This Spectacular Lakeshore Is Hiding One of the Country's Best Wine Regions
Incredible beaches and dozens of wineries await.
A mere 30 miles long and an average of 6 miles wide, Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula -- the pinkie of the mitten, jutting out between Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay -- packs an obscene wealth of nature into a tiny space. It's so easy to get caught up in the rolling hills, mountainous dunes, and some of the best beaches in the country that you might not even realize it's home to about 30 wineries and more than 700 acres of wine grapes.
The region's short growing season, constant concern for rot, and wily weather has attracted a core of adventurous winemakers drawn to the rich soil and lake breeze that create interesting and formidable bottles of riesling, chardonnay, pinot grigio, and more. Visitors can even be introduced to some lesser-known grape varietals and learn about ice-wine techniques at the mostly family-operated wineries dotting the small landmass.
Exploring this overlooked paradise is much easier than you think: Whether you're road tripping from Detroit or Chicago (4 or 5 hours, respectively) or flying into Traverse City, the barrier to entry here is about the same as Napa or Sonoma, but with the added benefit of those stunning freshwater beaches. Here’s our list of must-see stops along this coastal wonderland of vineyards and golden sands.
With a full-time population of just under 16,000, Traverse is the largest city in Northern Michigan, yet it still bursts with small-town charm right on the Grand Traverse Bay. It's famous for cherries -- this is home of endless orchards and the National Cherry Festival -- so embrace them, whether in pastries at Grand Traverse Pie Company or spirits at Traverse City Whiskey Company. While out strolling the highly walkabout downtown, hit up the Little Fleet's collection of food trucks, a full-service bar, and live music stage. For a touch of the bizarre, shop at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a former psychiatric asylum constructed in the 1880s, now remodeled as a mixed-use development for shopping, dining, and residential living.
Wine stop: Traverse City is the gateway to the Leelanau, but also the Old Mission Peninsula, an even smaller side-trip where 10 vineyards -- including Chateau Chantal, 2 Lads, Brys Estate, and Black Star Farms pour their wares amid lighthouses and crashing waves.
MORE:Traverse City is our pick for Michigan's best small town
The iconic highway M-22 north from Traverse City winds through Suttons Bay, the most vibrant town on the east side of the peninsula. The upscale and easily navigable downtown has a bayside main street filled with shopping and art galleries. Those who aren’t that into shopping can head to the park next to the marina to watch the boats out on Grand Traverse Bay, or just stretch out on the sands at Marina Park. But for a more memorable experience, the Inland Seas Tall Ship offers cruises on the crystal waters of Lake Michigan. For a break from wine, either head to the Hop Lot Brewery or Suttons Bay Ciders (the latter has a hilltop tasting room with amazing views).
Wine stop: Pair your vino with a refreshing waterfront breeze at French Valley Vineyards, Leelanau’s only beach-front wine tasting room. There’s also lodging, wine tours, and dining packages available at the adjacent Vineyard Inn.
MORE: Suttons Bay is one of Michigan's most treasured beach towns
Northport/Leelanau State Park
Nestled in northernmost part of the Leelanau is Northport, home to rolling hills, vibrant cherry and apple orchards, and the historic Grand Traverse Lighthouse, which has guided ships on the Great Lakes since 1858 (for a more modern architectural marvel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Amy Alpaugh House is here too). Meanwhile, nearby Leelanau State Park offers up peak upper Michigan camping at the very tip of the peninsula, allowing you to pitch a tent with a 180-degree view of Lake Michigan. The sunsets seen here are some of the best in the state, and if you travel in October, you will also be rewarded with a near rainbow of autumn colors.
Wine stop:Baia Estate produces Italian-style wines on a 70-acre property nearby. They have a tasting room in Northport co-located with the New Bohemian Café that offers tastes, flights, glass pours, and wine cocktails, as well as bottle and case sales.
MORE: Northport is one of Michigan's coolest small towns
Heading south along the western coast of the peninsula leads to Leland. Also known as Fishtown, this collection of old fishing shanties from the early 1900s is located right on the harbor. Today, the buildings mostly serve as shops and stores, but a handful are still used for daily fishing operations. For six generations the local Carlson family has motored fishing tugs onto Lake Michigan looking for whitefish and lake trout. Smoked fish at their Carlson's Market is a must-try, as are iconic cheese sandwiches at the Michigan-famous Village Cheese Shanty.
Leland is also where ferries leave to the Manitou Islands. North Manitou Island is larger, lies 12 miles from Leland, and doesn’t allow motorized vehicles. It’s ideal for peace and quiet and solitude in nature. South Manitou Island is 16 miles west of Leland and is a bit more active -- there’s even a shipwreck, lighthouse, and Coast Guard Station. Both are key items on any Michigan bucket list.
Wine stop: Verterra Winery has taken home consecutive titles of Best Dry White Wine in the Michigan Wine Competition 2017-2019, and white-wine lovers should definitely check out their Leland tasting room.
MORE: South Manitou Island may or may not be haunted
Glen Arbor sits between Glen Lake and Lake Michigan, with the Crystal River connecting the two lakes, so hitting the water is all but required. Agencies such as Crystal River Outfitters take explorers to the top of the Crystal River for a two- to three-hour kayak or canoe cruise back to Glen Arbor, highlighted by to "shoot the tube" through a large metal culvert under the highway. Any river day should start out with a hearty “Lake Michigan Breakfast” at the famed Art’s Tavern: two eggs, bacon or sausage, and three malted pancakes with Leelanau County maple syrup on top.
Wine stop: Nestled between the M-22 strip in Glen Arbor and the public beach/boat launch is Glen Arbor Wines, a laid-back wine shop where the cooler is always stocked with chilled wine and deli items to make a beach picnic a no-brainer. Taste local wines by the glass here and walk out with a bottle or two of your favorite.
MORE: Don't forget to explore the nearby beaches, which are among the Great Lakes' best
Empire/Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
This national lakeshore is famous for its massive sand dunes formed by glacial sand deposits. Adventurous visitors can struggle their way up to the top for panoramic views of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake before running or sandboarding down, preferably post sunset, when the lake often puts on a fireworks show. For those who prefer to drive, the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a lesser-known way to experience the park: It’s a 7-mile one-way loop through tree canopies, and incudes the Lake Michigan Overlook perched atop dunes more than 200 feet above the lake below. Just remember -- whoever gets inspired enough to run down must also hike up afterward.
The nearby town of Empire, meanwhile, is a sleepy but artsy town with fewer than 500 residents, and hosts to the Empire Hops and Harvest Festival in October. For those who didn’t get out on the Crystal River, the beach here is one of Michigan's very best, and a paddle down the calm Platte River with Riverside Canoe may be in order before heading back to Traverse City.
Wine stop: There is an entire Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail set up for the Sleeping Bear Dunes area. Notable ones on that trail include Amoritas, Bel Lago, Laurentide, Chateau Fontaine, and Good Harbor Vineyards.
MORE: Once you're back in Traverse, re-start your trip with a beer theme