One of the best beach vacations I've had took place about 800 miles from an ocean.
This was possible because the beach is located right near the midsection of the country, along the rumpled northeastern shoreline of Lake Michigan. Poised at the very tip of the pinkie, to use the inevitable "hand" metaphor for Michigan geography, it is one of America's most extravagantly under-exploited stretches of waterfront property, and it's one of the last places any reasonable East Coaster would think to head for a beach getaway.
Which is why it is perfect for one.
The lake is a murky turquoise that suggests a mixture of a Caribbean lagoon and Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River. The waves near the shore are mild-mannered enough for anyone to enjoy, the sandy shallows extending far into the lake. The water is a powerful refrigerant even in August, capable of turning extremities blue in 20 minutes. If you get a snoutful there's none of the snorting and hopping a dose of sea water provokes. The sand is nearly pristine, and the dunes that line the coast are far more spectacular and intimidating than those along North Carolina's storied Outer Banks. Some are as high as 300 feet. Offshore, snorkelers and divers find a graveyard of sunken ships.
But the very best thing about this sliver of beach is how few people you have to share it with. Imagine your favorite Atlantic beach in November, but with summer weather.
There are several reasons for the quiet. Sixty-four miles of the shoreline is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a federal area dedicated to preserving the curious sand dunes--who knew there were such monstrous dunes located inland, on the shore of a freshwater lake?--and their fragile ecology. Another reason is that the closest big cities are a long drive away. Detroit and Chicago are more than 200 miles distant, making Sleeping Bear Dunes farther from those cities than Ocean City is from Washington. And the shores of lower Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Erie offer beaches far easier to get to. There are no big airports near Michigan's pinkie. Traverse City, a small up-market resort town about 25 miles away, attracts most of the vacationers who come this far north.
The result is that, when we visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes area in August, we enjoyed nearly perfect summer weather--80 to 90 degrees, moderated by persistent cooling winds off the lake--and few people. I had to compete for a parking place only once, and we never had to wait for a table at a restaurant. I didn't see a single tattoo parlor. Nobody had a boombox on the beach, and there was a conspicuous lack of signage warning people not to do things. I was able to drive down long tree-lined roads, park at the dead end and walk less than 20 yards to the water's edge, finding myself the only person in sight. The park rangers seemed a little lonely, but when approached they were friendly in that unmistakably open, Midwestern way.
I'm told we were lucky, since we traveled during the last week of August; crowds are heavier during the peak summer travel season. Still, if you're thinking the big Atlantic shore beaches have lost some appeal--what with their mealtime traffic jams, the unexplained suds lapping at the jetties, the empty plastic containers bearing Greek lettering that wash up on shore, the profusion of suggestive T-shirts, video arcades and teenage fashion victims--you might want to think about heading inland to the beach, too.
The name Sleeping Bear Dunes implies a long, rich history. The name derives from a Chippewa legend in which the most prominent dune is a mother bear and the two nearby islands in the lake are her cubs, drowned in one of the area's mythically powerful winter storms.
Yet these same dunes make up some of the most temporary geography in America. Three times this century, once as recently as 1995, large chunks of coast up to 20 acres square have slid into the lake, rearranging the shoreline literally overnight. In 1931 a Coast Guard rescue facility had to be moved more than a mile when encroaching dunes threatened to bury it. The dunes regularly march along the shoreline, often overtaking forests and suffocating them under deposits of sand, eventually moving on and leaving "ghost forests" of dead gray timber still standing. According to the National Park Service, the dunes travel at about four feet per year, generally in a northeasterly direction. One windy afternoon on the dunes I observed a fine, tiny sandstorm sweeping across the ground no more than ankle high. I could feel the glassy grains tickling my legs.
There is something about sand dunes--the promise of a soft fall?--that makes people want to climb them. So many people try that there is an official dune-climbing concession near Sleeping Bear operated by the Park Service. Cars are parked in a paved lot at the foot of a 300-foot dune. There is no sidewalk, no trail, just you and your bottle of water, if you were wise enough to bring one, and the dune. And your legs. When you're standing at the base, it's easy to scoff at all the climbers chuffing and gulping and turning back when only halfway up the sand hill. But three hundred feet is about 25 stories, stair-wise--I had time to do the math during several unscheduled rest periods--and sand is a lot harder to walk on than steps. Were it not for simple vanity (I had my two sons, 8 and 6, plus my wife to "impress") I would have turned back, too. As it was, I pulled up the rear, befuddled and damp and heaving in the sunshine.
At the "top" of the dune climb, like generations of hack climbers before me, I took in an impressive panorama: glacial Glen Lake, placid and blue as a Noxema jar; the majestic view down the dune, where other worthies straggled or sat, pooped and helpless, in the sand; and a gorgeous skyscape ahead that revealed . . . a lot more dune to climb. We gathered our strength and climbed to the next plateau, where we discovered . . . more dunes to climb. We kept hoping that just over the next rise we'd arrive at our target, the steep cliff overlooking Lake Michigan. But after 15 minutes more of chasing false horizons my band finally turned around, seeking shade and a downward slope. Others told us it might take another two hours to get to the lake.
