Trip Dispatch: Michigan's Traverse City matures into a national golf vacation destination

Thanks to its many multi-course golf resorts and a flourishing food & beverage scene, Traverse City is now one of America's most sought-after summer getaways.
The scenic 13th is one of several drop-shot par 3s on Sundance at A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort.

ACME, Michigan — Having played golf in Traverse City for nearly 25 years, I always thought of myself as a local expert. My latest visit in July proved otherwise.

Turns out, this native Michigander-turned-Californian has been playing too much golf and missing out on the many other reasons why the region has become such a popular summer vacation for so many people. I experienced for the first time the dining downtown and within the Village at the Grand Traverse Commons (I ate at the Red Spire Brunch House twice!), the wine tasting and beaches along the Old Mission Peninsula and the touring of local distilleries.

It's fair to say that Traverse City is finally all grown up, making the impressive jump from a regional drive-in destination to a coveted national one. Traverse City's Cherry Capital Airport just set a record in June for travelers, and new non-stop flights from Philadelphia and Boston are starting up. The golf and beaches were always world class. Now the restaurants and other off-courses attractions have taken things next level.

In the past, I was still living well at area golf resorts such as Grand Traverse Resort, Crystal Mountain and A-Ga-Ming, but that's still a pretty narrow perspective on things. There is more to life than birdies and bogeys.

Day 1: The Old Mission Peninsula

Fresh off a cross-country, red-eye flight from California, I wasn't about to tee it up, so I went with the next best thing - drinking wine. The Old Mission Peninsula is grape central thanks to the waters of the Grand Traverse Bay on either side. The peninsula's microclimate feeds a longer growing season, producing fruit-forward Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Franc and other variations. The Old Mission and nearby Leelanau peninsulas are home to 41 wineries, 27 of which have joined together to form the Traverse Wine Coast, a marketing consortium to raise the profile of the region.

When I asked Sherri Campbell Fenton, the managing owner of Black Star Farms and the president of the Traverse Wine Coast, how she would convince my snobby wine-loving California friends to drink Michigan wines, she said simply: "Try something new. Our wines are not as high in alcohol content. California wines, I can taste the alcohol. It's that much higher."

Black Star Farms is the only winery with tasting rooms on both peninsulas. My next stop delivered better views of the bay and fresh air on the elevated deck of Brys Estate Vineyard & Winery. The pandemic has changed protocols at many restaurants and wineries for the better. At Brys, reservations are now required, transforming what used to be a frenzied effort to get a table into a peaceful escape of sipping wines from a tree-like serving tray and snacking on a charcuterie board.

To fight off jet lag, I cooled off with a dip in the lake near the Mission Point Lighthouse. It was warm and refreshing and so much more enjoyable than the frigid Pacific Ocean. The beaches at the tip of the peninsula are less crowded than those closer to the city. Savvy locals come this way to enjoy solitude from the invading tourists like me.

Oops, have I let the secret out?

The opening day journey ended with a fine filet, salad and creme brulee at the elegant Boathouse Restaurant on the shores of Bowers Harbor. If I hadn't been so tired, I'd have stopped for a night cap at the Jolly Pumpkin, one of many legendary local breweries. Next time.

Day 2-3: Tale of two fine days at Grand Traverse Resort

Grand Traverse Resort & Spa, the 54-hole retreat just north of town in Acme, was the site of my first golf trip what feels like a lifetime ago. I was a poor, 20-something-year-old newspaper sportswriter whose awesome uncle Al was kind enough to foot the bill to play The Bear. A thousand rounds in my career later, the Jack Nicklaus design is as fearsome and intimidating as ever. I lost five balls, and the father-son duo I joined didn't fare much better. A whiskey tasting at Mammoth Distilling that afternoon and dinner at a downtown favorite, Amical, helped me gain some perspective. Shooting a billion on The Bear is a right of passage in northern Michigan more than it is an indictment of anybody's game.

The following day ranks among my all-time favorites in northern Michigan: An entertaining and engaging round with an old friend on the very enjoyable Wolverine by Gary Player, lunch in the clubhouse, a relaxing massage treatment at the Spa Grand Traverse to put my body back together and the climax, dinner at Aerie Restaurant & Lounge on the 16th floor of the tower. I'm not sure what was better, the food or the views of the bay. Every moment lived up to high expectations. I'd call this the ideal Grand Traverse day.

Day 4-5: Imbibing in Benzie County

Pulling into Crystal Mountain 45 minutes south of Traverse City, I barely recognized the place. Gone was the open front lawn, replaced by a luxurious new wing of the Inn at The Mountain where I stayed and extravagant water feature and picnic area called Barr Park.

Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville has always been a favorite of my family for its outdoor splash park, climbing wall, summer chairlift rides up the mountain, racing back down again on the Crystal Coaster Alpine Slide and the friendly vibe. Its two courses, Mountain Ridge and Betsie Valley, are equally welcoming. Betsie Valley is wrapping up a renovation to open up a few claustrophobic hole corridors. It will improve the fun factor and sight lines. Mountain Ridge, site of the Michigan Women's Open, doesn't get the credit it deserves as the perfect mix of challenging and scenic "up north" golf.

My spacious second-floor, one-bedroom condo was cute and cozy with a full kitchen, a two-sided fireplace that faces both the living room and bedroom, deck, a bathroom with a heated floor and heated towel rack and a cool kid's nook home to a bed and TV hidden behind a curtain. With multiple dining options, the best ski hill in Michigan and a spa rated 7th among the Spas of America Top 100 of 2020, Crystal Mountain makes a strong case as the state's most complete four-season playground.

Thompsonville, Michigan
Thompsonville, Michigan

Crystal Mountain's lone weakness back when I lived in Michigan - nearby attractions - has been solved as Benzie County has turned to the business of booze to liven the mood. The emergence of Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville and St. Ambrose Cellars in Beulah provides year-round entertainment, especially for the 21-and-up crowd. Both are set in beautiful pastoral settings with barns for events, lawn games like cornhole and disc golf and live music.

St. Ambrose Cellars serves tasting flights of cider, wine, beer and mead (beer from honey), all made from locally sourced ingredients. Don't hate on the mead until you've tried it. You can even add edible glitter! It's definitely day-drinking material.

Iron Fish will release its first run of house-blended whiskey after Labor Day. It already bottles a mean Salted Maple Double-Barreled Old Fashioned that might eventually be served from a golf beverage cart near you. It's scheduled to debut at Arcadia Bluffs and Grand Traverse Resort soon. Iron Fish's wood-fired pizza sets the experience apart from St. Ambrose Cellars until its kitchen gets up and running.

Day 6-7: A New Era at A-Ga-Ming

One of the weird quirks of my job is seeing a new course in its infancy and then never again. Ideally, it matures properly, like the Sundance Course at A-Ga-Ming Golf Resort has since I attended the 2005 grand opening. As a resort, A-Ga-Ming in Kewadin has steadily and quietly grown into one of the world's largest golf resorts, buying up two nearby course competitors in recent years to expand to 72 holes.

Although Sundance doesn't suit my game - it's too heavily bunkered - this Jerry Mathews design is no doubt one of the region's must plays and a stirring test of golf. Its wispy grasses that blow in the breeze are penal, yet thin enough to find the ball and hit a recovery shot. The rolling hills are perfectly suited for elevated tee shots and far-flung vistas. Its collection of par 3s rivals any public course in the state.

I'd actually give the nod for the resort's best course, however, to Antrim Dells, a hilly 6,665-yard hidden gem acquired by A-Ga-Ming in recent years. It's roughly 10 miles north of the resort's condos, cut from a ridge overlooking Grand Traverse Bay in Ellsworth. The routing is deceptively difficult with a few tight holes, water hazards and a couple titled fairways that are hard to hold. Since 2017, Owner-General Manager Dave Hill has spearheaded the clearing of 400 trees and heavy underbrush to improve conditioning and playability. It's never looked better and will continue to evolve.

The decks of the Sunset Bar & Grill at Antrim Dells and the Torch Course (overlooking Torch Lake) provide two of the best views in all of the Midwest for dining or drinks. They're special 19th holes.

With a local brew in hand, and the sun slowly slipping away, I could only laugh watching from the Torch deck as golfer after golfer missed the green on a difficult par 3. Playing golf is hard. No wonder drinks are mandatory on most buddies trips.

After a round one day, I met owner Chad Munger at his Mammoth Distilling warehouse on the opposite side of Torch Lake. He hopes to eventually turn the facility into a tour-and-tasting operation. He's already expanded to five different tasting rooms throughout the state and has bigger plans brewing.

More golf. More drinks. More fun. Sounds like the perfect summer golf vacation in Traverse City to me.

6 Min Read
June 2, 2020
Midwest golfers might have a short season, but thanks to golf-rich states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota, they've got plenty of places for an easy getaway away.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Trip Dispatch: Michigan's Traverse City matures into a national golf vacation destination