The awards and commendations for Traverse City keep on coming. Last year Condé Nast magazine said that the small Mid-Western US town of 14,000 people was their ‘up and coming food city’ pick. Lonely Planet named the town one of the best places to travel to and the Huffington Post announced it was one of America’s eleven best small towns. Tripadvisor ranked the destination number two in their own version of that chart.
Had you heard of it before? Traverse City is in northern Michigan, a five-hour car journey north of Chicago. I don’t want to imply that Mike Norton from Traverse City’s tourist board has an easy job. But encouraging people to this leafy, lakeside college town set amongst wineries and cherry groves can’t be the toughest selling job in the world!
“Not so many years ago this was a quiet backwater but it has become a cool place for people to relax and enjoy themselves,” he told me as we sat in his roomy office, shaded by trees and overlooking the lake. Mike says the laid-back atmosphere and range of outdoor activities draws people in and British visitors should feel quite comfortable. “It’s like taking a weekend in the Cotswolds or the Lake District. You can step back in time and relax and breathe a little. We’re famous for having four seasons of recreation. In the summer Traverse City is a beach town.”
This surprised me. You can’t be further from the sea. But after our chat I drove to visit the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Mike wasn’t wrong with his claim that they are, “One of the most beautiful places in North America with miles of sandy beaches.” One of the dunes was like a huge, high sandy cliff, falling away to the sea-like lake below. A warning sign advises people that descending the sand bank might be easy but getting up was a challenge that could take hours!
“Around 10,000 years ago a very large glacier – a wall of ice one mile high – gouged out these huge lakes and bays which run north to south. They left these ridges of gravel and stone,” Mike explained. “That’s become our playground for everything from water activities to golf courses to hiking trails. Everything is orientated around the water. Sailing and fishing are popular. In the autumn the temperatures are moderate and you can enjoy the fall colours as the leaves change,” said Mike. “There is cross country skiing and snowmobiling in the winter and in the spring, as this is cherry country, if you come at the right time, you’ll see three million cherry trees all blossoming at the same time. It is quite a sight.”
Mike thinks Brits will also like the local beer. CNN recently gave Traverse City the ‘Best Beer Town in America’ title. And it’s not just beer – I enjoyed the small cider house I found on the main street too. “The climate that allows us to grow peaches and apricots and cherries also allowed European style wine grapes to grow and now hops are being planted all over the place,” Mike said. “There are 18 craft breweries.”
Unlike many US cities, Traverse City has no skyscrapers or concrete overpasses. “One of the nice things about being a back water for so many years is that we got bypassed by the modernisation that happened in many other cities,” Mike told me, with some pride. “You could blindfold a person and put them in many parts of America, or the world, and take the blindfold off and they wouldn’t know where they are. Here it’s very distinctive. We have a genuine sense of who we are. Being off the beaten path for so many years has been good to us because it’s allowed us to avoid similar mistakes that other places have made and to cultivate our own sense of who we are and where we are.”
A former Victorian hospital complex just outside the town has been turned into apartments, shops, restaurants and bars. It also includes a winery. That’s well worth a visit. It’s one of those places with lots of small craft-type shops and the sweet smell of pot pourri and cinnamon follows you around the corridors.
Traverse City is clearly quite an arty town. “This was a place where a lot of counter-culture people from the 1960s and 1970s came because it was a cheap place to live. They brought their artistic talents with them and they enriched our cultural landscape. We have a great many artists and craftspeople and musicians. We enjoy cultural experience that are superior to a lot of major cities simply because people come and decide they want to stay and contribute to the cultural landscape of our community,” Mike told me.
The longest running event in the area is the National Cherry Festival, which brings half a million people to the city in early July. “It is a bit like a county fair. It’s a celebration of food with music concerts. It always revolves around the theme of cherries. There are concerts in the park every night and a carnival, but everything revolves around the fact that we produce 75% of the tart cherries – which are used for cooking – in North America. Contests include a cherry pie eating competition and cherry pit spitting. There are lots of workshops, dinners and meals built around putting cherries into any type of food that you can imagine. You can also go on a shuttle bus to a cherry farm to learn about the cherry industry and how it has evolved over the years.”
Other events in the calendar include an equestrian festival in summer. Mike says horse owners are happy to drive up to the event because the lakeside is cooler for the animals and spectators. There’s also a film festival.
So where would Mike recommend for a visit? He suggests a drive to the Old Mission Peninsula on the edge of town. “It’s around twenty miles long and less than one mile wide,” he says. “It’s a jewel box picture of what are typical landscapes filled with orchards, vineyards, wineries, little settlements and gorgeous scenery.”
“Any other reasons why Brits might want to visit Traverse City?” I ask. “Well we speak sort of the same language,” laughed Mike.
You can find out more at www.traversecity.com.