With four hours to kill between puddle jump flights (Des Moines to Detroit, Detroit to Ithaca) we discovered all kinds of dining options to make a former a Michigan native and her Kansan happy. Leo’s was the latest discovery, a favorite in Royal Oak Michigan. During our outbound four hour layover, we tried both Papa Joes (perhaps the smaller of two outposts) and Plum Market/Zingerman’s (which had a much bigger but pricey selection, compared to Papa Joes).
The gift shop was also full of Michigan goodies from Cherry Republic to Sanders to Made in Detroit tees.
This charming, lesser-known summer vacation spot is a Michigan classic
The Beulah area captures nostalgia for Michigan’s vacationland.
By Betsy Rubiner Special to the Star Tribune
AUGUST 27, 2021 — 7:30AM
BETSY RUBINER • SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
As I bicycled beside a shimmering lake in the northwest corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, I was looking for the perfect photo op to capture the “Up North” spirit I loved as a Michigan kid.
“Stop! This is it!” I called out to my husband and 29-year-old son early in our ride on the Betsie Valley Trail.
Humoring me, my guys duly stopped to pose beside a white birch tree set against a dazzling backdrop of lake, land and sky in many shades of blue: the water’s glassy turquoise, the opposite shore’s navy blue and the powder blue of a cloudless sky in late July.
Here was the Michigan of my lost youth, yet I’d never been to lovely Crystal Lake, the state’s ninth-largest inland lake (about 8 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide) but a pipsqueak compared with nearby Lake Michigan.
During our last summer trek here, we stayed 20 miles to the north, near the gateway to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, with its 35 miles of giant dunes. So in March, when I started planning a post-pandemic (or so I hoped) vacation with our far-flung adult kids and first grandchild, I looked for a vacation rental near Sleeping Bear.
My search landed us in a white lakefront cottage with an alluring wraparound enclosed porch in the village of Beulah. Dating to the 1930s or earlier, the four-bedroom cottage was worn and musty inside. Outside, it was perfect, with a glorious Crystal Lake view and a huge fenced-in yard for our dog and Frisbee flinging. We happily spent most of our week outside.
Beulah proved a fine base camp for revisiting the national lakeshore and discovering other dunes, trails, beaches and villages. With a year-round population of about 200 that swells during the summer, Beulah was also refreshingly low-key. Tourists played pickleball in the park, swam in the clear water beside the sandy public beach and fished from the public dock. There was the occasional Jet Ski, pontoon boat or speedboat pulling a water skier, but the lake was not overrun.
On the 2 ½-block main drag, we found the obligatory ice cream/fancy coffee shop and gem store selling jewelry made with Petoskey stones (a beloved local fossil), plus Five Shores Brewing, offering live music on Friday night, and L’Chayim Delicatessen, serving real-deal bagels and a mean pastrami sandwich.
Another bonus: Beulah is the midpoint of the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail. We frequented the mostly flat 10-mile portion stretching to the town of Frankfort on Lake Michigan. First we rode west on newly resurfaced crushed limestone along Crystal Lake, past cottages with patches of caramel-colored sand dotted with beach chairs, kayaks, inflatable floats, volleyball nets and docks, to a small nature area where I found my photo op.
We proceeded to Frankfort on a smooth paved trail lined with hot pink sweet peas and other wildflowers, passing through sun-dappled woods and green fields near the squiggly Betsie River, which widens into a small lake. We stopped in unassuming Elberta (pop. about 165) for peach ice cream at the funky Conundrum Café and admired the Life Saving Station, a restored blue-trimmed 1887 building with a cupola once used to spot distressed ships on Lake Michigan. (It now hosts weddings.)
Although we swam in Crystal Lake, we showered soon afterward to prevent swimmer’s itch, a rash caused by parasites carried by waterfowl and snails. More often we chose Lake Michigan, which has a less-itchy reputation. Sandy-bottomed Esch Beach was our favorite, followed by the bigger, busier beach in the pretty village of Empire. The Frankfort beach was a close third, located near another popular photo op, the Point Betsie Lighthouse, built in 1858.
While we enjoyed Sleeping Bear’s Dune Climb and Empire Bluffs Trail, we appreciated the relative solitude of the less-touristed Arcadia Dunes. At the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, we hiked a mile through the woods to Mount Baldy Dune, where, from 126 feet, Lake Michigan looked like a vast ocean.
We ate most of our meals outside at the cottage on a wobbly picnic table, enjoying the local bounty — fresh corn, tomatoes and blueberries; whitefish (grilled, smoked or mushed into an addictive pâté) from Frankfort’s Port City Smokehouse; and farm-fresh brats and burgers from the Market Basket grocery store/farm stand in Beulah.
