morning. Sore!

Sleeping Bear Dunes is amazing. It's a series of huge sand dunes that you can climb (and roll down) all surrounded by beautiful beaches and parks. Next year we’re going to do a sand-buggy tour.

We played Where’s Waldo with Al, who was rocking a red and white striped shirt. Doesn’t this place look like the Sahara? So freaking cool.

We went to a town called Elk Rapids (which Nick and I kept referring to as Elk Snout—Overboard, anyone?) for a big carnival/festival they were having. Alex got into the tug of war, naturally.

They also have a natural water slide in this little river that flows out to the lake. Yes, we let our four year old do it about 15 times (that’s him, fully submerged). He’s a strong swimmer and I was there to stop him from getting caught in the (very mild) rapids.

Nick and I are so not carnival people but he took one for the team and got on the ferris wheel with Nora (my father-in-law took Alex).

I opted for the far-less-scary slide. Though pretty much everything at carnivals like this freaks me out, including the prizes. Alex was given a giant blow-up gun with the American flag printed all over it (I made him give it back and instead he got a blow-up mallet with skulls—much better).

We visited a friend of a friend's organic produce farm and got a great tour and lots of freshly-picked goodies. Local, sustainable food is really big up there—and really good. We cooked from the farm stand almost every night.

Naturally we didn’t get a single good family shot but I suppose it’s more important that we had an incredible time exploring an amazing part of the country. Thanks, Michigan!