Great Lake Vacation in Northern Michigan

Looking to escape the heat and chill out on a laid back vacation this summer? No need to travel far.

Award-winning beaches, perfect temperatures, spectacular sunsets and friendly towns can all be found in Northern Michigan.

A 5-hour drive from Chicago, Northern Michigan’s Lower Peninsula used to be one of the country’s best-kept vacation secrets. That all changed when in 2011, Good Morning America viewers voted Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore the most beautiful place in America. With 35 miles of pristine Lake Michigan coastline, secluded beaches and scenic overlooks, you’ll think you’ve landed in the Caribbean, without the hassles of boarding a plane.

GLEN ARBOR

The neighboring beach town of Glen Arbor is all about good old-fashioned summer fun. Forget about your Facebook feed and relax to the rhythm of the lake and small town life.

After a day of antiquing and gallery hopping in downtown Glen Arbor, it’s time to storm the beaches. That might mean racing down Sleeping Bear’s 400-foot dunes, or simply digging your toes into sand, drink in hand. Looking for more adventure? Kick your vacation into high gear during the drive up by renting a dune buggy at Silver Lake State Park just south of Ludington. It was the summer highlight for my 12-year-old son last year.

Where to Stay: Spread across 350 acres, the Homestead Resort has a mile of postcard-perfect Lake Michigan shoreline. In addition to the jaw-dropping scenery, there are pools, tennis, golf, a spa, and even a kids club so adults can have time alone.

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Where to Eat: A great place to fuel up for your daily adventures? Glen Arbor’s Cherry Republic is a lot more than just a pit stop. This restaurant and gift shop celebrates Northern Michigan’s top crop with cherry pie, cherry soda, cherry salad dressing, even a cherry burger. Whether this juicy fruit is your top pick or not, lunch in their scenic outdoor gardens is the recipe for a perfect summer day, and a jar of their top-selling cherry salsa is a sweet souvenir.

TRAVERSE CITY

National Geographic placed this city on its Top 10 list of vacation spots last summer and Family Fun magazine just named it one of the best tourist towns in America. Keith Bellows, National Geographic Travel Media Editor-in-Chief, thinks newcomers will be surprised by the beauty and charm of what he calls, America’s Third Coast. “I grew up in Cape Cod and see similarities,” he says. “There’s a pureness to Traverse City, a sense of authenticity that’s increasingly being lost in other destinations. In the nicest possible meaning of the word, it’s a throwback. It’s got a wonderful feeling of Americana.”

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Known as the cherry capital of the U.S., its biggest event is the National Cherry Festival held in early July. It’s jam-packed with wholesome fun—think pie-eating and cherry-spitting contests. Traverse City has a juicy secret though—it may be charming and quaint, but it’s also a foodie paradise that’s rapidly gaining a reputation for its wineries and microbreweries.

Where to Stay: For a romantic retreat, drink in the views from Chateau Chantal, a picturesque vineyard and B&B. If you’ve got kids in tow, head to the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. Not only do its restaurants feature farm-to-table specialties, the spa menu uses local ingredients as well. Its signature treatment is a cherry-infused massage—sweet!

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Where to Eat: About 75 percent of the country’s tart cherries come from Michigan. Grand Traverse Pie Company has plenty of sweet ways to cherry pick. The Cherry Crumb is a favorite.

MACKINAC ISLAND

Got a few more days for your Great Lake escape? Travel 120 miles north, hop on a ferry and travel back in time. No cars allowed on Mackinac Island. Instead, enjoy a horse drawn carriage ride or roll like the locals do—on bikes—past charming Victorian homes, fudge shops and elaborate gardens. Bike rentals are plentiful on the island.

Where to Stay: Northern Michigan’s grande dame is the Grand Hotel, open May through October. Generations of guests, including several U.S. presidents, have enjoyed the view of the manicured gardens and swimming pool from the elegant front porch, which happens to be the largest in the world.

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Where to Eat: In keeping with more than 100 years of tradition, afternoon tea is still served daily in the Grand Hotel’s parlor. Evenings are no less formal. There’s a 5-course dinner, accompanied by live music from the Grand Hotel Orchestra. Prepare to dress to impress—men are required to wear a jacket and tie.

Whether it’s a laid back beach vacation you’re after, or the timeless elegance of historic Mackinac Island, there are plenty of vacation options to choose from and they’re all less than a day’s drive from the North Shore.