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Eight Great Road Trips for the COVID-19 Era

Summer’s not totally shot. As social distancing begins to ease, these Great Lakes getaways provide an easy respite and solitude.

Editor’s Note: Destinations remain in various phases of reopening in accordance with state and country guidelines. Check before you pack up the car.

A Paddler’s Island Voyage

Isle Royale National Park, Michigan

Kayak
Photo: Courtesy of Uncommon Adventures

Drive time:7 hours and 50 minutes

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Serious kayakers can do no better in the Great Lakes than to seek out Michael Gray of Uncommon Adventures. A member of the Coastal Kayak Committee of the 130-year-old American Canoe Association, Gray leads six- and nine-day kayaking tours that take you to the 45-mile-long Isle Royale, the biggest island on the largest lake in the world, Lake Superior. Isle Royale is one of the least crowded  national parks in the country — some say it’s the least visited but the most revisited — and it is home to what might be the most studied population of wolves and moose on the planet, because of the way they’re isolated. Ferry over from Copper Harbor with your group of six, then paddle with Gray to edges of the island for inland hikes and coastal camping. This summer’s two trips run from July 28 to August 2 ($1,100 a person) and August 8 to 16 ($1,500 a person) and include all gear except kayaks, which can be rented for an extra $100.

Stay:Camping highlights include tea with Rolf and Candy Peterson, the researchers behind Isle Royale’s wolf-moose study, and unexpectedly gourmet meals prepared by Gray (think lake trout with Asian coleslaw or pork tenderloin with a cherry-peppercorn red wine glaze).

 

A Stateside Nordic Escape

Washington Island, Wisconsin

Stavkirke, Fragrant Isle lavender farm, fish boil
Clockwise, from top: Stavkirke, Fragrant Isle lavender farm, fish boil. Photos: (Stavkirke, Fragrant Isle lavender) John Nienhuis/Destination Door County; (fish boil) Jon Jarosh/Destination Door County

Drive time:5 hours, plus a 30-minute ferry ride

The Nordic influences on this pretty island seven miles north of the Door Peninsula, one of the largest Icelandic settlements in the world, are subtle but definitely present. Zip out of Detroit Harbor on a moped (from $55 an hour at Annie’s Island Moped Rentals) and then down Main Road, where you may spy Icelandic horses out to pasture. The real eye-catcher is the striking wooden Stavkirke, built in 1999 in the likeness of a church erected in 1150 in Borgund, Norway. The Nordic tradition of outdoor fish boils is big across Door County, but especially at KK Fiske Restaurant, which is owned by commercial fisherman Kenny Koyen, who brings in his own catch (including burbot, a cod-like freshwater fish dubbed the “lawyer fish”; let Koyen tell you why). The next day, spend an afternoon amid the 20,000 lavender plants at Fragrant Isle, the Midwest’s largest lavender farm. You can go on a tour or unwind with a massage in the middle of a field (from $45).

Stay:The chance to unplug in Scandinavian-inspired cabins is the draw at Four Elements Lodging, scheduled to open in May in Detroit Harbor. Another option: Sunset Resort offers private patios on Green Bay and a hearty breakfast menu featuring Icelandic pancakes. If you want to go the budget route, Steffens Cedar Lodge (from $60) has dockside bonfires and killer West Harbor sunsets.

 

An Adrenaline Junkie’s Paradise

Marquette, Michigan

Pinnacle Falls
Pinnacle Falls Photo: Aaron Peterson

Drive time:6 hours and 15 minutes

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Arguably, all of under-the-radar Marquette — dubbed the Boulder of the Midwest for its rugged terrain — is at its most beautiful in summer. The showstopper, however, is the towering rock wall that rises from the shore of the 323-acre Presque Isle Park. Called the Pinnacle, it’s best climbed at sunrise, when you can watch dawn arrive over Lake Superior. Rock Climb Michigan will set up privately guided climbs tailored to your ability at that and other craggy jewels along the Huron Mountains (from $130, including equipment). After your climb, dive into the lake from the 15-foot-high Black Rocks. Then hop on a mountain bike (rentals from $30 at Quick Stop Bike Shop) to ride the Noquemanon Trail Network, with its challenging uphill trails and loops overlooking waterfalls.

