Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Day Three: The Sleeping Bear Dunes (Pt. 1)

The legend goes like this . . .

. . . A forest fire on the western shore of Lake Michigan drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake for shelter. After miles and miles of swimming, the mother bear reached the other side but the two cubs did not. She waited and waited for them until the Great Spirit, impressed by her love and determination, created two islands in the cubs' place. North and South Manitou Islands. Eventually, winds buried the mother bear under the sands where she still waits today.

I'm not really sure what I was expecting of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. It's not like I wasn't expecting it to be cool. Kelli discovered that the village of Empire, where it is located, is pushing to have the Dunes established as the 8th World Wonder. In 2011, ABC's Good Morning America named the Sleeping Bear Dunes the "Most Beautiful Place in America." So we knew this place was going to be cool. But for some reason, the experience far surpassed any expectations I had. That's just how awesome this place was. It left us speechless. It was Kelli's favorite part of the trip. It may have been mine too. (Even though we did visit a number of cool breweries . . .)

Part of our speechlessness was because we were exhausted from carrying two children up this . . .

The "Dune Climb" is over 200 feet high. Pictures, cannot do this climb justice. In places, it is incredibly steep. The worst part is, once you reach the top (of the picture above, where the sand meets the sky), you are not done. You have another daunting climb to make! After caving in on biking 'round Mackinac, we were determined to climb to the top!

Originally we had planned to shop and hang out on the beach in Traverse City on Day 3 and visit the Dunes on Day 4. But the weather forecast changed our minds. Bright, clear skies and cooler temperatures were on schedule for Day 3 and clear skies and HOT temperatures were on schedule for Day 4 so we decided to flip our plans. Traverse City, where we were staying for the next two nights, is located about 2 hours south of Mackinaw City but the village of Empire is located about 30 miles west of Traverse City. So we had over 2 1/2 hours on the road early Wednesday morning but the kids were pros in the car by now. 2 1/2 hours was nothing! Charly watched another movie while Hayes chilled.

It was a good thing we switched our plans and visited the Sleeping Bear Dunes when we did. The sand was hot enough at 10:30 in the morning when the temperature was still cool. The kids were both a little apprehensive at first. The dune in front of them was intimidating, even to Kelli and I! We took lots of breaks and carried them most of the way. Charly could handle the climb for a while but the sand is so soft and with each step you take, your foot kind of sinks deep into the sand. It's exhausting pulling your feet out over and over and over. It was a weird feeling for her. Hayes, would try to climb, but get turned around and then would just plop himself down in the sand and play.

You can see in the pictures above, that a second hill is starting to creep into the setting. Once we finally reached the top of what we originally thought was the top, this second hill still seemed miles away! But we were determined . . . And we weren't the only ones taking lots of breaks. We weren't in a hurry. We had nowhere else to go!

We were stopped by tons of climbers on the way to the top, amazed that we had two children in tow. One woman in her sixties told Kelli she inspired her to complete the climb. She was going to turn back halfway up the initial climb, but instead, saw Kelli and wanted to keep climbing with her family. "If you can do it carrying a child, I can do it!" Our philosophy was, "When will we be back to do it again?"

After an hour or so we finally reached the top. Back toward the parking lot, was a beautiful view of the park and Glen Lake. Behind us, only visible from the top of the hill, was an incredible view of Lake Michigan in the distance. Kelli and I sat down on some stones and didn't want to move for a long time. Charly and Hayes found sticks and began digging in the sand. They were content too.

What took over an hour to climb, took maybe ten minutes to descend. Hayes insisted on being carried but Charly liked running down the dune. We saw kids diving and rolling. One boy wanted to roll down the entire hill, but was afraid he would hit us, so he waited. The impressive views of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake soon disappeared and the parking lot came back into focus. We were exhausted, but fulfilled.

It felt weird to be on solid ground. We visited a gift shop and purchased a couple books for keepsakes. The temperature was rising quickly so we decided a trip to the beach was what we needed to cool down. Plus, Charly was ready to build some sandcastles!

Friday, August 2, 2013

Day Two: Mackinac Island (Pt. 2)

Within minutes of turning in the bicycles, we regretted not bringing our strollers over on the ferry. Hayes needed to be carried therefore Charly insisted on being carried.  We had heard the island could be easily explored by foot, but we wondered if that meant carrying a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old the entire time!

