Northern Michigan Vacation: 2018

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We just wrapped up our final vacation of the summer and I pretty much hit rock bottom this afternoon. I’m never at my best post-vacation, but somehow today there was a perfect storm: the last-hurrah sadness, Kristin having left this morning for a wedding in North Dakota, feeling a little let down by friends, the start of kindergarten just two-weeks away, wishing that our kids were a little more grateful (despite the fact that I know it’s developmentally appropriate for them not to be), and a giant toy mess in the basement that has been setting me off for weeks each time I go down there to do laundry. I woke up with a to-do list in mind, determined to show this solo-parenting weekend who was boss, and ended up threatening to throw all of the toys away and basically sobbing in the basement while I cleaned after telling the kids that they should probably just find new families because I was done parenting. Given the circumstances, they did a remarkable job of caring for themselves for hours. At one point I came upstairs and found them all painting with watercolor at the art table (I have no idea who got a glass down from the cabinet for paint water), and they played with one another basically without incident all day long. When I’m at my worst as a mom, the thing that I’m most thankful for is that they really do love one another. I’d rather be the bad guy and have them band together than the other way around.

Fortunately my parents swooped in to save the day after I sent a few edge-of-the-cliff texts to my mom. They showed up with wine and food, my dad made mac & cheese for the kids while my mom played with them, and then they took us out for ice cream. My parents are heroes in all sorts of ways. With kids asleep I’m feeling far more clear-headed and able to reflect on our trip at this point in the evening.

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We started our trip with a couple of nights at Kristin’s parents’ cottage, a place that’s hard to describe in a way that does it justice. I have a tendency to refer to it as a Christian mobile-home resort, but that really under-sells it. I’d only been there once briefly before this visit, and now I feel like I get it in a way that I didn’t before. It feels like summer camp in a lot of ways. There are a lot of people and there isn’t a ton of private space, but there’s a lake and a “water park” (two pools, a splash pad, and a pretty awesome water slide), mini-golf, a ropes course, an ice cream parlor, multiple playgrounds, sport courts etc.

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It also happened to be “Christmas in August” while we were there, much to our surprise and confusion. There were Christmas decorations EVERYWHERE, including a huge lights and inflatables display at night that everyone in the place showed up to drive through in golf carts. Obviously the kids loved it. Staying there for the first two days of the trip allowed us to save a lot of money (we brought in groceries and ate all of our meals that way), so we’re incredibly thankful to K’s parents for letting us use their place.

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Our next destination was Mackinaw City, but first I was determined to stop at a weird little roadside attraction that I learned about via my favorite blogger. I was sure that it would be charming and wonderful and that the kids would love it. I think that the latter was at least marginally true.

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Apparently some guy who is obsessed with old John Wayne movies decided to build this mini old-west town just for fun. It’s in the middle of nowhere down a dirt road and completely empty.

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Honestly? It was a lot more weird and blah than I’d expected, but the kids seemed to enjoy themselves, and I suppose that was the point. The boys found those guns behind the bar and Kristin was terrified that they might be real (and they probably could have been –  like I said, this place was totally abandoned and full of graffiti and other weird creepy things).

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At some point a burly guy on a camo ATV pulled up and started looking around (sans kids) and we decided that was our cue to move along.

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The next stop was the best one of the trip: Mackinaw Mill Creek, where we stayed in a cabin for the second year in a row. I love this place so very much. Sure, as camping goes it’s a little bit crowded, but the cabin sites make you feel like you have plenty of space to yourself by virtue of the trees that line each side.

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This year we decided to pay extra for a cabin with a lake view, and I’m certain we’ll never do it any other way. Lake Huron was steps from our campfire; it was perfection.

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The kids always love the playgrounds here, and I love the vintage playground equipment that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

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I had far more success building a campfire this year (twice, actually) thanks to my dad’s suggestion to pick up shims at the hardware store to use as kindling. I’m pretty sure that last year I just tried to use paper and logs, which did not make for a very successful fire. We crushed it this year.

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The kids shared popcorn with a chipmunk they named Chippy while Kristin picked up pizza, and we finished the night with s’mores, of course. After putting the kids to bed, Kristin and I walked back out to enjoy the fire and noticed the incredibly clear sky (there’s very little light pollution that far north). I wondered if the perseids would still be visible a few days after they were supposed to peak, so we walked out by the water and craned our necks to watch one shooting star after another. I’d never seen one before (at least as I recall) and it was incredible. I thought about waking the kids, but knew we’d never get them back down again. Maybe next year if we time it right.

