Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 25, 2009

Leaf-peepers have plenty of choices


Grand Traverse Bay may overshadow its smaller sister to the north in size. But when it comes to color, Little Traverse Bay has an allure all its own.

Whether it's the deep sapphire blue of its waters, the blazing reds and yellows of its foliage or the colorful character of its small cities and villages, the coastline offers plenty to see during a fall driving tour.

Charlevoix's charms

To start, take U.S. 31 to the city of Charlevoix and the site of some of the most unique homes anywhere.

Often called "mushroom'' or "hobbit'' houses after the distinctive shape of their cedar shake rooftops, the homes were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright contemporary Earl Young, who lived most of his life in Charlevoix.

Young studied architecture at the University of Michigan for a year, then returned to the area to take up insurance sales and real estate development. But it wasn't until the 1930s, when he designed his first fairy-tale homes in waterfront "Boulder Park,'' that he left his mark on the city. Built mostly of native materials, the houses feature irregular shapes, undulating rooflines, mullioned windows and trademark stonework -- from massive fireplaces to fences and gateposts.

Visitors can view 28 of the homes and businesses, including the most photographed at 301 Clinton, with a self-guided walking or driving tour map.

"That's one of the most asked-for items in our office,'' said Lauren Brumley, executive director of the Charlevoix Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, where visitors can also pick up a "Park Street Prowl'' map showcasing the city's original main street. "It's a nice way to get out of downtown and see more of the area.''

Our own castle

Turn onto M-66 and drive about two miles to reach another unique area landmark. Built in 1918 with local field stone and patterned after barns in Normandy, France, Castle Farms was once the model farm of Sears, Roebuck, and Company acting president Albert Loeb.

Besides viewing prize-winning livestock and the newest farm equipment sold through the Sears and Roebuck catalog, visitors to the early estate could buy cheese and ice cream and watch the local baseball team play. Today the restored buildings and grounds are used year-round for weddings and receptions, festivals and shows, corporate and social events, and castle and garden tours.

Hemingway's haunts

Fifteen miles north of Charlevoix lies the picturesque town of Petoskey, known as Bear River when the first missionary arrived in 1855, and later renamed Pe-to-se-ga after the Ottawa Indian Chief.

By the summer of 1874, railroads made regular runs between Grand Rapids and Petoskey, which grew into a busy village catering to the needs of sightseers. Little steamers also plied the bay and, along Bear River, water power was harnessed to run sawmills, flour mills, hardwood flooring industries, butter bowl factories and furniture-making industries.

By 1890, many shops had sprung up along what is now Lake Street, serving primarily affluent resorters and creating a unique shopping area originally known as the "Midway.''

Today's Gaslight District still bears the marks of those early days. Symons General Store, the oldest brick building in Petoskey, boasts wood screen doors, creaky wood floors and tin ceilings along with its wines, cheeses, spices, coffees and deli and bakery goodies. Nearby, perched high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, is Stafford's Perry Hotel, where Ernest Hemingway often frequented the Noggin Room.

Hemingway summered on nearby Walloon Lake and Horton Bay and immortalized many area places and friends in "Up in Michigan,'' "The End of Something,'' "Torrents of Spring'' and the Nick Adams stories.

Bay View and its porches

Continue along U.S. 31 to the Bay View Association, marked by distinctive rose-colored curbs and sidewalks and Victorian-era buildings. Directly across Little Traverse Bay from Harbor Springs, Bay View is a National Historic Landmark, with nearly 450 summer cottages and 31 common buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"One of the things I have heard architects say that is unique about the houses is the second-story porches and the number and size of the porches,'' said Susan Hufford, chairman of the Bay View Architectural Review Committee, which helps preserve the association's architectural history for future generations. "Another thing is the rectangular rails on the railings and the decoration in the peaks of the roof. You see a lot of carpenter gothic gingerbread, a lot of unique trim on different cottages. They were all built individually so it's very hard to find two that look alike.''

