We departed Mackinaw City across the great Mackinac Bridge and stopped in St. Ignace for breakfast. We discovered Bentley’s, a shack across from a ferry dock that looks more like a brothel. It was once a hotel/restaurant for bridge workers and retains its throwback ‘50s diner image. The short bar stools line a bar area that angles through the room. Then, there’s also the authentic juke box that’s loaded with your favorite oldies — all vinyl records. It’s a Yooper’s (the name affectionately attached to Upper Peninsula residents) paradise, and many were there for pasties and other favorites.
WHAT’S A PASTY?
The original pasty was created in Cornwall, United Kingdom, as a simple, hand-held meal for the tin miners who worked the mines in and around Cornwall. As the UP’s mining industry expanded, Welsh, English and Finnish miners arrived. Pasties followed, and even the Finns created their own variations.
The traditional pasty is a disk of pie dough, rolled out and folded over a concoction of seasoned ground beef, ground pork and minced vegetables — usually onion, potato and rutabaga. Bentley’s had their own version, so, my wife, Gayle, went for it. It was baked crispy brown and smothered in pork gravy. Tasty and hardy, it made for a great introduction to UP culture.
Bentley’s “Rinse-n-Shine” menu had the usual choices, but besides the pasties, the locals love skillets. A couple of guys at the bar had versions of these colossal iron skillet servings.
Bentley’s is a classic and still serves sodas, malts, floats and other goodies from the age-old soda fountain.
On the way, we stopped at a convenience store in Seney. Nearby is the Seney National Refuge — the home to a large, black bear population. Bear season was coming to a conclusion, and this small convenience-fuel stop along MI-28 is also a bear check station. The gruffy owner, Benji, said, “We registered 35 bears so far, but not many deer” — claiming that wolves have taken out much of the deer population. When asked if he lived year-round in this wilderness, he declared, “Winter is our busiest time.”
The attraction: snowmobile trails. Folks flock to the area with their powerful sleds.
Marquette is the UP’s largest city, home of Northern Michigan University, a major port and has the third largest snowfall in the United States — averaging nearly 150-inches a year.
Historically, the area was known to early French missionaries, but in the 1880s, iron ore was discovered nearby and the miners came.
The city is on a high hill overlooking the lake and is known for its microbreweries. We decided to seek one out and found The Vierling Restaurant & Marquette Harbor Brewery. We were not disappointed as Heather, a somewhat frazzled and 20-plus-year employee, explained the specials and favorites. But first, my extremely parched throat had to be quenched, and Heather obliged with a magnificent bloody Mary.
After quaffing the bloody and garnishes, which were nearly enough for a lunch, I took Heather’s cue on salads and chose the seasonal spinach salad of baby spinach, roasted walnuts, red onion and Gorgonzola crumbles — all coated with a Greek vinaigrette. Any of the eight salads can be had with a choice of local fish, and I had to go with whitefish. It was seasoned nicely and grilled to perfection — so fresh, so good!
Gayle went with a cup of whitefish chowder — another local staple. The cream base was not overwhelmingly rich, had a hint of bacon and featured nice chunks of whitefish and potato. Served with a baguette slice, it was quite satisfying.
From Marquette, the route to the Keweenaw Peninsula meanders west along Lake Superior’s mostly barren shores. (There is an occasional house between the road and the lake.). After nearly five hours on the road, we turned north toward the gateway to the Keweenaw Peninsula and Houghton.
So far, the UP is culturally unique and an immense remote wilderness.IF YOU GO
Bentley’s B-M-L Café is at 62 N. State St., St Ignace, Michigan. Phone: 906-643-7910. Hours: 7-9 p.m. daily, except Sunday, when they close at 3 p.m.
The Vierling Restaurant and Marquette Harbor Brewery is at 119 S. Front St., Marquette, Michigan. Phone: 906-228-3533. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed on Sunday.