Frozen in lake time
Michigan's Petoskey is blessedly neither new nor improved
A statue of Ignatius Petoskey, a prominent early resident, stands in downtown, near the Stafford's Perry Hotel, one of the most famous in town. (Josh Noel, Chicago Tribune / July 9, 2012)
We'll never know, of course, but odds are good that old Hem would approve. This summer getaway, tucked in Lake Michigan's Little Traverse Bay, between Traverse City and the Upper Peninsula, remains frozen in Midwestern lake time.
Even Hemingway's favorite bar is still there, as anyone and everyone in Petoskey will tell you (along with the fact that he summered here for the first quarter of his life or so). In his day, that bar was called The Annex. Now it's called City Park Grill, and it hasn't inched far beyond Hemingway's time: long wood bar, dark green walls and a tin ceiling painted white. Hem's favorite bar seat — second from the end, according to my waiter — is right where he left it. The menu hasn't evolved much either: steak and whitefish rule the day at City Park Grill.
But that's Petoskey's point, and it is its pride. The small-town lakefront charm here hasn't given way to edgy art fairs, farm-to-table dining and an army of iPad-wielding tourists. It's about having the same experience your grandparents once did.
Petoskey, which grew rapidly in the late 1800s as a summer getaway, knows its strengths. Chain restaurants have been kept to a blessed minimum in the downtown. Both commerce and homes are largely on the bluffs above the lakeshore, leaving the water to breathe with parks and greenery. American flags flap, families picnic on impossibly green grass and, in the golden late afternoon, young people with Frisbees and guitars emerge on the wide, grassy plaza dedicated to war veterans.
The year-round population is slightly fewer than 6,000 but swells well past that on summer weekends with visitors strolling the clean streets and browsing the tidy storefronts: jewelry (high-end and low), art (ditto), ice cream, fudge, beach clothes, women's boutique-type clothes and tchotchkes. Oh, so many tchotchkes.
They're the tchotchkes that will always remind you of your time in Petoskey: wooden placards that say, "Home of the free because of my grandpa," magnets reading "Crazy cat lady" and mugs offering sentiments such as "Life is good … enjoy the little things" or "Be happy."
In one of those tchotchke shops I watched a woman deliberate between the light green "Life is good" mug and the cream-colored "Be happy" model before settling on "Be happy," and telling her husband, "I'll be mad at myself if I don't get this one."
In Petoskey, there should never be a more daunting dilemma. It's an exaggeration to say that these are the same shops your grandparents patronized — wait, no, that isn't an exaggeration.
"There's not a lot of changeover," said Tigger Calhoun, 37, whose Northern Sole shoe store sits on Lake Street, in the heart of Petoskey's shopping district. "This year had some of the most I'd seen in a while because a few folks retired. But mostly you don't see change."
That goes for the shopping (Grandpa Shorter's gift shop has been family owned since 1946), the sleeping (Stafford's Perry Hotel dates to 1899) and even the ice cream eating (Kilwins, a chain more than 75 stores strong, mostly in resort-type communities like Charleston, S.C., and Rehoboth Beach, Del., met the world in Petoskey in 1947).
"People here have been taught by their parents to go to Kilwins and get an ice cream for years and years because that's what you do here in the summer," Calhoun said.
On a warm summer day, that meant there was only one thing to do: go to Kilwins, which is also in that downtown shopping district. Amid its low ceilings and blue floral wallpaper, it's not difficult to imagine 60 years of children eyeing the overflowing sweetness: fudge, chocolates, ice cream and caramel corn among the offerings.
Though out front there were no kids; just Bob and Dee Kay, retirees visiting from Walled Lake, Mich., who have been 25-year regulars both in Petoskey and with Kilwins' butter pecan ice cream topped with hot fudge.
"You can't come to Petoskey and not get this ice cream," Bob said.
Asked why they keep coming back to Petoskey, the Kays immediately invoked the words "quiet," "quaint" and "small-town atmosphere." And there you have Petoskey: a living endorsement for predictability and charm.
If that sounds like a gripe, it's not. Petoskey is what an idyllic Midwestern getaway should be: a dressed-down, unhurried version of fancy. It's not tanned men in white shorts, leather shoes and argyle shirts (nothing against you handsome fellows). It's guys in shades and backward Detroit Tigers caps savoring our snippet of summer. It's little muss and even littler fuss, content to be its spare, honest self. Sounds like a writer I know.
If you go
Getting there: Though about a six-hour drive from Chicago, Petoskey is just 20 miles from Pellston Regional Airport, which gets nonstop service from Midway Airport via Lakeshore Express airlines (773-251-4414, lakeshoreexpress.com). Round-trip airfare starts at $300.
Stay: Stafford's Perry (231-347-4000, staffords.com) is the classic hotel, and for historic charms and location in the center of town, it can't be beat. With rates from about $149 to $269, don't expect luxury, though. The Terrace Inn (800-530-9898, theterraceinn.com) in neighboring Bay View is also a classic — 101 years and counting — but a bit more secluded and cheaper, with rates peaking at about $189. More modern comfort can be had at The Inn at Bay Harbor (231-439-4000, innatbayharbor.com), which is a Marriott property just west of Petoskey and on the lake. Petoskey is also home to many of the standard chains.
Eat: Ernest Hemingway supposedly hung out at the City Park Grill (231-347-0101, cityparkgrill.com) back when it was called The Annex, and Jesperson's (231-347-3601, 312 Howard St.), a no-frills spot dating to the early 1900s best known for pie. Both offer solid fare and are worth a visit for the history factor. For more modern and seasonal fare, check out Chandler's (231-347-2981, lakeandhoward.com) for dinner, Twisted Olive Cafe (231-487-1230, twistedolivecafe.com) for breakfast or lunch and American Spoon (231-347-7004, spoon.com) for any of the above.
Do: Walk the downtown streets, visit the shops and eat plenty of ice cream. Just a couple of miles east of town, Petoskey State Park offers 300 acres of woods, beach and sand dunes.
More information: petoskeyarea.com