Founded in 1875 by Michigan Methodists as a camp meeting "for intellectual and scientific culture and the promotion of the cause of religion and morality,'' Bay View is now a small village. During the 10-week summer season, it offers hundreds of programs and activities focused on religion, education and recreation. Sunday worship services and popular vesper concerts draw thousands to Hall Auditorium.

Although the grounds close in November -- few cottages are insulated, as that would compromise their historical integrity, Hufford said -- early fall is an excellent time to visit the area. Walking tour brochures of the main campus are available at the administration building located next to Hall Auditorium. Visitors can also stroll the cottage neighborhoods and four miles of walking trails in woods on the south side of the association (see brochure for trailheads).

Harbor Springs history

Just past Bay View, head north on M-119 to Harbor Springs. Founded by the Jesuits, the city was once called L'Arbre Croche or "Crooked Tree'' in reference to a nearby tree used as a landmark by Indians traveling by canoe from camps along the Lake Michigan shoreline. In 1847, L'Arbre Croche had the largest concentration of American Indians in the states.

While fishing, trapping and lumbering were early industries, passenger ships also stopped regularly at Harbor Springs since it offered the deepest harbor in the Great Lakes. Eventually the area became a summer playground for the wealthy from all over the Midwest. Harbor Point, Wequetonsing and Roaring Brook are among the oldest private resort associations in the area; many of the large summer homes are still owned by the original families.

Other historic landmarks include Stafford's Pier Restaurant -- a popular speakeasy in the 1920s known as Booths -- and the Harbor Point Lighthouse, which Whitney Williams tended from 1884 to 1913 after a transfer from Beaver Island to the mainland.

A state 'crown jewel'

M-119 between Harbor Springs and Cross Village has been called "one of the crown jewels in the state'' by former state transportation director Gloria Jeff. More popularly known as the "tunnel of trees'' because of the dense, shadowy woods along its shoreline bluffs, the Scenic Heritage Route offers dramatic views of Lake Michigan and occasionally Beaver Island, Isle Aux Galets and Waugochance Point.

Along the way, historical signs point out landmarks like The Old Council Tree, where tribal councils were held, and Devil's Elbow, a hairpin curve Indian legend says marks the location where the devil scooped out a giant hollow after American Indians suffered a rampant plague.

Halfway between Harbor Springs and Cross Village is "downtown'' Good Hart and one of only a handful of businesses: the tiny red Good Hart General Store. The oft-photographed structure was built by resident Cliff Powers in 1935 and operated as a general grocery, butcher, and gas station until 1971 when Powers sold the business to current owner Carolyn Sutherland. Now it's a combination grocery, bakery, deli, post office and real estate office where shoppers are often greeted by Jessie the hound.

Along with its baked goods and fresh jams and preserves, the store is renowned for its homemade chicken and beef pies, which it sells year-round and ships all over the country. It's also known for its many original features, such as tinted front windows, glass-front counter bins, 1901 National Cash Register and carved oak "cooling case'' installed before electricity was available in the area.

M-119 finally peters out at Cross Village at the northwestern tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Once a thriving fishing and lumber town and one of the oldest settlements in the state (its rich history also has strong ties to the American Indians), today the village is known as the home of Legs Inn.

A stone, timber and driftwood landmark created by Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak in the late 1920s, the inn has been charming locals and summer visitors for 80 years with its manicured gardens and spectacular Lake Michigan bluff views, mix of Polish and American cuisine and blend of "Old World'' European and Indian decor.

Owned now by George Smolak (Stanley's nephew) and his wife Kathy, the unusual restaurant features driftwood sculptures, four huge fireplaces and whimsical furniture carved from tree stumps, twisted limbs and roots. On the menu: Polish specialties like golabki (cabbage roll), kielbasa (Polish smoked sausage) with old-fashioned Polish-style sauerkraut and pierogi (Polish-syle dumplings).