Why I Keep Returning to Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula

Even now, thirty-odd years after they were lost, my family still talks about the rings. West Point, class of 1943. First the original and then a replacement slipped off my grandfather’s hand while he swam in Lake Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, a 32-mile-long incursion that separates the Leelanau Peninsula, the pinkie finger of Michigan’s mitten, from the mainland. Poppy might have learned his lesson after the first one, but absentmindedness is strong in our gene pool. I suppose it’s possible some stranger has found one by now, but they’re both probably still on the bottom, not far from the house, kept company by the ashes of a family dog and the billions of invasive zebra mussels that have carpeted the lake floor in recent decades, outcompeting native species and making the water clear but devoid of life. The Grand Traverse Bay is hundreds of feet deep in places. When you swim, you can see your toes—beyond, only blackness.

On the northwestern shore of the Leelanau Peninsula, the Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore tumbles 450 feet into Lake Michigan proper. Signs warn that the climb back up is “extremely exhausting,” but the thrill of descending with huge leaping strides is worth it. Children scavenge the beaches for Petoskey stones, filigreed with fossilized coral from the Devonian period 350 million years ago. I’ve brought friends here who had no idea the Great Lakes were so massive. “Like the ocean,” they say about the blue horizon. A popular local T-shirt: “No Salt, No Sharks, No Worries.” Fall is orange and crimson, golden light falling on weathered red barns. Spring is short and unreliable; winter is brutal but lets you prove yourself. The Leelanau is known for cherry orchards and, lately, wineries. (Try the whites, not the reds.) It’s bucolic in summer, all rolling hills and placid bays. Honor-system farmstands sell the sweetest, fattest red-black cherries you’ll ever eat. You can boat around the bays’ nooks and crannies, anchoring to swim, tying up in Omena Bay for beer and sandwiches at Knot Just a Bar.

Leelanau is the place my family goes. It’s an intimate sort of endorsement, a reminder that home can be a verb. These spots might be idyllic in their own right, but it’s the way we return and return, the way we home, that infuses them with emotion. These are the types of places that measure the passage of time, like doorjambs marked with the heights of growing children. Michigan is where we cultivated our own lore. My grandparents are long dead, but my family is still drawn back to where they chose for us. My cousins’ kids, who never knew them, know about the rings. In the war, Poppy went to Burma. In Michigan, years later, he wore plaid pants and drank too many cocktails and was always on the hunt for fun. My brother, also a veteran, says if he’d survived what Poppy had, he’d just want to party too. Poppy would sit on the deck and sip his drink and look out over his rocky beach at the passing swans, at the trees on the far shore, at the water that his descendants still cross and recross, talking about what has been lost, living what has been found.

A new way to go camping

Think of boat-in camping as the outdoorsy version of arriving at a hotel via water taxi. Accessible only by waterways, campgrounds that sit on lakes, rivers, and inlets are among the best under-the-radar amenities that state and national parks have to offer. They’re private, give you the freedom to explore during the day without packing up, and can come with a kitchen, a private shower, bathrooms, and plush (albeit small) beds. North of Seattle in the San Juan Islands, pick a base with a dock, like Jones Island Marine State Park, with its cliffside campsites and sandy beaches; horseshoe-shaped Sucia Island Marine State Park, known for its sandstone formations; or old-growth-covered Matia Island Marine State Park. Out east, pick up a bowrider from Little Harbor Boat Rentals on New York’s Lake George, then go on a guided scuba dive or fish for lake trout, salmon, and smallmouth bass before docking at one of the three pine-shrouded island clusters with campsites. On Lake Superior in Michigan, Isle Royale National Park can be reached only by ferry, private boat, or seaplane. Book yourself into a Todd Harbor or Caribou Island campsite after a day of fishing, hiking, and lighthouse spotting. —Meredith Carey

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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