Michigan: Eats and Treats

Including our time on Isle Royale, we spent 8 days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had some fantastic food, some average food, and a few meals not worth talking about at all. I decided that I’d only include some of the best. So here are my favorite eats and treats from our extended stay in Michigan.

The Galley
St. Ignace

The Galley was recommended to us by the desk clerk at our hotel as the restaurant in town to go to. Since it was a special occasion (we’d arrived in St. Ignace on our anniversary), we figured we’d give it a try. The parking lot was pretty deserted when we arrived, but it was on the later side so we didn’t necessarily take that as a bad sign. Inside wasn’t much to look at either, but we were tired, hungry, and ready for whatever their menu offered.

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Sriram ordered the pasty, a local specialty, while I opted for the prime rib. I didn’t have much hope for it, but I was told it was the best in town. My salad arrived. It was a basic side salad – nothing special. I was hungry and was hoping the prime rib would at least be passable. When it arrived it looked good. And smelled good. It came with horseradish sauce, which I opted to get on the side (horseradish is a flavor I like, but it can easily overwhelm food).

My prime rib was, in a word…perfect. Easily the best prime rib I’ve ever had. And the horseradish sauce (which is made in-house by the chef) was sublime. It was mild enough to not be overwhelming, but flavorful enough to be great. I opted to mostly not use it on my steak, as I felt the steak did not require assistance. But I stirred it into my baked potato and found it delightful. I liked it so much I was sure to tell the waitress to send my regards to the chef.

A great meal to welcome us to Michigan.

Joann’s Fudge
Mackinac Island

A stroll around an island definitely begs for an ice cream cone, so shortly after arriving on Mackinac Island, we stopped into Joann’s Fudge shop. After checking out my choices, I went with something a little different than my usual ice-cream preferences. For some reason, the Mint Chocolate Chip was calling my name. I ordered one up in a waffle cone (a treat, as I usually go for a kiddie cup). It was delicious, and enough to share. Mint chocolate chip may become a new favorite.

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Mary’s Bistro
Mackinac Island

After exploring the area, and with time to spare before the ferry, we opted to get dinner on the Island, choosing Mary’s Bistro for it’s proximity to the ferry dock and it’s outdoor seating on the lake. The outdoor seating turned out to be full, so we were seated indoors, but still had a nice enough view. We started with the housemade kettle chips and blue cheese dip (which seems to be a thing in this area – I’ve seen it on a few different menus). The kettle chips were pretty basic – not much on their own. But the blue cheese dip was outstanding. If you’re a fan of blue cheese, this would quickly become a favorite.

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Between the afternoon ice cream and the chips, we weren’t too hungry. We ordered one additional small dish from the appetizer menu (a delicious italian “eggroll” that was like a mini-calzone roll). A nice finish to our island adventure.

Jose’s Cantina
St. Ignace

Best. Tacos. Ever. I could leave it at that, but I won’t.

We had driven past Jose’s Cantina on our way into town and finally decided to stop in.

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The decor inside was bright and cheerful, and as is the way in all Mexican restaurants, we were given a basket of tortilla chips and salsa upon being seated. They were good – the usual. Sriram had a nice margarita while I stuck with water.

I checked out the menu and, having noticed a sign out front congratulating head chef, Robert Gallo on being voted “Best Tacos in Northern Michigan and the U.P.” – and being #5 in the state (I might have to try the other 4 sometime), decided to see if they lived up to the fuss ordered the Mango Habanero Chicken Tacos. The waitress said (and I quote), “Are you sure?” I laughed and said I was pretty sure, and asked if there was some reason I shouldn’t be. She told me they were quite hot. I told her that we hear that a lot (and it’s hardly ever true) but asked her to bring me a side of sour cream, just in case. Sriram ordered the vegetarian sampler.

