Chasing the Last Weeks of Autumn in North Michigan

Hop Lot Brewery in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant
Hop Lot Brewery in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant

Sip Cider at Hop Lot Brewery in Suttons Bay

This is more like it. Just 15 miles north of Traverse City, the village of Suttons Bay offers a crazy and eclectic two-street downtown on Lake Michigan (don’t miss the Bayside Gallery, an insane collection of outdoor glass sculptures). But it’s also home to two great places to have a craft drink  – the Hop Lot Brewery and Suttons Bay Ciders.

The brewery is in deep Michigan woods, really out there and surrounded by the forest; the cidery is on a high lookout point with sweeping views of the bay. Both have decks, many outdoor fireplaces with glowing hard wood fires, a clientele that likes red plaid jackets from LL Bean, and large community tables where you sit with strangers and make friends.

The Hop Lot beer is wonderful, try the Norseman IPA. The cider? Well, cider is an acquired taste, but even if you haven’t acquired the taste yet, give it another try here with a tray of samplers, for the view if nothing else.

The patrons at the cidery were the most attractive set of people I saw in Michigan, more like a trendy magazine layout than the people you see on lines at the fudge shops. Perhaps people should drink more cider and eat less fudge.

City Park in Petosky, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant
City Park in Petosky, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant


Even on a gray day, this New England-like town of lakes and shops is pretty, and when there are apples on the trees and fall leaves blowing along the sidewalks, it’s a must stop.

Ernest Hemingway grew up in Illinois, but he spent his first 22 summers in and around Petoskey, where the lakes, woods, towns, and fishing of North Michigan left an indelible imprint on him and his early writings.

After being wounded in Italy in World War I, Hemingway went to Paris in the 1920s where he spent a romantic period with friends like Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein.

Because he was then poor and unknown, he sat in warm cafes writing about, of all places, Petoskey and Michigan. Petoskey is the town in his book “The Torrents of Spring,” and it was in Paris that he wrote what have been called “the Michigan stories.”

He never returned to Michigan, instead establishing a pattern of moving around the world to Spain, Africa, Cuba, and Montana.  Always moving. On leaving Paris, he wrote, “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan.”

Ernest Hemingway

To the people of North Michigan, he never left. There are Hemingway exhibits in museums, a Hemingway Trail, the Mclean and Eakin bookstore in Petoskey has a whole wall of Hemingway books, and best of all, the City Park Grill has a Hemingway bar stool (second from the left as you enter), which is supposedly where he liked to sit and where he may, or may not, have burned a hole in the bar with his cigar.

You can hear those tales and many more on Sunday afternoons from 1-4 p.m., when Mary Conklin does a hoot of a ghost, “Roaring 20’s” and Hemingway walking tour of the tavern, which dates back to 1875. The tours are free and fun and worth scheduling your trip around.

The town itself is a delight with old storefronts now transformed into upscale shops specializing in “mitten” products (the state outline of Michigan looks like a mitten so locals call it the “mitten state”). From the harbor on Lake Michigan, a foot trail follows the Beaver River up into the woods with bridges, fisherman, kayaking and lots of wild looking Michigan forest beauty. I don’t know that Hemingway ever walked it, but he sure would have liked it.

Harbor Springs, MI. Photo by Rich grant
Harbor Springs, MI. Photo by Rich grant

Harbor Springs and the Tunnel of Trees

Heading north around the shore of Lake Michigan brings you next to Harbor Springs, what many would say is the prettiest and most New England-like town of North Michigan.  Head up to Bluff Street and take in a panorama of village.

With its church steeples, woods and cute little shops, it could pass for New England, except that without tides to worry about, the harbor and lakeside restaurants are right in the center of town. I ducked in a shop to get out of the wind and to buy a pair of mittens in the “Mitten State.”

“Mittens?” the clerk said. “Oh we don’t sell anything practical in Harbor Springs.” But if you’re looking for jams, or apple products, or designer sweaters, there’s no nicer village.

Farms along the Tunnel of Trees. Photo by Rich Grant
Farms along the Tunnel of Trees. Photo by Rich Grant

Harbor Springs is where the 27-mile “Tunnel of Trees” begins (or ends) depending which direction you drive. It’s actually Hwy. M-119 or Lake Shore Drive. But whatever name it goes by, it’s gorgeous.

