3 Beach Towns: Sun, Shop, Eat

ManisteeBask on a golden beach in a beautiful Victorian boomtown.

The VibeIn the late 19th century this Lake Michigan port city boasted more millionaires per capita than any city in America – at least according to local lore. But today Manistee prides itself on being a down-to-earth mix of working-class town and tourist haven. Boutiques, galleries and smoothie spots are tucked between the drug store, vacuum shop and newsstands in the ornate brick buildings that lumber tycoons built in the Victorian era. You can drive the mile from downtown to the beach, but why not step along with dog walkers and moms with strollers on the Riverwalk? (Find it and free municipal parking by the bridge on Washington Street.) This boardwalk traces the bank of the Manistee River channel all the way to First Street Beach, a smooth stretch of sand that has it all – concession stands, tennis and volleyball courts and a bark park for the pooch. Wear yourself out spiking volleyballs, then bury your toes in the toasty sand and let Lake Michigan sparkle before you.

Essential StopRiver Street Gallery (231-398-4001), like many Manistee shops in this one-time millionaire town, is in a circa-1900 bank, with a fabulous mosaic floor and a tin ceiling. Next to hand-hammered copper bowls from Nepal, look for the wonderfully weird works of artist Rich Brandstrom, who makes his fish and frogs out of old Stroh’s beer cans he finds in the Upper Peninsula. Some summer evenings, you may find the Manistee Symphony Orchestra on the riverside gallery deck.

ProvisionsFind snacks for your beach bag at cheerful Goody’s Juice and Java where baristas Jim and Nancy Goodwin make frothy peach-pear green tea smoothies, cherry oatmeal bars and paninis with roasted local eggplant, tomatoes and feta (343 River Street, 231-398-9580). If you’ve stayed at the shore until the sky turns fuchsia, walk back to the east end of town to a well-deserved glass of wine and a Chicago-style pizza pie at the high-style Topo’s (312 River Street, 231-723-4200).

Where to StayAny of the just-renovated rooms at the stylish, historic Ramsdell Inn (399 River Street, 888-823-8310, ramsdellinn.net) are a cushy Victorian experience. Step in the regal marble entryway of the former First National Bank (check-in is next to the vault) and head up to the sumptuous third-floor Harbor suite, done up in yellows, blues and beadboard, with fresh-pressed white linens. Curl up in a breakfast nook in the street-corner tower, and watch the bustle of downtown below or the freighters, sailboats and fishing charters gliding along the Manistee River.

ManistiqueKick back in an old-timey U.P. town.

The VibeSome Up North beach towns have to create quaintness, but not so with Manistique, a quirky little U.S. 2 outpost with soft sugar sand, open sky, and a downtown with more than a splash of honest Northwoods nostalgia. The white pine lumbering town from the late 1800’s is lined with lamplights, and the stores are the usual small-town suspects: a Ben Franklin, a tanning salon, a coin shop and the Buckshot Bar. But the real reason to vacation in an Upper Peninsula beach town isn’t the shopping, it’s the uncrowded shore. The Manistique boardwalk runs parallel to U.S. 2 for nearly 2 miles along Lake Michigan, with wildflowers, beach grass and secluded spots to plunk yourself along the way. The fire-engine red Manistique Lighthouse at the east breakwater makes for a nice view. Or, skip the road noise from U.S. 2 and head five miles west of downtown to the more isolated Rogers Beach for a quiet lakeside nap or a long walk on the smooth sand. Stay until dusk, and you might see a silvery moonrise.

Essential StopsTraders’ Point Antique Mall at the mouth of the Manistique River (375 Harbor View Drive, 906-341-7500) has a wharfy, warehouse vibe outside and rocking chairs, Dutch shoes, antique skis, snowshoes and roller skates inside. Downtown, duck into The Mustard Seed (237 South Cedar Street, 906-341-5826) for handknit afghans, handwoven baskets, classic coiled rope coasters and other beach trinkets.

ProvisionsAt Traders’ Point Landing, find the Upper Crust Deli (375 Harbor View Drive, 906-341-2253) where you can eat Dagwood-sized sandwiches and look out at the tugboats docked by the riverbanks. For dinner, snag the best baby blue vinyl booth in the house at Sunny Shores Restaurant (791 East Lakeshore Drive, 906-341-5582) – it’s by the mural of rolling U.P. hills in the non-smoking section. Challenge your IQ with the tabletop peg game while you dine on good, old-fashioned battered lake perch, pasties with big bowls of gravy and homemade strawberry shortcake. The diner does double-duty as tourist shop, so find your fill of collectible spoons, mosquito trap souvenirs and dish scrubbers by the cash register.

Where to StayBob and Bonnie Vincent offer folksy charm at another example of resourceful Yooper double-enterprising: Colonial Motel and Mattress Co. (1119 East Lakeshore Drive, 906-341-6656). Pull in at the neon sign and admire both the deer fawn statuette curled up in the lobby window and the chartreuse lawn Bonnie keeps close-cropped with her riding mower. Your knotty-pine cocoon of a room is clean as a whistle and appointed with wildlife art and ultra-firm mattresses from their store. When you hand in your key after a low-key, True North weekend on the beach, you’ll want to shout the words on the flag flying on U.S. 2: “Yooper – You Betcha!”

Elk RapidsLaze away the day in this laid-back burg.

The VibeEast Grand Traverse Bay and the Elk Rapids marina form the backdrop for a relaxing beach day in a resort town you can travel entirely on foot. Grab a book, shake open your blanket and listen to the waves roll in at what locals call Village Beach, on the west end of River Street.

Essential StopsIt’s worth brushing the sand off your feet to hit the antique and gallery scene downtown. A few of the many picks: Harbor Antiques (151 River Street, 231-264-6850) for retro kitchenware and botanical prints, Mullaly’s 128 (128 River Street, 231-264-6660) for dramatic glassworks and modern art, and furniture at Full Circle Gallery (215 River Street, 231-264-9195).

ProvisionsPrebeach breakfast at Harbor CafĂ© is homemade granola or huevos rancheros with chorizo (129 River Street, 231-264-8700). At Chef Charles’ pizza parlor, pizza dough is Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Charles Egeler’s canvas – order The Alfredo with Parmesan-garlic sauce, fresh mushrooms, fresh garlic, and plump shrimp at the sliding window (147 River Street, 231-264-8901). When you’re all sunned out, do a lively Cajun dinner with mint juleps in the voodoo-doll-festooned dining room at Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen (617 Ames Street, 231-264-0530).

Where to StayThe shaded streets of Elk Rapids are filled with quaint cottages to rent – you can’t go wrong with a house directly across from the beach. The Portside Cottage (corner of River and Spruce, 231-264-6858, northernmichiganvacationrentals.com) has a glass and screened porch and little
potting shed that was onetime a concession stand on the beach. For other in-town cottages, go to elkrapidschamber.org.

Emily Betz Tyra is associate editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. [email protected]

Note: This article was first published in July 2005 and was updated for the web February 2008.

Article Comments