Drive 10 minutes northeast of Traverse City’s bustling Front Street, and you will feel the call of a slender spit of land jutting into Grand Traverse Bay. Inconsequential on a state map, this lithe and lovely peninsula pulls you along gently, inviting you to participate in the deliberate pace of a place shaped by seasons and vineyards and orchards and shores.
The land is ephemeral, and even its name honors a landmark no longer there. Yet it beckons to be explored, especially in autumn when the buffering effects of Great Lake waters help Michigan’s gold and crimson color hold on just a little longer.
This October, go on an Old Mission Peninsula fall color tour.
Photos by Todd Zawistowski
Chicago native and Traverse City transplant Bob Lovik describes Old Mission Peninsula as a vacation for locals.
If anyone should know what constitutes a good vacation, it’s Bob. He has made his living most of his adult life in the travel industry, working in a winery and as an independent travel director in Oregon before moving to Michigan in 2010. The Grand Traverse area became his muse for starting his own tour business, Grand Traverse Adventure Company.
Bob’s job is to show people a good time in Northern Michigan—and one of his favorite haunts for his boutique-style tours is Old Mission Peninsula. “I’ve experienced it in many ways—from guiding people through it in a van, to kayaking around it,” he says. “The combination of rolling hills, water and green, and then you throw in the quilt barns, restaurants and wineries. Every time I go there, I feel like I’m on vacation—yet it’s just down the road.”
Bob pauses a moment to find the words to describe Old Mission Peninsula’s combination of rustic setting and contemporary vibe from restaurants and wineries. He lands on the phrase hip rural. “It’s a special place—different aspects come together that you can’t find anywhere else.”
Old Mission Peninsula perhaps is hard to define because of its many layers. Part historic sites, part foodie destination and part natural wonderland, the peninsula’s charm is in the sum of its parts. Captivating juxtapositions spice your wanderings—a weathered, historic grocery store is steps away from an ultra-modern winery. A gourmet restaurant overlooks an uninhabited island.
To fully understand the allure of Old Mission Peninsula, it needs to be explored. Here, we share three getaways tailored for your interest: history, food and nature. Pick and choose, combine for an afternoon or an overnight. Pack your car, strap on the bikes, fasten the kayak—and head out to find your Mission.
Old Mission Peninsula Fall Color Tour … For the History Buff
For those who like a good story, Old Mission Peninsula is full of them. One of the oldest permanent European settlements in Northern Michigan, it was established in 1839 when Presbyterian minister Peter Dougherty arrived to build a mission and school for the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes in the area.
Dougherty built what is thought to be the first timber-frame home in the Northern Lower Peninsula. He stayed for more than 10 years to teach and farm, and is credited with planting the first cherry tree in the area—a prophetic move as cherry farming eventually replaced the once-lucrative lumber industry. In 1852, Dougherty moved his congregation to Leelanau County, where land was available for Native Americans to purchase. They established a “new mission” in today’s town of Omena—referring to the peninsula they left as the “Old Mission.”
Today, while most of the Dougherty Historic Home Site that included a church, schoolhouse and cabins is gone, you can still see into the peninsula’s past with a stop at the Peter Dougherty Mission House, on the National Register of Historic Places for its role in Michigan and American Indian history. Other notable sites include the 1870-built Mission Point Lighthouse and the adjacent Hessler Log Cabin, built between 1854 and 1856, at the tip of the peninsula, where the 45th parallel passes.
Old Mission’s history is also scattered across the countryside, evident in the centennial farms dotting the landscape, many of which have quilt patterns painted on their barns. Pick up a quilt-barn trail map in an area business and take a fall color tour along the back roads to find these historically significant markers in intricate patterns modeled after quilt blankets sewn by Old Mission pioneer women.
Dougherty Historic Homesite: While you can currently see only the exterior of the Peter Dougherty Mission House, volunteers of the Peter Dougherty Society are working to restore the home and 15-acre property to make it a historical, cultural and educational center.
