Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula

Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula

Bobby Fisher
Bobby Fisher

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ernest Hemingway, Otto Preminger, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Jim Harrison have all found inspiration and amusement in the Upper Peninsula, but most Americans couldn't locate it if you handed them a map. That's why the Keweenaw (an Ojibwa Indian word meaning "place of the crossing"), the northern tip of the U.P., is such a great discovery. The juxtaposition of the country's largest lake and ancient rock has created a rare environment where orchids flourish, waterfalls tumble, and metals push forth from the ground. Here visitors can enjoy spectacular mountain drives, long sandy beaches, quiet lakes, Paul Bunyan-sized trees, picturesque harbor towns—and no crowds.

where to stay

Lake Breeze Hwy. M-26, Eagle Harbor; 906/289-4514; doubles $69-$74. Built as a warehouse in the 1850's, this summer resort is still owned by the original family, the Raleys. It's so close to Lake Superior that sitting in the downstairs lounge, playing cards or watching loons, you almost feel as though you're on a ship. At night, a nearby lighthouse shoots beacons past the windows. Many guests have been coming for years, but even on your first night, Lake Breeze feels like a place you've relished since childhood. The comfortable rooms are simply decorated with pickled-pine paneling and bright fabrics. Eagle Harbor is a walkable town with a beach, restaurants, and shops.

Laurium Manor Inn 320 Tamarack St., Laurium; 906/337-2549; doubles $49-$129. This columned 1908 mansion, after years of neglect, is being restored to its former glory by the Sprengers. Many rooms are decorated with murals of landscape scenes; one parlor has a silver ceiling. You can also stay in the Victorian Hall across the street, another grand Sprenger-owned turn-of-the-century residence given new life as a bed-and-breakfast.

Belknap's Garnet House 238 County Rd., Kearsarge; 906/337-5607; doubles $65-$90. A Victorian painted lady formerly owned by a mining captain, this cozy four-room B&B is right on the highway. But even at the height of tourist season, as you relax in a wicker rocker on the wraparound veranda, traffic will seem a distant city memory. Closed during the winter.

Peterson's Cottages 287 Lakeshore Rd., Ontonagon; 906/884-4230; cottages $72-$255. These well-stocked, wood-paneled, rustic cottages range from one-bedrooms to a three-story A-frame. All but the last are next to the lake; many have fireplaces.

Scott's Superior Inn 277 Lakeshore Rd., Ontonagon; 906/884-4866; cabins $95-$150 for as many as four people. The Scotts rent two terrific new cedar cabins (both with fireplaces) right on the beach, near their 12-room motel.

Northern Light Inn 701 Houghton St., Ontonagon; 800/238-0018 or 906/884-4290; doubles $75-$125. Ex-Chicagoan Dianne O'Shea sees her 1903 B&B primarily as a romantic couples' getaway, particularly the top-floor suite, with its sloping pine ceilings, kidney-shaped Jacuzzi, and king-size bed. She prides herself on her breakfasts; one of her specialties is German apple pancakes.

to the lighthouse

Since the days of the 17th-century fur traders, Lake Superior has been a vital but famously treacherous shipping corridor, its bottom littered with wrecks—remember the Edmund Fitzgerald? The Keweenaw Peninsula sticks out into the middle of the lake, halfway between Duluth to the west and Sault Ste. Marie to the east. Its outline is still dotted with lighthouses, several of them—Ontonagon, Copper Harbor, Eagle Harbor—open to the public. At Sand Hills, you can even spend the night. A staircase leads 101 feet to the top of the Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn (Five Mile Point Rd., Ahmeek; 906/337-1744; doubles from $125). From where a Fresnel lens once blinked its warning nightly, you can see a vast sweep of sparkling blue water punctuated by the occasional barge.

When Bill Frabotta bought this 1917 yellow brick structure in 1961, there were no paved roads leading to the derelict building, and no electricity. A portrait photographer from downstate, Frabotta spent more than 30 years dreaming of the inn he would make, drawing up plans and collecting antiques. In 1992 he sold his business, his house, and his Harley and began renovations. Now Sand Hills is one of only seven lighthouse B&B's in America (another is in Big Bay Point, 130 miles away).

