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.

Welcome to Finland, Michigan

The night before our flight to Isle Royale we stayed in the small city of Hancock, Michigan. Upon driving into city we noticed a few things: The Finnish Mutual Insurance Company, street signs that were in English and Finnish, and Finnish flags, to name a few. When we checked into our hotel we got the usual speech. Don’t smoke in the room, breakfast goes until 9am, pool hours and sauna hours. Sauna? Our hotel has a sauna? That’s definitely a Finn-thing. There was clearly a heavy Finnish influence in the area. I was intrigued.

My dad was Finnish – well, half Finnish (the other half Irish, on his mom’s side). While my ancestry is mixed quite thoroughly (Irish, Finnish, English, Swedish, German and Italian, to be exact), that 25% Finnish has always been a bit of a curiosity to me, though I’ve never really taken the time to research it. Unfortunately, since we were departing the next day for Isle Royale, we did not have a chance to explore the area to discover anything about the connection. After our return, however, we spent a second night in town and decided that before leaving we would explore that connection.

Hancock has a rich Finnish history and is the home of Finlandia University. The University, which was founded in 1896 as Suomi College, also houses the Finnish American Heritage Center. That was our first stop.

Inside the main foyer hung a painting titled Christ in the Garden. Upon closer inspection we discovered it was an alter painting from the Finnish Congregational Church of Quincy, Massachusetts. I had no idea such a place existed, but the artist, Matti Karna, had spent time in New England.

We looked around a bit. There were a few exhibits in the lobby, but the building seemed quite empty. A sign pointing upstairs indicated offices for the Director of the Center; The Finnish American Reporter; and the Honorary Consul of Finland. That turned out to be all one person.

James Kurtti was in his office upstairs, and we had seemingly saved him from a long winded telephone call. He welcomed us in, and apologized for the “mess” (looked like an office to me), as he was taking advantage of a quiet, rainy day to do some organizing. We were interrupting. Still, he was happy to speak with us about the local history and Finnish culture and gave us quite a bit of his time, which was very much appreciated.

He provided a bit of history for the university, the area, and the center itself, plus the latest edition of the Finnish American Reporter. Additionally, he gave me information about organizations in Massachusetts that I can connect with when I return home if I’d like to explore some local Finnish culture.

When I mentioned wanting to visit Finland (and a trip from a few years ago that never quite materialized), he strongly recommended finding family members still in the country and connecting with them first before going. Knowing people in the country will allow for a much richer experience. He gave me some tips on how to accomplish that, noting in particular that if I can narrow down the village that my ancestors were from that the church would have really good records and be able to assist me. I do have some genealogy records from one of my dad’s cousins, so I may just do that.

As for how Hancock became Little Finland? Some say that the Finns were drawn to Michigan for the climate, which is much like Finland. But the reality is, they couldn’t have known that in advance. They came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the mines in the late 1800’s. Copper mining in the Upper Peninsula dates all the way back to the Native Americans. Hancock has a rich, and sometimes ugly history in the mines (some of which our cab driver had shared with us on the ride from Copper Harbor to Houghton Airport the night before).

As we left his office to go explore the exhibits, Sriram casually asked, “What’s with the coffin?” On a large conference table, under a banner from the University was what looked like a very old coffin. Jim replied, “You weren’t supposed to notice that.” He lifted the cover to reveal an intact skeleton. A fascinating story went with it, though the story is not mine to tell.

Downstairs we explored the exhibits which included paintings, photographs, a case of sports memorabilia for Tauno Nurmelo (whose athletic accomplishments rival those of Jim Thorpe), traditional costumes, and musical instruments, as well as a history of mining. Jim found us a bit later and brought me a pack of notecards with Finnish folk characters on them. Perhaps when I get home, I’ll finally read that book of Finnish folklore that a friend of mine gave me some time ago.

It was a very interesting visit. We were extremely glad we stopped in.

Quincy Mine

Deciding to keep with the theme, we headed to Quincy Mine, at the Keeweenaw National Historic Park just a ways up the road. Quincy Mine operated for 100 years between 1846 and 1945. We arrived just in time for one of the final tours of the day.

Our guided tour of the mine began with the above ground buildings and facilities, including a visit to the World’s Largest Steam Hoist. The hoist itself and the building that housed it (which included imported tile and an interior that made it a showroom) cost $360,000 to build and was only used for 11 years.

Our guide went on to explain the communication systems used. There were telephones from the hoist building into the mine, but language barriers quickly ruled that system ineffective and dangerous. Lights and bells were the primary communications within the mines.

