Eating and drinking your way through Lake Leelanau

Photo of Fig’s on Instagram by thesweetpotatolyfe

By Chris Loud

Sun contributor

When I drove into the town of Lake Leelanau this time, I tried to think about it more from a discovery perspective rather than take it for granted as I always do. It’s a town I visit for specific destinations, or on my way through, but I don’t often plant my feet and take my time.

After driving the winding Duck Lake Road that cuts west from Suttons Bay toward Leland, I crossed the bridge spanning the narrow pass between north and south Lake Leelanau. The town is called Lake Leelanau, it sits on the lake called Lake Leelanau, in the county of Leelanau, on the Leelanau Peninsula. It wouldn’t be a stretch to claim the town of Lake Leelanau is the most Leelanau place in Leelanau, in more than just the name. (If I had a keyword requirement, I think I’d be set already.)

Breakfast does more than start the day in a town you’re discovering or rediscovering; it can often serve as a perfect prologue to whatever story the town is trying to tell. That might sound a little overly whimsical, but it’s late summer in northern Michigan so that’s the way it goes. In the case of Lake Leelanau, the story starts at Fig’s. The location has been home to the healthful staples Kejara’s Bridge and the Redheads Cafe and Tasting Room. The Redheads have now expanded and shifted focus to their delicious products like their hummus and black bean burgers, becoming more and more available in stores all over. With Fig’s now in the space, it’s clear they understand the tradition of the location, with an inspired menu featuring locally sourced meat and produce, ranging from classic breakfast plates to inventive fusions and healthy options.

After breakfast, I wanted to make sure I got out on the lake in case the weather turned, and before my interests turned to liquid spirits‚—found aplenty even in the small town of Lake Leelanau. I was interested in operating my own craft, hoping to wander by water as much as possible for an hour or two. At the Narrow’s Yacht Club, the motorized options were tempting. My party of one felt awkward for a pontoon boat; the Four Winns looked like a blast, but probably more boat than I needed at the time; so the fishing boat seemed to make the most sense. However, the kayak, at more than half the price, really called my name today. I wanted to explore some of the nooks and crannies of the narrows, to take in the more immediate natural waterside surroundings of the town. I could not recommend this more. It’s a unique waterway to paddle, and if you’re up for a challenge, charging against a north wind at the mouth of the lake will test your strength and endurance. Luckily, I knew what was waiting for me once I returned.

After an appropriate level of morning adventure, my hunger pangs would only accept ample protein and carbs. At Dick’s Pour House the choice was between the perch basket or the Plevalean burger, each battling for most Leelanau lunch after a most Leelanau excursion. It came down to the fact that the burger meat came from down the road in Cedar, from a wonderful place called Pleva’s, and it had cherries in it. That’s almost too on the nose when it comes to a Leelanau lunch, but it’s also leaner than most burgers and I wasn’t going for nuance. So yes, by all means, put cherries in my burger and let’s get straight to eating it. I did not regret my decision. Plus, I needed that lean protein for my next Leelanau adventure.

For the sake of digestion, I decided to slowly saunter my way back over the bridge to Northern Latitudes Distillery. I figured a nice light spirit tasting would allow me to relax and ease into my afternoon, without weighing me down too much. I had to keep myself springy for the next pursuit of action. This is definitely a hidden gem, with a comfortable and cool space, and a nice bourbon whiskey.

I had one other assignment for the day, and I figured I best do it now before it got too late in the afternoon. I drove south along the lake for about a mile and a half to Vernsyder fruit farm. I was told I could not leave the area without getting their peaches. This is an annual must-do for many folks in the area, and for good reason.

Just a short drive outside of town is 45 North Vineyard and Winery. In addition to great wines and ciders, I was drawn to the onsite three-mile, multi-use trail. Luckily, the kayak used mostly arms in the morning, since I decided to take my mountain bike around the trail. Leelanau is all about earning your next indulgence, food or drink. This was the concept I intended to embrace. There was one hill that made me question my thinking, if only for a moment, but the downhill on the backside was well worth it. It was truly a perfect trail for the occasion. In the tasting room, I was really enjoying my citra-hopped cider appropriately named Singletrack, basking in my two-in-one day adventure accomplishment, when a couple twice my age sat down near me at the bar and talked about doing the loop twice, for the third time that week. Being the true competitor that I am, I ordered one more cider than they did.

Before transitioning directly to happy hour, I thought it smart to do some poking around the area. First stop on the way back from 45 North was Pedaling Beans for an afternoon reset. It’s a great little coffee shop located just outside of town on the main drag.

I heard some rumors about NJ’s Grocery having some unique options for food, so I made my way back across the bridge. Sure enough, they have a whole section of homemade Indian food for takeout. Indian food is still a bit scarce in the area, even in Traverse City, so I purchased a fish cooler and ice nearby, and stocked up for tomorrow’s dinner. My mouth was already watering thinking of some chicken tikka masala and samosas.

After wandering around town a bit more and eavesdropping on some local fish stories, I thought it time to head to a spot I had put on the list early on. Boathouse Vineyards has a beautiful tasting room right on the narrows. I sat on the porch and sipped. This was almost too relaxing. The day was beginning to catch up to me, and I honestly think I could have slept right there in that comfy chair. Time to head to dinner before I go down.

At Bella Fortuna, just a block or so to the south of the main road, I was thankful for some of their lighter Italian fare. I wandered outside after dinner and watched some folks play bocce on Bella Fortuna’s courts. This was a great way to leave Lake Leelanau, because it summed it up nicely. It’s a small town with a surprise around every corner. From kayaking, to cherry burgers, to mountain biking and wine tasting, it begs the question … Is Lake Leelanau the most Leelanau place in Leelanau? Go check it out and decide for yourself.