The last lighthouse built on the Great Lakes, Sand Hills is larger than its 19th-century brethren, giving Frabotta plenty of room to play with. And play he did: a lover of Victorian furniture and old movies, he has turned every corner of the house, with its eight guest rooms, into the set of a gothic romance. The Laurence Olivier Room features a framed, signed portrait of the actor and 94 yards of purple velvet curtains. Two rooms have balconies overlooking the lake. Throughout, Frabotta's dramatic photographs of young actresses add atmosphere.

Frabotta and his assistant, Mary Mathews (looks like Jean Stapleton, plays piano like the phantom of the opera, and bakes croissants no Parisian would scorn), make you feel as if you've stepped into a mystery. It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that Sand Hills is the site of numerous engagement, wedding, and anniversary celebrations.

getting there and around

Part of the appeal of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is its remoteness: Copper Harbor, the hamlet at the northern end, is just 50 miles closer to Detroit than New York City is. The Keweenaw is the upper peninsula of the Upper Peninsula, itself a misfit region that accounts for one-third of the state and shares a land border with Wisconsin. The U.P. is connected to downstate only by the Mackinac Bridge.

The best way to get to the region is by car, along Highway 41 or Route 26. Most weekend vacationers stop at the Mackinac Bridge or the Wisconsin border, and go no farther. Another hour or two of driving, and the crowds disappear like dandelion seeds in the wind. Or you can fly on Mesaba-Northwest (800/225-2525) straight into the Houghton County Airport in Hancock.

who are the yoopers?

Unsure whether they want the attention, Yoopers—the nickname for people from the U.P.—are struggling to accommodate tourists. Their accent is a mix of Fargo, Great Lakes, Native American, and Canadian. They live in log houses on the "puddle," in century-old miner's houses with steep roofs (so the snow slides off), or in ranch houses with satellite dishes. One out of six is of Finnish ancestry (hence all the saunas); the rest are Cornish, Ojibwa, Irish, Italian, Serbian, Swedish, German, or French—descendants of immigrant laborers, fur traders, or Native Americans. They have a tendency to look down on people from the Lower Peninsula—those "trolls" who live under the Mackinac Bridge.

There are only 315,000 Yoopers—woodsmen, country folk, New Age hippies, old-world Commies—the same number as there were 90 years ago. In his classic social history Call It North Country, John Bartlow Martin noted that "the Upper Peninsula is uneasily poised between past and future." In the 55 years since he wrote those words, little has changed.

where to eat

Instead of a palate, Yoopers have cultivated a sense of "pasty" (rhymes with nasty): Cornish women used to send their miner husbands to work with this portable meal—a pastry shell typically stuffed with meat, potatoes, rutabaga, and carrots—tucked in their shirts for warmth. (An excellent Keweenaw Web site can be found at, yes, www.pasty.com.) In general, however, the safest bet is to stick to the local catch—whitefish, trout, walleye—and such Midwestern staples as prime rib. You'll find hearty American fare at the Pilgrim River Steakhouse (Hwy. 41, Houghton; 906/482-8595; dinner for two $30), Eagle Harbor Inn (Hwy. M-26, Eagle Harbor; 906/289-4435; dinner for two $30), Old Country Haus (Hwy. 41, Kearsarge; 906/337-4626; dinner for two $25), and Fitzgerald's Restaurant (Eagle River Inn, Hwy. M-26, Eagle River; 906/337-0666; dinner for two $40). For something a little different, try these:

Marie's Deli & Restaurant 518 Sheldon Ave., Houghton; 906/482-8650; dinner for two $20. This Mediterranean oasis is a true find. The cook somehow locates the ingredients for tabbouleh, hummus, Turkish coffee, and gyros. Marie's is also known for its specialty cheesecakes—rum raisin, blueberry—and other desserts.

Superior View Restaurant Off Hwy. M-26, Freda; 906/482-7563; dinner for two $20, no credit cards. Getting to this clifftop dining spot is half the fun. Head west along the Portage Canal and follow the signs way up the hill. With rooms like parlors, it feels as if you're eating in someone's home. It tastes that way too: barbecued ribs with "broasted" potatoes (the potatoes are boiled, skinned, and then deep fried), and traditional turkey dinners are the house specialties.

