Come for the cherries, stay for the outdoor life

They go gaga over cherries in this part of Michigan, which isn't surprising, since the area produces more than half of the nation's cherry crop.

Acres of orchards spread over gently rolling hills, locals snack on dried cherries and quaff cherry wine, and the biggest event of the year here is July's National Cherry Festival.There are even a couple of thriving shops that sell nothing but cherry-related products, including such oddities as cherry-emblazoned colanders and cherry-impregnated hot dogs.

But while Traverse City revels in its self-proclaimed title of "cherry capital of the world," it's more than that. Together with nearby Petoskey, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs, Traverse is one of Michigan's most popular resort areas, attracting many thousands to the northwestern part of lower Michigan.

Set on the coast of Lake Michigan, the region is diverse and alluring. Summer inspires outdoor activities. Fishing, boating, hiking and biking get the juices flowing.

Beaches tempt swimmers and sunbathers. Sailboats dot the many inland lakes, including three--Torch, Glen and Crystal--rated among the most beautiful in the world by National Geographic.

A favorite of the outdoor-minded is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where sand dunes rise as much as 460 feet above the Lake Michigan shore. You can climb or hike on them or just admire the view from their summits. If you decide to descend to the bottom, be warned: The climb back up is a heart-pumper.

For golfers, Traverse is summer heaven. Golf is a Michigan obsession--the state has more public courses than any other--and some of the finest are in this area. Among them are challenging courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer.

For many, winter is just as attractive a season here as summer. This is one of Michigan's prime ski areas, with both downhill runs and miles of snowmobile, Nordic and snowshoe trails. You can even go for a spin on a horse-drawn sleigh.

Other locals claim fall as their favorite season. Spectacular autumn colors suffuse the hills, often reflected in glassy lakes, and harvest time brings out pumpkins, pears and apples.

No matter how tasty those Michigan apples are, though, cherries remain the king of fruit. But fudge is also an obsession. Fudge shops are found in almost every locale, and the chocolate treat is such a big seller that natives call tourists "fudgies."

When they're not fudging, visitors may be sipping wine in the area's many tasting rooms. With their climate moderated by the waters of Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan, two peninsulas in the Traverse area--Old Mission and Leelanau--are home to more than 18 wineries.

Meanwhile, Front Street in downtown Traverse abounds with shops, many of them irresistible to foodies. Grand Traverse Pie Co. makes 30 kinds of pies, the Chocolate Den molds the sweet into many whimsical shapes, and the Cherry Stop offers the fruit in all manner of permutations.

For really serious cherry lovers, though, the place to visit is the Cherry Republic, the biggest cherry retailer in the world. Located in Glen Arbor on the Leelanau Peninsula, the complex showcases cherries in three buildings set in manicured gardens--a gift shop, winery and restaurant that offers 16 kinds of cherry ice cream. It also does a roaring mail-order business.

"We shipped out 50,000 boxes of cherries last year, all over the world," says the Cherry Republic's Jason Homa.

Just a short drive from Traverse is Petoskey, an upscale resort town where Ernest Hem-ingway spent many summers in his young years. Much of the author's first published novel, "Torrents of Spring," is set in Petoskey.

Downtown Petoskey is a Victorian charmer. Dozens of one-of-a-kind shops in turn-of-the-century buildings line the streets of the Gaslight District. Stafford's Perry, the only remaining elegant hotel from the Victorian period, radiates an old-fashioned ambience. Hemingway memorabilia is found in the Little Traverse History Museum.

Much further back in history--380 million years ago, in fact--another unique local feature was created. It's the Petoskey Stone, a fossil honeycombed with shells of prehistoric coral. In 1965 it was designated as Michigan's state stone.

Nearby Charlevoix, a pretty town that plants 50,000 petunias at curbsides every Memorial Day, also boasts a unique feature--the Earl Young homes.

These are mushroomlike stone homes with flowing cedar-shake roofs and unusual windows and fireplaces. Young, who was only 4 feet, 8 inches in height, designed the homes for short people, and all have a fairy-tale quality.

Finally, out on the Leelanau Peninsula, lakefront Fish Town is worth a visit. Ferries to the Manitou Islands depart from here, but the real attraction is the harbor itself, bordered by a waterfall and old fishing shacks converted to boutiques and restaurants.

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Information: Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-940-1120; www.mytraversecity.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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