Where to stay and what to do in Beaver Island, Michigan
In our limited series this week, Sarasota MagazineThe editors share the highlights of their summer vacation. Here’s where our editors went and what they did: from music festivals in Michigan to adventures in the mountains of New Hampshire to snorkeling in the Bahamas.
Tourists flock to the fudge shops and horse-drawn carriages of pretty Mackinac Island, but a lesser-known Michigan island offers scenic beauty without the commercialization. This July when we attended the 18e annual Beaver Island Music Festival, we realized we had stumbled upon one of the state’s best-kept secrets, a small, self-contained world with an authentic character all its own.
At 13 miles long and six miles wide, Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan. Most of the settlement lies along the perimeter, with houses, many of which are summer “chalets” owned by wealthy vacationers, perched in the woods overlooking the water. Tiny St. James, at the northeastern tip of the island, has a handful of businesses, restaurants and shops. But most of the island is underdeveloped, a natural paradise of forests, marshes, meadows, lakes and wildlife. Nature, hiking and biking trails crisscross the interior, but there are only a few roads, and only one of them is paved. Some 600 hardy souls live here year round, relying on ferries or small planes to transport everything from meat to refrigerators to baby goats. In summer, the population reaches over 20,000 inhabitants, many of whom are campers, cyclists and hikers.
The Beaver Island Boat Company operates ferries from Charlevoix on the mainland, except in winter, when the pack ice makes the lake impassable. You can hire cars on the island and a shuttle service provides transportation during the festival, but we were lucky to have the last seat for a car on the ferry when we made our reservations. The boat is large and spacious, with covered and open spaces, and we enjoyed sitting outside, looking out through an endless expanse of ruffled royal blue water, and discovering the gentle and friendly crowd, which included others. tourists, musicians with their instruments, and families with children and dogs. It’s a measure of the small size and feel of the festival – and the island – that at the end of the weekend we would greet some of our fellow travelers – and their dogs – by name.
After two hours we arrived at Paradise Bay and docked at St. James. The paddleboarders glided over the transparent turquoise surface; below, geometric patterns of underwater sand glittered in the sun. After checking into the Emerald Isle Inn, a comfortable and rambling structure with simple rooms and suites with kitchens, we stopped by the Marine Museum, housed in a 1906 wood-net shed, for a crash course in history of the island.
First settled by Native Americans, the island was discovered in the 1840s by Jesse Strang, an ambitious Mormon leader. He and his followers drove out the handful of white settlers and established what became the only kingdom in America, where the charismatic Strang oversaw the development of roads, infrastructure, and property. Strang was crowned king in 1850, but six years later he was shot down by supporters tired of his imperious manners. Soon after, the Mormons were driven out and replaced by fishermen and farmers, mostly Irish. Many of today’s inhabitants are the descendants of those Irish settlers, who gave the island its nickname: the Emerald Isle of America.
Surrounded by some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, Beaver Island has emerged as a powerhouse in the nation’s fishing industry, reaching over 1,000 in the mid-20th century.e century. But a lamprey plague wiped out Lake Michigan’s fishing populations, and at one point only about 200 were left. Tourism has revived the island, with new construction now the main industry.
We found plenty of side attractions over the three days of the festival, from driving along the coast, with its beautiful water views and historic lighthouse, to a fantastic meal at Beaver Island Lodge, a former hunting camp. and fishing with a cozy cocktail lounge and stone fireplace straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Looking out over Lake Michigan in the lodge’s Sunset Restaurant, we feasted on fresh whitefish in a panko and Parmesan crust, topped with Meyer Lemon Butter White. In addition to several small eateries, St. James has a lively bar scene at The Shamrock, and my personal favorite destination, the Beaver Island thrift store, with gorgeous summer resident junk including an Art Deco ceramic fawn. forest green which I bought for $ 1.
But the music festival was the main event. Founded by islanders Carol and Dave Burton 18 years ago, the festival takes place on 10 acres of the couple’s campground deep in the woods and features a variety of Michigan musicians. The state has a rich and vibrant music scene, and the Burtons have spent months choosing the 15 acts presented from over 600 nominees. They and a few music-loving friends listen to each submissive band and rank their favorites, making sure to select a range of genres. “We want the band to be the best at what they do,” Dave Burton told us, standing by the large campfire on opening night.
We were captivated by the performers, but it’s the setting that makes the Beaver Island Festival magical. Instead of the wares, beer tents, and funnel cake vendors that take over most festivals, this one is outright, an almost spiritual celebration of music and nature. In a forest glade, the Burtons have built two stages side by side (one act sits behind curtains while the other plays, so the music is continuous) as well as the campfire and a small catering tent. . There is also a great sense of camaraderie. Most of the 1,200 participants camped in the surrounding woods, where the tents sprouted like mushrooms. As we walked around we were invited out with one of the groups and greeted by a young man who had made pizza for us that afternoon in St. James. Several islanders showed up and asked if we liked their festival.
In the middle of last night, the generator went out and the musicians lost power. But the group played, unplugged. Lit by the campfire and a few beams of moonlight streaming through the evergreens, fans kept the energy going, enthusiastically chanting Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin ‘” and clapping and whistling as the volunteers brought the generator back to life. As we made our way through the park and returned to our car, guided through the pristine darkness by the glow of my cell phone lamp, we were already preparing for our return trip next year.
If you are going to: The Beaver Island Boat Company (888-446-4095), Fresh Air Aviation (1-888-FLYRIGHT) and Island Airways (800-524-6895) provide transportation from Charlevoix. The island has a few hotels. At the Emerald Island Inn, new owners Vic and Anna are improving the property and have been incredibly helpful; our kitchen suite was simple but spacious and had everything we needed. $ 265- $ 285 per night. The slightly more upscale Beaver Island Lodge offers accommodations and lake views. Summer rates range from around $ 200 to $ 300. In addition to the lodge’s Sunset Restaurant, we had a very good meal at Circle M, set in a historic rectory, and St. James has great breakfast and lunch spots as well as several markets. Next year’s festival is scheduled for July 14-16. Info: bimf.net