Thumbnail portrait: Empire

This is where the headquarters and visitors center for the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is located. You’ll know the building by its National Park Service-khaki color and the rangers wearing Smokey-the-Bear hats strolling in and out. But any fed-imported properness that lingers within the building ends at the door, because Empire is known for its funky friendliness. Indulge in this welcoming vibe at, yes, the Friendly Tavern, where the Friendly burger and a beer is the meal of choice. Find more small-town warmth at Empire’s trilogy of festivals that commence in February with the Winter Fest and its annual everyone-through-the-ice Lake Michigan polar bear dip, continues through May’s Asparagus Fest (hear odes to the green veggie and see hats that look like it) and wind up in July at Anchor Days, when the parade is so short it has to circle the block twice.

No doubt, the inspiration for the ever-ready grin this town seems to wear is born just outside of town on the Empire Bluffs where a short hike up ends in a soul-lifting panorama of blue.  

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