Charly was a little frustrated and confused as to why we couldn't rent a bike for her too. She is a pro on her tricycle at home but we haven't attempted a bike with training wheels yet. However to her, a bike is a bike, her tricycle included. So she pointed out every single little kid on a small bike the whole time. "See!" she'd say. "I told you they have little bikes. I want one!"

Mackinac's main strip downtown was not more than 3-4 blocks long. Most of the shops were either souvenir shops or fudge shops. The entire island smells of fudge. It is quaint and eclectic and transports you to a time that blends past and present. There are a number of inns on the main strip and restaurants too, but most of the impressive inns were located away from downtown. The Grand Hotel, being one example. And many of the best restaurants on the island are joined with some of the inns or located off the main strip.

One particular restaurant we had read rave reviews for was The Chuckwagon. Out of 44 restaurants on the island, Trip Advisor ranked The Chuckwagon as the second best, behind a popular fudge shop. The reviews sounded legit and we wanted to give it a try. The one problem . . .

The Chuckwagon is nothing more than a hole-in-wall. Quite literally. Inside are four tables for two, a bar that overlooks the grill and stove top seating 8-12 patrons, and two booths in the back for 4-6 people. In all, the tiny burger joint seats maybe 30-40 people at a time. Lines build up quickly. Luckily, when we were ready to eat, a booth in the back opened up and there really was no line. It would have been worth the wait regardless! I got a bleu cheeseburger and Kelli got a cherry chicken salad sandwich. They were both awesome! I don't know if I'll eat cheeseburgers again without a pretzel bun. By the time we were finished eating and resting, the line outside the place was long. Like I said, we lucked out.

Another place we wanted to visit was J.L. Beanery, a small coffee shop on the water, another popular, well-reviewed spot on the island. I bought a Michigan-cherry flavored coffee and was hoping to score a souvenir cup or some beans but found none. Just a friendly shop owner that tried chatting up Hayes. The coffee was good and the atmosphere was, well, "Mackinac." But that's a good thing. We hung out near the racers and boats and chatted briefly with a couple on vacation. They were amazed that we were surviving with two small children! They have a grand-daughter Charly's age and their daughter had wanted to travel with them but they advised against it because they didn't really think Mackinac Island was a place for small children. They told us they saw us get off the ferry and laughed. Then assured us that we weren't the only crazy ones with small children on the island.

The other must-see was The Grand Hotel. This hotel opened in the late 1800's and boasts 385 rooms with no two being similar. It has been featured in many movies and has a strict dress code. A tour costs $20 and we didn't think the kids would be interested. An average nightly stay costs around $300 although deals can be found much cheaper. It was quite massive with a really cool courtyard too.

The Grand Hotel was a jaunt from the downtown strip and since Kelli and I had to carry both Charly and Hayes, we were exhausted by the time we returned. The view from the boardwalk was awesome though. We caught a better view of the Round Island Lighthouse, we got to see the Star Line Ferry bring people back to Mackinaw City with it's "tail" of spray behind it, we got to watch thousands of sailboat racers celebrate as results of the "Race to the Mackinac" were read in the lawn of the Grand Hotel, we had some strangers snap a family photo of us, and we discovered that Mackinac Island has a public school!

We learned later that Mackinac Island is home to around 430 people year round. During the summer months, ideal for tourism, the island becomes home to many more obviously, as seasonal business employees live on the island. We were a little amazed at how large the school is for a community with a population of 430 people.

We decided to call it a day after 6 hours on the island. We boarded the ferry, somehow avoided spray again from the waves despite nearly the entire rest of the passengers getting drenched, and saw the Round Island Lighthouse up close.

We had one more lighthouse we wanted to see while we were in Mackinaw City and that was the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse. This lighthouse was built in 1892 and it's location marks the spot where Lake Michigan joins Lake Huron. The lighthouse is almost the first thing you see as you cross The Mighty Mack and drive into Mackinaw City. It is located on a rocky beach just below the bridge.

It was cold and windy but we could not deprive Charly and Hayes of an opportunity to toss some pretty amazing rocks into some aqua-blue blue water! So we sat back and let the kids throw . . . It tuckered them out and they went to bed that much easier, our first full day in the books. They needed their rest for what laid in store the next day.