At first glance, Traverse City seems like just another Lake Michigan beach town.
It's a truly gorgeous one, for sure. There's sand as far as the eye can see, wrapped around two vast bays. Everybody's playing beach volleyball, paddling kayaks or swimming in water tinted three shades of blue.
The view gets even better beyond the beach, on streets thick with craft-beer taprooms, wineries, epicurean markets and so many fine restaurants that Traverse City now is considered a top foodie town.
On a summer day in Holland, Mich., all roads lead to the beach.
When we were there one June, people streamed toward this broad swath of sand until the sun fell low on the horizon, making the fire-engine-red harbor beacon glow like an ember. They ate ice cream, they strolled on the breakwall, they took a last dip in Lake Michigan.
But at 10 p.m. sharp, a police cruiser started flashing its red lights to shepherd everyone out of the park.
The more I travel through the beach towns of west Michigan, the more I want to see.
So I've slowed down and started touring by the seat of my pants on a bicycle.
Michigan makes that easy with 2,385 miles of rail trails, more than any other state. You can catch a trail all along the Lake Michigan shore, from Traverse City to South Haven.
One Great Lake east of Superior, theres another North Shore.
It doesnt have any craggy points or sheer palisades, and there are no agates waiting to be found. It has no waterfalls, and not a scrap of basalt; in fact, theres nothing volcanic about it.
But this north shore, on the leeward side of Lake Michigan, has something Minnesota's beautiful North Shore on Lake Superior doesnt have: Sand, lots and lots of sand.
Its funny that some people in the Upper Midwest spend their summer vacations on the beaches of Cancun or Cape Cod, because the best beaches in the world are in their own back yard.
Lake Michigan is Americas freshwater Riviera, a nearly unending strand of sand that looks like Florida without the high-rise condos. Its clean, blue and pleasantly cool, with water temperatures in the 60s, and in most places it looks just like the ocean.
Add in candy-striped lighthouses and even more ice-cream stands, and youve got the makings of a great beach holiday a cheap one, too, if you're on a budget.
In Traverse City, spring is when you get to do all the things you planned in summer before you got seduced away by sand and surf.
I'd seen the enticing shops, theaters and tasting rooms on other visits and planned to check them out some time.''
Some time arrived Mother's Day weekend, when Traverse City was awash in color. So many pear trees were flowering downtown that the streets look frosted, and magnolia blooms were as big as popcorn balls.
After a long winter, the sight of cherry blossoms is tonic for the soul.
In northern Michigan, cherries love the gravelly soil of the Old Mission Peninsula and so do tourists.
This area has a friendly rivalry with Wisconsin's Door Peninsula, also warmed by the waters of Lake Michigan and known for cherries and vineyards.
No summer vacation is more fun than a Circle Tour of one of the Great Lakes and nothing is more of a pain than planning one.
Fans of sand and sun love Lake Michigan, which is lined by state and city parks with gorgeous stretches of sand and dunes. You cant buy a better beach vacation at any price, but you have to plan ahead.
Planning is tricky because you pass through four states, 30 state parks and two big metropolitan areas, each of which floods beaches with hordes of sun-worshippers on weekends.
Not many parents would think that a long road trip would be a perfect vacation to take with young children.
But the shores of Lake Michigan is one big sandbox, and on a drive along its shores, you'll hit one big playground after another.
On the east side, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is spectacular, a Disneyland of sand. But the lake also is lined with lighthouses, fudge shops, fur-trade forts and endless beaches.