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The next morning we took the 9:00 ferry to Mackinac Island. We always try to catch the ones that go under the bridge because it’s so much more exciting. The Mackinac Bridge actually goes from Mackinaw City in the lower peninsula to St. Ignace in the upper peninsula. There’s no bridge to Mackinac Island because there aren’t any cars there, hence the ferry. Mackinac Island is a 3.8 square mile island located in Lake Huron. Apparently it became a popular tourist destination in the late 19th century, and it remains so largely due to the history and architecture and the novelty that there are no motorized vehicles there: just bikes and horses. It’s touristy but gorgeous, and even more beautiful when you get off of the main strip and head to the back side of the island.

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Mom gets in the photo and of course someone is picking their nose

Last year we biked the entire perimeter, but never went uphill to the center of the island where the historic Grand Hotel is located. This year I wanted to check it out, so after grabbing pancakes in the very same booth as last year, we headed that way.

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The Grand Hotel opened in 1887 and has the world’s longest porch. It costs a small fortune to stay there, and $10 just to walk inside, but I was curious.

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It was worth doing once, but I wouldn’t call it a highlight of the trip. We considered having a cocktail on the porch or in the Cuppola bar at the very top with 360-degree views of the island, but the cocktails cost as much as our family admission to the building, so we passed. Fun fact: after having camp-like amenities at K’s parents’ place, the kids were accustomed to a different style of facilities. When I took Jude to the bathroom at The Grand, full of fancy-folks, Jude loudly yelled from his stall, “Mama D, is this a poop bathroom?” We fit right in.

One of my main motivations for visiting was simply to get bike directions to a different Grand-affiliated destination on the island: Woods. That alone made it worth the visit.

We heard about Woods from Enjoying the Small Things, and Jonah would be quick to tell you that it was his favorite stop of our entire vacation. It’s a little Bavarian tavern hidden in the woods in the middle of the island. There were only a handful of other people there.

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It’s really either a dinner spot or a quirky golf-game detour with a limited lunch menu, but it was perfect for us. The dining room was incredible.

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But the bar was a lot less fancy, despite the very well-dressed (and incredibly patient) staff. There were self-serve hotdogs and popcorn, a few fancier lunch offerings (K and I had rosé and a salad), but the best part was the old-timey duckpin bowling lane.

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The kids seemed to enjoy setting up the pins and retrieving the balls even more than bowling, and they hung out there for probably an hour (playing ball and pin crew to other guests from time to time).

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The walls were lined with dog show ribbons, because apparently the owners of The Grand Hotel have had some very impressive show dogs over the years. Fun fact: Woods is adjacent to a huge Tudor mansion, and apparently the family that bought it in 1915 built the house that is now Woods as a playhouse for their children. Let that sink in for a moment.

We wrapped up the day with ice cream and fudge, because you can’t visit Mackinac Island and skip either one, and some biking along the perimeter of the island, stopping periodically to enjoy the rocks and the coastline.

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We finally stopped for dinner at Pink Pony a little too late, when the kids had reached the point of exhaustion that makes it tough to keep it together in a restaurant. It made for a tense beginning to the meal, but the tunes and the food were good and by the end of dinner we were all in good spirits again.

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We ferried it back to the mainland in time for a final campfire and s’mores, probably breaking a record for quantity of sweets consumed in a single day.

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The next morning, Jude woke up early and upon hearing the birds outside, yelled, “I’m coming, seagulls!” He ran out the door and I followed him, as he attempted to feed them (rocks) and asked me to catch one for him. I love his quirky little spirit.

We checked out and drove to Glen Arbor, a town we’d heard good things about and wanted to check out. Neither of us realized that we’d actually been through before until we got there: it’s right at the base of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and we got lost in Glen Arbor looking for the entrance last year. It had lots of cute shops and a good vibe, and we stayed in a town called Empire where the little family-owned hotel somehow mixed up our reservation and put us in a room with only a king. There weren’t any other options available, so we made it work. Seeing the kids cuddle in the morning made it worth the squish.

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We visited Sleeping Bear Dunes twice: once at night to try to catch the sunset (it was a dud) and again the next day when there would be more light and more time. We did the climb (and subsequent run down)…

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…and also the scenic drive to the top, which is really my favorite part. I swear you can see the curve of the earth from up there.

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Watching the kids on the steep incline scares Kristin half to death, but for some reason I love watching them exist there. It’s amazing how little it takes to make them happy in that natural environment.

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When they’re in a place like this, somehow the sand and the trees and the sticks that they find are entertainment enough. They just want to dig and feel sand slip between their fingers, imagine pirate ships out of banks of trees and brush, and take turns running down inclines and back up again. It brings me so much joy to watch them in that state of pure happiness without toys or electronics.

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The trip had plenty of challenges and more whining than I remember from last year, but the moments of beauty were all well worth the struggle. We can’t wait to do it again next year.

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