Photo-heavy post ahead!
It isn’t called “Charlevoix, the Beautiful” for nothing…
Our summer road trip in 2018 came about, as most of our trips do, sitting at the kitchen table over cocktails. It started as planning a long weekend in Marquette, Michigan where Katie and Travis lived for a year and were eager to return to. The trip went to the next level when Justin suggested renting an RV when we were having trouble finding rental homes. Since it wasn’t 100% realistic to travel with 4 adults and 4 young kids in an RV (ages 5, 4, 2 and 8 months at the time), we found a 12-passenger van rental through Costco Travel. Travis had visited the Traverse City, Michigan area as a kid and suggested this as a destination. We realized our work schedules would align to where we could take a full week off together.
The week was chosen, the van was rented, and we then moved onto exactly where we wanted to stay and what we wanted to do. After searching and searching VRBOs and AirBnBs, we weren’t having much luck finding any affordable rentals in Traverse City that would fit both families together. On a whim, we looked outside of Traverse City and figured we could do some day trips to the city. The perfect-seeming rental was found in a town called Charlevoix, Michigan, about an hour north of Traverse City. The price was right, the layout was good, and it appeared to be close enough to town. Without knowing too much about Charlevoix, we booked it anyways. Spoiler alert: this was the best decision we ever made!
Our destination would wind up being about 7.5 hours drive from Madison, Wisconsin. Since we had a full week off, we figured it’d be best to split up the drive to make it more tolerable for the kids. Travis has family in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan and knew of a small town called Manistique that would be good to spend the night. There aren’t too many lodging options, so we chose a small motel that had a fair price and good reviews and booked the first night of our trip here.
day 1: Saturday
Bags were packed (the amount of stuff we brought for a week was embarrassing), the van rental was picked up, the Waze app programmed using “boy band” voice, and we were ready to head out. Come to find out, the oldest kid decided to make a “slime headband” so we then spent the next hour picking slime out of her hair. #thisishowwetravel
Madison, Wisconsin to Manistique, Michigan is about a 5 hour drive and we stopped for a quick Culver’s lunch somewhere near Green Bay, WI. Fairly uneventful drive except for the baby spiking a high fever along the way…
We arrived in Manistique in the late afternoon and checked into our motel called Gray Wolf Lodge. Nothing fancy, but fine for a night and the kids had fun exploring the small “beach” area across the street.
Day 2: sunday
We left Manistique that morning and headed over the Mackinaw Bridge into Mackinac City. FYI, you’ll see both “Mackinac” and “Mackinaw” – same place, different spelling. The bridge was pretty cool – the span is apparently the longest of suspension bridges in the U.S. After a quick Google search of “how many cars have gone off the bridge”, Katie was in full panic with her head between her knees…but the rest of us enjoyed it 🙂
While we didn’t take the ferry to Mackinac Island, we did spend a few hours and pass the day exploring Mackinac City. It’s pretty touristy – many shops lining the streets and the downtown area, even more than Katie & Sara could handle, which says a lot. We had lunch a nice restaurant outdoor placed called The Historic Depot Restaurant in the Mackinaw Crossing area. We had a good meal and the kids did the little train ride and played at the park in the square.
Of course, the kids (and Sara) insisted on ice cream after passing about 100 different shops, so we tried a local shop called Ice Cream Dreams before leaving town. Back into our van, we followed Lake Michigan south and made a pitstop at Wilderness State Park to let the kids swim and play a bit more, since we had a pretty loose schedule.
After a quick swim, we got back into the van to complete the last little leg of our trip to Charlevoix, Michigan. We pulled into town and our hearts pitter-pattered – it was the cutest downtown! A few blocks of shops and restaurants lined the street, right on the edge of Lake Michigan. A large drawbridge downtown kept the kids entertained, opening and closing to allow the large yachts through.
Another good surprise was pulling up to the address of our rental home. The location was so good – a 15-minute walk or 5-minute drive to town through the cutest neighborhoods, full of old homes with huge porches and so much character. We explored a bit and found a 3-block walk took us to Depot Beach on Lake Charlevoix. Aside from the key location, the home was spacious, had a nice big deck and yard, and met all our needs for the week. The owners gave us access to the garage which was full of things – strollers, wagons, beach toys, etc.
Cannot recommend this rental home enough, especially for the neighborhood and location. Katie & Travis had the upstairs bedroom, which did got pretty hot at night despite the air conditioning, and the decor was a bit dated, but otherwise our stay was amazing! The owners were so good to work with since we ended up extending our stay an extra night. Check out this rental home on VRBO.
Day 3: monday
The dads made an early morning tee time at the Charlevoix Country Club golf course. While they golfed, we took the kids to Depot Beach to swim and play at the park nearby. Most of the beaches here are pretty rocky, but the pebbles are smooth and nobody seemed to mind.
