Glen Arbor, Michigan: The Joys of Nature in an Idyllic American Small Town

In Travel Guides, United States
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The smell of fresh pine carried on a gentle sea breeze; this was the first sensation I encountered upon stepping out of the car in Glen Arbor Michigan. This is a place where people feel a real connection with the land around them. The landscape, the forest, the produce and the wildlife of the region are celebrated in the cuisine and outdoor activities in this beautiful village in the woods. You’ll find no big-box stores or chain restaurants here. Businesses are small and they take great pride in offering what is made, grown and caught in Michigan.

 

The Sylvan Inn

 

My family chose to visit Glen Arbor to get away from the banality of suburban strip malls and parking lots. So we drove for about four hours from the Metro-Detroit area to this little town on the coast of Lake Michigan. Our place of stay was the Sylvan Inn, a B&B located in an historic American Victorian house built in 1885. This house exuded vintage charm; the creaky hardwood floors, floral pattered wallpaper and framed 19th century photographs evoked a sense of nostalgia for the America of old. A time when families could sit under the covered porch together, sip iced tea, and chat about the day’s events while watching fat, fuzzy bumble bees pollinate flowers in hanging baskets. This is exactly what my family and I did on the inn’s large covered porch that runs along two sides of the house.

We all very much enjoyed our stay here, especially the breakfast. Fresh coffee and tea blends from the local shop Great Lakes Tea and Spice were always available. The inn had a different breakfast treat every day. During our three night stay we had blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, a frittata with eggs, spinach and cheddar cheese, and French toast with blueberries and goat cheese. Fresh fruit, pastries and crispy bacon was served every day. What a great way to start the day!

 

The Sylvan Inn

The Sylvan Inn

Custom mugs at the Sylvan Inn

Custom mugs at the Sylvan Inn

 

The Downtown

 

I had assumed that Glen Arbor was off the beaten path, a place only known to Michiganders. When I looked at inn’s guest registry, however, I discovered travelers had come from as far afield as Germany, Norway, Qatar and, of course, my boyfriend and I who live in the Netherlands. Looking around the parking lot I saw several cars from states on the other side of the country. Glen Arbor’s reputation certainly has spread far and wide and most people come in the Summer. Yet I never once felt that the downtown was “overrun with tourists”. The town comes alive in the summer. The harsh Northern Michigan winters keep all but a few hundred core residents out. But in the summer the mood turns festive. A sort of community was formed out of complete strangers who came there to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. There were a lot of families with young children and dogs taking advantage of the walkable downtown. The mood was innocent, family friendly. People enter easily into conversation with one another, asking “where are you from?” and “What do you plan on seeing next?”.

 

Cottage Book Shop in Downtown Glen Arbor

Cottage Book Shop in Downtown Glen Arbor

Dune Dogs, an adorable little hotdog stand in downtown Glen Arbor

Dune Dogs, an adorable little hotdog stand in downtown Glen Arbor

The Thyme Inn in downtown Glen Arbor

The Thyme Inn in downtown Glen Arbor

 

Fruits of Orchard and Vine

 

As the small business owners take such great pride in local products, the downtown area is an excellent place to find shops devoted to two of Northern Michigan’s staples: cherries and wine.

Cherries and cherry products can be found everywhere in Northern Michigan and especially in Glen Arbor. Tart cherries are harvested in early summer and sweet cherries in late summer. Fresh cherries are available all summer long at the local grocery store. I highly recommend getting them at the local farmer’s market held behind Township Hall every Tuesday morning from 9AM until 1PM. There you can find the sweet dark red cherries and the pale yellow and pink Rainier variety. At the farmer’s market you can also find a rainbow of beautiful produce; purple carrots and bell peppers, golden beets, white radishes and canary yellow heirloom tomatoes. Wonderful!

To sample every product under the sun made with cherries head to The Cherry Republic. The republic consists of three buildings; the gift shop, the café and the winery, that surround a garden of cherry trees and colorful flowers. The red-painted wooden buildings have a “pioneer village” vibe. Squirrels and chipmunks scuttle through branches and amongst the rocks and flowers. At the gift shop you can try and buy all sorts of cherry products; jam, jelly, salsa, BBQ sauce, candy. You name it they have it. At the café you can sit down for lunch, cherry ice cream, cherry soda (which the Michiganders call “pop”) and, of course, a nice slice of cherry pie!

The Cherry Republic winery marries the tang of cherries with local wine blends. Michigan’s Leelanau peninsula, where Glen Arbor is located, sits at the 45th parallel above the equator. This parallel is considered the ideal climate for growing certain varieties of wine grapes. You would expect cherry wines to be very sweet, and they do make dessert wines with cherries, but the Cherry Republic also makes refreshing dry whites and bold reds with the red fruit.

Another wine tasting venue that’s worth visiting in Glen Arbor is M-22. M-22 refers to the name of the highway that runs through several major towns in Northern Michigan. According to a wall mural downtown “It’s not just a road. It’s a way of life” and the road sign has become a symbol for Northern Michigan. At M-22 you can find apparel and other memorabilia that feature the road sign. Here you can also do a tasting of M-22 brand wines, developed in collaboration with local winemakers. For five dollars you get to try five, one ounce pours and take your M-22 wine glass home with you. My favorite wine from this tasting was the Late Harvest Riesling. The Leelanau Peninsula is particularly well known for this variety.

 

M-22 and Crystal River Outfitters.

M-22 and Crystal River Outfitters.

