Race Preview x 2 and Bucket List Destination: Traverse City, Michigan

sunset of east grand traverse bay

It’s been a challenging year for paddling, but the world is slowly starting to open up again. While there is still some uncertainty in the air, two races in the Traverse City, Michigan area are still very much planning on happening:

45 North Paddle FestivalNEW DATE JULY 19th. Race location is French Valley Vineyards, which is a sprawling 75 acre water front facility with accommodations available on site. There is also a restaurant on-site, and a post-race party is on docket.

Rapa Nui – August 7th-9th. A different kind of race, it’s a 3-mile paddle out to an island followed by a ~2.5 mile trail run around the island, before the 3-mile paddle back to the finish.

Both these events are particularly notable for their location: Traverse City, Michigan. If you haven’t been yet, it should be on your bucket list for a destination the whole family can enjoy. The area is known for it’s cherry and fruit production, but over the last few years, it has grown into its own as a wine producing region, and the place to go for outdoor recreation.

Why Traverse City?

I recently took advantage of the state opening back up for a quick weekend trip with an activity-packed agenda that included way more than just paddling. Hopefully, it will provide some inspiration for your own itinerary. Come for the race, stay for a long weekend!

Friday: We arrived in town just in time for sunset, which on the west coast of Michigan, rivals California in every way. We stopped at the state park beach to watch the sunset over the old mission peninsula, but I have it on good local authority that nearby Bayside Park is the best location for sunsets. A Michigan favorite, Jet’s Pizza, made for a great hotel meal paired with arguably Michigan’s best beer, Bell’s Two-Hearted. With a full agenda for Saturday, a good nights sleep was in order.

photo Harrison Withers

Saturday: The day started early with the more adventurous, mountain biking the 18 of the available 27 miles of trail. The trails are very smooth but tightly tree lined, making it a sufficient challenge for the more experienced biker, but still accessible for beginners and intermediates (like myself). For those of  us that didn’t want to get dirty, the TART trail offered miles of flat paved trail through some of the most beautiful scenery the area has to offer.

After biking, a trip to Moomer’s Handmade Ice Cream was in order. Moomer’s is located on an actual working dairy farm that supplies the ingredients, doesn’t get more farm to table than that. Delicious ice cream consumed in close proximity and view of the cows that made it, a truly unique experience.

Saturday afternoon was set aside for paddling, and while it was a bit cold and windy to be on Lake Michigan, Lake Arbutus provided a sheltered inland paddling experience. The lake was clean clear and warm, and had over 5 miles in length between the chain of 5 connected lakes.

Saturday evening consisted of a backyard BBQ with friends but could have just as easily have been spent visiting downtown, and any number of excellent restaurants in the area.

photo Keith Conway
photo Harrison Withers

Sunday: The crown jewel of the whole weekend was a wine tour via bicycle. Hosted by the sponsors of the 45 North Paddle Festival, Sutton’s Bay Bikes, under their Grand Traverse Bike Tour brand, they offer a full tasting menu of guided and self-guided  bicycle tours. You can ride your own bike of course or rent one of theirs. A catered lunch is provided at one of the stops and they even offer to pick up any bottles you choose to acquire along the way.

We opted for the self-guided tour of 3 wineries, I rode my own bike, but we opted for an eBike for my significant other who doesn’t have as much cycling experience. We set out from the shop on the aforementioned TART trails system and headed south about 5 miles to our first stop. Mawby specializes in sparkling wines, and while I’m not a huge fan of the sparkling variety, I found quite a few tasty selection including the semi-dry Sandpiper which stood out as just the right balance of sweetness and really hit the spot.

photo Harrison Withers

The second stop was the Ciccone winery, which if the name seems, familiar, yes it’s that Ciccone. None other than Madonna’s father owns this picturesque hilltop winery known for it’s red wines, which Michigan is not particularly known for. Cassie red is a local favorite, but I preferred the Tremonte, which is a dark red complex blend with a nice semi dry finish.

photo Harrison Withers

Our last stop of the day, while not technically a winery, was Sutton’s Bay Ciders. With no exaggeration, this has to be one of the 10 ten scenic overlooks I have experienced in my life, Perched a top a high hill with 360 degree views of Grand Traverse Bay, it was a glorious place to have our catered lunch that was waiting there for us. 10 different ciders were on tap, with the standouts being the mosiac-hopped and ginger infused varieties. The Sweet Bay dessert wine was also a pleasant surprise but drank more like a liqueur than a wine.

photo Harrison Withers

The 6-mile ride back to the shop, was mostly downhill and gave us a chance to sober up and take in the scenery as it rambled through vineyards orchards and farms. Upon arriving back at the shop, our wine that we had purchased along the way was ready and waiting.  While an early Monday-morning meeting beckoned us to get on the road, the shop in Sutton’s Bay would have also been an ideal launching spot for one last paddle.

Hopefully, this gives you some ideas for a paddling get a way that whole family can enjoy, mine certainly did. It’s always great when you can have something to do for the non or less paddle inclined people in your life. Races are going to be a bit sparse this year, we have to be grateful for the ones we can attend, and if the races are in Traverse City, all the better.

How to get there: It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. United, American, Delta, and Allegiant fly into Cherry Capitol Airport (TVC), but flights are limited and tend to be more expensive. It’s a 3 Hour drive from Grand Rapids International (GRR) and 4.5 hours from Detroit (DTW). Fortunately, there will be plenty of folks heading up for the  race weekend from those areas and I’m betting you could hitch a ride.

Where to stay: This is a very tourist-oriented area and as such there are a myriad of options from camping, hotels, and AirBNB. The Vineyard Inn and The Carriage House are super close to the venue. Traverse City State Park is 30 minutes away.