TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Residents of this picturesque Lake Michigan community are known to quip, "The view of the bay is half your pay." It's a sardonic commentary on the local wage scale, but also a tribute to the stunning scenery and small-town quality of life that have lured many a newcomer from the big city -- and make the area one of the Midwest's top tourist draws.
Perched at the southern end of Grand Traverse Bay some 250 miles northwest of Detroit, Traverse City is prized for its trails, beaches, cherry orchards, a burgeoning arts scene and nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. In recent years, the area has developed a nationwide reputation as a foodie haven for farm-to-table restaurants featuring local fruits, veggies, cheeses and wines.
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You'll need money for all those meals and a comfy room in a hotel or B & B, of course. But there are plenty of ways to have fun without dropping a dime. Here are a few:
Hit the beach: The Grand Traverse region has over 180 miles of shoreline, much of which is privately owned, but there are many public parks with wide, sandy beaches. In the heart of downtown is Clinch Park -- a nice family spot, with restrooms, picnic tables and lifeguards on duty from mid-June through August. Nearby is West End Beach, with a volleyball court. They're divided by the municipal marina and a large bay front greenway where folks toss Frisbees, fly kites and strum guitars.
For something more isolated, drive up Old Mission Peninsula, which divides the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay. This narrow, rolling spit of land some 20 miles long offers some of the region's best views -- orchards, vineyards, sparkling waters. You can stop at a winery for a tasting on your way to Haserot Beach, which has a children's play area and boat launch. Or head to Lighthouse Park near the tip of the peninsula, where there's a milelong stretch of sand that never feels crowded.
Nearby villages within a half-hour's drive -- Acme, Suttons Bay, Elk Rapids among them -- also have bay front parks with beaches.
Hit the trail: Urban pathways and countryside trails of varying lengths await the hiker and biker. The TART (Traverse Area Recreational Trail) and the connected Leelanau Trail offer a 26-mile journey from Acme Township east of Traverse City north to Suttons Bay. This is a paved, converted railroad corridor and the terrain is mostly flat, making it easy going for all ages and skill levels.
The landscape ranges from swampland to historic downtown neighborhoods to woods and fields. In-town sections can be busy as joggers and bikers weave around people walking dogs and pushing strollers. If it's speed you crave, bide your time until the Leelanau portion of the trail, where the crowds thin.
For a cross-country experience, try the Vasa Pathway. Winding through the Pere Marquette State Forest, it includes loop trails ranging from one to 16 miles. It doubles as a ski trail in winter and offers some challenging climbs.
Face the music: Free musical shows, poetry readings and painting displays abound in northwestern Michigan. The crown jewel is Interlochen Center for the Arts, a year-round academy and summer camp. You must buy tickets to attend star performances; this year's lineup includes ZZ Top, Josh Groban and Harry Connick Jr. But most of the roughly 400 concerts cost nothing.
Don't be fooled by that; many of these recitals feature extraordinarily gifted young people and visiting faculty from leading music schools. You can spend a delightful couple of hours on the Interlochen campus about 15 miles south of Traverse City wandering the pine-studded grounds and listening to impromptu student performances.
If your heart is set on a big name and tickets are too pricey, don't despair. Those shows are held in an open-sided amphitheater, so find a grassy spot outside and spread a blanket. You won't see what's happening, but you'll hear it. "We don't chase anyone away," Interlochen spokesman Steve Hoffman said.
Festivals: Hardly a summer week goes by without a festival somewhere in the area. Many charge admission to at least some events, but freebies aren't hard to find. The Suttons Bay Arts Festival and Elk Rapids' Harbor Days in late July and early August are two among many.
The National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, June 29-July 6, pays homage to the region's signature fruit. Michigan is the nation's top producer of tart cherries -- the ones used for pie filling. If your budget's tight, forgo the midway and evening rock concerts. Instead, take in the air and fireworks shows, enter your kids in the turtle race (live turtles are provided), watch a parade or test your skills in -- what else? -- the cherry pit-spitting contest.
The Traverse City Film Festival, co-founded by filmmaker and Michigan native Michael Moore, runs July 30-Aug. 4. It features foreign, independent and documentary movies, with $10 tickets for most showings. But it also has free attractions, including nightly classics shown on a giant inflatable screen by the waterfront and panel discussions with directors and producers.
Downtown: For bargain-basement enjoyment, nothing beats strolling downtown on a sunny day. Begin on Front Street, the main drag a two-minute walk from the bay front. In addition to souvenir and T-shirt shops and more upscale boutiques, you can explore art galleries, browse in bookstores, tour the historic City Opera House and try free samples of cherry jam and other local treats at Cherry Republic, American Spoon and other shops.
A number of downtown parks have picnic tables, merry-go-rounds, benches and shade trees. Nearby historical neighborhoods have well-kept homes and gardens, many dating back more than a century.
Overshadowed by Grand Traverse Bay, but beautiful nonetheless, is the Boardman River, which meanders through town before flowing into the lake. Boardwalks and parks adjoin sections of the river, where you can watch anglers land brook trout or ducks peck for food in the shallows. A few blocks south of downtown, the river widens into Boardman Lake, with a two-mile-long paved and dirt trail.