Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's Summer I 2019 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.
Sewn into the Grand Traverse and Northwest Michigan landscape is a patchwork of historic inns that stitch the past to the present.
At the 19th century Fountain Point Resort in Leelanau County, guests are just a short walk from old Carp Lake — shown on maps these days as Lake Leelanau — and an easy, pleasing drive from Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes and downtown Traverse City.
Scribed into the National Registry of Historic Places, the Fountain Point Inn — named for its iconic artesian well — has remained a favorite vacation destination for many people from southern Michigan and surrounding states, for decades.
A picturesque white-pillared veranda is a favorite area for visitors to sit and relax, and time-period sitting rooms offer a look back at the simpler life.
“It’s an old-school place,” said Theo Early, co-manager of the resort that features a 14-room inn and 19 surrounding cottages on 50 acres of lawns, gardens, woods and beachfront. His mother, Susan Nichols, is owner.
“(Our clients) come from all over the state, and from Indiana and Ohio and more,” Nichols said. We have one family from Texas that’s been coming back for the past six generations.
“It’s definitely northern Michigan, definitely beautiful. People love it, they come up here and just get unplugged.”
Since 1917, generation after generation of families have returned every summer to the seasonal Watervale Inn, located along the shores of Lower Herring Lake and just a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in neighboring Benzie County.
Open May through October — the Watervale Inn did host a group of yoga and outdoor enthusiasts in early May — the inn exemplifies how vacations were enjoyed years and even decades, ago.
Manager Jennie Schmitt said while the same families return year after year, “there are still little holes to fill here and there” for others who wish to experience the 500-acre inn’s unique charm of the bygone days.
The inn has no TVs, no land line telephone service and only limited electrical lighting sources, all of which, she said, pleases their returning guests greatly.
Besides the 18-room inn that was constructed during the lumbering boom at the turn of the 20th century, the complex also includes more than a dozen cottages and a few other smaller buildings that house guests.
Listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and the State of Michigan Historic Sites, workers serve nearly 200, four-course meals every day. So many guests pack the inn during the summer season that dinner is served in two seatings.
“Our regular, summer season starts about June 15,” said Schmitt. “Weekends, especially, are busy, very busy.
Located a few miles west of Onekama on a narrow peninsula separating Portage Lake and Lake Michigan, the majestic Portage Point Inn was once served by a fleet of steamships that ferried customers from the Windy City to the rustic northern Michigan hideaway.
Opulent in ways that mirror the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island — it should, they share the same designer — the Portage Point Inn has stood for over a century as a stirring centerpiece in a napping hamlet of sugar sand beaches, gingerbread cottages and real-life doll houses.
And though the Portage Point Inn is currently undergoing extensive renovation and its rooms are closed, its bar remains open, as does its hall for receptions and other gatherings. Its outlying cluster of lakeside cottages and doll houses — the latter small single story structures that appear “doll like” in nature — remain open, too. The inn and property have been recognized by a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Marine constructionist Bob Gezon bought the inn and surrounding property a few years ago and hopes to return it to its glory days of serving visitors who would arrive by both motor car, and sailing vessels.
“That’s our goal,” he said. “We have no time frame — these things can take time with all the permitting, zoning and other things that have to be done — but we very much want to return the inn to its historic connection to the water. We hope to bring in ‘water taxis’ and if all goes well, even bring in a signature vessel to serve the area.”
Gezon said he and his staff are also working with officials to bring in a culinary school to operate within the inn.
“We certainly have lots to do,” he said, “but we have a lot to work with, too. This is just a beautiful, historic site.”
If you go
• Fountain Point Inn - 990 South Lake Leelanau Drive, Lake Leelanau; 231-256-9800, fountainpointresort.com.
• Watervale Inn - 1244 Watervale Road, just a few miles north of Arcadia; 231-352-9083, watervaleinn.com.
• Portage Point Inn - 8567 Portage Point Drive, Onekama; 231-889-7500, portagepointresort.com.
There are, of course, several other historic inns that are woven into the northwest Michigan landscape. To learn more, call Traverse City Tourism at 231-947-1120, or visit its web site at traversecity.com.