Mission Point Lighthouse/Hessler Log Cabin: Open daily for self-guided tours through October. A free museum and gift shop are on the first floor, and (for a small fee) visitors can climb to the top. Hessler Log Cabin is located on the grounds.
Walt & Susan’s Old Barn Antiques: Take home a piece of Michigan history from this three-story barn of treasures dating to the 1840s, or from Walt’s workshop featuring automobile and gas station artifacts. Even if you don’t buy, the idyllic farm setting is worth the drive.
Old Mission General Store: This quirky, 1800s trading post turned store and parlor serves up a rich and random assortment: a giant barrel of dill pickles, replica coonskin caps and lots more. Enjoy a fall lunch of homemade butternut squash soup with crusty sourdough baguette, and wash it down with apple cider infused with cherry juice. Or stock up on food and drink provisions. The owner claims it was the first general store, trading post and grocer between Mackinac Island and Fort Wayne in Detroit.
Old Mission Inn: Billed as “Northern Michigan’s oldest continually operating hotel,” the 1869-built Old Mission Inn, with its covered porch overlooking Haserot Beach in Old Mission Harbor, is where guests of a bygone era arrived by steamship from Chicago. History buffs themselves, the owners created a mini-museum in the Victorian-style hotel showcasing memorabilia about the inn’s past. It served as home of Old Mission’s first postmaster, and famous guests slept here too, including Babe Ruth and Joe Louis.
Old Mission Peninsula Fall Color Tour … For the Foodie
Old Mission’s charm comes in large part from its consumable resources—namely food and wine. Yet long before the peninsula’s wineries and nationally acclaimed restaurants came into existence, Ottawa and Chippewa tribes leveraged the mild climate to grow corn, pumpkins, beans, potatoes. A drive down any road hints at this food-rich past. Roam two-lanes trimmed in orchards and vineyards, and dotted with farm markets and fruit stands.
Bob Lovik talks about Old Mission Peninsula’s wineries with near reverence. “Old Mission Peninsula is one of the most beautiful wine countries in the world.” He also gives high marks to the tasting rooms themselves. “In Napa, the wine is phenomenal, but the wineries are similar. Our wineries are laid back, they’re fun, and each is different from the last.”
While Bob leads small group winery tours mostly on weekends, he suggests wine tasting on a Tuesday or Wednesday for the most intimate experience. “You can have really good chats with the owners. It’s a fun way to experience the peninsula.”
The first Old Mission winery arrived on the scene 40 years ago with Chateau Grand Traverse, and new ones regularly emerge. Bonobo Winery, founded by HGTV star and Traverse City native Carter Oosterhouse and his brother Todd, opened in 2014 with a 6,500-square-foot tasting room off Center Road. And newcomer Villa Mari Vineyard & Winery, focusing on reds at 8175 Center Road, opened its tasting room doors in June 2016.
When it comes to food, the peninsula’s handful of restaurants deliver culinary intrigue, offering everything from small plates and wine flights, to lavish farm-to-table dinners. For a memorable fall dining experience, register for a dining event like the Boathouse Restaurant’s Farm to Table Dinners, which include a trip to the restaurant’s farm, a viticulture tour at Bowers Harbor Vineyard, and a multi-course dinner at the restaurant.
Round out the foodie experience at self-serve produce stands, U-pick orchards and farm markets displaying the full-on fall harvest. Shop for such ag-delights as heirloom pumpkins, Honeycrisp apples, lavender-infused honey. And don’t be surprised to see another throwback to a gentler time—payment on the honor system, with a bucket for your cash and a hand-written ledger to record your purchase.
Old Mission Peninsula Wine Tour: Go wine tasting! There are currently 10 wineries on the peninsula.
Grand Traverse Adventure Company: If you’d prefer to have a guide, book a wine tour with eight to 10 friends as owner Bob deftly guides you between wineries, sharing backstory about the region and the viticulture. Tours can include a European-style picnic in a choice setting.
