Photo of Peterson Park, near downtown Northport, by Yagudinnna
By Chris Loud
Northport seems to reinvent itself every couple of years, with new restaurants and bars popping up or changing hands,new boutiques in town, and now even a stylish cannabis shop up the road. Still, a few things have remained constant. First, the people are continuously warm and hospitable, with that eccentric twist that keeps Northport … Northport. Also, it’s still one of the best places for families with small children in the entire region.
As a parent, I think about three main keywords when looking to take the family somewhere: Food, playgrounds, easy. I’ll start with the food, since that can be tricky in smaller towns.
First of all, Northport is a picnic town. It’s begging you to picnic. Stroll the main streets, grab some food, and head down to the marina and the adjacent parks for plenty of space, tons of tables, a sandy beach, bay breezes … and yes … all steps from a playground. New Bohemian Cafe has great sandwiches for lunch, and amazing breakfast options, with excellent coffee and tea. Their drink cooler is usually stocked with juice boxes and chocolate milk as well, and good luck leaving without a large cookie. Speaking of sugar, Barb’s Bakery is a Northport institution about a block and a quarter from picnic central. My kids dig into the classic chocolate-covered options.
Dinner picnics call for pizzas from the Big Hot Woody wood-fired pizza cart, smartly parked at The Mitten Brewery. There’s actually a nice patio with good space at the brewery if you’re itching to sample some local brews, kids in tow.
Wine touring with kids is impossible, right? Not in Northport. Just outside of town there are two wineries that are kid-friendly—Green Bird, and Dune Bird. Both wineries are owned by families with young children, so they know the deal, and each have plenty of outdoor space with wide open countryside to view and roam. Green Bird is an organic winery, with kid beverages and snacks at the ready, and farm animals like sheep and goats for the kids to see. Dune Bird offers a kids meal named after their kids Forrest and Finley, plus they have personal toy boxes available to take back to your table to occupy the little ones while you sip delicious wines and cider. They also offer an espresso bar menu if you need a quick boost before diving into the Bird Bash Wine Tour (working title).
It’s good to branch out with the local fare, but as we all know, sometimes we just need to track down some mac and cheese for the kids, and live to fight another day. Do that necessity right at Garage Bar-B-Q. Take note, for those who enjoyed the first iteration of The Garage in Northport, this is a new version with a different menu. We all loved the original Garage, yours truly included, but this version is a worthy second wave, specializing in high-quality takes on classic southern barbeque, a legit beer menu, and incredibly refreshing mixed drinks. Grab some smoked shrimp and ribs for you, and a side of mac and cheese for them (and let’s be honest, get the large one so you can eat what’s left). If you’re still loyal to the original Garage, and are hesitant to break into the new, I literally sat next to one of the original chefs as he promptly ordered nearly everything on the new menu, and he couldn’t have been more excited. Change can be hard, I get it, but don’t let skepticism keep you from smoked shrimp and corn bread. That’s a regret waiting to happen.
Across the street from the new Garage is another new downtown eatery called Around The Corner, and it’s brimming with potential family activities, even with special movie nights, so check out their website and social profiles for the goings ons. Their menu is fluid, but last time I checked it out they had a PB & J pasty … so that’s amazing. This place has a lot of potential for families, so keep it on your radar.
Ok, it does rain in beautiful Northport occasionally. And believe it or not, it can sometimes get hot up there at the tip of the peninsula. So if it’s a rainy day, or you need a break from the sun, Northport actually has a boutique bowling alley at Northport Pub & Grille. There are kid-ready bowling options, including bumpers and a dinosaur ball ramp. Plus there is plenty of space inside, pool tables, and a kids menu. My daughter enjoyed climbing on a huge bear statue outside, just so you know.
For another option with some indoor space, The Union on the corner across from Mitten Brewing also has a decent amount of space for restless kids, and you can get pizzas and drinks. They also have a chill courtyard spot for dining al fresco.
And of course, there’s ice cream. Stop at The Tribune for classic cones from the window. It’s just steps from the marina, and nothing is better than a stroll around the docks with some drippy ice cream. Grab those napkins and spare cups, and just let it happen. Don’t sleep on the marina for the kids. If you don’t think your kids would like a casual stroll by all the beautiful boats you might be surprised. Plus, there’s often ducks to quack at, and even fish to spot from the dock.
Now for the playgrounds. I already mentioned the park next to the marina, where you could potentially spend an entire afternoon between the beach and the playground. I also recommend a walk up to the Northport Public School, where you’ll find another very solid playground, with a bit more shade, and likely less people. If your kids are older and like tennis, skateparks, or basketball, Bramen Hill is just up the road a few minutes from the village, but I don’t recommend it for smaller children, as the playground there is limited in comparison to what else is available in town. Another great place is Peterson Park, about a five-minute drive from town, with an updated playset, and arguably the best views of Lake Michigan that Northport has to offer.
The sleeper spot that does require about a 10-15-minute drive is the playground at the lighthouse. It’s an amazing structure, one of the coolest in the county, with tons of space to run around. Plus, they might enjoy checking out the historic Grand Traverse Lighthouse, or some of the best rock hunting in the area.
In addition to playgrounds, beaches, the marina, drinks, and food … there’s also some kid-friendly hikes, and even shopping. The Nagonaba Trail System around Northport has some great flat trails, and most can be accessed from the Northport Creek Golf Course just a couple minutes north of town. For the more adventurous, there are great trails at the Leelanau State Park, with pretty doable medium hikes that spill out at a jaw-dropping dune-scape on Lake Michigan. If your kids can handle it, they’ll never forget the first time they pass through the trees to the wide-open dunes, beach, and water. I certainly haven’t forgotten that moment, and it still hits me every time.
For shopping, a beautiful new shop called Yard and Lake has a pretty unique “secret” store concept, that involves a scavenger hunt style clue finding mission around the village to help kids find the location of their “hidden toy store.” Also, nearby Pennington Collection and Dolls & More each have excellent kid sections. Waukazoo Tees next to Around the Corner has some kids stuff … and fun t-shirts … and a couple doors down you can check out North Shore Outfitters. It’s a great place for all things beach and water.
Don’t let me forget the easy aspect. One of the best parts about Northport is that’s it’s just easy. Parking is pretty easy, walking from place to place is easy, finding outdoor space is easy, and the laid-back nature all around helps counter the organized chaos that is traveling with kids. If you do visit this wonderful little village, make sure to tip well, throw a buck into the fireworks fund, and be courteous to all the folks making your family outing easy and special.