By MIKE NORTON
The last day of September was about as miserable a fall day as you can get around here – cold, wet, gray and windy. Who would have predicted that it would usher in one of the loveliest weekends we’ve had all year?
The sun was out, the air was dry and cool, and even though the fall color hasn’t really peaked yet, there were enough splashes of scarlet, gold and orange in the woods to make it all cheerily autumnal. “It’s a cider and doughnuts day,” said Karen as we headed outdoor on Saturday. And it was.
Except that we didn’t have cider and doughnuts; we had bratwurst and wine. It was Harvest Day at the Chateau Chantal winery, and we climbed the high hill above their vineyards to spend a few hours with our friends and neighbors there. And although I’m not normally a fan of sweet wines, there is nothing quite like the taste of their Late Harvest Riesling on a crisp fall afternoon, with all the beauty of the Old Mission wine country spread around below you.
Fall is SO good in this place!
Fall is also a great time to check out other parts of the Traverse City area. Because let’s face it –in summer, all the action around here seems to be focused on our sandy beaches, our trendy downtown boutiques and restaurants, and – of course – the bay.
But there’s another, more workaday side to Traverse City. Just southwest of town, well away from the tourist throngs, is the “gateway district” – a sprawling collection of shopping centers and roadside eateries catering mainly to local residents and daytripping shoppers from nearby towns. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also beginning to attract a devoted following among savvy leisure travelers who find it a more convenient place to overnight.
“A lot of our guests are people who love Traverse City but don’t want to stay downtown or on the beach strip,” says Bryan Moore, general manager at the Traverse City Courtyard by Marriott. “This isn’t a last resort for them; it’s where they prefer to be.”
Like similar areas in other cities, the gateway district has a handful of brand-name hotels of the sort usually associated with business travelers. In addition to the Courtyard by Marriott, there’s a Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, a Baymont Inn & Suites — part of the Wyndham group – and a Great Wolf Lodge, one of 11 luxury waterpark resorts run by Great Wolf Resorts.
But this is Traverse City, where even chain hotels don’t quite fit the corporate mold. At the Courtyard by Marriott, employees brush snow off guests’ cars on winter mornings and the manager gives out his home phone number. And in addition to its trademark indoor waterpark, the Great Wolf Lodge is home to an outdoor nature reserve and has a small herd of bison grazing near its front door.
The bison are remnants of the former Oleson herd – the largest commercial buffalo herd east of the Mississippi – which was a prominent fixture of this neighborhood until the 1990s. Lodge sales and marketing director John Jessup admits that the Traverse City GWL is “a bit of an outlier” among the company’s resorts.
In fact, most of the commercial development in the gateway district is less than a decade old. Local hoteliers say the main reason for its popularity as a lodging destination is its sheer peacefulness – a feature that may not be readily apparent to the passing motorist who’s trying to negotiate between the shopping malls and car dealerships.
“We get consistent comments from our guests saying, ‘It’s so quiet, and we don’t have to listen to the traffic noise,’” says Fairfield Inn manager Fritz Heller. “They see this corner of the city as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of downtown and the beach strip.”
Other travelers say the gateway district is a more convenient base of operations than Traverse City’s crowded waterfront, especially if their plans take them in other directions. They may be holiday shoppers, concertgoers at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, snowmobilers and fishermen drawn to the trails and lakes in the Pere Marquette State Forest, or golfers who play the courses to the west and south of town.
Finally, there’s a growing number of corporate travelers who are bringing their families along on business trips because – well, because it’s Traverse City.
“Many of our customers are people who aren’t just here for business or pleasure, but want to do a little of both,” says Heller. “They’ll come on a business trip, but now they bring their families and take a few extra days just to make a vacation out of it.”:
Unlike its counterparts in other towns, Traverse City’s gateway district isn’t a place to search for cheap overnight lodging. The gateway hotels generally charge the same rates as comparable properties in the downtown and beach areas – and sometimes more.
“Our prices can sometimes be even higher than many places on the water, and we don’t apologize for that,” says Moore. “But that means people are going to expect a higher level of quality from us — and that’s something we’re willing to guarantee.”