Peach pie from the Elberta Farmers Market was the group favorite, followed by cherry pie from the Cherry Hut in Beulah, an endearing 1922 mainstay where waitresses in crisp blouses and cherry-red skirts serve cherry pie à la mode, cherry floats and cherry hot fudge brownies.
One night we splurged on dinner at the Manitou, a local favorite with a North Woods supper club vibe. I’m glad I booked ahead. At 5:30 p.m. on a Monday, it was packed with families and older couples, perhaps drawn by early bird specials of Great Lakes whitefish and yellow perch.
With the region located along the Eastern Time Zone’s western edge, our days were long and full, followed by our main evening activity — lounging in plastic Adirondack chairs and watching the sun sink below the horizon, the sky over the lake ablaze with color.
Beulah is a 650-mile drive east of the Twin Cities around Lake Michigan’s northern end. Drivers can also take the four-hour S.S. Badger car ferry from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, Mich. Delta Air Lines offers one direct flight daily between Minneapolis and nearby Traverse City, Mich., from May to late September.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog TakeBetsyWithYou.
Near Beulah, Mich., Arcadia Dunes on Lake Michigan are a less-touristed alternative to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
We took M-22 south from Frankfort to head home, a scenic two-lane road hugging Lake Michigan and dotted with farm stands. We also passed Arcadia Ice where we had good ice cream cones yesterday after our bluff hike, M-22 led us to M-31, also more interesting that 131 through Grand Rapids which we took on the way up here as a detour due to road construction.
In Pentwater, a pretty town, we stopped to picnic in the small park along a marina in town and eavesdropped on that appeared to be the results of a fishing competition. (Someone won for “best of species.”) sorry to leave up north but hope to return (to a different rental house) maybe next summer.
we found more spectacular views from atop a ridge of dunes on the Empire Bluffs Trail and more people too, compared to yesterday’s hike at Acadia bluffs, where we saw a handful of other hikers. The weekend crowd appears to have arrived and it’s almost as hard to urn left onto two-lane Highway 31 as it is to turn left on the Sunrise Highway in the Hamptons.
The weather has gotten cold – 66 degrees at 4 pm – and very windy which ruled out a last swim in the lake but it’s fine for everything else outdoors, so no complaints. We visited a much better -appointed house in empire that may be available for renting next year. No lake view but no decrepit stairs or sleeping quarters, which rules this place out next summer. We do like being so close to the small village and it’s handful of shops and places to eat and drink. And of course this lawn and view and dog-friendly situation can’t be beat. (No dogs at the Empire house.)
A storm huffed and puffed last night but there was no blowing down this house, which has stood its ground for decades. For once I took comfort in how old this cottage is. I figured it had withstood many a storm blowing over the late. Fortunately there was not e wind than rain so the cottage didn’t get more musty and the sun was out by midday. We went to lovely Empire Beach about 20 miles north in the pretty village of Empire where I hoped to stay this year. A maybe next year.
Tonight my best friend from high school Polly and her husband Jamie who live in empire right now while their house in Glen Arbor is getting a makeover came over for a hike in the woods at Railroad Point Nature Center and then dinner of grilled whitefish (an Emma specialty) and white bean & avocado salad (a Noah speciality) and cherry pie. lovely get together up north!
JUST FYI: (This post is from a week ago…Wordpress is acting up.)
I may be allergic to something in this ancient musty cottage (my throat got clogged last night) but beyond that, we are sitting pretty, on the shores of Crystal Lake, a short walk to the town beach and small downtown which does, in fact, have a surprisingly good Jewish deli.
We do most things outside in our enormous fenced-in yard (good for Millie the dog) and the wraparound screened in-porch with an odd assortment of ancient chairs and 3 folding beds (I may try one tonight instead of sleeping in the low ceilinged upstairs bedroom, reached by a small set of steep narrow steps that Millie and I have trouble navigating.)
Noah, Dirck and I rode on the wonderfully scenic and flat, crushed gravel Betsie Valley Trail, all along the southern shore of Crystal Lake past cottages, most modest and old, some new and fancy, but this town feels refreshingly less posh than Harbor Springs or even Glen Arbor. The weather is perfect, sunny, 80s, with a breeze. We rode almost to Frankfort on the trail from Beulah and also rode a few miles the opposite direction into the woods on a rougher gravel trail.
Lunch was excellent deli fare at L’chaim Deli in small, unassuming downtown Beulah. Pastrami on rye, Rueben sandwich, a bagel sandwich with artichokes and peppered feta (the Jerusalem). There’s a few interesting little shops including an old head shop feeling place with lots of stones and jewelry with local stones, not only petosky stones but a green stone found in nearby Frankfort and a blue stone found in nearby Leland. I also learned about a quintessential Detroit stone, “Fordite” (the Detroit agate) so-called because it was made from old congealed paint from auto factories.
