May 27, 2005

Sleeping Bear Dunes is vacation treasure within a day’s drive

By Cynthia Dewes

LEELANAU PENINSULA, Mich.— With the price of gasoline rising higher by the day, we may be thinking of forgoing vacation trips by automobile this year. Still, there are wonderful places to visit within a day’s drive of central Indiana. One of them is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along the northwest shoreline of Michigan.

We came upon this lovely place many years ago when our sons’ Boy Scout troop went for a week of summer camping on South Manitou Island, offshore from Leland, Mich. The next year, we camped on the island as a family and were hooked on the area for life.

The main part of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, for which it is named, is located south of Leland near Glen Arbor. Here, people can access the great dunes by car or bicycle on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive or hike on marked paths where their presence will not threaten the delicate environment.

One stable dune is set aside for people to climb, which is much harder than it looks. The dunes are windswept and lovely, with fine grasses and wildflowers to admire. From the top on a clear day, you can see the Manitou Islands out in Lake Michigan.

North and South Manitou Islands are the “cubs” of the sleeping bear in Indian legend. Both islands became part of the national park in the 1970s, requiring recreation fees from visitors who reach them by taking the Manitou Island Transit ferries from Leland or by private boat. Since no cars are allowed on the islands, visitors hike around on foot or day-­trippers may take a paid afternoon tour of South Manitou sights on a ferry company vehicle.

A corporation once owned North Manitou Island and maintained a hunting lodge there, stocking the island with non-native deer for the corporation’s guests to hunt. With no predators to keep their numbers down, the deer multiplied so quickly that now federal authorities hold a managed deer hunt every fall. This island provides only primitive camping, with campers bringing in and removing all their food, equipment and refuse.

South Manitou Island previously had one resident farm family and several summer cottagers. All their structures are now deteriorating. At one time, because of its protected interior, the island produced most of the country’s commercial plant seeds. Before that, it was an important stop for Great Lakes shipping vessels to take on wood, food and other supplies.

The southern island has always been a camper’s paradise, even now when National Park rules apply and campers are assigned to group camps or camping areas, and may build fires only in prepared fire pits.

Hikers can visit the ancient cedar trees, one-room schoolhouse and interior lake. They can see the 1960 “Morazan” shipwreck offshore from the cliff above, and on a clear day can see Wisconsin across Lake Michigan from atop the great Westside dune. Park employees provide tours of the historic lighthouse, and staff a small visitor’s center and museum featuring the island’s history.

Leland and the nearby towns of Northport, Sutton’s Bay, Glen Haven and the larger city of Traverse Bay provide tourists with innumerable vacation opportunities. There is high-to-low-end shopping, including artwork, crafts and antiques.

Opportunities to enjoy all water sports, umpteen eating establishments and ­excellent living accommodations are available. The latter include a lodge located right on the dam in Leland, a riverside inn, a golf-course with hotel lodge and a motel/apartment resort, none of which are chain franchises.

Leland’s Bluebird restaurant is famous for fresh whitefish, caught daily in Lake Michigan and sold by Carlson’s Fisheries in the dockside Fish Town. Next door is a huge marina, where many private ocean-going sailboats are docked, waiting to be admired by envious landlubbers.

The Leelanau Peninsula area also contains several vineyards, which produce top-quality wines and offer fun tours and wine-tasting. Fruit, especially cherries, are a major crop here.

The history of the Great Lakes and its lifesaving stations is evident in many towns, including Glen Haven.

Inland is Lake Leelanau, a pleasant lake where the old-fashioned Fountain Point Resort is popular with family vacationers and people like us, who stayed in a dormitory building with six friends last summer. Breakfast is served daily in the main lodge building, and play equipment, boats and other recreational opportunities are provided for visitors. Our furnished house had five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, front and back porches, and huge kitchen with eating area.

We attended Mass at St. Mary Church in the town of Lake Leelanau, home to a small but lively congregation. This charming country church is sided with stones from the area. There’s a school right next door and farther down the street is “Dick’s Pour House,” an interesting bar.

We also went to an evening concert at the nearby Interlochen Center for the Arts. This prestigious music camp offers talented students from all over the country expert instruction by world-class musicians in a casual woodsy setting.

When you visit a place often enough, you come to know its character—and its characters. In and around Leland, we met a bookseller who specialized in books by and about Hemingway and a droll ferryboat captain who said he’d been assigned to the infantry in World War II.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore may not be the only neat vacation site within a day’s drive of central Indiana, but it sure is one of our favorites.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion .) †


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