Stay:Snag one of six rustic Little Presque Isle cabins ($74), or opt for a more comfortably equipped version at Rippling River Resort ($164). If you’re ready for totally modern conveniences, stay at the restored boutique Landmark Inn (from $139) or at the new Superior Stay (from $89).

 

A Luxe Family Hideaway

Kohler, Wisconsin

Top: River Wildlife preserve; Bottom: Red Fox cabin
Top: River Wildlife preserve; Bottom: Red Fox cabin Photos: Courtesy of Kohler Co.

Drive time:2 hours and 30 minutes

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Forget about the big spa and golf course that Kohler is known for: It’s also home to a massive but little-explored wildlife preserve and a couple of posh rental cabins in the woods, making for an unexpectedly private family escape. Venture into River Wildlife, a 500-acre preserve, for trapshooting, hikes on 18 miles of wooded trails, and self-guided paddling trips. Ten minutes away, you can ride the gentle waves at King Park or scenic Kohler-Andrae State Park in Sheboygan, the self-proclaimed freshwater surf capital of the world (surfboard rentals from $20 at EOS). At the Sheboygan Youth Sailing Center, kids 7 and up can give boating a whirl with a private family lesson ($150 for three people).

Stay:The high-end accommodations are key in this equation, so reserve one of two dreamy cabins run by Destination Kohler (two more are opening late summer): the dog-friendly, three-bedroom Red Fox, with views of the meandering Sheboygan River, and the two-bedroom Sandhill, situated on 350 acres of wilderness (four guests from $1,600). These aren’t the bare-bones cabins of Laura Ingalls Wilder books: The Red Fox has five fireplaces and a rec room with a pool table, while the Sandhill has a wraparound deck and its own sauna. For built-in namaste, opt for a private chef and family yoga sessions in the front yard.

 

An Angler’s Dream

Leland, Michigan

Fishtown
Fishtown Photo: Dan Price/Pure Michigan

Drive time:5 hours and 30 minutes

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Situated on the west coast of Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula, Leland is a storied launching pad for ocean-like fishing adventures. First stop for any angler is historic Fishtown, a once-thriving commercial fishing village that’s now a preserved collection of weathered shanties, smokehouses, and fish tugs along the Leland River. Next door in Leland Harbor, push out on a five-hour morning trip with Captain Tony Radjenovich at Reelin’ Leland Fishing Charters on a 27-foot Tiara with five pals (from $550). Cruise down the river and then out to the Manitou Passage, where things get interesting. A cluster of underwater canyons, banks, bridges, and shipwrecks supports a fertile fishing ground that draws indigenous lake trout and hard-fighting Chinook salmon. In the distance you can see North and South Manitou Islands and the steep inland bluffs of Pyramid and Sleeping Bear Points (places you should plan to hike and explore while in town). When Radjenovich pulls back into the harbor, he’ll point you to fifth-generation family-owned Carlson’s Fishery to get your catch cleaned and then direct you to the Cove, a waterfront restaurant, to have it cooked for dinner.

Stay:Walk to the harbor and local beaches from a two- or three-bedroom cottage at the Leland Lodge (from $279), overlook an inland lake from the hilltop Whaleback Inn (from $179), or stay on the water in private vacation rental homes (check out offerings on leelanau.com). If you want real-deal camping, take a ferry to South Manitou Island, where you’ll need to filter your own water. At least there’s an outhouse!

