Escape is necessary. This is exactly why my wife, Laura, and I find ourselves sailing west from Charlevoix on the Emerald Isle ferry with another couple to try glamping on Beaver Island. We were headed to the Beaver Island Retreat, hoping to combine outdoor adventures with the ease of the furnished tents and facilities tucked beautifully into the woods. We found that and more.

For most people, there are many reasons to avoid camping. With the gear, the bugs, the time and the meals, it can quickly become a juggling act of patience, grit and packing skills. So, on this trip, we chose to go glamping—glamorous camping—at Beaver Island Retreat. Glamping simplifies the entire sleep-under-the-stars experience, and preparing to spend a few nights at the retreat was easy. Packing took 30 minutes. I didn’t need to sort through a stack of bins in the garage for the right gear or locate the misplaced tarp. “Did you say they have hot showers?” my wife had shouted from the living room.

Beaver Island Retreat is located in the center of the 54-square-mile island, just off the only paved road, King’s Highway. To get to Beaver Island, you either take a two-hour ferry ride or a 30-minute flight from Charlevoix. Once on the island, transportation to the retreat is necessary. You can rent a car or bring one on the ferry. We opted to take our own, which made bringing our dog (welcome at the retreat) and paddleboards a breeze.

Beaver Island sign

Photo by Sam Brown

A Remote Retreat on Beaver Island Takes Root

The idea for Beaver Island Retreat began when Brian Vaeth and Maria Dal Pra found themselves rejuvenated after a visit to the island and wondering how they could bring that valuable experience to others. “We started coming to the island as visitors, but each time we came, it felt more and more like home,” Maria says as she gives us a tour. She wears dusty work pants and walks the property with pride as she shows us around our new home for the next few days. “We were instantly connected to nature, dark skies and the pure silence. Stress would dissipate the moment we landed, and we knew we had to find a way to make Beaver Island our home.”

Maria’s husband, Brian, joins us while she continues the tour. “This property was the last one we toured on a marathon day of hunting,” Maria recalls. “It was completely overgrown with juniper bushes, there was no driveway and it had sat unused for years.” The property was so overgrown, that the only way to get a good look at it was through aerial photos and parcel maps. Even looking for the water well on the property would have taken weeks of hacking through the brush and undergrowth.
Front porch area of tent on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

Once the couple found the perfect parcel of land, they built an experience they wanted to share with the world in one of the most remote places in the Midwest. Safari-style canvas tents are nestled on several acres among pines, cedars, junipers and ferns, with no civilization in sight. What they’ve created at Beaver Island Retreat is much more than a convenient way to camp though; it’s a lesson on how to interact with the landscape in a responsible manner. Brian and Maria take their stewardship of the land seriously—building materials were sourced locally whenever possible; they only use natural soaps and they adhere to strict composting and recycling practices. Their sustainable business model prioritizes the intrinsic value of the land around them and how they can improve it for future use.
Brian picks up the story as we walk the property while Layla (our dog) explores her new surroundings. “There was clearly something unique and special on this land, and we decided this was where we would plant the stake,” he says. For Brian, Beaver Island Retreat is a full-time job. He oversees day-to-day operations, which include everything from dismantling the tents each fall to keeping provisions stocked and being available to help whenever a guest needs a hand or has a question. Maria works remotely full-time from the retreat (for another company), yet you’ll still find her busy around the property when she’s signed off for the day. Both are quick to say their dream wouldn’t have been possible without support from Beaver Island locals and businesses that all rely on each other to call this place home.
Paddle boarding on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

Beaver Island Camping with Creature Comforts

While Brian and Maria accomplished that true getaway feel, they didn’t forget about simple amenities to make the experience comfortable. The retreat blends a remote stay in the woods with the comforts of home, such as laundry facilities and silky soft bedsheets.

 

Veteran campers and non-campers alike will appreciate the convenience of having everything set up for you upon arrival, with nothing to pack or tear down when you leave. “We wanted to design an experience where guests could travel light to reduce the logistical barrier of traveling to an island,” Maria says.

 

From charcoal, linens, soap and ice, to eating utensils and spices, everything is provided. Forgot something? No worries—either they have it, or you can find it in St. James (the town on Beaver Island), just 15 minutes away.

Tent on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

The brilliance of this retreat is that you have the option to stay secluded or interact with other guests, all at your own choosing. While there is an emphasis on the remoteness of the retreat, it doesn’t mean you’re sealed off from human interaction. You can choose to hang out in the common area with other travelers, or keep to yourself at your tent site.

 

Each safari tent is equipped with everything you need for a cozy stay. Brian and Maria put a lot of thought into this 184-square- foot space, and it’s optimized for comfort. Inside each tent is a bed with a queen-size memory foam mattress, towels, lanterns and rustic furniture. Every tent also has solar lights, flashlights, a Blue- tooth speaker and USB charging ports for phones. Since ADA compliance was a priority in their business plan, there is a tent, bathroom and shower stall with wheelchair access.

