Front Street is Traverse City’s tree-shaded Victorian downtown shopping district, with more than 150 boutiques, restaurants, galleries, and coffee shops.
Tony Demin Enlarge
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — When my friend suggested Traverse City, Mich., as the destination for our annual girls’ weekend getaway, I admit I wasn’t exactly enthused.
After discussing tourist hot spots such as Nantucket Island and Savannah, Ga., a trip to northern Michigan seemed a little too close to home and not quite chic enough to satisfy my urge to get away.
It took just minutes of online research exploring yoga studios for morning sessions, wineries for afternoon tastings, and shopping opportunities for all-day excursions, to convince me that a late autumn weekend near the pinkie of Michigan’s mitten would be a perfect place to do everything that makes a girls’ getaway great.
There’s no doubt that Traverse City is a great place to go in the summer. Located at the base of Grand Traverse Bay, the city of about 15,000 residents offers diverse water sports. Whether it’s paddle boarding or kayaking or biking or just sitting near the lapping water, summer has plenty of options.
And of course, Traverse City is a key stop along Michigan’s famous color tour, which brings thousands of visitors every autumn to see the changing leaves during their peak color.
But what about after the color drops and before the snow draws skiers and snowmobilers to town? That’s when visitors can simply enjoy the cosmopolitan essence of this small town.
The first thing that’s hard to overlook is its ambiance and charm. It definitely has that small-town feel where beautiful homes line tree-filled streets in the blocks surrounding the downtown. It was in an apartment rental unit above a detached garage in one of these neighborhoods where we made our home during our three-night stay.
Close enough to walk to both the downtown and The Village at Grand Traverse Commons — more on that later — the small apartment was perfect and easily discovered on vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner). But there is no shortage of accommodations for those who prefer staying in a hotel or motel. Traverse City has dozens of places to stay ranging from inexpensive motels to pricey lodges.
Once we had our perfect lodging, we began to look for things to do. Because this was a chance to get away from families and jobs, we decided to start our day at the yoga studio. Traverse City has a few studios that specialize in bikram and hot yoga classes. We ended up taking morning classes at Yen Yoga & Fitness (yenyogafitness.com) downtown. After feeling sufficiently limber and relaxed, we walked the six or so blocks — yes, it was cold! — to Pavlova Spa & Salon (pavlovaspasalon.com) where massages awaited.
This was turning out better than I had ever imagined and we hadn’t even started to explore.
It was during our pampering at Pavlova that we heard about a historic 1884 state hospital complex that was made into a sprawling shopping and dining spot. But while that’s the definition you’ll find for The Village at Grand Traverse Commons online, what we were told by our chatty nail technicians was that it was an old insane asylum where people now lived and gathered.
Now this was something different.
After a quick check on our phone’s GPS, we figured we could easily walk to the site several blocks west of downtown. So we bundled up and headed out and just as dusk settled in, we came across the expansive set of buildings.
It was just as we had hoped — two parts beautiful and one part spooky.
It took some wandering around to get to where we actually came across civilization. By this time it was dark and the buildings with their elegant facades seemed even more ominous. Inside, however, was a different story.
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons (thevillagetc.com) was made possible because of the vision of a local team of residents known as the Minervini Group. Historic renovator and builder Ray Minervini saw potential in the 63-acre campus and helped forge efforts to resurrect the architectural treasure. Now, the dozens of historic buildings formerly known as the Traverse City State Hospital — and before that, the Northern Michigan Asylum — form a pedestrian-friendly area that houses residences, professional services, unique shops, and distinctive eateries.
Food is taken seriously in Traverse City. As we strolled through one of the Commons’ buildings, the Mercato Building, awesome smells from various restaurants beckoned us.
Eventually, we made our way into Trattoria Stella (stellatc.com) for a taste of a mixologist’s creations. We did not stay for dinner but that may have been a mistake. Since returning from Traverse City, I’ve learned that many of my friends consider Stella their favorite restaurant in Traverse City. (One friend even shared that it was the site of his proposal just a few weeks before we were there.)
We then decided to trek back downtown to explore some of Traverse City’s nightlife.
While most of the storefronts were locked up for the night, in nearly every block we came across an establishment that offered a unique dining or drinking experience and an escape from the cold. Although I certainly don’t consider myself a “foodie,” I could tell we were in the land of culinary excellence.
Perhaps that was most clear when we stopped the next morning for breakfast at Patisserie Amie (patisserieamietc.com). If you do nothing else during your time in Traverse City, be sure to enjoy a delightful croissant at the petite restaurant known for its extraordinary French fare.
Thank goodness my friend was aware of this gem as she had friends who often traveled to Traverse City. We made our way there for lunch and couldn’t stop sharing how delectable our meals were. The seating space is limited so if you do find yourself waiting, hang in there — it’s worth every minute.
Now that I knew that Traverse City offered everything a big town would have doled out but in a comfortable, almost neighborhood, setting, I was hooked. And that’s before we chose to take a drive along Old Mission Peninsula to visit wineries. Leelanau Peninsula also has a string of well-known wineries but we avoided that tour this time as there was a wine festival under way and we did not have tickets.
Armed with a list of wineries we wanted to try, we set out along the beautifully winding roads, where occasionally we’d get a glimpse of the bay. We stopped for tastings at Black Star Farms (blackstarfarms.com), 2 Lads Winery (2lwinery.com), and Chateau Chantal Winery & Inn (chateauchantal.com) — and even bought a bottle or two. But mostly we just enjoyed the atmosphere and scenery, despite the chilly, overcast day.
After the weekend, I realized how misguided my initial misgivings about this northern Michigan jewel were. Traverse City didn’t just offer an enjoyable weekend, it showed us an marvelous time. Sure, it’s a place for families and outdoor fun, but this dynamic town also provides the perfect locale for a weekend away.
So much so that it will definitely be on a shortlist for a return trip.
If you go:
Traverse City, Mich., is 293 miles — a drive of about 4½ hours — north from Toledo in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula.
Main Attractions: Depending on the season, a variety of outdoor activities can keep you busy. But if it’s too cold to pull out your bike and too warm to strap on your skis, perhaps spend a day touring the wineries on either the Leelanau or Old Mission peninsulas. You’ll be sure to bring home a few bottles.
The Village at Grand Traverse Commons (thevillagetc.com) is not to be missed. The complex is pedestrian friendly and offers expansive lawns and a historic arboretum as well as hiking and biking trails through 480 acres of preserved parkland. Inside, eclectic shops and unique eateries have been built into the historic walls.
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