Northern Michigan Vacation – 2019

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Sleeping Bear Dunes at sunset. My favorite place.

It really hasn’t been that long since we returned from our road trip up north, but it feels like an eternity of juggling work and kids and school year prep has passed, so trying to get back there in my head to write about it is a challenge.

We thought about changing things up this year (without any specific locations in mind) but the kids love our summer tradition so much that they wouldn’t have it. Jude in particular talks about the cabins and Mackinac Island all year long. They love this trip.

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We started with a night at Sandy Pines where Kristin’s parents have a place. It saves us a little bit of money and allows us to extend the trip by a day or two. The kids love the pool (and the golf cart), but this year the highlight for me was that Jonah conquered his fear of the ropes course. Last year he wanted to try it, got strapped in and ready, but decided to head right back down again when fear took over. But this year he was ready. He didn’t even hesitate as he stepped out onto those ropes. My proudest moment was when he announced, “This is the one I’m most afraid of,” and conquered it anyway. He struggles to find courage sometimes; he worries about what could happen, maybe worries about failure and often refuses to try, but this year he did it and I was so proud of him.

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This post is in no way sponsored by Great Wolf or Dunkin’ Donuts; this is just what our anniversary morning looked like in real life.

Our next stop was Great Wolf Lodge, which we skipped last year. Kristin finds it to be completely overwhelming; sensory overload in every possible way, but the kids love it and I love that it caters to them so well. Our stay coincided with our anniversary this year, which we laughed about quite a bit, but to be honest there was something wonderful about reflecting on our life together and what magic has occurred since our wedding. The life we have now is everything I could have wished for.

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On our anniversary evening we did manage to escape for a non-hotel dinner in Traverse City, and the sunset at what might be my favorite place on earth: Sleeping Bear Dunes. I wanted this so badly and while we barely made it in time, we made it.

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We stayed until it was nearly dark, and then drove back to the lodge and put the kids to bed. The next day we checked out and headed further north to Mackinaw City. On the way we stopped at a nondescript little “natural area” to look for Petoskey stones after a friend gave us a tip that it was the place to find them. We weren’t there more than 40 minutes or so, and the kids mostly wanted to skip stones rather than search, but we managed to find three small ones and I was thrilled with that haul.

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Searching for Petoskey stones and skipping the flat ones

Our cabin site this year wasn’t as magical as it was last year (less privacy, more run-ins with neighbors that we’d rather avoid) but the kids didn’t seem to mind. My very favorite moment was laying head to head with Jonah on the picnic table bench late at night, watching shooting stars together. It was absolutely magical to share that with him (he’d never seen one, but I’d been lucky enough to see them with K in that spot the previous year). The stars are incredible that far north and it was a perfect moment.

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Camp table still life with donuts, before a sneaky seagull made off with the one on the far right

My second favorite thing: cooking on the camp stove. In past years we’ve always been kind of stumped by the mini-fridge-and-microwave kitchen, but this year we came prepared with a camp stove and cooked simple camp food and loved every minute of it. Just like earlier this summer, my favorite thing is making donuts and we improved upon them this time (powdered sugar and cinnamon instead of raw sugar, which doesn’t really stick). To be honest I prefer them a little less sweet, but four out of five of us raved about the powdered sugar.

Also this year, my sister sent us some fun camp packages just before we left: a kit to make solar images (which we attempted during the breakfast above, hence the bits of nature scattered about) and some sort of magic powder that turns your campfire rainbow. The kids decided that it looks like unicorn hair. DO THIS. Trust me. If you’re going camping, buy these for your kids. (Not a sponsored link because I don’t get enough readers to do that, so this is just a tip).

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The whole reason we go to Mackinaw City is to go to Mackinac Island. We go just for the day, taking the earliest ferry that feels reasonable for kids who were up very late the night before watching a rainbow campfire and shooting stars, and always aiming for the one that goes under the bridge. We sit on top even though it’s always cold because it’s a thrill to see the bridge from that vantage point.

We love seeing the Round Island Lighthouse as we approach Mackinac, and when the ferry docks we always head for pancakes first. Honestly, the food isn’t that impressive but it’s become a thing that we do. Next stop: bike the island.

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The blue in this picture is basically straight out of the camera. I did not change the saturation at all, but I hate how fake it looks so I feel the need to explain. That’s just how blue it was.

This year both Jude and Vivienne learned how to ride a two-wheeler just a couple of weeks before our trip. Initially we told them both that they would still have to ride in the trailer this year because they likely weren’t ready to bike all eight miles around the island. We should have known that Vivi would meet that challenge with determination. She insisted on bringing her bike, and told us that she could do it. After watching their bike skills for a couple of weeks we made the last minute call that Vivi could bike but Jude still needed to trailer. It worked out beautifully, and she nailed it. 

The one thing we’d told her we knew she couldn’t do was bike up the hills to Woods. We talked about parking her bike and letting her ride in the trailer with Jude or even getting a carriage, but she was not backing down. Guys, she did it. It’s a grueling ride that requires a lot of walking up hills once you’re too exhausted to pedal any longer, and she fell at least twice (once right near The Grand Hotel, which prompted an employee to call a medic to leave us with bandaids and an ice pack, all of which she refused). But she got there, and it was so impressive.

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All along the ride we made the usual stops to check out the water and let the kids scramble along the rocks. They climbed to the top of this big one in no time, despite all having flip-flops on.

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We always stop at the Mackinac Island Public School playground, which is at the tail end of our whole-island bike trip. According to Wikipedia, the school serves the entire island, which only amounts to around 80 students total between pre-K and 12th grade. It has a lovely playground though, with an incredible view.

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Also worth noting, Viv has been queen of the monkey bars all summer long. She has palms covered in blister scars because she just won’t stop. She’s inspired both brothers to love this pastime too, and I love watching them conquer playground after playground.

We talk sometimes about how once you’ve done Mackinac Island you’ve kind of done it. There isn’t a whole lot more to see and do, and Kristin wondered aloud on this trip why we even come here. It’s somewhat easy to ask that question when you’re on the crowded main strip full of tacky t-shirt shops, but once we round the corner on our bikes I know why we come. It’s like nowhere else on earth, and the beauty here is stunning.

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We’ve talked about doing something new next year once the twins are out of full-time private preschool and we’ll have more of a budget cushion, but this year I realized that I’m not sure any of the other things we could pay more to do can really top the love that I have for northern Michigan. The jury is still out on next summer, so I’ll let you know once we make a call on that.

School starts on Tuesday, one more day of summer to go, and all three are SO EXCITED to go back which is wonderful to see. They are literally counting down. I feel a whole lot more relaxed about the end of summer this year than I did last year. I’m doing my best to gear up for all of the things that I love about these next couple of months, but right now I’m enjoying the sound of summer insects while the kids sleep.

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