A Traverse City Travel Blog

Traverse City is an incredibly vibrant, diverse and interesting city that caters to a spectrum of visitors every year. Our photographer spent a week there; adventuring, hanging out with rockstars,  taking photos, exploring, and falling in love.

As an adventurous, can’t-sit-still outdoorsy type with a penchant for good food, great wine, a little people-watching and some live music, a late-summer visit to Traverse City proved the perfect escape. Big-box tourist stops are just fine, but they’re really not my thing. I’d be bored and stir-crazy without some grand wilderness adventures and a glass of wine to wash it down. I am entirely into finding the most underrated, “no-one in my friends circle has even heard of this place” -kind of destination. Even better if there is unique local culture, history, and geography to be found.

My week in Traverse City proved precisely that. Situated along the southern shore of Grand Traverse Bay in  Michigan region known as the Upper Peninsula, Traverse City is a vibrant small-town lakefront destination with an incredible variety of getaway options. From romantic luxury to a family escape, “Traverse City brings good things in life together to make a place where you feel truly comfortable and where vacations feel perfect. Here, you’ll find the incredible diversity and beauty across the summer, fall, winter and spring seasons. Whether you are exploring the outdoors at our Sleeping Bear Dunes, sipping our local wine, or enjoying a day at the lakeshore, each day is another chance to find yourself in a pretty great place.” My accommodations for the week were at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, just six miles northeast of Traverse City proper. From dining, spa and golf, to all-season outdoor activities around the lake, this immaculate 900-acre property regularly hosts visitors from all walks of life. My ninth-floor tower room was spacious, comfortable, bright and upscale, with a small kitchenette and a gorgeous oversize designer bathroom. The view over Traverse City and the lake were to die for. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lounge luxuriously on the bed among plush pillows with a glass of wine, just to watch the sun set.

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A hybrid business-leisure “bleisure” approach brought me to the Upper Peninsula in the first place, but it had grown into a week-long adventure. I was there to photograph two Friday evening concerts at Leelanau Sands Showroom, part of the greater Grand Traverse Resort and Spa campus. The resort and it’s sister properties -Leelanau Sands Casino and Turtle Creek Casino- are truly a hidden gem along the Great Lakes in Upper Michigan. It would be a jam-packed week in the U.P. Outdoor adventure, live music, a beautiful golf and spa resort, food and wine, unexpected discoveries, great people-watching, lakefront adventures, vineyards, history, nature and the food, did I mention the amazing food?

​I arrived Friday afternoon after testing out the super-fast direct flights from Dallas to TVC (otherwise known as Cherry Capital Airport), grabbed a rental car and headed up the infamous M-22 to the casino and showroom for my rendezvous with the GTR team and 80’s hair band legends, Skid Row. There as in-house photographer, I was lucky to be shooting both Skid Row and American Idol winner Scotty McCreery on consecutive Friday evenings. I was given a quick tour of the casino and Lodge – who knew such a hidden treasure sat in the picturesque small town of Peshawbestown, just 20 minutes north of Traverse City proper? A full casino, restaurant, lodge, and an exceptional mid-size concert venue amidst the charm of small-town tourist stops; wineries, restaurants, cafes and even a national park close by. I made a mental note to check out as many local spots as possible. 

But it was all business tonight; I was there to photograph. A rowdy, enthusiastic crowd of 80’s hair band fans clutching Bud Light in both hands had convened in the showroom for Skid Row. What a special treat. After an incredible, high-energy show, an accommodating, friendly and professional crew, an energetic crowd (and only one misbehaving audience memeber, who took it upon himself to climb on stage and run his ridiculous self through the set, mid-song), I wrapped the night with some truly spectacular shots. The icing on the cake was shaking the hand of Scotti Hill, ZP Heart, Rob Hammersmith and Rachel Bolan in the green room after their set. Chatting about tour life, photography and legacy, and thanking them profusely for bringing us a raucously wonderful evening of high-energy rock & roll. I drove back to the resort along the lakeshore under a brilliant sky dotted with stars, feeling very thankful that a little photographer from Texas could have an opportunity to explore such a unique part of the world.

​But it was all business tonight; I was there to photograph. A rowdy, enthusiastic crowd of 80’s hair band fans clutching Bud Light in both hands had convened in the showroom for Skid Row. What a special treat. After an incredible, high-energy show, an accommodating, friendly and professional crew, an energetic crowd (and only one misbehaving audience memeber, who took it upon himself to climb on stage and run his ridiculous self through the set, mid-song), I wrapped the night with some truly spectacular shots. The icing on the cake was shaking the hand of Scotti Hill, ZP Heart, Rob Hammersmith and Rachel Bolan in the green room after their set. Chatting about tour life, photography and legacy, and thanking them profusely for bringing us a raucously wonderful evening of high-energy rock & roll. I drove back to the resort along the lakeshore under a brilliant sky dotted with stars, feeling very thankful that a little photographer from Texas could have an opportunity to explore such a unique part of the world.