So we drove there. The air temperature was about 90 and I felt as if I'd been sandblasted, but soon I was bobbing in waves as cool as Freon. The water was so clear that, at chest level, I could see schools of minnows darting between my ankles. The high bluffs bristled with piney forests, and a pair of hawks was cruising the thermals along the ridge. The Michigan air was so clear I could see the birds' shadows sweeping over the trees.
Because most of it is federal property, there are not many places to stay near Sleeping Bear; we found a room at a resort called the Homestead, one of a few private enterprises that existed on the lake shore before the Park Service took over in 1970. It's a good choice if you're the sort who likes to have a tiny golf course, a couple of swimming pools, a health club and gourmet deli nearby. But our one-bedroom condo was $170 per night, and I'm not sure the amenities were worth it. The resort restaurants were bad, and so was the service. If I had it to do over again, I'd rent a small cottage in the town of Glen Arbor for around half of what we paid and eat at the handful of small restaurants nearby. There are also plenty of rentals around Glen Lake, less than a mile from the Sleeping Bear lakefront.
There are lots of other things to do. Near the town of Glen Harbor the old Coast Guard rescue station functions as a small museum, preserving 19th-century techniques of saving mariners from stormy shipwrecks. From the shore, the guardsmen would shoot a cannon known as a lyle gun over the bow of the swamped ship; its iron hook payload carried a rope that was then secured to the ship. Ultimately sailors would be ferried to shore via ropes in something called a breeches buoy, essentially a pair of canvas shorts suspended from a line and riding along a pulley. The museum shows a movie demonstrating this strangely Victorian operation.
You can also take a ferry to the two "bear cubs," North and South Manitou islands, which are vehicle-free nature reserves said to be great for hiking (we didn't make the trip). You can take tube or canoe rides down several rivers, including the Crystal River (though in August, I should report, the water was so shallow that in some places my wife and I just stood up and walked, carrying our fat inner tubes around our waists, sometimes passing the boys, who were paddling madly to make time on the trickle of water). There's a Park Service visitors center a few miles south in Empire (a scrubbier town featuring plenty of affordable lodging). You can take a day trip to the region's cherry orchards. There are miles of well-marked trails along the dunes for serious and amateur hiking .
Pierce Stocking Drive, another Park Service operation, is a network of roads leading through some nicely interpreted dune area micro-environments. The most popular stop on the driving tour is a big wooden dune-top deck known as the Lake Michigan Overlook. Jordan and I made it to this massive wooden structure one evening around sundown, and were surprised to encounter the largest crowd we saw during our visit: Perhaps a hundred people had gathered to watch the sun disappear into the lake, draining all colors from the scene except orange and gray. It was sort of like a Midwest version of Key West's sunset celebration, all the more charming because we knew that beyond the setting sun was not a vast ocean, or the romance of Cuba, or other exotic islands, but . . . Peshtigo, Wis.
But the thing I remember best about our trip to the Midwestern beach wasn't the view, it was a store. In the town of Glen Arbor we came across a place called Cherry Republic, an eccentric retail operation devoted to the region's most popular export, cherries. There are fresh cherries of all types and cherry pies and cherry jellies, but also cherry salsas, dried cherries, cherry sauces, chocolate-covered cherries, cherry cookies, cherry coffee (!), cherry tarts and cherry wine vinegar. The cherry ice cream was creamy pink and dotted with tart-sweet cherry bits. I'm usually a chocolate guy, but I think the cherry cone I had at Cherry Republic was one of the best ever.
In front of Cherry Republic was an Alice-in-Wonderland butterfly garden featuring several six-foot sunflowers nodding in the dusk. And out in the scrubby back yard, apropos of nothing, stood a bona fide full-size teepee. The kids were baffled into a curious silence as they explored the teepee and we ate our ice cream.
Strangely beautiful, delicious and eccentric, rustic and friendly, cool and sweet, rooted in the bounty of the region . . . that strange Cherry Republic store somehow manages to perfectly capture the flavor of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
DETAILS: Dunes & Don'ts
The closest airport to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is in Traverse City, about 25 miles away. At press time, midsummer, round-trip advance-purchase fares range from $278 to $304. The nearest "big" airport with moderate-price service is in Grand Rapids, a three-hour drive; fares start at about $202. If rates soar and you're willing to drive the length of the state (five to six hours), ProAir flies from BWI to Detroit Metro for as low as $206 round trip. Driving from the Washington metropolitan area to Sleeping Bear requires at least 15 hours behind the wheel.
For visitor info or a free brochure about Glen Arbor and surrounding Leelanau County, call 231-256-9895 or write Leelanau Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, 105 Phillip, Box 336, Lake Leelanau, Mich. 49653. A good set of Web pages is at www.leelanau .com/chamber. Accommodations can also be found at www.michiweb.com /leelanau/seasons/lodging/empire .html. For info on the National Lakeshore: 616-326-5134, www.nps.gov/slbe. For statewide travel info: 1-888-784-7328, www.michigan.org/index.html.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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