Unexpected Surprises in a New Town...
When summer break started this year, we thought that we weren't going to go anywhere. It had been a crazy last three months. We planned on just hanging out at home with our toys and the garden sprinkler and being perfectly content with a simple summer. The trip to San Antonio and Disney World that we spent months planning was cancelled due to Covid 19. With safety in mind, we initially decided to stay home and enjoy some family time and some sunshine.
PS this may be my longest post to date but I promise, it's worth the read!!
I was scrolling through Facebook one day and came across a friend of mine playing a word game. And off to the side was a picture of Lake Huron and it was talking about the shipwrecks that lie at the bottom of the lake. What caught my eye though was the clear water. I started Googling "clear lakes in Michigan" and down the rabbit hole I went!! I eventually landed on a place called Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Lakeshore Park. I couldn't believe how beautiful this place looked and I added it to my bucket list of vacations (right along with Catalina Island, the Grand Canyon etc). I mentioned to Eugene that I found this amazing place and we should go there someday. He said, "Let's do it now. Our other trip was cancelled. Let's just take this opportunity and book!". So we both spent the better part of the next week looking into vacation rentals through VRBO. There wasn't much to choose from being that we wanted to travel in 2 weeks. We really wanted a beach front place with air conditioning, full kitchen and washer/dryer (because you know....little people get dirty!). We took every precaution necessary to have a place of our own to be able to social distance. We planned to take all of the food that we possibly could, meal plan easy breakfasts, lunches and dinners so we wouldn't have to eat out and just buy refrigerated items at the market in town. After a week of searching online, we finally found the PERFECT place! It was a little beach house called "Manitou Watch" (more on the name later) in the town of Glen Arbor, MI. The pictures online really didn't do it justice. When we arrived, the views were absolutely stunning. The house was bright and airy and so welcoming. We FELT like we were right at home at our favorite place, the beach!!
Days of Fun Lie Ahead...
We had NO IDEA how much fun this town was going to be! I did my research on "things to do with kids" and got some great ideas online as well as finding our own fun with some advice from some of the locals. In Glen Arbor, there is something for EVERYONE. The beaches are gorgeous. There was plenty of sand to play in but there were also lake rocks that our boys LOVED looking through. Each rock was different and unique in it's own way. We learned about Petoskey rocks from some of the locals. They are both a rock and a fossil dating back millions of years. Coral has been fossilized into hexagonal shapes and they are usually only spotted by someone with a keen eye that knows exactly what to look for. Luckily, we met a few new friends who showed us what they look like and gave us one to take home!
Top 5 Things to Do in Glen Arbor, Michigan
- Empire Bluff Trail: this is a wooded trail, less than 2 miles to the most beautiful lookout in my opinion! The trail is easy, there are a few steps built into the dirt (would not be good for strollers). There is a boardwalk at the top leading to the lookout. Bonus is there is a small but steep sand dune that takes your vantage point even higher. My kids scaled the hillside of sand with no effort. My husband and I made it for the photo op but it took us a few minutes!! We loved the views so much that we did this trail twice during our stay. The water color is stunning...different shades of blue and turquoise as far as the eye can see. We packed a lunch and there are benches there to sit and enjoy the views. If you go in the morning, it seems to be less busy and cooler.
2.Kayaking on the Crystal River: our 7 year old begged me to take him kayaking. I was excited but didn't know how much experience was necessary for this kind of outdoor adventure! I called Crystal River Outfitters and they explained everything to me on the phone. We arrived at their store and were greeted with enthusiasm and some good pointers as we began our 1.5 hour journey in the river. There are several different options for renting kayaks, we chose the 1.5 hour trip because 3 hours seemed like a bit much for our first time. The water was so clear and we were able to spot some small fish and dragonflies as we rode down the river. It was so quiet that we could hear the birds singing and the water flowing. The current is very slow and the water wasn't more than 4 feet at it's deepest point so we could enjoy looking at the scenery. We did have to get out of the kayak at the "portage" stop and take it across the road and continue on, but luckily, the people in front of us helped us! Getting the kayak back into the water and getting us back into the kayak was a little tricky so we were grateful for the help. I would definitely recommend Crystal River Outfitters for their wonderful customer service and friendliness.