Rock legends aside, I had an adventurous weekend ahead of me exploring the hidden treasures of the Upper Peninsula. Saturday morning began with a coffee to go and a mini-hike down to the beach, through a small nature preserve just minutes from the entrance of Grand Traverse Resort. I hiked a small, wide trail under towering pines and happened across a 30-foot private beach adjacent to sparkling blue waters, not a soul in sight. A perfect way to soak up the early morning sun in solitude with a great cup of joe and gentle waves lapping at the shore. Batteries charged, I hopped in the car with a hiking pack and my camera and headed toward downtown to get my bearings.

I made a quick detour to a local cafe called Higher Grounds, situated in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. It was a spot I was itching to check out. Known as “a beautiful solution to urban sprawl,” this historic redevelopment (which is fully still in the works, by the way) is ambitiously transforming a hospital compound built in the 1880’s. It sits in the middle of 480

stunning acres of parkland, no less, and bit by bit, the incredible grounds are being repurposed into shops, markets, restaurants, cafes, breweries and event spaces. It hosts farmer’s markets, festivals and historical tours and is quite a spot to wander and (purposely) get lost in. Higher Grounds coffeehouse sits on the hill overlooking the main historical buildings, and an establishment worth mentioning in its’ own merit. With a sustainable, zero-waste “people + planet + profit” coffee mantra, it sets itself aside with a mission statement to be envious of – and a great name. Ordering my fancy coffee, I was pleasantly surprised to be denied a paper to-go cup. Instead, they invited me to take a pretty (and definitely not disposable) ceramic mug, and return it if and when I could.

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It stopped me in my tracks. With a quick change of heart, I decided to take a moment to sit, sip and savor the scene in their sunny coffee garden. I chatted with locals, soaked up some sun, met Franklin; the cutest and friendliest golden retriever on the planet (and his owners too, I guess… but I couldn’t tell you their names if you paid me). I wandered for a bit, snapped photos and read about the history of the compound locals call “The Asylum.” I made a mental note to make a return at some point during my week. 

For now, though, I was off to the northwest side of the peninsula to make good use of my shiny new annual National Parks Pass with a visit to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. Along my way, I passed JACOB’S CORN MAZE in all caps and surrounded by wineries. If that’s not a combination worthy of an afternoon adventure, I don’t know what is. After a scenic half-hour drive, I parked, slung my camera on my back, and ambitiously hiked the dunes (barefoot!) for the first stretch of my afternoon. Sleeping Bear dunes offers visitors a literal sand dune mountain climb, hundreds of feet in the sky, with stunning vistas and outlooks at the top. But those are only for the ones who manage to wade up the unforgiving Mount-Everests of sand. I watched many people give up partway. Breathlessly reaching the top of the dune climb (disclaimer: I’m pretty fit, and this was not easy), the views of Glen Lake and Lake Michigan are more than worth it. The delightful trip back down the sandy mountain is akin to a sandy, sunny moonwalk-meets-anti-gravity-moon-dance facilitated by sunshine, soft sand, muscles that are by now jello, and the laws of gravity. Mostly the gravity part, though. And an inexplicable desire to leap, float and frolic all the way back down the dune. I’m sure it looked less graceful than it felt. Did I care? …not in the least. 

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After two hours, many photos and a little too much sun, I packed my weary self back in the car to loop the scenic drive. This is where you can find a number of incredible scenic overlooks, the Pierce Stocking Drive Covered Bridge and the Sleeping Bear Dunes Overlook; where a dramatic coastline meets catastrophically steep sand dunes towering almost 500 feet above the lake. And naturally, I arrived to find a copious number of tourists doing risky, obnoxious things in the general vicinity of a vertigo-inducing dropoff. With high lake levels and no beach left at the bottom, I was a little surprised to watch adults and children alike, slipping and sliding the treacherous dune descent, down to the water, and having to crawl on hand and knee back up. It had to take an hour to get back up – IF you were nimble enough. Warning signs dotted the overlook, deterring visitors from descending, lest they find themselves unable to get back up and require rescuing, which the signs informed me would cost a pretty penny. Luckily, the vertigo overlooking the massive drop alone was alone enough to stop me from even thinking about making that hike. Or maybe common sense; I don’t know which. But I’ve never seen anything more beautiful; the golden sun long and low over the illuminated turquoise lake colliding with steep dune cliffs.