That afternoon when the boys returned home from golf, we snuck away for a girls’ lunch at The Bridge Street Tap Room, overlooking Round Lake, and did some shopping at the local stores. While we were exploring downtown, we passed a great little Mexican restaurant called the Cantina that had good reviews and ended up back here for dinner later that night with everyone. Next door, was a yummy little ice cream and bake shop called Brian’s Ice Cream Experience and poked into the prettiest flower shop called Bloom.
After dinner, we walked to the South Pier Lighthouse and Michigan Beach Park to check out the lighthouse and let the kids run around on the beach.
Day 4: Tuesday
A few months in advance, we had booked a pontoon boat rental from Torch River Marina on Torch Lake, about 45 minutes south of Charlevoix. Every time we looked into the Charlevoix area and things to do, Torch Lake came up at the top of the list. It is Michigan’s longest inlet lake, 19 miles from tip to tip, and almost 19,000 acres. Torch Lake is so special because of it’s crystal-clear aqua waters and the large sandbar area where boats anchor up. Rumor has it that musician Kid Rock has the song “Summertime” about “splashing through the sandbar” and “summertime in northern Michigan”.
We had the boat rental for 8-hours and was around $400, which is pricey but absolutely worth it. There isn’t access to the sandbar unless you’re on a boat and it’s really the best way to experience this water. The entire day, we’d catch ourselves talking about the water – it looked just like Caribbean water, only in Michigan! We packed a cooler, picked up a couple cheap rafts, lots of sunscreen, and headed out for a good time around 10am that day.
We had lunch at Dockside, which came highly recommended and had great reviews. The outdoor patio was busy so we ate indoors and took a break from the sun. Food was great, drinks were delicious, it was a fun atmosphere, and the kids were entertained by some arcade games and watching a helicopter giving rides and landing on the lawn.
After lunch, we anchored up at the sandbar and spent the day relaxing while everyone splashed around. This day was the absolute highlight of everyone’s trip (with Sand Dunes following closely behind, keep reading).
While our boating day was in full swing and the morale was high, we all realized our week was already coming to an end – we were planning to head home Friday morning. We all came to the agreement that we wanted to stay another night – we called our van rental company and the VRBO owner and extended our stay an additional night.
Tip: If you’re looking to cut costs but still experience the water, there are other marinas to rent boats from in the area but require coming from other connecting lakes through the channel. We opted to make it easy on ourselves with the little kids and basically walk on and walk off. You can also rent the boat for a shorter amount of time to save on cost.
Day 5: Wednesday
Everyone slept great after a full day in the sun on Torch Lake, but we were ready for more. We had planned to spend the day at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, so we again loaded up the van and set off. Sleeping Bear Dunes is about 1.5 hour drive from Charlevoix and we were able to pass through Traverse City along the way. We figured we’d stop in Traverse City after the dunes and explore a bit.
The entrance fee was $25 and is good for 7 days. It was going to be a hot, sunny day so we went early, filled up water bottles, and loaded up on sunscreen. Research before our trip told us that the dunes get busy as the day goes on, as most parks do, but also that the hot sand on bare feet makes the whole experience much less enjoyable. We went into this day with very low expectations since we had little kids in tow.
Everyone ditched their shoes at the bottom of the dunes – hiking sandals would probably have worked also. This is not a climb for the weak!
It took us all about 20 minutes or so to reach the first peak. What a workout! Had we not had the kids along, we would’ve kept going since there was SO much to see. The higher you climb, the more peaks you find, so the hike seemed endless. We also knew the kids would have more fun running down than climbing up, so we took in the views from above and then descended.
With lots of giggles coming from the kids (and maybe the adults), it was a lot of fun running down the dunes. We spent a good two hours climbing up and running down the dunes and it was pretty easy to let the kids go off on their own since nearly everywhere was visible. Once we had had enough, we hopped back in the van to take the scenic drive through the park. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive is a 7.4 mile drive through the dunes, into the woods, with several stops to overlooks Lake Michigan. This would be a great alternative for anyone with physical limitations who still want to see some cool views because you can drive along, pull over and get out of the vehicle. Most of the overlooks had short walks through the woods to see the views.
Our favorite stops were Overlooks #9 and #10. You are 450′ above Lake Michigan at this point and the sand bluffs appear to go straight down. With the little kids in tow, we didn’t climb down, although many people were doing so (and looked REALLY tired after climbing back up). The sunsets here are probably pretty amazing. Bringing some chairs and drinks and hanging out here for the evening would’ve been pretty cool.
Next, we headed into the small neighboring historical village of Glen Haven, Michigan. There wasn’t much to it – an old canning company, Maritime Museum, Blacksmith shop and restored General Store. We parked and camped out at the beach for the rest of the afternoon. As usual, the water in Lake Michigan was FREEZING but absolutely the bluest, prettiest water. The beach had some small sand dunes and the kids had fun playing Hide & Seek.
