Since Harbor Springs, Mich., is a tale of two downhill ski areas — Boyne Highlands and Nub's Nob — winter traveling with two teenagers in this patch of the northern Lower Peninsula can be the best of times and the best of times for skiing families.
Boyne Highlands has a skiable area of 435 acres (big for the Midwest) and some of the longest runs in the region of more than a mile. Just across Pleasantview Road and only about a mile from Boyne is Nub's Nob, another ski resort that is a tad easier on the wallet and has a highly-rated terrain park with 37 features including an impressive half-pipe and some tough bumps.
Located right between the two resorts, our rented Trout Creek Resort Condominium was so close to Nub's Nob we could have walked there, but Nub's runs a shuttle bus right into Trout Creek, which, by the way, is more like a wooded residential neighborhood of townhouses than typical condos. Cozy units have fireplaces and varied floorplans, and there are some nice included community amenities for wintertime such as snowshoes that can be checked out for use on a network of trails, a heated outdoor pool with a steaming hot tub, plus a sauna and indoor pool.
This special part of Michigan is nestled along Little Traverse Bay, where the vibe is genuinely Up North, yet it still is close enough to shops and restaurants in Harbor Springs and Petoskey. The ski resorts are less than an hour south of the Mackinac Bridge and both are in the glide zone of lake-effect snows from several directions. Despite the northern latitude, however, the proximity of the Great Lakes usually keeps winter temperatures moderated. On a recent visit during a brutal cold-snap, it was more than 10 degrees warmer in Petoskey than it was in our Chicago suburb.
Seeing the snow is believing, said Peter Fitzsimons, of Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau. He pushed for a 24-hour streaming webcam years ago outside a Boyne Highlands ski lift as proof snow is to this area what slush is to Chicago.
"When people can actually see the snow, they know the conditions are good," Fitzsimons said.
During our second day on the slopes, I almost had to talk our youngest kid down from a ledge when he insisted on blasting over Shaun White-worthy jumps at Nub's Nob. He had plenty of courage, for sure, but not much safety training.
My wife, Ann, who wouldn't even want to see the good half, was happily unaware and cross-country skiing on Boyne Highland's about 22 miles of groomed trails. Clearly, Ernest Hemingway's exhortation to exemplify "grace under pressure" was in the boy's head, but back to the author (and his strong ties to this area).
Petoskey's near-perfect beaches and picturesque coves have drawn summer tourists since the late 1800s, when the railroads first arrived and made it easier for Midwestern families, many of them "prominent," to establish vacation homes in the area. Close to Petoskey is Walloon Lake, where Hemingway's family spent summers, and where the family home still is occupied by an elderly family relative.
Hemingway married his first wife in nearby Horton's Bay and set some of his strongest early fiction in the area, including his "Nick Adams Stories," which chronicled youthful fishing adventures and themes involving his physician father, impoverished Native Americans and adjustment to civilian life after jarring World War I battlefield experiences.
Reminders of Hemingway in Petoskey include a newly-commissioned downtown statue and historic markers outside a boarding house where he lived and wrote as a young man. There's also the Carnegie Library building around the corner, where he studied.
Nearby is the City Park Grill, built under another name in 1875, with its 32-foot mahogany bar. Although Hemingway reportedly drank and wrote at the second seat from the end of the impressive bar, a visit to the restaurant isn't a musty trudge through history. We had a sophisticated dinner that featured smoked pork chops, parmesan herb whitefish and great live music.
Upscale shopping and restaurants, many with farm-to-table options and products are all over this area, and many are not as busy during the winter months. We especially enjoyed another cozy landmark, The New York Restaurant, overlooking the picturesque waterfront and downtown in Harbor Springs.
Another spot for foodies to visit near Harbor Springs is Pond Hill Farm, which sells locally-produced items such as the basil marinara sauce and blueberry preserves. Pond Hill has a restaurant with wines and beers made on-site and even trails for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and fat-tire bikes.
For cross-country ski families, there are plenty of options, not only at the ski resorts but also at public areas such as Offield Family Nature Preserve, which has 4 miles of trails on 390 acres. Offield exemplifies the importance The Little Traverse Conservancy has had on this part of Michigan. Since it was founded in the 1970s to preserve the natural character of the area, the Conservancy has protected and impressive 52,000 acres on more than 150 sites.
Another preserve is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, located on an isolated promontory near Mackinaw City. Surrounded by dark waters and woods, its views of the Milky Way are astonishing. The park also has informative programs, a network of trails and an event center and observatory.
Unlike some of life's pleasures, admission and the views are free.