Eating dinner out at a restaurant in winter in Northern Michigan can be an adventure, especially if you head to one of these unique spots where the winter setting is as intoxicating as the wine and good food.
Boyne Highlands’ Aonach Mor Moonlight Dinner in Harbor Springs
My glasses fog as we enter the ski lounge, a good sign of a cozy night ahead. Boyne Highlands’ Aonach Mor MoonlightDinner in Harbor Springs makes a wonderful après ski outing, but you need not hit the slopes during the day at Boyne
Highlands to reserve a place at a candlelit-table dinner at the mountaintop. What is essential: catch a sleigh to the top of
the ski hill. When we arrive at the designated meeting spot, the ski resort’s Slopeside Lounge, we see the sleigh pull away
with a crew of merrymakers, but the bartender reassures that the driver will return for us and the handful of guests stillcozy at the end of the bar. We take the cue to chill and await our chariot alongside the rest of the revelers. Ordering a glass of wine, we bask in the fragrant ski-resort perfume of wood smoke from the bonfire outside.
When the sleigh returns, our host for the night gives the giddy-up to our driver, who tows the sleigh up the mountain not with a horse team but with a hulking snow groomer. We all have our own velveteen blankets to wrap up in, and the lit ski hills cast a fine twinkle on the night.
The ski run called Lois Lane leads us to our destination. North Peak—a snug, knotty-piney warming lodge by day, a romantic dinner spot by night—is lit with a crackling fire and enchanting little white lights. As we all uncloak after our ride to the top of the ski slope, I realize if ever there was a night to pull out—and pull off—a big fluffy Nordic sweater and leggings, this is the night. The ensemble seems to be the evening’s dress code, for the female guests at least.
A thick mist outside makes for good mood lighting—but on a clear night you can see the lights of the Mackinac Bridge from North Peak’s windows. Pine picnic tables are dressed in linens, candlelit and strewn with fragrant rosemary needles andthyme leaves, and our wine of choice—already transported up to North Peak—is uncorked for us the moment we sit down.
Acoustic guitarist Nelson Olstrom works the room troubadour-style, accommodating call-outs for John Denver, Jimmy Buffet, Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan. Servers parade out little crocks of delicate French onion soup. Then the chef himself brings bountiful platters of sliced roast beef tenderloin au poivre. We serve ourselves garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed vegetables family-style from camp-inspired tins—please pass the brandy-peppercorn sauce! Dessert is homemade Michigan apple and raspberry crisp, and then—over the top—s’mores outside on the bonfire. Our server is gracious and lovely; we feel like we are in the bosom of the mountain.
The group is definitely aglow on the sleigh ride back to base camp with lots of laughs and a little unison singing. So this iswhat snowy nights in Northern Michigan are for: perfect reason to feast well and pull each other close under the blankets.
When you go: Dinner is $65 per person plus tax and gratuity, and is offered each Saturday night December 27
through March 13, weather permitting. Reservations are required, make them through the Aonach Mor Café in Boyne Highlands Main Lodge, 231-526-3021, where you can pre-select and pay for your wine, which will then be waiting for you at the mountaintop. The sleigh departs at 6:30 p.m. sharp from Boyne Highlands’ Slopeside Lounge, 600 Highlands
Drive, Harbor Springs. More reservation details at boyne.com.
Elk Viewing Gourmet Dinner at Thunder Bay Resort
There’s a nip in the air and a wool blanket across your lap as you glide, bells jingling, through the forest in Hillman on a red wooden sleigh pulled by a team of gorgeous Belgian horses, headed out on the Elk Viewing Gourmet Dinner at Thunder Bay Resort. Besides the lavish dinner that awaits in a warm cabin deep in the woods, the highlight of the sleigh ride is a visit along the way to the resort’s herd of majestic Rocky Mountain bull elk. Watch from behind a fence as the animals do their elk thing, mostly strutting regally, occasionally locking antlers as a part of their drive for dominance.
At the rustic pine log cabin, find a spot in front of the soaring stone fireplace to warm up. Resort owner Jack Matthias may provide a lively demo bugle call while his wife, Jan Matthias, puts the finishing touches on a five-course gourmet dinner, prepared entirely on two antique stoves.
Dinner starts with shrimp cocktail and a pear-apple crêpe, then Jan’s homemade chicken noodle soup, just as warming as the crackling fire. The feast marches on with a sweet Napa cabbage slaw, crown roast of pork with pan-roasted red skins and freshly prepared Italian pizzelles filled with white chocolate mousse. Each course is served with handpicked wines—blueberry, merlot, riesling—from nearby Stoney Acres Winery in Alpena.
When you go: Sleigh ride and dinner is $88.60 per person without lodging. Rooms and breakfast or full weekend packages available. 27800 M-32, Hillman, 989-742-4732 or 800-729-9375, thunderbaygolf.com.
Jordan Valley Outfitters’ Guided Winter Rafting Dinner Trip
Take a rare opportunity to see a river in winter during a relaxing dinner float down the Jordan River. Blue whitewater rafts are inflated taut on the banks by Jordan Valley Outfitters guides and riverside cooks Scott and Kay Harper, who then nudge the floats in an otter slide to the edge of the dusk-lit river and help you aboard. Once you begin your float down the Jordan—the first river in Michigan to qualify as a National Wild and Scenic River—you’ll stay dry and toasty as you melt and maneuver over the gentle rapids and past snow-laden white pines lit only by starlight.
But what starlight it is, says Kay Harper, who is well versed in the Jordan’s beauty in all seasons. “There is something about a clear winter night on the river that makes it seem like there are more stars,” she says.
The Harpers paddle the boats to a predestined dinner clearing. It’s worth it to slip off your mittens for some shore-side hors d’oeuvres—cheese, crackers, olives, pickles and marinated mushrooms—while your main course cooks over the fire: a good old-fashioned campfire packet with your choice of beef or chicken with potatoes and vegetables. (A vegetarian option is also available.) Kay serves your supper fireside with fresh fruit salad and her homemade oatmeal-honey bread. Toast your trip with hot cider or hot chocolate (or wine, should you choose to bring your own bottle along). Dessert is either Kay’s famous cream cheese pound cake or classic brownies made with a splash of coffee. Dress to be outside in winter. Hats, mittens and boots are a must, long johns and snow pants strongly recommended.
When you go: Dinner trips are available daily through March 15 with advance booking. Departure is 5:30 p.m. from Jordan Valley Outfitters in East Jordan; you’ll return to your car about 9 p.m. $77 per adult, $60 per child. 311 North Lake Street (N mile north of traffic light on M-66), East Jordan, 231-536-0006, jvoutfitters.com.
Emily Betz Tyra writes from Milwaukee.