To the uninitiated, the Great Lakes represent little more than the web of water that spawned hardscrabble cities like Detroit and Chicago. But these five lakes, which together form the largest network of freshwater in the world, have some incredible beach towns. "This is the best-kept secret in America," says Jerry Dennis, a Traverse City resident and the author of The Living Great Lakes. "Our beaches are better than most saltwater beaches – they're cleaner, they're bigger, and they're less populated." Out on the lakes, there's deepwater fishing for 30-pound muskie, world-class kitesurfing, and hundreds of miles of open water to paddle or sail. But what might be even more surprising is that the food and culture scenes on the northern shores – dominated by fresh-catch cuisine, craft breweries, local wineries, and an influx of musicians and artists – are booming as well.
On the shore of Lake Michigan, Traverse City boasts farm-to-table restaurants, artisanal-cocktail bars, and a restored movie theater where filmmaker Michael Moore hosts an acclaimed summertime festival. Gary Jonas, owner of the downtown bar Little Fleet, says, "You are literally two minutes away from getting on a boat or going to taste wine."
A bike will help you get around town – shops deliver rentals to your hotel – but it's also the best way to explore the area's secluded beaches, cherry orchards, and Riesling vineyards. "There aren't any Tour de France–level climbs," says Nick Wierzba, owner of Suttons Bay Bikes. "But these rides are going to cook your legs and give you some real challenges."
On the lake, dozens of kiteboarders ride the steady breeze above its surface. But Matt Myers, co-owner of Broneah Kiteboarding, also suggests an afternoon of standup paddleboarding: "If there's a good tailwind, just go with the waves."
Thirty miles northwest of the city, Sleeping Bear Dunes, a nationally protected shoreline, rises 150 feet above the lake. Outside the park, stop at Art's Tavern, a cozy pub where sunbaked locals down pitchers of craft beer and piles of fried smelt.
Back in town, Jonas, who moved to Traverse City from Brooklyn, has a fleet of food trucks in his parking lot that serve everything from Belgian waffles to whitefish tacos. Other dining options include the Franklin, a gastropub with a huge patio, and the more-refined Cooks' House, where local homeowner Mario Batali likes to eat comfortably in a pair of Crocs.
Stay: The Park Place Hotel is a city landmark within walking distance of the lake. [From $159 a night; park-place-hotel.com]
Do: Book a two-day kiteboarding camp at Broneah, all equipment included. [$600; broneah.com]
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