Leelanau Peninsula – Enormous Dunes and Endless Beaches

If eastern Michigan is considered Michigan’s “Thumb,” then the Leelanau Peninsula in the northwest could be its pinkie, a narrow digit of  land wagging up between Grand Traverse Bay  and the open waters of Lake Michigan. The 28-mile-long peninsula is a delight of waterfront villages, gentle farmsteads, sandy beaches, lighthouses, vineyards, and nearly 100 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline rimmed with some of the tallest freshwater dunes in the world.

Glaciers and millennia of wind and water created the Sleeping Bear Dunes, grand hills of golden sand that rise directly from the lake nearly 500 feet into the sky. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (named for an Ojibwa legend) stretches along 35 miles of shoreline, protecting thousands of acres of stark dunescape, along with forest, beaches, and the North and South Manitou islands 17 miles offshore. The 7.4-mile Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive and a variety of hiking trails spiral out into the dunes, leading to the shore and panoramic Lake Michigan overlooks. North of the national park, M-22 traces the peninsula’s scalloped shoreline, linking together waterfront towns like Leland, where a jumble of 19th-century fish shanties have been preserved along the harbor. One commercial fishery, Carlson’s, remains in business, with snub-nosed boats tied up along the mouth of the Carp River, and a small shop that sells fresh and smoked trout and whitefish. Most of the other buildings now house gift shops and galleries; the fishnets dry-ing in the sun are solely for the benefit of photo-snapping visitors. At Cove Bar, try a Chubby Mary, a Bloody Mary with a smoked chub (a local fish) replacing the traditional celery stalk. Inland, the Leelanau eases into a mellow patchwork of pastures, orchards, and vineyards. A growing number of Leelanau wineries—12 at last count—regularly produce award-winning vintages, especially Riesling, chardonnay, and pinot gris. Stop in for tastings at boutique vint-ners like L. Mawby Vineyards, known for its sparkling wines, and Black Star Farms, with a reputation for pinot gris and dessert wines that have been served at White House dinners. The Black Star Farms complex includes a grandiose tasting room, artisanal creamery, a championship equestrian facility, and an elegant B&B nestled between vineyards and horse pastures.