Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan

To those familiar with northern Michigan, the Leelanau Peninsula translates to wine, charming coastal towns, lighthouses, and plenty of beautiful blue Lake Michigan water.  Which are all the reasons we decided to pay this part of upper Michigan a visit.  The peninsula (highlighted portion of the map) is often referred to as the “little finger” of the mitten-shaped lower peninsula.
This area of Michigan is known for it’s production of cool climate wines like Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc.  The steep terrain and large bodies of water produce a milder microclimate than the more temperate areas further inland which means Leelanau Peninsula American Viticultural Areas is known as one of the best Michigan wine regions.  Bisecting the peninsula is the 45th parallel which you will also find running through some of the world’s great wine regions.  Think Bordeaux and Cotes du Rhone of France and the Piedmont Region of Italy. 

There are 24 wineries on the Leelanau Peninsula of which 10 are in the “Northern Loop” of the Leelanau Wine Trail and within a short drive of where we were staying.  These wineries and tasting rooms are as diverse as the varietals they produce.  Tasting rooms vary from an old schoolhouse to a modern glass framed structure to one that is a “Boathouse” set along waters edge where you can paddle up to.  Many have that Napa feel where you are immersed in rows of grapes but here the distant views of Lake Michigan provide a serene backdrop and the feel of the New York’s Finger Lakes wine region.  The area is also a productive fruit region growing apples and tart cherries.  When you drive up and down the peninsula you realize just how many fruit trees and vines thrive in this area.

We parked the rig at a centrally located RV park that some friends had recommended called Wild Cherry RV Resort (review to follow in another blog).  From here we were surrounded by numerous wineries within an easy grasp, cute towns and plenty of things to do and see in the super cute towns of Suttons Bay, Leland, Lake Leelanau, Fishtown and Northport.  So every day we set out to explore the peninsula with dog in tow.  Our routine was such that morning were reserved for hiking and Spirit fun time, followed by lunch out, a little sight-seeing, a wine tasting or two, and back home to the RV for dinner and more socialization at the RV Resort!  

The main road running through the peninsula is state highway M-22.  M-22 spans nearly 117 miles from Manistee on the southwest side of the state to Traverse City and includes popular tourist destinations like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Leelanau Peninsula wine country.  The road is what you expect from a Pure Michigan Scenic Byway where you find numerous turns and hills, charming villages, stunning lake views, and spectacular fall colors.  M-22 has such a following that the Michigan Department of Transportation had to modify the road signs because of rampant theft.  With Michiganders love for this beautiful road it is no wonder you see t-shirts, bumper stickers, wine glasses, and plenty of other goods with the M-22 logo.  And yes, there is a M-22 wine. 

Just down from our campground on M-22 lies Suttons Bay – a year-round community not far from Traverse Bay in miles but way different in vibe and pace.  Suttons Bay is the kind of town you fall in love with on your first drive thru.  Cute shops, a brewery, eateries with foodie followings, lively wineries, a downtown park and harbor, galleries with local art and glass, active people walking the streets, and homes that look lived-in and loved.  There are no fast food franchises, no parking meters, heck there isn’t even a stoplight.  We met some RV friends, Stacey and Don, at Hop Lot Brewery for a leisurely lunch and to catch up and then moved on to visiting some of their favorite wineries…four in fact (one of which, Willow Vineyards, had a super cute cat named Frank). 


When we drove through the town of Lake Leelanau we spotted a boat ramp that would be perfect for dropping the kayaks in the water and taking Spirit for a paddle.  It has been over a year since 20170602_135726Spirit was in the kayak with me and she did great – not even attempting to jump out when a gaggle of geese swam by.  The lake extends 13 miles and covers some 8,000+ acres with a narrow stretch of wetlands (appropriately called “The Narrows”) between the north and south parts of the lake which was perfect for us to paddle. Native Americans named this area “lee-lan-au,” which means “delight of life” and by seeing all the boat traffic and houses along the lake it is no wonder people find this place delightful.  This area was perfect for an afternoon paddle and even had a winery with a boat dock in case you get thirsty.  The thing we are really loving about Michigan is that there is water everywhere.  And, it is so clear with no alligators lurking in the deep.

