Michigan’s Old Mission Peninsula

Just north of downtown Traverse City lies a finger of land extending into the azure waters of Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay called the Old Mission Peninsula (OMP).  The OMP is situated at the globe’s 45th parallel which has proven to be an ideal location for growing wine grapes.  In the last 10 years, Michigan wine makers have doubled their acreage of vineyards and it ranks fifth among states in wine grape production. But the OMP is more than just wine.  It is one of Michigan’s most scenic areas so as you drive the 19-mile peninsula up M-32 you are treated to spectacular views of Lake Michigan and a patchwork of rolling hills, densely wooded forests, and orchards interrupted by charming harbors.


Eight wineries dot the landscape in this appellation producing a number of varietals and giving this region recognition.  Grapes such as Riesling, Pino Grigio, Pino Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Cabernet Franc thrive in the micro-climate of the OMP.   The peninsula is an ideal growing climate thanks to the deep lake waters of Grand Traverse Bay.  In the fall, the warmer water temperatures linger and help stave off early frosts while in the spring the cold water temperatures prevent premature budding when air temperatures start to warm.  Winter generates lake-effect snow vital to keeping vines insulated and protected. 

The wineries are as distinctive and unique as the wines they produce which is why it is fun to see multiple ones.  You can certainly do the wine trail of the OMP in one day but we liked the area so much we went back multiple times to savor in the quietness and less busy feel of Traverse City where we were camped.  Being as there is a lighthouse in the far northern tip we decided to start our visit up there and work our way back south.  The Mission Point Lighthouse was built in 1870 to warn mariners from the dangerous shoals extending into Grand Traverse Bay at the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula.  The lighthouse is surrounded by a park that allows beach access, picnic facilities, historical exhibits, and plenty of hiking/skiing trails.  Since Spirit was along for the adventure we decided to take a long walk and are glad we did.  The woods were dense and beautiful and had a few spots that led down to the water where our four-legged companion was all too happy to cool off in the chilly water.  Best part – dogs are allowed to be off-leash if they are under control.  


On some friends recommendation we stopped at the Jolly Pumpkin in Bowers Harbor for lunch and to try their craft beers.  The Jolly Pumpkin is quite popular among locals and tourists and includes a casual restaurant, a farm to table restaurant, distillery, and brewery.  The building it’s housed in was originally an Inn dating back to the turn of the century and has some architecturally interesting features.  What makes the building even more intriguing is that it is reportedly haunted.  Rumor has it that the original owner Genevieve Stickney, an obese and jealous woman, had an elevator installed in the Inn for ease of moving between floors.  Soon after, Mr. Stickney hired a nurse to help care for his wife.  Genevieve, the jealous one, grew concerned that her husband and the nurse were going to have an affair.  She was right.  Genevieve feared her husband would leave her for the mistress leaving her penniless.  She was right again.  Her husband gave her the Inn while he took everything else and scooted with the mistress.  Some believe the situation drove Genevieve into severe depression that led her to hang herself from the rafters in the elevator shaft.  Some claim to have seen her ghost in the elevator and about the Inn.  We chose the stairs just in case Genevieve was in a bad mood or one of us resembled the mistress. 

No visit to the OMP would be just without visiting a winery or two.  Just down the street from the Jolly Pumpkin was Bowers Harbor Vineyards who produce over 30 wines and ciders.  Their tasting room is non-pretentious and relaxing.  Outside are chairs inviting you to relax or you can opt for a walk on their self-guided nature trail that winds through the vineyard.  Kevin, the nice man pouring our tastings, was a great wealth of information about wine making in the area.  He explained that 2015 was a devastating year for grape production due to uncooperative weather.  Mild winter temperatures did not produce the much needed “lake effect” snow that is critical to protecting the vines in winter.  Combine that with untimely late spring frosts and a hail storm and you have a year in which grape production was almost non-existent.  Fear not, the wine is flowing again and all indications are that things are looking good for grape production in 2017.


Wednesday nights at Chateau Grand Traverse are “Wine Down Wednesdays” where live music fills the air and discounted wines and small bites bring lots of people to the winery.  We relished in the perfect summer evening sitting outside on their patio which is perched upon a hill that has expansive views of their vineyards and the waters of Traverse Bay.  After a glass of their award-winning late harvest Riesling, we set off back to the Jolly Pumpkin.  I was eager to try their farm to table restaurant called Mission Table that had a pleasing rustic atmosphere and an intriguing menu.  On the table in front of us appeared an amazingly delicious array of food that included creamy asparagus soup, seared scallops over sweet pea couscous with lemon chive cream, and a creamy risotto decorated with peas, morels, and creamy raclette cheese.  We love it when we find delicious food in interesting places.  


After two weeks in the Traverse Bay area we felt like we did a pretty good job of seeing all there was to see, not to mention all the wine we tasted!  The OMP is a beautiful part of Michigan that draws visitors there year-round and it is easy to see why.  

Comments are closed.