The second part of our tour would take us into the mine – to level 7 of 92 (most of the levels are now under water). At 9,260 feet deep, the No. 2 shaft is nearly 2 miles deep. Inside the mine is dark and cold (the temperature in the mine remains at a near constant 42 degrees). Before heading down we borrowed miner’s jackets and donned hard hats. To enter the mine we were required to ride a tram that would bring us down a pretty steep incline to a side door, though nothing close to the incline that the miners would have experienced. Miners entered the mine at a 55 degree angle. A cart then brought us into the mine to explore the various elements of the mine and the conditions the miners worked under. Inside the mine is a variety of the equipment they used, and we were given a history of not only the work, the tools, and the methods, but also the conflicts that took place in the mine and between the miners and the company.

It was a truly interesting and unique place. If you’re ever in the area, I would recommend a tour.

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Miners Descending
Mabel Mustonen

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

The Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula contains more than 40 miles of lakeshore on Lake Superior, including 15 miles of sandstone cliffs, caves, and rock formations. But its 114 square miles also includes lush vegetation, nature trails, waterfalls, and hiking. With our Pictured Rocks water experience completed the day before (and really – that is definitely the best way to see it, though I might have been better off on the tour boat), we decided to see some of the sites on land.

We’d already stopped in at the main Visitor’s Center for some information before heading to camp, so with our list of NPS Day Hikes in hand, we headed out for the day. Our first stop was over at Munising Falls. At .25 miles, it hardly qualified as a hike, in fact signs to the Falls announced how far away you were in feet. It was a pretty walk on a paved path through some beautiful greenery. And the Falls, while not Niagara, were charming enough.

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Though it was still August, we were already seeing signs of Fall in the trees.

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Our next spot was the much longer hike at the Miners Falls Trail. At a whopping 1.2 miles it was far more taxing than our last “hike”. Even if the hike had actually been substantial it would have been completely worth it for the view. The overlook to Miners Castle is beautiful. A short walk brought you atop the “castle” but the view was definitely better from a distance.

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Since we still needed to break down camp before moving on, we skipped the actual waterfall but we did stop at one of those car overlooks on the way back. The view wasn’t all that interesting (I find that they almost never are), but this little guy sat and posed for a while.

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Before breaking down camp we visited the Bay Furnace Ruins situated within the campground. The furnace is all that remains of a settlement that was destroyed in an 1877 fire.

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Farewell Pictured Rocks. I hope to return someday.

Fear Factor

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Wise words from America’s former First Lady. And yet, I have much trouble with this advice. For starters, at my age, I feel I’m allowed the ability to simply say that I don’t want to do something (for any reason, including fear) and be ok with that. But, I do like to try new things – within reason. I’ll experiment with foods, and have gone to many new and different places in recent years. I don’t love flying, but recognize it as a necessary fear to conquer for the privilege of exploration. Yet…

To wise Mrs. Roosevelt’s point, this whole trip is a little bit of a “do something that scares you” kind of proposition for me. I’m very much a homebody, and the thought of this many weeks on the road is a bit terrifying to me. I like being close to my friends and family, and I like the comfort of home. Not my things, per se, but my space – that psychological cushion that comes with familiarity. Additionally, I’ve never been big on camping (and rumor has it we’ll be doing a lot of that), so when you add that in, the potential for anxiety was that much higher. But even accepting that, and choosing to do this thing anyway, I recognized that within the confines of the trip, there would be things that would scare me.

I faced one of them today – with mixed result. I kayaked on Lake Superior.

I had kayaked before. Once. You could call it “trip training.” Back in July, I went with my friend Courtney, in anticipation of this trip. Sriram likes to kayak, and has often mentioned wanting to go together. I found the whole prospect terrifying. I’m not a confident swimmer, and even though I’d be wearing a life jacket, my one experience with being dumped out of a raft while white water rafting left me pretty sure that panic would ensue if I got dumped again. He would never force me to go, or pressure me into it, but I wanted to be open to the experience, so on a random Saturday afternoon, Courtney and I went kayaking on the Sudbury River. It was nice. A little daunting at the start, but overall it was relaxing and fun. I was pleasantly surprised.

But kayaking a small river in Boston just isn’t the same as kayaking Superior. Lake Superior might as well be an ocean. It’s so big it has tidal variations. The waves can get pretty high and because there are so many tourist boats heading to Pictured Rocks (where we’d be heading, too) a significant wake was pretty much guaranteed. Still, I was willing to stop into a kayaking rental place and get some information before making any kind of decision.

So, we stopped into Uncle Ducky’s Outdoor Adventures

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Uncle Ducky’s is a family owned business that’s been operating guided adventure tours since 1988. We spoke to a really nice gentleman who gave us information about the tours offered. The tours are of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and vary anywhere from 2.5 hours to 8 hours on the water. I instantly ruled out everything but the 2.5 hour tour. If I was going to give this a shot, it was going to have to be a short trip. After further discussion I realized the 2.5 hour tour included getting to the beach, getting geared up, the safety speech, etc. The time on the water was closer to 1 hour, 40 minutes (which was about how long I’d gone with Court). Even more doable.

