Cherry country

Mid-western fantasy

Surrounded by pristine blue waters of Boardman river and beautiful cherry orchards, Traverse City in Michigan, US, welcomes you in every season. Michael Jansen witnesses the historical sites and indulges herself in country pleasures.


Spring came late to the small town of Traverse City in the US mid-western state of Michigan. During the first week of May, ice still floated on the surface of the choppy water of the twin bays on which the town sits, and small piles of melting snow remained beside roads and homes. The limbs of thousands of cherry trees and grape vines remained bare although buds should have begun to open by then. Buds only emerged and burst into flower in mid-May. 

Traverse City’s annual cherry festival, which attracts as many as half a million visitors, may have to manage without locally grown cherries during the first week of July. Several years ago, organisers were obliged to import cherries from Poland for the festival because the local harvest was small due to late frost.

History mystery

Traverse City was named for Grand Traverse Bay by 18th century French merchant-men who plied “the long crossing” (la grande traverse) across Lake Michigan to reach the area’s heavily wooded shores. The city’s prosperity was founded on lumber and cherries. The first sawmill was built in 1847 by Captain Harry Boardman, who hailed from the nearby state of Illinois. He, his sons and crew arrived on the ship, dubbed The Lady of the Lake, and constructed a house as well as the mill. In 1851, he sold the mill to three businessmen who improved and expanded it, drawing new settlers to the small community. The Boardman River, Lake and other features in the area are named after the pioneering captain.

Five years after Boardman set up his mill, Peter Dougherty, a protestant missionary and the first European settler, planted the first cherry orchard. The mills eventually went out of business and local folk replanted the depleted forests between 1910-40, but the cherry trees thrived in the sandy soil and the temperate climate provided by Lake Michigan. Today, the area boasts nearly four million cherry trees and produces 70-75 per cent of sour “Montmorency’ pie cherries grown in the US as well as sweet red and white cherries. Traverse City has become known as the “cherry capital” of the US.

After the US ban on the production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages was repealed in 1933, vintners also found the climate and soil perfect for growing grapes and making wine. Today, row upon row of grape vines march across on the flat land and low hills of the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas north of Traverse City and compete for primacy with cherry and apple orchards. 

While Michigan wineries once specialised in sweet and fruit wines, in the 1970s Chateau Grand Traverse launched the production of European style dry table wines by planting traditional Mediterranean and Central European varieties of wine grapes such as Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Pinor Noir, Merlot Syrah, Pinot Grigio and Riesling. Throughout the year, tourists swarm into the region and hop from one vineyard to another to taste the delicately diverse wines.

There is more to Traverse City and its environs than cherries and wine. Sandy beaches stretch along the shores of Lake Michigan, its sheltered bays and the area’s 150 springfed lakes. Rental businesses hire all manner of power boats, sailboats, jetskis and sailing surfboards to visitors, who also board replicas of 18th and 19th century masted schooners, sloops, and frigates that played a key role in the development of the Great Lakes.

Fishermen join charters on East and West Traverse Bays or cast lines for trout and salmon on River Boardman. 

Visitors indulge in a day-long excursion to South Manitou Island to investigate the lives of early settlers by visiting farmsteads, a schoolhouse, the cemetery and the lighthouse, constructed in 1871. North Manitou Island is a wilderness offering hiking, camping and backpacking as well as the amenities provided by a village.

Four seasons

During summer, Traverse City boasts symphony concerts in the elegantly restored Opera House, built in 1892, and performances at the nearby Interlochen Centre for the Arts, which holds a summer camp for 2,000 young musicians, dancers, actors, artists and writers.

In the fall, tourists flock to the area to enjoy its crisp weather and the autumnal colours of the maple and oak trees. In winter visitors ski, sled, ice skate, and fish through holes in ice-clad lakes. In spring, tourists and residents alike are stunned by the splendour of a land enveloped in white cherry blossoms.

Traverse City is a cosy, low slung  town with about 14,600 year around inhabitants and no sky-scrapers. Its shopping district consists largely of one and two-storey buildings commonly seen in US Western films featuring gunfights by cowboy heroes Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner.

The State Theatre, an art deco cinema that began showing films in the silent era, is now run as a non-profit organisation by elderly volunteers. The price of a ticket for showings on Wednesday mornings is a quarter of a dollar. Art galleries display the works of local sculptors and painters and there are serveral museums exhibiting historical artefacts. A permanent exhibition of sculpture, drawings and prints by Inuit (Eskimo) artists of the Canadian Arctic is located at the Dennos Museum on the campus of Northwestern Michigan College.

Visitors who like games of chance can play cards, routette and slot machines at two casinos operated by native Americans from the Ottowa and Chippewa tribes. Golfers have a choice of courses to play. 

For gourmets, there are a wide variety of restaurants, bakeries, and cafés as well as the Grocer’s Daughter, an artisan chocolate shop, and the Cherry Republic, which offers a range of cherry products such as sweets, syrups, jams, cakes and breads. Farmers’ markets provide fresh fruit and vegetables and handicrafts. 

Since the chief money earner for the Grand Traverse region is four season tourism, with summer being the main attraction, there is a wide range of accommodations available for visitors, from economical camp sites to high priced condominiums and water-front villas.

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