This Midwest Town Is Like a Mini North Pole
Snowshoeing to a wood-burning fire and piney beer pretty much sums it up.
If Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas” is the soundtrack of your season and you’re one gingerbread house away from being cast on a holiday-themed episode of My Strange Addiction, a trip to Petoskey, Michigan is a winter must. The tiny town sits next to a misty lake surrounded by snow-blanketed hills, looking like a village from The Polar Express or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, promising the winter wonderland vibes you hear about each year.
Located on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, this small town of 5,700 residents transforms into a magical snow globe of comforting eats and seasonal treats each winter. Its locals go over the top in decorating their businesses and homes with kitschy ornaments, glitzy garland, and oversized red bows to welcome the holiday.
You may even be able to spot the northern lights in this northern region of Michigan, just shy of Canada. Also in Petoskey are a lit up enchanted snowshoe trail leading to a yurt with s’mores around a fire, streets lined with gaslight lamp posts and holiday lights, wreath-making workshops, and taverns offering white chocolate peppermint cookies to pair with piney seasonal beers.
It’s a place where Santa Claus himself would probably vacation if he wasn’t stuck in the workshop overseeing elves and sweeping up reindeer poop. Here’s everything to do in Petoskey, a bucket-list destination for even the most skeptical of Scrooges.
Don’t rely on Rudolph—get a car
No matter where you’re flying in from, you’ll need to bank on renting a sleigh—err—car. The nearest airport offering commercial flights is Pellston Regional Airport, though the routes are limited and infrequent.
Your best bet is to fly into Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan, and make the hour and a half drive north. But you can certainly bookend your stay with nights in Traverse City, known as one of the “bluest” locales in America with its downtown scene perched above the bays of Lake Michigan to offer waterfront views from practically any vantage point.
Eat enough to rival Santa’s belly
Though Petoskey may be a small town, it’s big on flavors. Cuisine can best be described as “elevated American”—chock-full of rich meats, cheeses, and breads that warm your core before you layer up to brave the elements. The elevated part comes from the quality—Michiganders are proud of their state’s exports, so it’s common to find locally-sourced slabs of smoked bacon from Plath’s on burgers and sandwiches, a cranberry Stilton from Petoskey Cheese, and pillowy buns from bakeries like Crooked Tree Breadworks.
Beer culture also runs rampant, and while I always sigh wistfully when my summer sours disappear from most menus (it is wintertime, after all), the seasonal selections more than make up for it at Beards Brewery, Tap30, and the no-frills Mitchell Street Pub (where you can throw peanut shells right on the floor). These local brewers offer spicy lagers, chocolatey porters, and even pine-forward IPAs like Petoskey Brewing Company’s Crimson Empress.
Petoskians also take their weekend brunches seriously, with places like Maple + Batter and breathtakingly scenic Barrel Back, offering sky-high stacks of jelly-doused pancakes and decadently rich Benedicts. You should also try to stumble into one of the town’s many pastry shops or candy stores for coffee and sweet indulgences. The country’s very first Kilwin’s sells its famous caramel pecan turtles and Tom’s Mom’s bakes dozens of chocolate chunk cookies with festive flavors like white chocolate and peppermint
Perhaps the biggest culinary highlight, though, is The Back Lot—a cluster of food trucks offering everything from fried chicken tacos (Happy’s) and sweet and spicy grilled cheese (Cheese & Co.) to crispy fish sandwiches (The Reel Deal) and loaded Philly fries topped with shaved ribeye and Cheez Wiz (Phoxie’s), all set around fire pits and cozy shanties to really embrace the great outdoors.
Come back bearing gifts
Most of Petoskey’s shopping can be done in its historic Gaslight District, with businesses embracing Michigan culture by selling small-batch jarred preserves, hand-poured candles, soaps, and winter fashion. You can venture into gems like McClean and Eakin for books and Cutler’s for a wonderful variety of quirky kitchen appliances and accessories.