I swam In Crystal Lake, walking a half block to the public beach. Warm, shallow, sandy bottom and some risk of swimmers itch, same as 10 years ago, so I showered right after getting out and walking back here. Then off to Frankfort for a swim in Lake Michigan, also sandy, shallow for awhile, calm. We went over to the Point Betsie Lighthouse, a pretty old white brick tower attached to redbrick living quarters. I’m told the Betsie stems from a mispronunciation of a French word.
I bought cherry everything at the old-fashioned Cherry Hut a few minutes away. The waitresses wear white shirts with cherry red shirts that flare out at the waist. Excellent cherry pie, cherry preserves, dried cherries, cherry danish and at a produce shop next door I got real in-season cherries, a dark wine red. tonight we grilled fresh white fish from the famous Port City Smokehouse in the nearby bigger town of Frankfort. Michigan sweet corn is pretty good too!
We found a great place to stop for lunch en route to Crystal Lake in northern Michigan, a sophisticated little cafe called the Farmhouse in Douglas outside of saugatuck. Easy in, easy out, with a nice little area in the woods behind the bakery with picnic tables, perfect for dining with a dog on a leash. And very good sandwiches.
We had the mufaletta and turkey club and got a takeaway pasta casserole for dinner tonight that was delicious with corn, arugula, sausage, bacon, curly pasta and red sauces.
Nice evening settling into our funky old cottage in Beulah with an enormous screened-in wrap around porch, a huge yard for frisbee playing and picnic tables directly overlooking Crystal Lake. We sat outside in plastic Adirondack chairs and watched a spectacular sunset at 9 pm, the sky bright red and orange sinking into the water on the horizon.
Why have I never been to Kalamazoo? I’ve passed it dozens of times while driving on I-94 driving between Chicago and Detroit, as we did yet again yesterday. This time we were hungry so we stopped at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe, home of the craft beer that is one of Dirck’s favorites. The cafe turned out to be in an old cavernous yellow brick building near the railroad tracks and was packed on a Sunday afternoon. We had a baby glass of beer, since we were driving, and Korean pork tacos and jambalaya. All good and a fun brew pub atmosphere. We also stopped in the gift shop to get a little something for Dirck.
We also did a quick drive past the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership on the Kalamazoo College campus, which got rave reviews from the architecture critic of the NYTimes when it opened in 2014. It’s modest looking from the outside but interesting when you look closely. The exterior walls appear to be made of poured concrete with inlaid circles of cut tree stumps. I’d love to tour it sometime. Kalamazoo, what little we saw of it, had some pretty old neighborhoods with brick mansions and wood Victorian painted ladies. Didn’t see as much of downtown as I’d like.
Haven’t been to my hometown airport in awhile and the dining options are much improved from what I remember when I was a kid. (That could be said of the airport beyond the food. Barely recognized.) Outposts of 3 well-known Michigan foodie Meccas are here. I couldn’t resist zingerman’s, the famous Ann Arbor deli empire, which has teamed up with Plum market (which I know only about from Chicago). I got the “skinny” classic corned beef sandwich which is hefty enough. The meat was fattier than I like (note to self: maybe ask for lean next time. I so seldom get corned beef that I have forgotten some basics.) but the rye bread was thick chewy and superb.
Hope I won’t be here longer than planned. The sky looks testy and it just started pouring. My Des Moines flight landed one gate away from my Ithaca flight.
Not only did we not have to talk our relatives in suburban Detroit into exploring downtown, they suggested it! Detroit gets better with our every annual visit. We dropped by what is now an old favorite must see, the stunningly ornate Guardian Building and then followed a comfortable-sized crowd to a thriving pocket park – campus martius – with cafes (Parc looked particularly good), outdoor tables, sculpture and a sandy beach (minus the waterfront — the Detroit river is a few blocks south). Kids played in the sand, small groups (black and white, although not mixed) sipped drinks at outdoor tables, two bands played an stages near muscle cars on display (a fraction of the vintage cars participating in the annual Dream Cruise further north on Woodward Avenue). Barbara forgot her purse at our table, walked back to it after a few minutes and there it was waiting for her, all items accounted for. Gives you hope for Detroit’s continued renaissance.
We also wandered into Moosejaws, a Detroit outdoors store, among several inviting cafes and shops nearby and more to come — a big Shopping Center is rising soon on the site of the famous old Hudson’s Department Store that I used to go to with my mom in the 1960s and 70s. We also dropped in at a famous old auction house across from RenCen and by far the best piece for sale was a piece by Glen Michaels, father of a high school friend.