 

Bugs? Forget about it. All openings, windows and seams are taken care of to ensure bugs won’t be a problem, and the property is also treated for mosquitos with an all-natural spray.
Every tent site has its own picnic table, hammock and a cushioned love seat on the porch. You also have a private fire pit with unlimited firewood. All of this is situated on a roughly 2,500-square-foot campsite (twice the size required by law) with your neighbor way out of earshot.

Woman drinking out of cup on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

You can also choose to cook in the common area’s kitchen—it has spices, a stainless-steel sink and prep table, a refrigerator and more. This building also houses four 8-foot-by-10-foot bathhouses, each with a private toilet, sink and shower.

 

A log pavilion attached to the common building provides the space to interact with other guests. Here, you’ll also find free WiFi, charging stations and barware to mix drinks. We got to know other couples staying at the facility and even picked up a few tips about places to visit on the island. While a stay at the retreat is a remote experience, for us, the fellowship and storytelling with ad- venturous strangers under the hand-hewn cedar logs of the pavilion was a welcome part of the trip.

Each tent also has a basic kitchen on the porch with a small butane camp stove, cooler, charcoal grill and supplies for cooking (unlimited charcoal and ice are available). There isn’t running water at the tents, but bins are provided to take your dishes to a sink in the common area, which is a two-minute walk from the farthest tent.
Retreat on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

The Best Ways to Explore Beaver Island

After we get settled in at our campsite, it’s time to explore. The island is laced with dirt roads and clear waters begging for swimmers. (I highly recommend buying a map at the ferry office before you board.)

 

For a remote island that values the importance of escape, there’s plenty to do depending on the time of year, the weather and how adventurous you’re feeling. With boat rentals, snorkeling, golfing, fishing, biking and canoeing, there’s truly something for everyone.

 

We decide to grab our paddleboards and explore remote beaches (the island has more than 300 miles of shoreline). On the way to the water, we pass old homesteads and fallow fields that nod to the history of the island. To our surprise, the passengers in every car we pass give us a friendly wave, which we later find out is a Beaver Island tradition.

Stairs on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

As we wander the island in search of a spot to begin our paddling excursion, our friends proudly announce we’re finally “boodling.” Boodling is a new phrase to us, and apparently a main pastime on Beaver Island: It simply means to get in your car and drive remote dirt roads with no true destination or goal in mind—sometimes with a cooler full of barley sodas. I can’t think of any place better than Beaver Island to boodle.

 

Our boodle eventually takes us to the northern tip of the island, where we launch our paddleboards and effortlessly glide along the shore looking for shipwrecks (there are several) and savoring the views. As we paddle, we finally find the pace and rhythm that island life demands. We enjoy the silence, admire the schools of carp eating crawfish in the shallows and rejoice at the lack of cell service.

 

We dive through the warm thermocline into the icy blue water that swirls above the sandy ripples on the lake bottom. As we sunbathe and dry off on our paddleboards, a light breeze scooches us back to the shore from where we launched—a sign that it’s time to head in.

Discover more Beaver Island guides, fascinating history, glamping and more!

Beaver Island Beach

Photo by Sam Brown

Friends running down trail on Beaver Island

Photo by Sam Brown

Sunburned and hungry, we make our way back to our safari tents to shower and prepare dinner. The luxury of a hot shower and a proper kitchen while you’re camping can- not be understated, especially when you’re tired or with a significant other.

We grab a few supplies from the main kitchen to cook our meal on our porch. Back at the tent, one of us mixes drinks, the other two prepare dinner and I play with the dog (guilty). I eventually begin grilling as the tips of the cedar trees that line our campsite catch the last few rays of sun. The sky turns a lustrous shade of violet as the smoke from venison kabobs waft from our campsite, and we settle in around the fire.

As stars begin to poke through the purple twilight, we’re treated to a remarkable stargazing experience. There’s almost zero light pollution on the island. So little, in fact, the island is in the process of becoming a certified International Dark Sky Sanctuary—only 14 locations in the world have this designation (including only one other island).

We make plans in the orange glow of the fire to zig-zag our way around the island the following day; there are birding trails to discover, lighthouses to climb, sandy beaches to nap on and cinnamon rolls at Dalwhinnie Bakery to devour. For visitors, the island is the perfect size. Not so big that you need a whole week to explore it, yet not too small where you feel bored after a few days.

 

We head to bed grateful for this experience, this place and the industrious spirits who created it. Life on Beaver Island hasn’t changed much in the past few decades, and we hope it never does.

 

Sam Brown writes from Empire where the land, lakes and people inspire his writing. Tag along with his outdoor pursuits on Instagram @gnarggles.

Woman on path on Beaver Island in Northern Michigan.

Photo by Sam Brown

5 Things You Must Do on Beaver Island

  1. Climb to the top of the 162-year-old Beaver Island Head Light.
  2. Grab a beer at Whiskey Point Brewing Company.
  3. Walk the wooden boardwalk to Little Sand Bay.
  4. Watch the sunset from Mt. Pisgah
  5. Go Boodling!

Photo(s) by Sam Brown