Leelanau Peninsula in winter a quiet and worthy escape

Leelanau Peninsula busiest in summer and fall, which makes winter a perfect time to go

Even the owner of my hotel had the good sense not to be where I was. In a couple of weeks, he said as I checked in at the Whaleback Inn, he and his wife would head to Florida to begin a weeklong Caribbean cruise.

"Winter gets long here," said Scott Koehler, who has run the Whaleback for 15 years. "The ice melted on the lake (last) year in April."

It was a sentiment I heard often: Leelanau Peninsula winters are long. Very, very long. Last year, it was as much as 265-inches-of-snow long. (By comparison, Chicago had 82 inches.) While that might be a fair argument not to live on the peninsula, it's no argument not to visit in winter; sometimes being in the right place at the wrong time is all the reason to be there.

Such is the case for the Leelanau Peninsula, a spit of land stretching into Lake Michigan like the pinkie on the back of the left hand that is Lower Michigan. For much of the year — especially summer and fall — Leelanau attracts the masses who seek a gentle, pastoral Midwest: rolling landscape, glowing sunsets, twisting rural roads and two dozen wineries. But in winter? Not so much interest.

It's understandable. The landscape that is verdant in summer turns brown and bland, then icy and white. Sunsets are swallowed by steely winter skies. Half the businesses are shuttered until spring. Single-digit temperatures are not uncommon. There was a ski area, Sugar Loaf, that once attracted winter visitors, but it has been closed since 2000, which leaves few obvious reasons to visit Leelanau after the leaves drop from the trees.

Leelanau doesn't quite shut down in winter, but it doesn't exactly stay open either. As that hotel owner told me, many places just aren't winterized. Many do, however, open their doors for at least some of the winter — wineries in particular, which is quite helpful in the deep north Michigan cold — which makes the peninsula still worth visiting, albeit beneath five layers of clothing.

Winter in Leelanau is always sort of in transition. For instance, Martha's Leelanau Table, a restaurant in the town of Suttons Bay, is experimenting for the first time with staying open this winter: Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday brunch. The night I happened in, the specials were geared toward their winter experiment, including a cassoulet and turkey pot pie.

"The pot pie has a cheesy biscuit top," my server said.

"Very wintry," I said, and looked around. Only one other table was occupied.

"Do you expect to have enough customers to make staying open during winter worthwhile?"

"We'll see," she said.

The next morning I peeked through the hotel blinds to spy a steely gray sky — like most winter mornings here — and Lake Leelanau lightly crusted with ice and snow. Bare tree branches quivered in a 33-degree breeze that felt much colder. A storm was on the way.

I walked up the road to embrace winter the best way I know — on foot. Just down the road from the Whaleback sits the Whaleback Natural Area. A sign at the trailhead showed a photo of a man on the trail surrounded by green grass and thick trees on a sunny day. That wouldn't be me.

Instead I hoofed across a trail matted with ice and snow atop a bed of crunchy brown leaves. What can best be described as a "wintry mix" soon began to fall. It wasn't rain and it wasn't snow; it was more of the tiny ice pellets that make a crackly static sound on your hood. Except for my own steps and breath, there wasn't another sound.

For much of the walk, I was able to grab views of green-gray Lake Michigan through the spiny trees that, in summer, would have been flush with leaves. Somewhere beyond the pines, I could hear large waves beating the shore. I took my sweet time on the 2-mile trail, savoring the quiet, trying not to slip and appreciating the absence of another human for who knew how far. The wintry mix picked up and became a wet, heavy snow, the kind good for a perfect snowball. I packed a couple and checked out my aim on some trees.

Back at the hotel, I climbed into my car to tour the peninsula; up its western edge to the northern point, then back down the east shore before crossing back over. I would be traveling about 50 miles, which could have been done in an hour or so. But between the snowy roads and lazy speed that a trip through the heart of winter demands, it took five or six hours. I created a weather-appropriate playlist of slow and hazy songs (named, of course, "Wintry Mix") and pointed my car north.

I stopped less than a mile down the road, at the town of Leland, which I recognized from a previous trip when the sidewalks were teeming with shorts- and T-shirt-clad visitors. Today it was quiet and still, and I took stock of a town that was half open (Trish's Dishes restaurant, Hullabaloo party-supply store) and half closed (Main Street art gallery, Tampico Imports jewelry shop). I wandered into Leelanau Books, on the town's short main strip (called Main Street, naturally), and bought a postcard showing something close to the scene outside: a few boats in the Leland harbor, everything caked with snow and ice below a stilted gray sky. It turned out the woman working the register had taken the photo.