The Boathouse: A farm-to-table restaurant with a shoreside view of Bowers Harbor and a locally sourced menu that changes with the seasons and available products.
Mission Table/Jolly Pumpkin: Find an elegant, small-plate and locally sourced dining experience at Mission Table, and a cozy, pub-style restaurant with Michigan-brewed beer at the attached Jolly Pumpkin. For a good Halloween scare, hunt for the ghost of Genevieve Stickney in the mirror on the second floor at Mission Table.
Old Mission Tavern: Cozy up to the wood-burning stove in this Old Mission mainstay that serves hearty fall soups and sandwiches or heavier dinners from an evolving menu. A bright garden room is perfect for sunny days, adorned with artwork from the adjoining Bella Galleria fine art gallery.
Brys Estate: Stay on the 91-acre estate in an old tractor barn turned storybook guesthouse. The two-story, 1,100-square-foot home offers two bedrooms, 1 3/4 baths and a private porch overlooking the vineyards and East Grand Traverse Bay.
Chateau Chantal: Eleven rooms in this elegant B&B range from cozy bedrooms to spacious suites—all offering views of the water and vineyards. Another perk for overnight guests: visiting the tasting room after hours for complimentary samples.
Grey Hare Inn: This intimate, three-room country estate not only lets you sleep amid the vineyard, but also offers a U-pick experience with red and white grapes.
Inn at Chateau Grand Traverse: The adults-only countryside lodging is nestled in a wooded setting behind the winery. Six contemporary rooms each come with a bottle of Chateau Grand Traverse wine and panoramic views of the vineyard from a private balcony.
Old Mission Peninsula Fall Color Tour … For the Outdoor Enthusiast
If you’re a hiker, head for one of the peninsula’s meandering footpaths that deliver high-yield views of autumn foliage. Enjoy an easy 1.5-mile loop trail at Pyatt Lake Nature Preserve north of Bowers Harbor, or explore the more extensive trail network at 520-acre Old Mission Point Park. Located just south of Lighthouse Park, the area offers more than five miles of interconnected trails through a variety of terrain, from beech and maple stands to meadows.
One of the most memorable natural experiences isn’t on the peninsula at all—it’s from the water looking at the shores. Again, Bob Lovik provides guidance. “One of my favorite things to do is take a kayak out of Bowers Harbor, catch a sunset in the bay, and then go to Jolly Pumpkin afterward to enjoy a pint. It’s a local, quintessential Old Mission Peninsula experience.”
Also on Bob’s Old Mission Peninsula to-do list for experienced kayakers (and with the right gear, noting autumn can bring rough waters and cold temps) is to paddle 3.5 miles from Bowers Harbor Marina to Power Island in West Grand Traverse Bay. The 200-acre island has a storied past like the mainland itself. At one time it was called Ford Island, after Henry Ford, who owned it from 1917 to 1944. Today the island is a quiet nature preserve, offering five miles of hiking trails and three miles of waterfront. If you really want to get off the grid, spend the night at one of four primitive campsites on tiny, one-acre Bassett Island, connected to Power Island by an isthmus.
Peninsula Market: Fuel up for your hike, bike or paddle trip with daily hot lunch specials, fresh soups and sandwiches. Grab a bottle of local wine or a microbrew as a post-hike reward.
Peninsula Township Parks: The township manages six parks with trails, picnic pavilions, a beach and boat launch sites, among other amenities.
Bassett Island: Five first-come, first-served sites with picnic table, cooking grill and fire circle. Vault toilets. A water pump is a mile away on Power Island, which also has five campsites. While the campground is open year round, the ranger station is occupied only until the second week of October.
Neahtawanta Inn: 800.220.1415, neahtawantainn.com. Operated on a philosophy of conservation, respect for the earth and sustainable living, this secluded B&B offers organic breakfast and on-site morning yoga classes.
This story was published in the October 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.