Topless on two lanes: Michigan's UP is destination for this year's Jeep trek
Confession: We traveled all the way to the Land of Yoopers and never tasted a pasty (audible gasp!).
Yep, husband Bryan and I are recently returned from Michigan's Upper Peninsula (its residents proudly call themselves Yoopers), where we traversed in our Jeep Wrangler, a la open air most of the time, along the tree-lined highways and a few side roads. In previous years, since a Jeep is really only built for two occupants, such ventures have been a one-couple affair, but this time around we were joined by our friends and recent Jeep enthusiasts Steve and Mary Brake of rural Wilmont. So instead of two for the road, it was four for the highways and byways.
When we first started talking about this joint trip, we thought it was going to be a Mississippi River adventure. Bryan and I had unsuccessfully tried to follow the Great River Road down as far as Memphis, Tenn., a few years ago, only to be turned back by Hurricane Dennis, which had pushed inland and wreaked havoc with the weather quite a way north. So, we'd decided to see how far we could get this time, only to be thwarted before we even started by the epic flooding in Iowa and Missouri. After several people mentioned, "Have you ever been to the UP?" we selected that destination as the most logical alternative.
We set off with a hotel reservation for the first night and really no other plans, sans a few general suggestions from previous UP travelers. The first night was spent in Wisconsin, but on the second day we made it to Michigan -- just barely, however, with a stay in Iron Mountain. Since we forgot to stop at the travel center to garner the appropriate pamphlets and tour guides, we entered the UP with very little knowledge of what we could or wanted to see and do.
We found ourselves in the tiny hamlet of Munising, on the south shore of Lake Superior, where the four of us pondered whether we really wanted to spend $33 apiece on a boat ride. While the women checked those lake sightseeing options, the men perused possibilities for lodging, eating and entertainment via Brakes' TomTom GPS navigational device.
Although tourism seems to be a prime UP industry, it's not a very touristy area, especially compared to nearby Door County in Wisconsin. There are plentiful lodging options, most of the Mom-and-Pop-run variety with a few chains making their presence known, too. The TomTom had success in finding hotels throughout the trip, but it was a bit more difficult to isolate food and entertainment options, especially in a small town like Munising.
After weighing our options (find a hotel and stay for a boat ride or press onward to another town), we decided that a three-hour sunset tour (with plentiful "Gilligan's Island" jokes throughout) along the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was worth the prices of the ticket. After grabbing a mug and burger at the local A&W, we boarded one of the ships of the Pictured Rocks Boat Cruises, headquartered in Munising. Initially relegated to the enclosed lower deck, we got to move up in the world when the crew decided there were enough people to warrant two boats that particular evening.
Soon, we were on the top deck, offshore of Grand Island and viewing the East Channel Lighthouse, built in the 1860s, before cutting across the bay to the magnificent pictured rocks. The colors of the rocks are created by mineral layers interacting with the moisture from the lake, and their beauty is supplemented by unique rock formations, including caves, coves, cliffs and pillars, and the hardy vegetation that manages to live in this harsh climate. Even though it got a bit chilly out on the water, we had no regrets about spending the time and money as we returned to Munising harbor as the sun set behind Grand Island.
In fact, one of the few qualms we had about our visit to the UP was the consistently cool weather that prevailed during our stay. When you're traveling in an open-air vehicle, the ideal traveling temperature is in the low 80s, so the low 70s was a bit brisk. We could have used a few more long-sleeved shirts in our wardrobe.
The following day's journey brought us to Sault Ste. Marie, home to the Soo Locks and gateway to Canada. We all brought our passports along, so we made a quick foray to Ontario for a Canadian beverage and stop at the duty-free shop. After supper in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, we made it to the locks in time to see a huge freighter make the passage from Lake Huron to Lake Superior.
Watching that feat of engineering that makes passage for those huge ships possible was one of the highlights of our journey. During the remainder of our time in the UP, we also enjoyed crossing the Mackinac Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere) from St. Ignace to Mackinac City on Michigan's lower peninsula, although this time we passed on the boat trip to Mackinac Island; the trek along the southern edge of the UP and northern edge of Lake Michigan; and an evening spent in Escanaba, Mich., with its picturesque lighthouse and harbor.
By this time, we were tired enough of pine trees -- that's sometimes all you see for miles, even though you are right on the shore of one of the Great Lakes -- and the cool temperatures and were ready to head southward. We took aim for southern Wisconsin and a couple more leisurely days before we headed home.
In recent years, southwestern Wisconsin has become a favorite destination for Bryan and me, probably due to the hilly landscape and winding roads that are so different from our prairie land here and perfect for jeeping. So we returned to a couple favorite haunts and uncovered a couple new destinations along the way.
Our favorite new discovery was the Wollersheim Winery, located in Prairie du Sac, Wis., not far from the Wisconsin Dells. The original limestone structure was built by prospective winemakers in the 1850s and was used until the turn of the century. The property lay dormant until 1972, when Bob and JoAnn Wollersheim bought it, replanted the vineyards and began to once again age wines in its underground cellars. Philippe Coquard, a winemaker from France, came to the winery on an agricultural exchange in the 1980s, married one a Wollersheim daughter and has helped produce fine wines distinctive to the region of Wisconsin ever since.
This is a first-rate winery with a first-rate tour and first-rate testing. After thoroughly sampling the product line, we had to make room in both our already-full Jeeps for several bottles of wine -- one of the best souvenirs of the trip.
Throughout our Jeeping adventures, Bryan and I have found that food and drink often make for some of the best memories. A fine meal, a glass of wine or beer shared with friends can be the best parts of the trip.
So why didn't we taste a pasty (pronounced pass-tee) -- a UP culinary specialty that is almost as prevalent up there as the pine trees? We had good intentions of ordering up one of the meat-and-potato-filled turnovers but were never in the right place when we were hungry for such.
Maybe we can use that deficiency in our experience as the excuse for a return trip to the UP in a few years.