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Greetings from the Great Lakes State: Ferry, cherries & breweries among highlights of trip to Michigan

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* Michigan produces 75 percent of the tart cherries grown in the United States.

* It takes more than four hours to cross Lake Michigan — from Manitowoc, Wis., to Ludington, Mich. — via ferry.

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* Michigan is home to more than 100 microbreweries.

* The state’s name is from a Chippewa Indian word, “meicigama,” that means “big sea water” (referring to the Great Lakes).

* Michigan is the only state that touches four of the five Great Lakes.

* Visiting a resort community along one of those Great Lakes can be a spendy proposition.

Those are just a few of the tidbits of information that Hubby Bryan and I picked up during our recent Jeep trip eastward to Michigan.

In retrospect, we realized we should have done a bit more research in preparation for visiting the Great Lake State. But our itinerary was put together haphazardly after our initial plans changed due to an untimely vehicle malfunction.

So we set off eastward armed with only a brochure shared by a friend who visits there often, a ticket for the ferry crossing and a couple of hotel reservations.

Here are a few of the delights — as well as a few of the missteps — we encountered during our week on the road.

Ferry me away The problem with getting from Minnesota to Michigan is that there’s a very big lake in the way. And if you go around the big lake, you have to navigate another obstacle — the traffic of Chicago.

Bryan and I elected to avoid the big city traffic on at least one leg of the journey, which meant taking a car ferry across Lake Michigan. After looking at the available options, we booked passage on the S.S. Badger, the only coal-fired steamship in operation in the U.S. Originally built to haul railroad cars, it was refitted in 1991 to carry passengers and their vehicles.

The 60-mile trip takes about four hours. During the summer months, the Badger makes two trips daily, departing from the Wisconsin side at 2 p.m. and 1 a.m. We chose the daytime crossing because we wanted to experience the trip, not sleep through it.

We arrived at the Manitowoc, Wis., port just in time to see the Badger arrive — backing into the dock and quickly dispatching its cargo of people and vehicles. After a short stint in a rapidly-moving lineup of vehicles, we left our Jeep Wrangler on the dock (except for motorcyclists, vehicle owners are not allowed to drive their own vehicles onto the Badger) and swiftly made our way to the upper deck so we’d have a good vantage point to view the departure.

While other passengers opted to watch movies or TV, play bingo or eat lunch, Bryan and I stayed outside on the deck for much of the crossing. We did a quick tour of the ship, learning that it was extremely windy near the prow and retreated to a couple of seats on stern, where we indulged in a couple of beers and chatted with our fellow passengers. We also learned it was prudent to periodically dust oneself off due to the soot that rained down from the Badger’s smokestack.

By the end of the trip, we were tired of looking at the great expanse of water and eager to set foot on land once again. We chugged into Ludington, Mich., greeted by an array of tourists along the waterfront.

The docking was a marvel to behold, the captain once again backing the huge ship into the port, lining everything up perfectly within a matter of minutes. By the time we got off the ship, employees were busily “ferrying” the many vehicles from the boat to land, sprinting from one to another.

Cherries and tourists The first inkling we had that Michigan had some high-priced tourist areas came when trying to book lodging for the night after our ferry ride.

Even a one-star hotel was going for a hefty price tag — if you could find a vacancy — on a Saturday night in Ludington, so we chose to stay at a venue more inland to save some money. But the following day, we decided the weekend crowds would be gone, so we headed north to another prime tourist destination — Traverse City.

This was one of the few nights when we didn’t have an advance reservation and quickly learned that hotel rooms were at a premium, even on a Sunday night. We managed to secure a room at a clean motor inn-type facility for about twice the price we would usually pay for such accommodations. (A fellow tourist told us that on Saturday night he paid more than $200 for a substandard room he couldn’t wait to vacate the following morning.)

Traverse City is the gateway to two peninsulas: Leelanau Peninsula and the Old Mission Peninsula. Because I had read a magazine article about Leelanau, we chose that route to explore. If we had done a bit more research, we would have known that Old Mission is home to not only wineries (also plentiful on Leelanau), but a brewery that we wanted to check out. Alas, we discovered that too late.

But it was a pretty drive up Leelanau — roads lined with cherry trees heavy with ripe fruit, an abundance of wineries and other picturesque sites.

Back in Traverse City, we made the 4-mile hike from our motel to the downtown tourism area, where we explored several eateries and some of the shops before making the long trek back.

While it’s a picturesque city, our opinion of Traverse City was colored by the hordes of tourists and high prices.

Fröhliche Weihnachten Next, we chose another stop on Michigan’s well-beaten path of tourism: Frankenmuth. Settled in 1845 by conservative German Lutherans whose mission was to bring Christianity to the native Chippewa tribe, Frankenmuth became a replica German village.

Among the top tourist draws are riverboat rides on the Cass River; horse-drawn carriage rides past the historical sites; Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland; the Frankenmuth Brewery; and family-style chicken dinners at two rival eateries.

After perusing the chicken dinner menus at both Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn, Bryan and I decided we couldn’t eat $20+ worth (apiece!) of chicken and side dishes, opting instead for half-price burgers at the brewery. We did wander through Bronner’s, marveling at the staggering array of Christmas ornaments and other décor, but escaped the Yuletide overload without making any purchases. (I love Christmas, but get enough of it in December.)

Cruising for brews Our last couple days of our Michigan exploration were spent in search of breweries in the southwestern part of the state. In particular, we wanted to tour Founders in Grand Rapids and Bell’s in Kalamazoo. Unfortunately, neither offered a tour on the days we were there.

But both facilities did offer unique tasting rooms and gift shops in which we spent some time. I especially enjoy the name of Bell’s guest spaces: Bell’s Brewery, Eccentric Café and General Store. There, we sipped on one of their seasonal selections (not available outside the brewery) in the beautiful garden, which includes a performance pavilion. It was a lovely way to spend an hour on a beautiful summer afternoon.

For more on Michigan destinations, go to www.michigan.org.

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327 or brickers@dglobe.com.

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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