Petoskey, Michigan, USA
Equipment: Changes of clothes, camera
Time: 10 hours driving from Indianapolis, Indiana, 3-4 days there, 10 hours back
Cost: $Very little but for souvenirs/ferry fare
What does it mean to be approached by a man with his right hand held out in high-five position, the other hand pointing to the tip of his ring finger? What if he starts spewing unintelligible, non-English sounding words to explain the hand gesture? What if this slew of babble was in response to the question “Where are you from?”
Midwesterners know at the first hand gesture. The state of Michigan is shaped, sort of, like a mittened hand. This peculiarity enables Michiganites to describe Michigan geography in a particularly visual way; as for the non-English explanation, it’s not English – many of Michigan’s towns and cities are named in native tongue. In the example above, if the right hand is Michigan, the tip of the ring finger is extreme NW Michigan. More specifically, it’s Petoskey, MI. Population: less than 7,000. Murder rate: close to zero. Density of tiny, cutesy shops and villas and olde tyme country home style cabin lodges: approaching capacity. Site of: a very unlikely road trip.
It was kind of a last minute thing, but I drove from Evansville, Indiana, right on the southern tip, to Indianapolis, Indiana, right in the center of the state, one summer day to meet two friends with whom I would spend the next 10-plus hours in the car. My blurry recollection of the trip suggests the three of us sang along to Charlie Daniel’s ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ at least eight thousand times, I somehow wrangled my way into riding shotgun for the entire trip, and there are very, very few things to see between Indianapolis and the state border.
The things I remember with clarity include: how, amusingly enough, northern Indiana seems to have an affinity for naming small towns after far off countries or cities (we passed Lebanon, Cairo, Kokomo, and Rome City in a couple of hours), how the speed limit changed from 55 to 70mph as soon as we crossed into Michigan, how we stopped at a McDonald’s at 9:45 PM and the sun was not yet set behind the trees, how my driving friend came upon a car with a radar detector speeding along and followed it for hours with no fear of tickets. In any case, we got there – dead tired, seriously annoyed with each other, and somewhat haggard, but there – and immediately crashed at our friend’s house.
When we woke up, we thought we may have entered another dimension. The cabin in which we stayed – yes, cabin, all the Petoskey residents seem to have ‘summer cabins’ a few blocks away from their regular houses – could not have been more frighteningly perfect had it been an enlarged dollhouse. Everything was made of white wicker, everything smelled pleasantly floral, all three of us had our own rooms, and we were given fresh berries to snack on. There were no TVs or clouds in the sky, Lake Michigan wafted gently in through the open pastel shutters, everyone left their doors unlocked and knew everyone else and sang in choirs together, and all the houses and cabins matched.
I didn’t grow up in an unpleasant town, but Petoskey, so small and quaint, has yet to be rivaled in my experiences for its peaceful façade.
Living in a small town might breed boredom, but visitors often find more things to do. We walked everywhere, people-watched, even went swimming at one point, although the average temperature in Petoskey rarely sees 70 degrees and the lake is frigid at all times. The main street is filled with little shops; some are clothing boutiques, some are aimed directly at tourists, but all are very quaint. And there are plenty of tourists. Little Traverse Bay, on which Petoskey sits, is a popular spot for relaxing and sailing, yachting, fishing, or drifting. In the winter, there are snowmobiling trails, skiing and skating, and ice fishing; however it is the summer months, with their chill nights and mild days, that attract a wealth of city dwellers bent on finding some peace.
Across the bay, our friend pointed out the celebrities’ mansions – on a private peninsula, of course. Contrary to what I expected, once I started to understand the depth of the societal (and monetary) roots of the place, the people were all genuinely warm, bringing to mind much less well-endowed towns I’ve visited. There were hints of money brimming from every crevasse in the street, but I would never have noticed if it weren’t for the beautiful location and expensive-looking architecture.
So what is there to do besides shop? There’s always nature. Aside from the usual stuff, if you’ve never seen the night sky from a far north vantage, you haven’t seen the night sky. That visit was the first and only time I’ve actually seen the Milky Way, and I had no idea there were as many stars as I saw then. It was absolutely breathtaking. As were the sunsets, the weather, and the scenery.
We also took a day trip to Mackinac Island, the famous Victorian time capsule/national park. After arriving via ferry, our quartet rented a couple of tandem bicycles, since no cars or other motorized vehicles are permitted on the island, and biked its circumference, stopping to hike up massive cliffs and gather awesome views every now and then. Past the historical recreations and the Grand Hotel, we stopped off in the Butterfly House, a greenhouse filled with friendly butterflies. The island was a bit kitschy at times, but the beauty of the scenery evened it out.
I don’t think I’d be too inclined to visit Petoskey on my own. While it certainly was peaceful, without my friends I fear I would have been bored out of my skull after a day or so, and I could never have afforded the rates. Now, if you’re interested in staying in a hotel, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything under $70 a night, at least during the summer. The cheapest I found was a Days Inn for $66, which, while I’m sure it’s a very nice Days Inn, is still a Days Inn charging you $66 a night. The rates might dip a bit in the off-season, but when you get right down to it, there is no off season. People flock to Petoskey in the summer to relax and in the winter to play, and for many of the part-time residents, they visit whenever they are able, any time of year. There are no hostels – the closest things are the bed and breakfasts – and not a lot of options for lodging unless you’re somehow involved with someone in the community.
Don’t head to Petoskey if you’re looking for a rollicking, insane good time. It’s not the most economical of vacation spots if you’re not guests of a local, and it may be hard to keep finding things to do after you’ve been there a few days. But, if all you want is to relax, meet some friendly people from a little town, and maybe learn to sail, there’s no better place.