All of Michigan in the fall is nice with trees of deep red, burnt orange, yellow, and every shade of brown lining most of the roads, but this “Tunnel of Trees” is truly remarkable for its pleasant twists and turns, occasional views of Lake Michigan, roadside farm stands, and the fact that the tree branches intermix above you, creating the illusion of an ever-changing colorful tunnel above.

Whitefish Sandwich at the Legs Inn. Photo by RIch Grant
Whitefish Sandwich at the Legs Inn. Photo by Rich Grant

The scenic road ends in Cross Village, home to bizarre and fun Legs Inn. This 90-year-old family owned restaurant is now on the National Historic Register. It’s a mish-mash of a place, a homemade structure composed of rounded stones and driftwood from the lake, logs from the forest, and inverted iron stove legs, which hold up the balcony and give the inn its name.

Stanley Smolak, a Polish immigrant, started building the place as a curio shop of his own design in the 1920s and kept expanding, adding a bar, balcony and a dining room with lake views. Today, from May through October, it’s the place for Polish food of pierogi, kielbasa, sauerkraut and smoked whitefish. Even if it’s not meal time, stop in just to see the place.

There are no cars on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant
There are no cars on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant

Mackinac Island

“Naw” if By Land, “Nac” if By Sea, Either Way, Mackinaw and Mackinac are Pronounced the Same

The land town is spelled Mackinaw, the five-mile-long bridge and island are spelled Mackinac, but both are pronounced “Mackinaw.” How easy it is once someone explains that to you.

View from Fort Mackinac of the harbor. Photo by Rich Grant
View from Fort Mackinac of the harbor. Photo by Rich Grant

Mackinac Island is no secret and is justifiably one of the top attractions in Michigan. It’s most famous as the place that banned automobiles in 1898. In the summer, 600 horses live on the island pulling carriages filled with people, luggage and even garbage. The taxis are carriages pulled by horses. There’s no other way to get around except by bicycle or foot, and you can only get there by ferry or small plane.

But by late October, the crowds are thinning out, and after Halloween, the town shuts down to just 500 year-round residents, one bar, one restaurant, 18 horses and a commute to the mainland by icebreaker (or snowmobile on those years that Lake Huron freezes over).

Come in the summer, if you must. But in the fall, with tourism numbers falling as fast as maple and oak leaves, it is one of the most delightful places you could be.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant
The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant

There are historic forts, fudge shops (eight by my count, but I could have missed a few), bike trails, hiking trails, a battlefield (the American army was 2-6 in Michigan during the War of 1812, not the most impressive record), antique stores, art galleries, taverns, and even places where you can buy mittens.

Of course, it’s the architecture that makes the place most special with huge mansions turned into bed & breakfasts, the Grand Hotel with a 600-foot-long porch, old time resorts, and private homes.

At dusk and in the evening in autumn, when the day trippers have gone home, the fudge shops have closed and there’s a chill in the air, you can have the Main Street practically to yourself – a wonderful time-tripping experience complete with the glow from lanterns and the clip-clop of horses passing by.

Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant
Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island, Michigan. Photo by Rich Grant

Mission Point Resort

We stayed in the Mission Point Resort and loved the sprawling grounds and the lakeside walk to and from town. The resort has been a mission, a church, and a college, and the great wood circular lobby with a 200-foot-high atrium is worth a visit.

Ask to pet Nick, the hotel border collie who stays in the lobby and has his own following on INSTAGRAM, @nickathepoint.

And, if you’re like Hemingway, find your way to a coffee shop on Mackinac Island, and it just might turn out to be the place for you to write about …. Paris.  Hemingway wrote of a day in Paris in A Moveable Feast, “It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write.”

As for me, I was writing about my adventures in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day, it was that sort of day in the story…

If You Go:

Author Bio: Rich Grant is a freelance travel writer in Denver, Colorado and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Travel Journalists Association. He is, along with Irene Rawlings, co-author of “100 Things to Do in Denver Before You Die,” published by Reedy Press in 2016.