Wine selection at M-22

Wine selection at M-22

"It's not just a road. It's a way of life"

“It’s not just a road. It’s a way of life”

 

Fruits of Lake and Stream

 

Glen Arbor had a unique geographical location. The town sits on a narrow strip of land between in inland Glen Lake and the colossal Lake Michigan. The bright blue, crystal-clear water is the habitat for a healthy fish population. Seafood is big in Glen Arbor and the species worth seeking out in this area are the Yellow-Bellied Lake Perch, the Michigan Whitefish and the Lake Trout.

Yellow-Bellied Lake Perch, a Michigan specialty, is identified by its distinctive black and yellow striped pattern. It’s flesh is white, mild and flaky. Western Avenue Bar and Grill serves the Perch lightly battered as fish n’ chips. Their crab chowders is also very good.

For Michigan Whitefish, I suggest heading to Art’s Tavern. The Bar and Grill is a landmark in Glen Arbor and you will most likely have to wait for a table if you show up during dinner time. The interior is draped with pennants from universities all over the United States. Any customer can donate a pennant from their local university and they will display it on the wall, although space is running out. Despite its dive-bar atmosphere, Art’s has some of the tastiest food my family and I have tried in a long time. I had the charred Whitefish with Art’s signature Bloody Mary, made with house blend Bloody Mary mix and horseradish vodka. Though not a Michigan fish, the fried Smelt at Art’s is particularly delicious. These tiny, crispy fish are about the size of thick-cut french-fries and I just couldn’t stop steeling them off my boyfriend’s plate. You can order them as a side to one of Art’s award winning burgers.

For the Lake Trout I would suggest dining out at Good Harbor Grill. This nautical-themed seafood restaurant is located in a pretty, blue building and is more upscale than the other eateries in town. It’s definitely worth the wait for one of their three outside tables on the little terrace as you can enjoy the live music being played across the street. Good Harbor has an excellent wine selection. The Lake Trout here is pan fried in bread crumb and topped with dried cherries. The Cioppino, an Italian tomato soup with mussels, whitefish, scallops and lobster, is also quite delicious as well as elegant.

 

Art's Tavern

Art’s Tavern

Signature Bloody Mary

Signature Bloody Mary

 

Getting Into Nature

 

The large population of “good eatin’ fish” draws fisherman from all over the United States to the waters of Lake Michigan. Glen Arbor and the surrounding countryside offers ample opportunities for the visitor to experience the fresh air, from fishing to boating, kayaking, hiking, biking, swimming and camping. But by far the most awesome natural feature that one must see when visiting Glen Arbor is the monumental Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Rated the “most beautiful place in America” by Good Morning America, Sleeping Bear Dunes is located just a short drive (or bike ride!) from Glen Arbor. After entering Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive by car or the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail by bike or foot, which offer several vantage points from which you can view stunning landscapes of hills and wooded valleys. The mountainous terrain is heavily blanketed in mixed pine and broad-leaf forest, punctuated by meandering streams and inland lakes.

The dunes themselves are a natural wonder. The name “Sleeping Bear” comes from an old legend about a mother bear who led her two cubs from a forest fire in Wisconsin to safety on the shores of Lake Michigan. The mother bear, through the power of the “Great Spirit” was transformed into the dune and her cubs were transformed into North and South Manitou Islands, which are visible from the top of the dune. While this park is also known to be inhabited by black bears, I have another theory as to why they’re called “Sleeping Bear” dunes. The physical act of scaling the dunes is so arduous that most have to climb up on all fours which makes them look like bears. The scenic route delivers visitors to the top of the dunes. The only way to reach the narrow strip of beach at the bottom is a ten minute adrenaline-rush of a run down. The only way to get back up is a two hour slog on your hands and feet. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you attempt this. The plunge to the bottom is so steep that it makes you wonder how that sand doesn’t just slide back down into the lake. From the observation deck at the top, the people at the beach below look quite literally like ants. These dunes are breathtaking (especially if you try to climb them!) truly to be found nowhere else on earth.

 

Sleeping Bear Dunes.

Sleeping Bear Dunes.

View from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

View from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive

 

Day Trips

 

If you’re staying for more than a few days and would like to plan a day trip from Glen Arbor, I would suggest going to either the Glen Haven Historic Village or Traverse City.

The Glen Haven Historic Village is very close to Glen Arbor and everything can be seen in an hour or two. Once a thriving town port town servicing the lumber industry, the town was largely abandoned by the early 20th century. It was rescued by entrepreneur David H. Day who set up a cherry cannery, saw mill and train station. Today the town is again mostly abandoned with few if any residents. The historical architecture of the village has been transformed into a series of museums including the Cannery Boathouse Museum, the Maritime Museum the General Store designed to look as it did in 1920 and a working Blacksmith shop where you can watch metalworking demonstrations daily.

Traverse City deserves an article all on its own. Consistently rated as one of America’s best small-town travel destinations, Traverse City has a cool urban vibe that’s laid-back, even in the height of tourist season. The historic down town is great for shopping and dining out. The boardwalk along Grand Traverse Bay is expansive, a great place to observe a multitude of boaters and sailors on the clear blue lake.

 

General Store, Glen Haven Michigan

General Store, Glen Haven Michigan

Interior of Glen Haven General Store

Interior of Glen Haven General Store

 

Though we stayed in Glen Arbor for three days it was, regrettably, not enough time to see everything in and around this lovely little town. Surely, a week would be a better amount of time to truly get to appreciate it. The beautiful scenery is especially worth taking as much time as possible to enjoy. The last thing we did before going to bed on the last night of our stay was watching the sun set over Lake Michigan. It was a serene and colorful end to a great family vacation.

 

Sunset on Lake Michigan

Sunset on Lake Michigan

 

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