After cruising through the famed covered bridge and taking 290,107,395 photos, I headed back into town to grab an indulgent Company Burger from Midland Burger Company. I’d heard rumors of how great this local burger joint was. It clearly surpassed all of the glowing reviews and made it into my Top Five Burgers in the World list within the first bite. I had grabbed couple of wine spritzers and the plan was to pack myself, a picnic dinner and my camera to the beach for a sunset picnic shoot. The burger didn’t make it… or rather, I didn’t wait. But the view and the spritzers did not disappoint – nor did the incredible sunset. 

Sunday was another exploring day, this time a leisurely cruise north toward Old Mission Lighthouse, through the middle-most peninsula dotted with sunny farmland and rolling vineyards. Capping the peninsula was an historic lighthouse landmark with a fair bit of history, an incredible beach and some showstopping photos to be taken. I spent as much time admiring the cute, quaint little lighthouse as I did people-watching and playing with rogue visitor’s dogs. Standing atop the lighthouse stair climb was a breathtaking view of the lake; turquoise waters lapping at the white sand beach beneath. Before I knew it, I’d hiked the trails and found myself perusing the beach, searching for petoskey stones while a Canadian couple told colorful stories about the history and unlikely inhabitants of the region.

I have no idea if any of them were true, but they also made several winery recommendations, so it was a productive (if not entertaining) conversation. I found myself heading south to Chateau Chantal winery with a boatload of information, way too many photos and an inkling for a nice crisp Michigan white. After picking the brains of an enthusiastic tasting room server, I sat on the patio overlooking rolling vineyards framed with views of distant crystalline blue lakes. I tasted several varietals, my favorite being the subtle, not-too-dry and not-too-sweet Pinot Grigio with notes of peach, pear and limestone. A perfect reason to kick back in the warmth of the late-afternoon sun and people watch.

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​On Monday morning, I decided to kick the new week in the (figurative) butt, by getting a kickstart with a chilly sunrise photoshoot on the misty western shore of Grand Traverse Bay. Between a marina and the tall ship Manitou, I found an ideal lookout. Mother nature was clearly on my side as lucky flocks of gulls and geese soared across the spectacular pink, purple and peach sunrise. The crisp morning yielded some dramatic sunrise images. One, with a perfect line of Canadian geese silhouetted up the long hued rays of the rising sun would later become my #GTRSunrisetoSunset photo entry and earn me a place in the Top Ten. Satisfied, and no less than a little chilled through, I grabbed a vanilla latte and a hearty breakfast sandwich to go and headed back to the resort. Today was a workday, no less, and I had much to do. 

Monday and Tuesday were spent photographing a variety of locations around the resort – from scenic sunsets reflecting off the glass tower of Grand Traverse Resort, to misty mornings on the chilly golf course, eternalizing the early morning golfers fringed by drifting wispy mists of fog ascending from the many creeks and ponds. In the afternoons, I’d drive into town to check out cafes, shoot lakeview panoramas from Leelanau Sands Lodge, or catch dramatic architectural shots around the city and the resort. It made for a happy photographer; very happy indeed.

Midweek, I met my colleagues for a celebratory group dinner at the top of the tower for an exquisite sixteenth-floor dinner overlooking the lake. Aerie Restaurant features a vibrant, contemporary award-winning menu of bold, eclectic dishes perfectly paired with wine and cocktail offerings. They are presented to you by a personable, knowledgeable local staff. I enjoyed chatting with our server just as much as the buttery fresh salmon served over aromatic risotto that so perfectly paired with Mari Vineyards “Troglodyte Bianco.” And later a bold Stolpman “Para Maria” syrah as I dove enthusiastically into an indulgent vanilla bean Crème Brulee with Chocolate Ganache. PSA: Nobody needs to be a lady when there’s creme brulee to be had. We certainly didn’t leave hungry, nor were we starving for good conversation and breathtaking sunset views. 

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On Wednesday we hit The Wolverine – one of three immaculate golf courses encompassing the resort. I’m no golf pro, but there were photos to be taken, golf carts to commandeer, and beer to be sipped. While the weather didn’t quite cooperate (Read: cold winds were howling the entire time, and we gave up in the rain at lucky hole #13). But no matter, because we headed indoors to clean up, dry off and reconvene downtown. Our group met again at Little Fleet, a Portland-esque indoor/outdoor food truck park with a great bar and people-watching galore. We grabbed beer and cider and gathered just outside (where it had mercifully stopped raining) for conversation and to meet the locals and all of their dogs. But mostly their dogs. Dinner was across the street at a tiny, library-meets-modern-art-gallery cottage of a restaurant called The Cook’s House. And cook they did – we enjoyed a five course extravaganza, a champagne toast, incredible local wine, braised beef over bone marrow mashed potatoes, and shared a few too many desserts. I would travel all the way back to Michigan to visit The Cook’s House again for their artisan cheese plate or the ingenious sesame seed matcha ice-cream sandwich dessert.

