According to the Traverse City Historical Society, the earliest settlers were Chippewa and Ottawa Indians. The town of Peshawbetown on the Leelanau Peninsula is the headquarters for the Grand Traverse Band of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians. French fur traders soon followed to feast on the area’s bounty. That’s when the term La Grand Traverse came into play. Meaning “long crossing”, it describes the canoe crossing at the mouth of Grand Traverse Bay.
The earliest permanent white settlers arrived in 1839 at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula where today sits the village of Old Mission. Many of the original structures are still in use.
In the mid-1800s, logging was the main industry bringing lumberjacks from afar. By 1852, the town was named Traverse City. Because it was only accessible by water then, the Old Mission Lighthouse was established in 1870 at the tip to warn ships of the rock shoals populating the point.
In 1891, the Opera House opened, then in 1893, city founder, Perry Hannah built the fabulous Hannah House. Both remain tourist attractions today.
After the lumber boom, the region relied primarily on agriculture. To take advantage of the eco-system around the bay, fruit farming became popular. Today, Traverse City is known as the Cherry Capital of the World (also claimed by Door County, Wisconsin, and as touted in my article last fall).
Onward to the quest
After an overnighter in Holland to visit one of my favorite places, Butch’s Dry Dock, featured in a January article, we continued the quest.
There is no other place known where you can get horseradish-infused vodka, except at Northern Latitudes Distillery midway up the Leelanau Peninsula. Having captured a sampling of this creative concoction last fall, we found that the Apollo label they offer makes the best Bloody Mary’s ever. So, that had to be the first stop to gather a stash.
Another awesome hooch discovered at NLD was Deer Camp Whiskey (surprisingly made in southern Indiana but bottled by NLD). This smooth elixir is perfect with an ice cube and makes for great sipping in front of a blazing fire. It warms your cockles quickly.
Food scene is next to none
Traverse City is home to the Great Lakes Culinary Institute at Northwestern Michigan College and largely contributes to making the area a major foodie destination. Some chefs have migrated from Chicago and Detroit, but there are also many institute graduates that don’t leave the area. Now, several have their own restaurants.
The second phase of this quest was to partake of local food. First stop: Apache Trout Grill nestled on the west side of Grand Traverse Bay. The restaurant is adorned with hewn redwood beams and a large stone fireplace. It places you comfortably in a hunting lodge setting. Curiously, the restaurant was named after a nearly extinct trout species from streams in Arizona’s White Mountains on the Apache Indian reservation.
Owners Mike and Sheila Connors and staff serve-up dishes using seasonal local ingredients. Featured are fresh local fish, seafood, barbecued meats, steaks and their signature shrimp and lobster bisque. The latter matches any tasted with lumps of lobster and shrimp in a creamy, rich stock. With a hint of sherry, it’s a perfect start for lunch or dinner.
On this visit, we had to go with a local favorite, whitefish. Served as a sandwich for lunch, there are two large, panko-breaded pieces stuffed into a brioche bun with the house tartar sauce and served with garnishes of choice. I chose the house slaw as a side, and both were a home run
After an afternoon of shopping, we decided on a restaurant that is open only for dinner, has an eclectic menu, great scenery and a nice wine list. Enter the Boathouse Restaurant on Old Mission Peninsula, directly on Grand Traverse Bay and 15 minutes from Traverse City. For me, the choice was easy. Elk tenderloin was on the menu.
Local chef, Jim Morse, a graduate and now part-time instructor at the institute, features local ingredients, many from the Boathouse Farm. He heads a staff in a quaint, waterfront cottage, and upon arriving, the courteous staff seated us nearly over the water and perfect for an enjoyable evening of food, conversation and a sunset.
The menu offers interesting dishes like caviar, foie gras, a couple charcuteries, local fish and features Kobe beef dishes. To start, we settled on a Pinot Grigio from Bowers Harbor Vineyard just up the hill from the restaurant. Then, after reviewing the menu, I was disappointed that they had just moved to the summer menu, and no elk. However, the seasonal changes did include some very exciting additions — one being fresh Atlantic oysters. We slammed some immediately. Then we settled on the highly acclaimed morel chanterelle bisque. This signature dish was rich with a cognac infused, chanterelle-flavored cream base, lumps of morels and finished with a drizzle of white truffle oil. This bisque was simply spectacular.
An entrée addition was Grilled Alaskan Halibut that arrived that day. Served with roasted cherry tomatoes, a pickled cabbage-lima bean mash, snap peas, squash and pea coulis’s and topped with a split morel, the dish was something to behold. The fish was done perfectly and was devoured.
Wineries are plentiful
There is a vineyard on nearly every south-facing slope on both peninsulas, and the varietals remind you of the Finger Lakes Region in New York. Within 20 miles, there are some 40 wineries with some wines being top-notch. High on the list are Shady Lane, Bowers Harbor and Brengman Brothers. Besides the pinot grigio, Shady Lane’s Franc 'n' Franc is outstanding. For lunch, I had a pinot noir from Brengman Brothers that compared favorably with pinots from California. It was a great pairing with the whitefish sandwich.
If you go
Wait until May when the wineries are open. Brengman Brothers Winery and Shady Lane Cellars are on Leelanau Peninsula and Bowers Harbor Vineyards is on Old Mission Peninsula.
Northern Latitudes Distillery is at 112 E. Philip St., Lake Leelanau. Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., most days. They don’t ship.
Apache Trout Grill is at 13671 SW Bay Shore Drive, Traverse City, and is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
The Boathouse is at 14039 Peninsula Drive, Traverse City, and is open from 4 to 10 p.m., except Sunday. Reservations are recommended.
Note: Both restaurants are kid-friendly and can accommodate special dietary needs.
For shopping, Front Street is loaded with boutique shops. A must is the American Spoon store. This Petoskey-based company’s dark chocolate-covered cherries are so good, you can’t stop eating. Also, check out the Grand Traverse Whiskey tasting room. Their Ole George Rye Whiskey is outstanding.
Hotels are plentiful, but make reservations early as summer nears.