By Tom Calicchio:
When traveling for pleasure, I seek destinations off the beaten path because my goal is to find a new and different experience. My first inclination is to choose a destination abroad but my recent trip to the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has proven to me that there are amazing undiscovered adventure spots within the United States.
I was invited to attend the World Ice Snow and Sailing Association’s 2012 annual world championship event. It is the only world event where wings, sails and kites power competitors on skis, skates and bladed boards over snow and ice. The event in its 32nd year and has been staged in Finland ( last year and next year) many times and in various Canadian towns, but only 3 times prior to this in the United States. (wissa.org)
The competitors come from all over the world, and what really surprised me was not only their national diversity, but that there were both young kids and oldsters, male and female.
The town of St. Ignace, Michigan was chosen as the host town for the week long competition because it lies on the straits of Mackinac on Lake Huron, a place perfect for ice sailing. Although it gets over 20 feet of snow annually, the high winds keep the ice clear and are perfect for wind powered sports. The only problem was that this year, for the only time in history, the Great Lakes did not freeze. The event was moved to an inland lake, and while the winds were not up to levels hoped for, the competitors and spectators had a great time in the unusually warmer weather.
St Ignace is a really cool and mellow town with a beautiful harbor and lighthouse. Be sure to have lunch at Bentley’s, a 50’s style dinner with great comfort food, excellent shakes and malts and of course top quality burgers. Perfect for a refueling on a cold winter day. There are lots of restaurants on the water, and for dinner I recommend the Mackinac Grille which has excellent fare, and fried pickles, something I’ve never before encountered, and they were really good. (stignace.com)
St. Ignace is located in Mackinac County, and is the terminal base for the ferries that run to Mackinac Island, a well known summer vacation destination that doesn’t allow cars. You get around by bicycle or rent your own horse and buggy. Most people, however, opt for the horse drawn taxis that are radio dispatched, just ask the front desk or your bartender to have one pick you up. Many places are closed during the winter, but if you want to get that “The Shinning “ vibe going, most winters the bay of Moran is frozen and you can snowmobile to Mackinac Island. Just follow the recycled Christmas tree trail markers that are put up and call the US Coast guard station (906) 643-9191 for up to date ice conditions.
The UPer’s as they call themselves live on the land north of the great 5 mile long Mackinac bridge which when completed in 1957 was the longest suspension bridge in the world. They call the people who live on the south side of the state “trolls” because the live “under” the bridge. Check out the live web cam and history of the bridge at mackinacbridge.org.
Despite their ruggedness and independent spirit, the product of enduring the extreme cold of winter, the UPers are extremely friendly and hospitable. My first encounter was with the guides at Tahquamenon Falls State Park, who lent me some snowshoes for a short treck through the woods to see the waterfalls themselves. They are the second largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi, the first is where people kill themselves trying to survive the drop inside of barrels. Definitely worth the hike, and the nearby Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub serves excellent chow and micro brewed beer. 906-492-3300.
The entire region is packed with points of historical interest relating to the Great Lakes steam ship history and the 1000 foot freighters that have been so vital to commerce in America beginning in the mid 19th century. Three of the Great lakes converge here, Lake Michigan connects to Lake Huron by passing under the Mackinac Bridge. There has been so much shipping and blustering storms that the Great Lakes have more shipwrecks than any other place on earth. There is a shipwreck museum, and glass bottom boat tours in the summer months along with lots of scuba diving wreck sites. The water is Caribbean clear which I would not have observed if not for the unusually warm weather. There should have been at least 30” of solid ice during my visit in late February.
The area is rich with Indian history and St Ignace has the Museum of Ojibwa Culture that gives visitors a first hand look at traditional Indian housing, birch canoes and other Native American artifacts. The Museum store sells very high quality authentic hand crafted items made by descendants of Native Americans.
My favorite spot was this real time warp of a place called Manley’s, a fish smoking store. You have to be a fish at least 21” to smoke there, (joke) but it’s a joint that hasn’t changed much since the 50’s still doing what it does best, smoking the local catch.
Powering through the Powder
Snowmobiling is huge in the winter in the U.P., not only as a means of getting around town (most allow operation on public roads during winter) but enjoying the thousands of miles of well mapped and daily groomed trails through fields and forest. It’s a sport everyone can enjoy because you can take a leisurely tour with or without a guide, stopping to observe an interesting view or perhaps some winter wildlife.
There is an abundance of moose, elk, hare and an occasional beaver or mink. For the more extreme sportsperson, you can tear ass through the trails (stay to the right, some are 2-way) or blast over an open tundra at over 100 miles per hour. Either fast or slow it’s great fun and one of the best places to snowmobile in America. You don’t have to bring your own sled, there are many places to rent snowmobiles along with the helmets, suits and gloves you’ll need to stay comfortable.
Randy Travis of Indian River Sports Center provided my Arctic Cat snowmobile and he was also an excellent guide. Indian River Sports can also hook you up with everything you need for outdoor adventures any time of the year like ATVing, jet skiing or boating. www.ir-sc.com.
I went up to the furthest point north on the U.P., the town of Sault Ste. Marie, or the Soo in local parlance, for dinner at the Antlers. I was told the food was good, which it was, but the collection of antlers, and animal trophy mounts including a polar bear and a lion was unbelievable.
I was introduced to David Lorenz from Travel Michigan, the states travel bureau michigan.org who knows everything about this region and he took me to breakfast the next morning at a place called Karl’s Cuisine that served up some delicious quiches and maple porridge with fresh berries. It looks out over the locks and Canada and is a great spot for scrumptious food with a view of the passing ships.
Here the former rapids of the 65 mile long St Mary’s river which connect Great Lakes Superior and Huron have been converted into a lock system which 100 years since its creation is still the largest waterway traffic system in the world. There is a short bridge that crosses over to Canada and the city is home to an annual 500 mile snowmobile endurance race.
If you’re into the engineering marvel of the lock system and the hydro generating plant (as I am) you should plan to come up for the annual open house on Engineers Day in June. Only on this day will visitors get to walk across the lock walls, go underneath to see the mechanical systems that allow the water level to rise and fall the 21 foot difference between the two Great lakes. The 110 year old hydro plant was built from the red sandstone excavated from digging the power canal and is ¼ mile long. It is an architectural gem and still provides the region with 1/5th of its power requirements.
I stayed at a beautiful hotel called Treetops, located about ½ hour south of St Ignace. On the resort’s 3,500 acres is its own ski lifts for snowboarding or downhill skiing and since it’s an 81 hole golf course in warmer months, the courses are used in winter for cross country skiing. Treetops has an excellent spa for massages, facials, mani/pedi and other salon services. The heated outdoor pool was under renovation during my stay, but will be ready for next winter. (treetops.com)
Since the area is home to the descendants of local Native American tribes, there are lots of first rate casinos, with both slots and real table games like craps and blackjack. The casino entertainment is quite good, couldn’t believe Eric Burdon and the Animals will be playing at the Kewadin Casino in Sault Ste. Marie on March 24th, one of the few Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees I’ve never seen live. Kewadin has five casinos in the U.P. so you’re never far from a great evening of gambling action in from the cold, although some blackjack dealers hearts are made of ice.
I really enjoyed my trip to the U.P., and I am looking forward to go back during spring or fall. Summer is probably the most popular time, but that means more crowds, which I try to avoid. Winter time, when there are the fewest visitors, means you can enjoy the peace and tranquility of life as it was 200 years ago, something different and on the path less traveled. Be sure to use michigan.org a really helpful site for planning a visit to any part of Michigan.