Two incredible dinners in two days left me needing a little exercise the following morning. Luckily, an early morning sunrise photoshoot left me with a little time to explore the resort’s health-nut options. To my great surprise, I learned that Grand Traverse Resort fully caters to the active crowd with a 5k running trail. My overachiever self laced up her running shoes, ran the course twice, and then took a sideline around The Bear golf course and up onto the country roads – an incredible morning jog of just over 6 miles. Multiple times during my run, I silently wished I’d discovered this sooner.

Late in the day, the weather turned sour with storm clouds rolling over the bay. Our late afternoon bonfire/Beach Club photoshoot took a turn for the worse, so instead I ventured north to find a more secluded beach or bay. I hoped I might still snap a few sunset merch photos if the winds mellowed and the weather decided to cooperate. I found myself on an immaculate sheltered north-facing beach in the quaint town of Elk Rapids.

As the sun sank lower in the sky, I managed to set up and shoot my staged beach picnic logoed gear; a picnic blanket, wine and wine glasses, mugs, tourist guides… I had just opened a bottle of Shady Lane Cellars Coop de Blanc and poured a single glass, getting super creative with prisms and lighting in front of a dramatic sunset. Golden rays of light peeking through the clouds sparkled artistically through the wine glasses as they simultaneously backlit the wine bottle. This was the pinnacle of art photography; gorgeous, just gorgeous. It was precisely the pinnacle of my admiration over the creative scene in front of my lens when a furry, sandy, lakewater-drenched tornado exploded through my so carefully set scene. It was followed by a screaming teen who body-slammed her rogue canine as she profusely apologized and attempted to right the spilled bottle of wine and sandy glasses. I could do nothing but laugh; at least I’d already gotten my picture. I attempted at least a sip of the sandy white blend before pouring the gritty concoction out, feeling the wind and surf spray pick up, chasing my towel down the beach in the blustery breeze and admitting defeat. I chatted briefly with the locals (guilty doggo included) before I left; they informed me that “up here, the weather changes every ten minutes… be prepared to not be prepared.” Oh yeah? I didn’t notice.

Friday was my last full day in Traverse City, so I made sure to spend a little time downtown with my laptop and camera – finding the perfect workspace -slash- people watching location at BREW, a downtown cafe with great coffee and a front-window table with my name on it. I sat and sipped multiple locally-sourced almond milk lattes (my favorite), ate a leisurely, over-the-top-delicious chef salad lunch and caught up on emails. By late afternoon, I was due back at Leelanau Sands Casino for the Tailgate party hosted by local station WTCM, and then to photograph the Scotty McCreery show as the culmination of the Casino’s 20th Anniversary celebrations.

It struck me again just how diverse the live music and entertainment options were in this region – it was no small feat to host chart-topping country music superstars and 80’s hair band legends, all in the span of a week. But up here, this was a regular thing. It was another exceptional evening; a great show and an almost sold-out crowd. While I’m not a huge country fan, it was a wonderful concert and a treat to see and meet the American Idol star I’d rooted for so many years ago.

On my final morning in Michigan, I made the most of my time and met a colleague for at The Red Spire, a popular brunch spot situated smack-dab in the middle of the labyrinths of the aforementioned Village Commons. We enjoyed a hearty traditional breakfast that was as fresh as it was cheerful, and then wandered the halls of the Commons, learning about the fascinating past of this mini-city compound and its’ secrets from more that a hundred years prior. The Commons offers historical tours, including a walk through the (slightly) creepy underground tunnels. Sad that I learned of this a little too late, I vowed to return one day to take this tour. 

I can’t wait to return. Traverse City is an incredibly vibrant, diverse and interesting city that caters to a spectrum of visitors every year. For a young, outdoorsy adventurer with a penchant for nature, wineries, great food, super photogenic locations left and right, and a little local flavor – it was the perfect place to visit. I found myself wishing repeatedly that I had another full week to explore the vibrant town and the (many) incredible outdoor activities and destinations surrounding. There were so many unexpected music-related destinations and activities. From live music on the beach, to fantastic local bands playing small venues and the surprisingly large international acts making an appearance at Leelanau Sands Showroom. There is a clear priority here for great live music, food and wine, and a vibrant entertainment scene. And the (figurative) cherry on top is the Cherry Capital Airport, which is the easiest and friendliest small-town airport I’ve yet flown through. I mean, making it through security and to your gate in six minutes? With over 20 direct flights to cities such as Dallas, DC, and Sarasota (and more coming soon), it makes flying to TVC an absolute breeze. I will most certainly plan another trip to Traverse City and Grand Traverse Resort, and I’ll be the first to admit that my To Do list for the next trip is probably already too ambitious. 

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