"Someone asked how I got the sky to look that steely gray," Lori Wegener said. "I told him that's just what it looks like here in winter — every day."

She said she's lived on Leelanau for 42 years, then added, "Come February, you say to yourself, 'And we live here because ...?'" Yet she stays.

"If we get sunshine, no matter what, it's a beautiful day," she said.

On I went up pine-hugged Michigan Highway 22, in a slow-spinning snow, until reaching a restaurant that a local had recommended as both a peninsula staple and likely open in late December: Fischer's Happy Hour Tavern. The restaurant is indeed quintessential upper Midwest: a dim, low-ceilinged room with a pool table at its center that's easy to imagine during a Friday night fish fry in summer, pool balls clacking, cold beers on a server's tray and the din of a packed, sun-burned room. Instead, the only thing stirring was a solitary woman behind the bar who said, "Yes — we're open!"

It was indeed hard to tell.

I took a seat at the bar and she asked, "How are the roads?"

"Not bad if you're not in a hurry," I said.

Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" swirled in the speakers above.

The woman behind the bar was Kristi Fischer, who was about to become a third-generation owner of a restaurant that has been in the family for 44 years. They would be closing from New Year's Day to Valentine's Day, but I was lucky to have caught her in an empty restaurant in December.

"You bleed money in the winter up here," said Fischer. "You have to pay your staff, and business is hit or miss."

Last winter was an unfathomable hit. Due west of Fischer's Happy Hour Tavern, just a couple of thousand feet through the woods, a remarkable collection of ice caves formed on Lake Michigan in mid-February. As word spread and downstaters came to check out the natural wonder, Fischer's became packed every day at noon. Most winters the most they hope for is a smattering of decent business from the snowmobile crowd. Without another soul in the restaurant — I was the fifth customer of the day, which Fischer blamed on the snow — I could monopolize her attention and ask about Leelanau in winter.

"I like it, but I grew up in it," she said. "I cross-country ski and snowmobile and snowshoe. It's our time to play and relax."

After a turkey Reuben, Fischer directed me toward one of her favorite places to play: Leelanau State Park, 1,300 acres of shore and woods at the peninsula's northern tip. That includes 8 1/2 miles of incredibly well-marked hiking trails, which prompted my second wintry walk of the day, this time toward a long, narrow beach. After several hours of snowfall, the world gleamed with 3 inches of white. I slowly worked my way to the great sand dunes overlooking Lake Michigan, where the lakeshore looked like a layer cake: white (snow), beige (sand), greenish-blue (water), icy gray (sky).

As dusk fell, I headed back south, with enough time for one drink to warm me up. I remembered a cider maker, Tandem Ciders, housed in what looks like an old barn in a quiet bend on a quiet road in the middle of the peninsula. With its dark wood bar and deep red walls, the tasting room feels as much like a rural English cottage as a cidery in rural Michigan. I took a seat and ordered a blend of Tandem's sweeter cider, Smackintosh, blended with a tart, purplish plum cider.

A couple of locals sat at the bar, one of whom ordered his usual: a blend of Smackintosh and a dry, mouth-puckering cider made from crab apples called The Crabster.

"Mostly Smack?" the bartender asked, referring to the man's usual preference.

"Nah," he said. "Two-thirds Smack, one-third Crab."

The bartender paused, briefly thrown by this change in routine toward a heartier blend.

"Well," he said. "I guess it is winter."

jbnoel@tribpub.com

Twitter @joshbnoel

If you go

Leelanau Peninsula is about 320 miles from Chicago by car up Michigan's west coast; a car is essential for exploring the area. American and United airlines fly nonstop to Traverse City from O'Hare International Airport; book far enough ahead, and fares can be less than $300. Several hotels close for some portion of winter in Leelanau Peninsula, though Whaleback Inn (1757 N. Manitou Trail, Leland; 231-256-9090, whalebackinn.com) and Korner Kottage Bed and Breakfast (503 St. Joseph Street, Suttons Bay, 231-271-2711, kornerkottage.com) remain open. Restaurants can be hit and miss, though the larger towns — Suttons Bay, Leland, Glen Arbor and North Port — should have something open. Most of the wineries (lpwines.com) maintain some winter hours, though it's best to check the website for details. Winter activities include ice fishing, snowshoeing and hiking on the many trails spread across the peninsula. More information: leelanauchamber.com.

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