The town of Leland is nestled between Lakes Leelanau and Michigan and marries historic and hip in the same breath.  Travel one block from main street in downtown Leland towards Lake Michigan and you will find yourself in the most quaint rustic shanty town called “Fishtown.”   This historic town is one of the last working and thriving fishing districts on the Great Lakes and is very popular with tourists because of its weathered fishing shanties (many of which are now home to local businesses), smokehouses, overhanging docks lined with fish tugs, and charter fishing boats.  Fishtown was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1973 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Definitely come here hungry so you can feast on edibles from the Village Cheese Shanty.  They have fine local wines, exotic cheeses and interesting sandwiches made on their famous pretzel bread.  For a mere $6.50 you get a huge sandwich or upgrade to the $10 “beer bag lunch” where you get a sandwich, beer, and chips.  We enjoyed our lunch at a picnic table by the water watching boats come and go in the harbor while the summer afternoon sun warmed our bodies and the food filled our bellies. 


Travel north on M-22 to the tip of the peninsula and you will find yourself in the appropriately named town of Northport.  We started with a visit to Leelanau State Park for a walk along part of the 8.5 miles of hiking trails that wind through beautiful woods and along the water.  The centerpiece of the park is the Grand Traverse Lighthouse – a restored 19th-century lighthouse with a museum that showcases the life of a light keeper in the 1920’s – 30’s era.  A four-dollar admission fee is charged to enter the museum and access to the top of the lighthouse.  We felt the price was well worth it and enjoyed wandering through the museum.  Also located on the grounds are a lighthouse and fog signal building with exhibits on area lighthouses, foghorns, shipwrecks and local history.  Both museums were very well-done with interesting and interactive exhibits.


Before heading home we stopped in downtown Northport  for a bite to eat and wander around the shops and galleries since coastal villages don’t come much cuter than this.  On our way home we stopped at 45 North Vineyard and Winery.  Turns out the couple that was working in the tasting room are also full-time RVers and we had a great time tasting wine and swapping travel stories including those about our Africa adventures.  


On our last night, we met up with some friends who volunteer with us in Florida, Neil and Sharon.  They introduced us to a great winery (Bluestone Vineyards) where we enjoyed a late afternoon glass of wine, some catching up and a fun dinner with great conversation.   

We really, really liked this area and would certainly come back…maybe even for an entire summer.  The towns are just our size which means they are intimate and everything counts.  What we mean by that is that stores are local (no chains), restaurants serve solid food, galleries are unique, and gathering space is important so there are plenty of parks and green space for people to gather.  From our campgrounds location there is plenty of things to do and places to go.  If you want to head to the big city of Traverse City (population 15K) or to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore for good hikes you are just 20-30 minutes away.  Don’t think that just because these towns are small they are sleepy.  In fact, just the opposite happens.  There are weekly farmers markets, plenty of summer festivals, outdoor concerts, and lots of outdoor activities. 

More travel tips:

  • Hit the Leelanau Cheese Company in Suttons Bay for amazingly delicious Raclette cheese – a French and Swiss style cow’s milk cheese that melts beautifully.  
  • For fresh food check out 9 Bean Rows which operates a restaurant, farmstead, and bakery.  
  • If you are looking for a little stronger libation there is the Grand Traverse Distillery in Leland and the Northern Latitudes Distillery in Lake Leelanau.  
  • Great hiking can be found in Leelanau State Park ($11 daily admission fee) and at Houdek Dunes and Clay Cliffs Natural Areas.  We bought an annual Michigan State Park pass for $32. 
  • The V.I. Grill in Suttons Bay makes a burger that is to die for.  The French Onion Burger is simmered in au jus and topped with Swiss cheese and crispy onions.  

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