Candlelight Inn 2077 Hwy. M-38, Ontonagon; 906/884-6101; dinner for two $30. Maryam Derke's Sunday buffet could take on the best champagne brunch—except that this is all-you-can-eat for $5.95. Derke gets up early every Sunday and bakes 15 or 20 kinds of pastry, drawing on local ethnic traditions and her own impeccable taste: pecan rolls, cream puffs, bread pudding, a chocolate loaf made with potato flour. Her scrambled eggs are never runny, her crêpes never dry, her shredded hash browns always crisp. Head straight for the Finnish pancakes, baked slices of eggy dough. At night, there's prime rib and seafood.

Syl's 713 River St., Ontonagon; 906/884-2522; dinner for two $15, no credit cards. A downtown gathering spot offering skillet breakfast specials, pasties, and fresh cherry pie. They also make a mean malted milk shake.

Lindell Chocolate Shop 300 Calumet Dr., Lake Linden; 906/296-0793; lunch for two $10, no credit cards. Speaking of malteds . . . this ice cream shop has been spared the ravages of progress; the oak walls, leaded mirrors, and tile floor date back to the twenties. Don't miss the hot fudge cake with cream.

Harbor Haus Restaurant Hwy. 41, Copper Harbor; 906/289-4502; dinner for two $45. One of the region's best restaurants, Harbor Haus serves up a range of German dishes, along with Rhineland brews and exotic game (like ostrich medallions).

going underground

The ancient rifts that formed this region's landscape pushed basalt and minerals up in layers that can still be seen today, making the Keweenaw a hot spot for rock hounds. People have been mining here for at least 7,000 years; anthropologists believe Keweenaw copper may have found its way to the Aztecs. In America's first mine rush in 1842, entrepreneurs excavated some of those early pits, finding copper veins that were extraordinarily pure—except for the adjunct silver. By the 1860's, 90 percent of the nation's copper came from Michigan. But as the veins wandered deeper, they became too expensive to follow; the last copper mine, in White Pine, closed three years ago.

Eight-year-old Keweenaw National Historical Park (100 Red Jacket Rd., Calumet; 906/337-3168) is dedicated to preserving this history. Its sites range from the elite—the Greek Revival Laurium Manor—to the pits: three defunct mines offer tours underground. The Delaware (Hwy. 41, Kearsarge; 906/289-4688), with its bats and dripping water, is the most appropriately atmospheric. At the Quincy (Hwy. 41, Hancock; 906/482- 3101), visitors descend in a tram, traveling 400 feet beneath the surface, and tour the world's largest steam hoist—a humongous feat of engineering prowess. The entrance to the Adventure (200 Adventure Rd., Greenland; 906/883-3371) is surrounded by green lichen and moss, mirroring the oxidized veins of copper inside. The tour follows an adit a quarter-mile through the mountain.

A half-hour away, see how turn-of-the-century miners lived at Old Victoria (Victoria Dam Rd., Rockland; 906/886-2617), a company town from 1899 until the mine closed in 1921. Victoria's log cabins had been abandoned for decades when preservationists decided to resuscitate this ghost town. Now you can view the attics crammed with beds where lodgers slept in shifts.

a fish story

Patience not being on my shortlist of virtues, I'm strictly an amateur angler. So whenever I accompany Bud, my native-Yooper fishing-fanatic companion, on one of his semiweekly excursions, I bring a book. I think I was reading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street when I hooked my first keeper—a 20-inch trout—on a springtime drift off the Lake Superior shore. Another time, we walked along the Presque Isle River in the Porcupine Mountains to where waterfalls spill out into Superior, casting into the whirling rapids and circular red-stone pools and catching a variety pack of species. If I can do it, anyone can.

Those who are drawn to water will be happy to learn that Superior's sometimes icy sea is not the only option. There are deep reservoirs, small lakes, slow-moving rivers, rushing creeks, numerous waterfalls, and wetlands. You can shoot the rapids on the upper branches of the Ontonagon River or sail out of the Portage Canal. Several years ago, a couple of foolhardy souls went the 55 miles from Ontonagon to Isle Royale on Jet Skis (this I would not recommend). Wherever you are—on a yacht in Houghton or in a rowboat on Twin Lakes—you'll find rare boating solitude.

