Cherry Blossoms and Tall Ships — It’s a Traverse City Spring!

Cherry Blossoms at Old Mission Harbor
Cherry Blossoms at Old Mission Harbor

By MIKE NORTON

 The cherry orchards are blossoming in Traverse City! If you’ve never seen several million cherry trees all blossoming at once, with beautiful Grand Traverse Bay in the background, you need to get up here and take a look — it’s one of the truly unforgettable signs of spring in this lovely place!

Another great reminder of the season is when I look out the window and see the tall ship Manitou sailing along on the horizon. In fact, one thing that constantly surprises visitors to Traverse City is the sight of all the graceful schooners, sloops and other sailing vessels as they glide majestically across Grand Traverse Bay.

Though it’s hundreds of miles from the ocean, Traverse City has always been a seafaring community. It’s still home to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy – the only school in the nation that certifies deck and engineering officers for both saltwater and freshwater vessels — but it’s our “tall ships” that enchant visitors and have become our unofficial mascots.

In fact, Traverse City is home to more of these imposing sailing vessels than any other port in Michigan. And although they no longer haul lumber or carry the mail, the tall ships of Traverse City play a growing role in the community’s economic, educational and cultural life.

Some are working replicas of 18th and 19th century ships, available for dockside tours and (if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time) a free ride around the bay. Others offer excursion cruises across the bay each afternoon, and some even serve as floating science classrooms where students learn about the area’s aquatic environment and its maritime history.

The Tall Ship Manitou
The Tall Ship Manitou

Undoubtedly, the most easily recognized vessel in the Traverse City fleet is the Manitou, a 114-foot, 62-passenger schooner that offers three two-hour cruises across the bay each day of the week, as well as a number of specialty cruises (a Microbrew & Pizza Cruise, a Wine Tasting Cruise, musical cruises and “ice cream sails”) at scheduled times. In the fall, Manitou becomes a floating bed and breakfast, and is available for charter sailing..

Just as recognizable, though, are the dark red tanbark sails of the Inland Seas, a 77-foot schooner operated by the Inland Seas Education Association  which operates “floating classroom” programs where students of all ages learn about the ecology of the Great Lakes by spending a half-day sailing and studying science on Grand Traverse Bay. The group also sails a somewhat smaller “schoolship” – the 31-foot Friendship sloop Liberty.

The Nauti-Cat Cruising on West Bay
The Nauti-Cat Cruising on West Bay

A livelier sailing experience can be had aboard the Nauti-Cat, a 47-foot catamaran based near the mouth of the Boardman River. Measuring 29 feet from side to side, it offers up to four cruises per day during the summer months, often cruising as fast as 14 knots on a breezy day. Like the Manitou, the Nauti-Cat also rents out for charter cruises, and offers passengers the opportunity to raise the sails and steer.

Visitors are also likely to spot some of the many sailing vessels operated by the Maritime Heritage Alliance  or see them docked at Heritage Harbor along M-22 just north of the city. Their best known vessel is 92-foot Madeline, the twin-masted replica of an 1840’s commercial ship that served as Traverse City’s first schoolhouse during the winter of 1850-51.

The Armed Sloop Welcome
The Armed Sloop Welcome

They’re equally proud of Welcome, a replica of an armed British sloop from the War of 1812 that was built at Fort Michilimackinac for the bicentennial of the American Revolution; the group spent years restoring the vessel and making her fit for sailing. The Alliance also sails the 39-foot cutter Champion.

The only problem with all these busy ships is that they’re often out of town making goodwill visits to other Great Lakes ports. One place to see them all together – and in the company of some other distinguished vessels – is at the three-day Michigan Schooner Festival,  which takes place in Traverse City each fall.

This year’s festival is Sept. 9-11, and  will feature eight sailing vessels including Milwaukee’s three-masted schooner S/V Denis Sullivan, the 85-foot Appledore IV from Bay City and the replica sloop Friends Goodwill from South Haven. The festival will begin with an evening “grand parade of sail” as the vessels make their way south to Traverse City’s Duncan L. Clinch Marina.

Champion and Inland Seas at the 2010 Schooner Festival
Champion and Inland Seas at the 2010 Schooner Festival

Other activities will include tours, passenger rides aboard the vessels, an evening “Bassett Island Dance Hall” swing dance party, maritime music throughout the weekend, food, re-enactments and games for youngsters – as well as a tremendously popular Sunday morning “Pancakes with Pirates” breakfast.

For detailed information and directions about other events, adventures, activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, as well as help with lodging and dining visit the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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