I explained about my severe hesitation and asked about the water conditions. I was told that the kayaks were very stable, that the tour won’t go out if the conditions were unsafe, and that the lake in the last few days was only at 1-3 foot waves in that area. That 3 was still pretty daunting to me. He also mentioned that all season only one girl had ever tipped, and that was because she had reached for something outside of the kayak. He was honest about the possible conditions though, which I appreciated. He also provided information about the training and experience level of the guides (all trained and have Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder Certifications). We thanked him for the info, took a brochure and told him we’d stop back if we wanted to go.

I was still very much on the fence. Strangely enough, one of the things that kept the door open just a bit more was the fun array of stickers they had available. As mentioned before, we’re collecting stickers along the road to decorate our Thule roof box with. They had some good ones, and a part of me really wanted to face this fear and earn one.

So the next day we went back to Uncle Ducky’s and asked about the conditions again. We spoke with the same great guy (I really wish I could remember his name), and he said that every trip out that day had been a great one, and that the lake was really calm. I decided to go for it, knowing that I could back out right up until the last second (and could even turn back if absolutely necessary).

We set out in a caravan down to the beach with the other kayakers and guides. There would be two groups for the 2.5 hour tour, and another group heading out for 4 hours. We were paired with 4 other sets of kayakers and a guide named Chris.

Into the kayak we went, and before long someone was pushing us off the beach out into the lake. We were one of the first kayaks out, which made things a little tricky right off the bat. We ended up a little further down than the rest of the group, which made it harder to stay with the guide, which was my ultimate goal. We managed to linger until the group caught up and then started the wonderfully picturesque ride.

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I was having a really good time. The ride was mostly peaceful, and the scenery was fantastic. We passed the lakeshore’s smallest waterfall (at a mere 4 feet), and some amazing cliffs. I snapped a bunch of photos of our travel companions and the beautiful scenery. We drifted in and out of some caves and got rained on a bit.

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Blur is due to water on the lens

Then two tour boats passed in quick succession on their way down the coast, and the “seas” swelled. When we got caught in the wake it felt so big (huge to my scared mind), that I ended up having a full blown panic attack. The fear was overwhelming and I found myself caught between my inability to effectively paddle, and my inability to not paddle at all. Paddling felt like control, even though I wasn’t doing it in any helpful or productive way. Deep breathing helped to calm me down. The wake passed within minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Once it passed, the fear passed, but the tension in my body lingered for the rest of the journey.

Still, I powered on and managed to enjoy the rest of the paddle. We played in some more caves, and even paddled under an arch.

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And, we even finally thought to hand our camera off to Chris for a while so he could get a few pictures of us.

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He also couldn’t resist a selfie.

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By the time we made it back to the beach I was definitely ready to be done, even though it was a mostly positive experience. I won’t say that I’ve conquered the fear. I won’t be hopping in a sea kayak anytime soon (read: ever). But I faced the fear, worked through it, and have a (mostly) great memory and some beautiful pictures.

And I got my Paddling Michigan bumper sticker. Because I truly felt like I earned it.

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Thanks Uncle Ducky’s for helping me face my fear!

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

Christmas Camping

We might have finally mastered this camping thing.  After a few hurried and not so great camping experiences we decided to make a real effort to not arrive at camp really late and really hungry.  Turns out that’s a good strategy. We headed out of St. Ignace after a few days and headed toward Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore (America’s first NLS).  The National Park campsites were full, but that was not unexpected.  We got a few recommendations, and off we went, down the road to Christmas.

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Christmas is a small town in Michigan, with a population of about 400. We saw a number of “jolly” sites.

1) Christmas themed street names like this intersection (other intersections included Christmas Ave and St. Nicholas Ave; or Mrs. Claus Lane);

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2. This fun shop, which we stopped into for souvenirs and postcards (they can even cancel your stamps for you with the Christmas postage cancellation);

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3. This inexplicable Hulk reference (ok – that has nothing to do with Christmas, but it’s hilarious, no?).

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After getting the lay of the land in town, we headed down to the Hiawatha National Forest camp ground.

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It was a “first-come-first-serve” place. Spots were marked with their availability. If you liked the spot, you put up your stuff and laid claim. Then you filled out an envelope with how long you were staying, dropped the money envelope into the lock box, and done. After choosing our spot (the waterfront spots were all taken), we went about setting up camp. We had traded out our tent stakes for a second time. The first exchange was wooden stakes for metal. On our last shopping trip we picked up heavy duty plastic. It was a great upgrade and really held the tent taut. We also set up our camp kitchen and our fireside chairs.

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It was a stress free set-up, and with plenty of daylight left we walked through the campground to Lake Superior. It was too cold for swimming, but we collected some rocks. We thought it appropriate that we selected some Christmas colored rocks.

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We also dipped our feet in the cold water, and simply enjoyed the view.

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In the evening we returned to camp, cooked up some dinner, had some wine and cheese for dessert, and then sat by the fire for a while before retiring after a successful camp day.

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So, tell me – what makes for a stress-free camping experience for you?

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