Our food arrived. My tacos came in crispy shells that were made from soft tortillas. I have to admit, I expected Tortega. What a pleasant surprise. Easily the best taco shells I’ve ever tasted. I dug right in. They had some heat, but not too much. I later told the waitress that I thought they were the perfect level of heat for me, but that Sriram would have definitely added hot sauce. She laughed. Sriram’s veggie platter was so big it mostly became lunch the next day.

Our waitress was a little flakey, but when it comes to the food, I could not recommend it highly enough. Do yourself a favor – if you ever make it, order the tacos!

Falling Rock Cafe & Bookstore
Munising

We stopped in the Falling Rock Cafe on our way to set up camp in Christmas. Falling Rock is a multi-purpose stop, serving sandwiches, salads, ice-cream and coffee. They also house an impressive array of new and used books, have free WiFi, and enough space to settle in for a bit if you’d like. After placing your order at the counter, you can find a seat at any number of charmingly mismatched tables to wait.

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I ordered up a sandwich and was disappointed to learn that they were out of the kale salad side that had caught my eye. They told me they’d have more later (or tomorrow), and that if I was so inclined, it was worth coming back for. I told them that I just might, and a couple days later, I did. It was. If you order it, be sure to get it with the goat cheese sprinkled on top.


The Ambassador

Houghton

At the recommendation of our ferry seat-mates Alex and Ian, we stopped over to the Ambassador Restaurant on the evening of our return from Isle Royale. The decor was fun, with large murals of celebrating-gnomes covering the walls and big green lanterns dangling from the ceiling. With a couple of pool tables thrown in for fun, it was easy to see why it was popular with the college crowd, though there was a good mix of patrons there upon our visit.

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Opting for our usual fare of pizza and wings when in a pub-type environment, we ordered our favorite “make-your-own” pizza – cheese with red onions, garlic and jalapenos. It turned out to be pretty good. Definitely hit the spot.

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Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant
Hancock

While we were at the Finnish American Heritage Center, we had asked Jim for a recommendation for a Finnish restaurant. He said there weren’t really any good authentic options, but that the Suomi Restaurant came closest to at least having some Finnish influence. That was good enough for us, so we stopped in for breakfast. Sriram ordered the Pannukakku – a cross between a pancake and a custard.

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I opted for the Finnish French Toast. What makes it “Finnish” is the use of Nisu bread, a Finnish bread that is sweeter than other breads. I didn’t find it to be all that different than regular French toast, but enjoyed it very much.

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So, those were the best treats from Michigan. And since there were far more hits than misses, I’d say it was definitely a culinary success.

Isle Royale – Part II

Our first full day on the island was slow-going. We slept a little later than we’d expected, but as we had nowhere in particular to be, it didn’t matter much. When we awoke, we headed down to the dock. Part of our package included a ½ day rental of a canoe, so we had decided on a day on the water, only to discover that all of the canoes and kayaks had already been rented (early bird gets the canoe as they say). We could come back later, but there was no guarantee that we would get anything.

We strolled around and considered the various hiking trails on the island. While deciding, I stopped into the Visitor’s Center to speak with the Ranger (Lucas again) and get a crash course on some of the vegetation I’d seen on the island the day before. I was most curious about the variety of shiny hard berries (in red, white and blue), as I’d never seen anything like them. I was told they were not edible (they didn’t look edible, so no worries).

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The white berries with the black dot were Baneberry (also known as Doll’s Eyes) and are quite toxic. The red berries also fell into that same category. The hard blue colored berries are a type of lily – the Bluebead Lily. I thought those were really interesting. The bead apparently forms after they flower.

As the morning drifted away, we decided that rather than test our luck waiting on a canoe return, we would hop on The Sandy and head over to nearby Raspberry Island for a spell. Despite the name, you won’t find many raspberries on the island, though it was once full of them (a shame really, as I do love raspberries). We did come across a great rock cliff where we sat to enjoy the view for a bit. Just as I was getting up to leave I noticed some wild blueberries. We snacked on a few before exploring the island further – they were so delicious. Far superior to any supermarket blueberry I have ever eaten.