3.Dune Climb: Amazing views, moderate activity but totally worth it!! By talking with some locals, we were advised against climbing the largest dune that is right off of Lake Michigan. They said it's really tough with small kids and really steep. So we did the "family" dune climb. We started at the base and climbed up the first hill...ok...not so bad. There is a lovely view of Glen Lake behind us. We keep walking and walking and walking up and down more dunes. Each time we would get to the top of a dune, we expected to see Lake Michigan. Nope! More dunes!! But it was honestly one of the coolest things we've done as a family. The kids loved running up and down the hills of sand, we stopped and looked at the vegetation and flowers, saw imprints of animal tracks in the sand and what I'm assuming are snakes slithering through. I'm glad we did this in the morning and on a day that wasn't super hot because it would have been much more difficult. When we finally were able to see Lake Michigan, it was amazing!! The kids had had enough and it looked to be miles more to go up and down steep dunes to actually get to the bluff of the largest dune so we were happy with our hike and headed back. If you go, take snacks, plenty of water, sunscreen and hats. The pictures below don't even do the dunes justice. They are a vast and a beautiful part of nature. You truly have to see it in person to appreciate it fully.
4.Biking the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail: We rented bikes from The Cyclery in town and went on an 8.5 mile ride from our place to the bottom of the Dune Climb where we had been the day before. The guys at the Cyclery were fantastic to work with. Eugene had not been on a bike in 30 years but he saw how excited the kids were to go and jumped onboard this family excursion with only a teeny bit of hesitation. I pulled Ethan in a burley trailer and Aiden was upgraded to a way nicer bike than he rides at home so he was thrilled! They explained the trail to us and the distances. We packed a lunch, plenty of water and set out on our way. The entire trail is paved (and I think it's actually 17 miles long extending all the way to the next town of Empire, MI). Most of it is wooded and shaded. We stopped at Glen Haven Beach on the way back and the boys got to see a Coast Guard Helicopter flying overhead. The sheer happiness on the boys faces telling us how much they truly loved the ride made it worth every penny of that rental. I think it was the quiet ride and listening to the birds and the wind in the trees that made it so calming and made the 8.5 miles go by so quickly (that is my longest ride EVER! I'm more of a "spin around the neighborhood" especially when pulling a 40lb kid behind me).
5.Beaches and Sunsets: We all had SO MUCH FUN playing on the beach. The sun sets really late there, like 10:30 pm! But we let all of our bed time rules slide out the window that week. I had packed a lot of things to entertain us like board games, card games, puzzle books, magazines etc in case of rain or lack of things to do in this new vacation spot. I'm happy to say, we needed NONE of those this past week!! We built sand castles, played ball on the beach, skipped rocks into the lake, I tried stand up paddleboarding, and the boys met 2 little neighbor girls and spent a lot of time with them the last 2 days. We made campfires and roasted marshmallows. We even had a fun time waiting at the window each night to see the little foxes that lived under the shed come out. I can honestly say, I have never seen a fox up close and they are beautiful and playful (from a distance inside of course!) We spent quality time together, unplugged from our phones (except to take a million photos!) and soaked up everything we could to enjoy this beautiful vacation spot. We learned about the legend of the Sleeping Bear. Legend has it that a mama bear and her cubs were swimming through the lake and a storm came through. The cubs did not make it and they are now known and North and South Manitou Islands which were visible from our beach house. The largest dune is mama bear and she keeps watch over them.
Bonus "Things to Do"...
Take a stroll around the town. Please note that during this time, all store owners had hand sanitizer for incoming customers, everyone was required to wear masks and number of customers was limited to practice safe social distancing. But for the first time in months, things felt NORMAL. It was good to be out (safely). There are cute local shops that have handmade items. Bay Lavender Trading makes handmade soaps with essential oils which makes the perfect gift to take back home. The owner is so friendly and the store is so welcoming. Order a takeout pizza from Riverfront Pizza, you won't be disappointed! Get some delicious ice cream from The Pine Cone on a warm summer night. Browse The Cottage Book Store for a new beach read. Grab a coffee drink from Leelanau Coffee and taste the difference from the chain places. Cherry Republic sells everything "cherry" from wine to salsa to gummy bears! Stop at Anderson's Market for any grocery needs and browse their huge selection of wines (I highly recommend Chateau Chantel from nearby Traverse City) and beers. Make the short drive to Empire and stop at the Grocer's Daughter's Chocolate Shop. One place I just didn't have time to go to in walking distance was the Glen Arbor Wines Store. It's an adorable little place and I had the pleasure of meeting the owner. Its' a family friendly site with a play area in back for kids as well as kid friendly "sangria". We will definitely stop there first on our next trip to Glen Arbor!
A Perfect Vacation
I can honestly say that this was the BEST vacation we have had in a long time. When we plan vacations, our minds seem to be on that one track that takes us straight to a Florida beach or to Disney. Not that that's a bad thing! But when the winters are cold in Pennsylvania, we look forward to the warmth and the sunshine that the south has to offer and we rarely think of going somewhere further north for summer fun. But after opening our minds to something new, Glen Arbor is DEFINITELY a well kept secret, a hidden gem of a vacation spot that has something for EVERYONE and we can't wait to go back!!