The kids caught naps in the van on the drive back to Charlevoix, even though we had planned to stop in Traverse City. It rained a bit and we decided to pass on through – what we saw of Traverse City looked like a normal downtown area and we were all okay skipping it. (Funny that we were all okay skipping Traverse City when that was the original plan, but sometimes funny things happen like falling in love with Charlevoix instead!) We regrouped and decided to drive about 25 minutes north of Charlevoix into the neighboring town of Petoskey, Michigan. We walked around the downtown area and landed on Beard’s Brewery for dinner. The kids were content playing games on the outdoor deck and the food and drinks were SO good. This ended up being our favorite food of the trip.
Day 6: Thursday
After two very busy days, we were looking forward to spending the day in Charlevoix. We walked downtown and had a nice outdoor breakfast at Smoke on the Water with really good food. It was fun sitting along the sidewalk outside the restaurant and people-watching while we ate. Everyone loved their breakfast and would definitely recommend – they even deliver!
After breakfast, we walked through the Charlevoix Farmer’s Market which runs every Thursday from 8am-1pm running mid-May through mid-October along the water. We picked up some steaks and salad fixings for dinner later that night. The kids got some treats and balloon animals from the balloon artist and we hung out at the park overlooking Round Lake.
We spent the rest of the day at the nearby Depot Beach, swimming and relaxing. There are nice bathrooms, a playground, and swimming.
After a day at the beach, we grilled the steaks purchased earlier at the Farmers’ Market and Katie made one of her world-famous salads.
We tossed around a few ideas of what to do that evening and landed on heading to Fisherman’s Island State Park, apparently known for a great spot to watch the sunset. It was about a 10 minute drive out of Charlevoix so we grabbed our portable speaker and a couple cocktails and rushed out to beat the sunset. The entrance fee was a $9 day pass, and we drove into the park about 6-miles, past all the campsites to an open spot on the beach.
This turned out to be everyone’s favorite moment of the week. It was an otherwise ordinary night but became sort of magical as the sun set. We had some good music playing on the speaker, and we sat around watching the kids run in the waves of Lake Michigan and the mood was good. It was such a spontaneously fun night and we had tears in our eyes watching the kids play with the sunset in the background. The girls ended up soaking wet in their clothes, happily squealing and giggling as they ran around. We stayed until dark, then dried off our soaking wet and shivering happy kids and left. As we were leaving, one of the girls said it perfectly – “we made a new memory tonight!”.
Day 7: Friday
Since we had originally planned to go home this day but extended our trip by another night, so this was sort of a freebie day. Petoskey, where we had eaten dinner earlier in the week, seemed like it was worth going back to. We drove the 30 minutes to Petoskey and parked downtown to walk around. Our first stop was Gypsy Vodka for cocktails and they had board games for the kids. The cocktails were delicious and the service was very friendly! One of the bartenders recommended we check out The Back Lot for lunch. (Tip: always talk to the locals about what to do / where to eat. Some of the best recommendations come this way!)
The Back Lot was another hidden gem! It is a huge dog-friendly, kid-friendly open air beer garden (with some covered seating as well) with a variety of food trucks. The kids were perfectly content running around, playing lawn games, and everyone got to choose the food truck of their taste. Great experience! Check out their website to see all the photos, since we didn’t get too many here.
After yummy lunches and good beer, we headed to Petoskey State Park. It is located on the north end of Little Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan and has a nice, sandy beach area. Petoskey is known for “Petoskey Stones”, which are unique, smooth round fossils that wash up in the bay and are sought after by people collecting them.
Day 8: Saturday
Saturday came and went pretty uneventfully. We packed up our things, loaded the van, and headed for home. The drive time is basically the same to go from Charlevoix and head north around Lake Michigan into Wisconsin versus heading south from Charlevoix and coming through Illinois to Madison. There are also ferries that cross Lake Michigan and can be a time-saver but were quite expensive (would’ve been around $800 for our group plus the van). We opted to go around the north and come through northern Wisconsin, the same route we had taken to Charelvoix. We arrived home late Saturday afternoon, and already the kids were begging to play. Luckily, we’re only 4 houses apart 🙂
Our Michigan road trip set the precedent for the coming trips. It helped us to realize how we could actually enjoy traveling together with our kids. And all four adults still liked eachother after spending a week together! We had such a relaxing week, full of laughs (not sure we’ve ever laughed as hard as we did this trip… #enema), and our kids STILL talk about their trip to Michigan almost 1.5 years later with fond memories.
We also put together a little video montage of all our pictures and video clips – the kids often ask to watch their “Michigan video” and relive the week. It was a bit daunting to think about driving in a van with four young kids, but 100% worth it. Until next time, Charlevoix! You will always be a special place in our hearts.