In our post-pandemic world, some far-flung destinations are off the table for now. For my husband and myself, Australia and Chile and Thailand moved to the back burner, but there’s been a small side benefit. We re-discovered the joys of road trips, taking socially distanced drives to several rural areas in three states. One foray was to the wild, scenic reaches of western Michigan, an area that is likely not even on the radar of many queer travelers.
We started in Traverse City, on the northwestern corner of the lower peninsula. This area straddles the 45th parallel, meaning that it’s halfway between the pole and the equator. The strategic location, along with many miles of coastline and inlets influencing the local weather, has resulted in the region being a major grower of cherries. As well, the climate has proved advantageous for wineries, and they’ve sprouted by the dozen all around the region, complete with tasting rooms, bed and breakfasts, and the like. And as the ultimate thrill for some LGBTQ+ travelers, one is owned by the family of the Material Girl herself, Ciccone Vineyard & Winery — potentially a mecca for superfans.
Sometimes it’s hard to know an area’s politics; we saw few Trump signs but plenty for assorted Republican state representatives. In Traverse City itself, we saw so many Pride flags in shop windows and hanging in front of restaurant doorways that we lost count. The main shopping street downtown, Front Street, has multiple blocks cordoned off from traffic, to encourage strolling and keep visitors socially distanced. While we didn’t observe many obviously queer couples, we never felt like people were anything but open about us, a gay interracial couple. Chatting with other tourists while waiting for an outdoor table at a restaurant or with shopkeepers was pleasantly carefree, and we always felt accepted wherever we went in the region.
Traverse City is a lot of things. It’s both a place for moneyed families and budget vacationers. We chatted with a dad at breakfast one morning waiting for his kids and grandkids to arrive from Houston; eventually, it came out that they were flying their own plane up instead of heading to Napa that weekend. We also ran into a family from near our hometown that afternoon; they had come up last minute after finding a deal at a small motel.
You can always grab a bite at one of the numerous local wineries, too. They are strewn across the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas; the former forms the western wall of Grand Traverse Bay, and the latter, only half as long, thrusts into the middle of the Bay, cutting it into its Western and Eastern arms. We tried Black Star Farms and Mari on successive days, but there are so many more that have both tasting rooms and dining options, including Chateau Chantal, Left Foot Charlie, and Mawby, which is an all-sparkling winery that features one wine simply called, “Sex.” (Yes, we bought three bottles to take home, just so we could make the bawdy jokes.)
Traverse City has a lone gar bar, Side Traxx, which has been a dance club staple in the town for years. The city also boasts quite a few murals, as well as boutiques and art galleries. We took a Bloody Mary morning cruise on the gorgeous Tall Ship Manitou, a schooner replica from the 1800s era, and also spent an afternoon hiking around the 450-foot-tall sand dunes at the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, an experience that is not to be missed. Also interesting is the Grand Traverse Commons development, a former asylum that’s been turned into a shopping, living, and dining district.
An easy three-hour drive southward, hugging the Lake Michigan coastline, brought us to Holland, Michigan, and just south of it, the twin burbs of Saugatuck and Douglas. Saugatuck is a well-known LGBTQ beach getaway for Midwesterners, especially from the Chicago metro area, which is another two-hour drive further down (and around) the great lake.
You can spend hours wandering around quaint Saugatuck, with great restaurants, bars, and shops around every turn, while queer couples dine al fresco alongside hetero families. The city is full of cute cottages overlooking the harbor area, which is dotted with boats of every price range imaginable.
We stayed just outside of town in Douglas at The Dunes Resort, one of the largest LGBTQ resorts in the U.S. and a delightful escape from everything that’s going on in the world now. Guests can choose from cottages, basic dormitory-style rooms, or high-end motel rooms, most of which face the expanded pool deck where most of the action takes place during the day.
The Dunes has been owned by the same trio of friends since 1998, and the property has seen numerous upgrades over the years. It’s not pretentious but relaxed, and it definitely offered everything we needed. The large pool deck was a great place to grab some rays, listen to music, and meet new friends. There’s a large indoor bar area, expansive outdoor nightclub/party space, and a great gift shop.
The week of our stay, the events calendar was chock full of fun: Monday was Bobbi on the Piano, Tuesday was Drag Queen Bingo and a cookout, Thursday was Karaoke, Friday was DJ Keller spinning tunes outside, Saturday was the DJ at the pool and the Dunes Diva Show on the deck, and Sunday saw the DJ poolside again. The drag show we saw at the resort was fantastic, with high-energy entertainers and a raucous crowd. We met plenty of nice couples, many of whom we learned come back to the resort year after year.
Downtown Douglas is a fraction of the size of Saugatuck, but it’s literally within walking distance of The Dunes, and offers some trendy restaurants, a nice waterfront park, a fun gourmet pet supply shop, and art galleries.
All in all, our Michigan road trip was a success — great food, scenic vistas, fresh air, and a safe change of scenery. And that’s certainly something not to be undervalued here today.