 

A Woodsy Island Haven

Beaver Island, Michigan

Beaver Island Retreat
Beaver Island Retreat Photo: Courtesy of Beaver Island Retreat

Drive time:5 hours and 45 minutes, plus a 2-hour ferry ride or a 15-minute charter flight

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The most important thing to master before you get to Beaver Island is waving: Everyone on this 58-square-mile island — the largest in Lake Michigan — does it. A lot. The antithesis of more touristy Great Lakes destinations (looking at you, Traverse City), Beaver Island is an uncrowded natural oasis with friendly locals and a totally relaxed vibe. You can ferry over your car, but as soon as you arrive, switch to the island’s preferred mode of transit by renting bikes and kayaks from outfitters like Lakesports & Paradise Bay Gifts. Nature is king on this island, which is shrouded in pine and cedar forests that are cut through with nearly 70 miles of hiking and cycling trails and encircled by sparsely populated beaches. Try a gentle hike down a bluff and through the woods to shallow Little Sand Bay or over a bridge to Caribbean-blue Cable’s Bay. Adventurous types can tackle the 42-mile Beaver Island Water Trail and circumnavigate the island by kayak, or climb up the biggest dune on the island, 730-foot Mount Pisgah — not the worst place to be at sunset.

Stay:Rough it at St. James Township Campground ($10, but note that it doesn’t take reservations), with its new fire rings, or rough it slightly less in Beaver Island Retreat’s elevated safari tents (from $179). For something more upscale and surprisingly affordable, book your own three-plus-bedroom vacation home right on the water (starting at $1,450 a week) through Richards Rental Management Services.

 

A Romantic Forest Retreat

Point Pelee National Park, Ontario

Point Pelee National Park Photo: Courtesy of Destination Ontario Media

Drive time:5 hours and 45 minutes

The southernmost tip of mainland Canada is a lush wilderness that dips into Lake Erie — and an ideal spot for couples looking for solitude. En route to Point Pelee National Park, swap the car for rental bikes at Farm Dog Cycles in the visitors’ center, then cruise through forests and savannas to the beach for a swim. There you’ll find a boardwalk over one of the largest freshwater marshes in the Great Lakes region. Birdwatchers, take note: It’s the warbler capital of Canada. Some 390 migratory species, including the elusive black-throated mourning warbler, have been recorded across the 3,700 acres of Point Pelee, the smallest national park in Canada. At night, there’s more to this compact gem than campfires. Point Pelee is a Dark Sky Preserve, and on designated Dark Sky Nights (June 20, July 18, and August 11) — when the sky is at its blackest, thanks to a new moon — you can stargaze and explore the park until midnight.

Stay:In the park, rent an Otentik (from $88, call 877-737-3783 to reserve), a cross between an A-frame cabin and a tent , for camping that’s a couple of steps above roughing it (read: an actual bed but no indoor plumbing).

 

An Alfresco Family Refuge

Alpena, Michigan

Shipwreck scuba diving
Shipwreck scuba diving Photo: Courtesy of Alpena Area CVB

Drive time:6 hours and 45 minutes

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Most kids run for the hills at the sound of “history vacation,” but most history vacations don’t include shipwreck and fossil hunting. There are remains of more than 200 boats in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (nicknamed Shipwreck Alley). Swim and snorkel above those in shallower waters, including the 1863 wooden schooner Portland, or scuba-dive with Great Lakes Divers to deeper shipwrecks, like the Monohansett, a 1872 lumber carrier whose boilers are still intact. Back on land, Alpena boasts an abundance of sparkly fossilized sea creatures from the Devonian period, when the area was undersea. Search for them in the rugged Rockport State Recreation Area, then stick around for nighttime stargazing at this officially designated Dark Sky Preserve.

Stay:Spread out in a two-bedroom vacation suite at the family-owned 40 Winks Motel ($150), just across from Starlite Beach; a 1,400-square-foot chalet overlooking the golf course at Thunder Bay Resort (from $295), where you should do the elk-viewing experience; or a waterfront cabin on a 9,000-acre fishing pond at Fletcher’s Landing (from $85).

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