You'll also find lake trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, brook trout, walleye, bass, sturgeon, perch, Atlantic salmon, coho salmon, king salmon, northerns, suckers, and sunfish. U.P. fish are smaller, but generally healthier, than those in warmer waters. If you'd rather just watch the wildlife, you can see ospreys, herons, hawks, beavers, otters, and if you're very lucky (or not, depending on your point of view), bears, coyotes, wolves, bobcats, and mountain lions. Last summer, while Bud cast about, I watched a pair of young bald eagles. One stood flapping at the nest's edge, then held its great wings aloft, imagining it was soaring. Two weeks later, I saw both juveniles circle in flight around their island home—while Bud lusted after an elusive walleye lunker.

on the trail

The Escarpment Trail in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (412 S. Boundary Rd., Ontonagon; 906/885-5275) begins in old-growth forest. Walking among towering hemlocks that filter the light like green- and rust-colored stained glass, you experience the Upper Peninsula as the Indians and first explorers did. Eventually, the trail turns along the edge of a cliff and wanders above green peaks and valleys. Eagles soar, and at the trail's end, four miles later, is the best view of all: Lake of the Clouds, a meandering alpine lake that frequently floats in mist.

The U.P. is covered primarily with second- or even third-growth forests. Timber remains a major industry; the region is famous for its bird's-eye maple. But though the logging trucks rumble by, the land is still lush with trees: pine, balsam, hemlock, cedar, birch, maple, poplar, ash, oak, ironwood, basswood, cherry. In the Porcupines—named by Native Americans because their outline resembles one of the sleeping creatures—the bony ridges and bogs were too tough to log. With 35,000 of the state park's 60,000 acres still virgin forest, the Porkies, as they're affectionately called, are the crown jewel of the U.P. (even if, at 1,960 feet, they're less than towering).

Backpackers undeterred by the ever-present black bears can explore the park's wilder interior and bathe in river pools. From the observation tower on Summit Peak, you can see all the way to the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. There are cabins, old mines, natural springs, brooks full of trout, lakes with rental boats, and a boardwalk through a lily pond.

the fourth coast

With 1,700 miles of shoreline—much of it white sand decorated with twisted driftwood and smooth stones—the U.P. is one of the world's best-kept beach secrets. Lake Superior can be a still mirror or raging surf, Caribbean-clear and Arctic-cold. Thanks to global warming, for the last two years the water has been swimmable all summer, with an average temperature in the seventies. The beaches are never crowded and often empty.

Choice Beaches
Sheltered from the winds, the Keweenaw is full of long stretches of sand. Looking out at the Huron Mountains across the turquoise expanse of Keweenaw Bay, you could almost believe you're in the Caribbean. Except that the trees are balsam, not palm.
Great Sand Bay Pull off the north coast's Sand Dunes Drive and watch the occasional freighter pass offshore.
Eagle Harbor The town beach in this semicircular harbor is an easy stroll from the Lake Breeze inn. There's a slide and a raft for kids.
Ontonagon Township Park A tree-lined sidewalk leads back to town; don't miss the ice cream at Sip & Snack or Connie's Place.

shop to it!

They may be plainspoken, but Yoopers are uncommonly creative. There are several good galleries: Tosh (315 Shelden Ave., Houghton; 906/482-2287), the Community Arts Center & Kerredge Gallery (126 Quincy St., Hancock; 906/482-2333), the Omphale Gallery (431 Fifth St., Calumet; 906/337-2036), and Silver Image Studio (250 Hubbell St., Silver City; 800/248-6649).

At Great Lakes Trading Co. (301 Lincoln Ave., Silver City; 906/885-5503), Jackie McMullen sells a mix of local crafts, imports, and antiques. Pottery by Schwartz & Eady comes in lupine motifs. Ironworker Steve Van De Velde makes sculptures of herons; Bo Harbison crafts modern-looking benches out of white pine.

Whatever else they've given up, the brothers of the Holy Transfiguration Skete have not renounced the pleasures of the palate. They make jam from the area's wild blueberries, strawberries, pin cherries, thimbleberries, raspberries, and blackberries. The Jampot (Hwy. M-26, Eagle Harbor; www.societystjohn.com), the gift shop at Poorrock Abbey, also sells chocolate truffles and cakes soaked in brandy or rum. Some brothers know how to live!

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