The beautifully-curated and eucalyptus-smelling Poetess and Stranger encourages sustainable holiday shopping with eco-friendly journals, bags, and skincare products. Whereas Flora Bae Home houses one-of-a-kind knick-knacks and home decor (where I unsurprisingly picked up a fabric sloth ornament and a linen dish towel with absurdly loud red and green patterns).
No matter where the shoveled sidewalks take you for holiday gifts and treasures, be sure to make a pit stop at the city’s Christmas tree, which sits pretty in Pennsylvania Park.
Feast on seasonal bounty and preserves from farms
Markets like Coveyou, Pond Hill, and Bill’s offer a merry array of local produce, spreads, jams, and even Christmas trees, but you’d be remiss to not visit the actual farms, vineyards, cideries, and even maple syrup wineries that make Petoskey so special.
Favorites included Resort Pike Cidery & Winery, which touts an impressive list of homemade ciders—both traditional and creative (like pineapple habanero)—that you can order by the flight. At Sweetwater Floral owner Kalin Sheick hosts wreath workshops and has put together a program where you can order evergreen kits online. There’s also Maple Moon Sugarbush & Winery—the nation’s first maple winery with red and white blends and, you guessed it, wine made from fermented maple syrup. They obviously also excel at standard maple syrup production, including cinnamon and barrel-aged varieties that will upgrade any waffle on Christmas morning.
Get your snow adventure on… or just build a snowman
Petoskey is home to three ski parks for those hoping to hit the slopes: The Highlands at Harbor Springs, Nubs Nob, and Boyne Mountain. Winter activities like tubing, ice skating, sledding, and snowshoeing are available at most of these locations, and can also be found at Petoskey Winter Sports Park. If you’d rather hike than slide, Petoskey State Park is also host to an abundance of trails, all of which are canopied by pine trees that lead to a pebble-lined beach.
For the less adventurous (a.k.a. me), there are plenty of other options to take advantage of the beautiful settings. A casual stroll anywhere along Lake Michigan is an absolute must, even when it’s snowing horizontally, for Petoskey’s beautiful stretch of rocky shores. And walking tours of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts will provide a glimpse of Petoskey’s past with the American novelist, who spent the first 22 summers of his life in Northern Michigan at a vacation home on Walloon Lake. Hemingway even mentions Petoskey and its beauty in some of his works, with references to fishing and exploring the area’s many creeks.
But what is inarguably the best holiday event, by far, is The Highlands at Harbor Springs’ Enchanted Trail—a two-mile snowshoe trek through the forest guided by holiday lights that lead to a large yurt with towering wooden beams, a bar, and even a sofa and chair set-up by a fireplace.
Once you arrive, you can knock back thematic cocktails like mulled wine and boozy hot cocoa, make s’mores, and snap photos in front of a light display glittering against stacks of firewood. It’s a picturesque activity for both kids and adults alike, and not only because it comes with the promise of alcohol (for the latter, of course)—it’s just downright peaceful on a starry night.
Skip the igloo and stay somewhere extra cozy
There are a handful of decent lodging options outside of the area’s run-of-the-mill hotel chains, and the most luxurious accommodation can be found at the Inn at Bay Harbor. This waterside oasis, which offers fireplaces and balcony-adorned suites, is blanketed by lake-effect snow and boasts a restaurant, bar, and, perhaps its biggest draw, a waterside hot tub so you can relax while taking in views of Lake Michigan.
Feeling less jolly and more exhausted? Take a break from it all at the resort’s spa, with seasonal services like a peppermint pedicure or their signature Northern Luxury Skin Treatment—a 90-minute recharge that combines a wild lavender scrub and wrap with a hot stone massage using coveted Petoskey stones.
Even if you ended up on the Naughty List this year and are unable to treat yourself to a last-minute holiday getaway, remember that Petoskey shines just as much in the summer and can easily be added to your domestic travel bucket list.