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We didn’t see much in the way of wildlife on the Island (we were hoping for an elusive moose, but alas, despite signs of them, we did not see any actual moose). But there were lots of flowers and wonderful views on the island. The bog in particular had some really unique plants. This pretty flower, which likes to munch on insects, is called a Pitcher Plant.

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There was also a plant called a sunburst which was tricky to photograph. Here’s my best attempt.

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The plants weren’t the only things that were tricky to photograph. After many failed attempts (including while he sat on my leg for a spell), I finally got this guy to sit still long enough for me to get a shot.

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It was a very nice visit to one of Isle Royale’s other islands and you’d be hard-pressed to beat the scenery.

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Though we left with lots of daylight remaining, once back on Isle Royale we stuck to the trails in the Rock Harbor area, as we didn’t feel we had time for a major hike. I spent quite a bit of my time munching on thimbleberries as we went. Having only discovered them that day, and knowing my time with them were limited, my strategy amounted to if it is ripe, pick it. Wondering what a thimbleberry looks like? You’ll have to google one, as I was apparently too busy eating them to capture a good shot of one.

In the evening, we ended up back down on the sea plane dock with a few other people to watch the sunset. A private plane had come in. I couldn’t resist taking a few pictures of it. And of course, we also took pictures of the setting sun.

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With the sun down, the chilly night air had us making our way back to our cottage. It was a short trip, but we’ve very much enjoyed our time in the park.

Saying Goodbye to Isle Royale

The morning of our departure we headed for the seaplane dock for our 9am flight back to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula only to find out the plane was delayed 40 minutes. Seemed strange as the skies were clear and the weather was beautiful. Perhaps something was brewing on the mainland. But it was a lovely spot to wait, so we hung out on the dock taking photos and hoping for a last minute moose sighting.

Twenty minutes later we were informed that the plane wouldn’t be coming – mechanical problems needed to be addressed and the part would not be available until the next day. We headed up to the park office to find out what our options were. Our choices? Get on the afternoon ferry if they had room, or stay an extra night, hoping to get out on the plane the next day.

We opted for the ferry (this was a shorter three hour ferry) and then determined to make the best of our extended stay, we used our free ½ day rental to take a kayak out in Tobin Harbor. We’d been down at the harbor while waiting for the plane and it could not have been more flat, so I had no concerns about this kayaking trip. This picture of a nearby canoe shows just how flat the water was.

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We spent about an hour and a half out on the water and simply enjoyed the stillness and the peace and quiet. At one point, along the shoreline we could hear voices of hikers on the trail that seemed to be following us. We’d later connect with some of those voices in the guest house while talking to some friends we’d made earlier.

In the afternoon we made our way over to the ferry and after waiting until all of the scheduled passengers got on, made our way aboard. The seats had filled up quickly. I found a table with two empty seats and asked the two young men who were sitting there if the seats were free. They were, so we joined them.

Alex and Ian had been backpacking on the Island as a final trek before the start of their sophomore and junior years at Michigan Institute of Technology. They were really great guys and we enjoyed a lovely conversation on the crossing, discussing everything from travel, to business, to school and families. And they gave us a couple of restaurant recommendations for back in Houghton, which is always great.

Coming into the dock in Copper Harbor the captain blew the whistle and told us to watch out the window, as employees of the restaurants like to come out and wave the ship in. Staff at the Copper Harbor Inn will even come out and dance the cancan. I assumed he was joking, but they did indeed come out and dance.

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Overall, the experience of Isle Royale was great from start to finish. The staff were fantastic and extremely helpful. And Alex mentioned on the ferry ride that while it’s the least visited of all the National Parks, it is the most RE-visited. With such a lovely and unspoiled experience, I can certainly see why.

Please feel free to leave comments or ask questions. We love getting feedback on the trip.