The perfect day in Leland: Chubby Mary, Cheese Shanty and beach reads


Chubby Mary photo by Lisa Rose

By Chris Loud

Sun contributor

We were due for a day in Leland. New baby, work, blah, etc. The grandparents came through, we made our reservations, and it was time to cruise through the rolling hills and sweeping curves of Leelanau County’s spine, to a throwback coastal town for food, drinks, beach, and repeat. 

Leland is a getaway in every sense of the word. It’s idyllic and old school, clean and comfortable, and there’s just enough to do without overwhelming you. On this shore, Lake Michigan can be calm and quiet, or raging and dark. The weather decides which experience you’ll have. Big lake storms can be the best excuse to huddle up and reset in a cozy spot, hypnotized by the rain and wind. That being said, I was thankful for a sunny and clear Leelanau summer day. 

The key to day-tripping to Leland in the peak of summer is dinner reservations, then fill in the rest. It was still a little cool in the morning, so we were in the mood for a comfort food breakfast. Early Bird is a classic small town diner with big portions and bottomless coffee pours. We ordered our preferred traditional eggs, meat, and toast combos and eased into our day exchanging sections of the newspaper, while purposely leaving some select sections neatly creased and unread on the table. Today was just not the day for those sections. 

Taking it slow, we wandered across the bridge spanning the Leland River over to the Leelanau Historical Society Museum, which is housed in a small building overlooking a beautiful bend in the river. We took in tales of shipwrecks, lighthouses, and fur trading, and learned about native art and history. It was an inspiring way to start the day. Plus, as preparation for a day of self-indulgence, even just a little education makes the food and drink taste better. On our way back into town we strolled through the grounds of the Old Art Building, home of the Leelanau Community Cultural Center, and made mental notes of upcoming events and classes. 

At the corner of the focal intersection are two places we at least pop in when visiting Leland: River & Main and Harbor House Trading Company. At Harbor House, my wife sifted through some of the shirts and sweaters, and I went towards the beach toys, but not without ogling at all the high-tech camping gear first. Then we made a note of what ice cream we might get later. 

At River & Main, we did our usual. We walked through the fun gifts and elaborate knick-knacks, acting like we’re not there to buy pounds of candy. Then we bought pounds of candy, welcoming the aforementioned self-indulgence to the party, and asking it to stay awhile.

Now, it was time for beach prep. First, a book to read for each of us; second, a sandal upgrade for my wife; and finally, sandwiches. Leelanau Books is a great little bookstore right in town, perfect for casually searching for that next beach read. She found her heroine with a dark past who solves the mystery while butt kicking, and I found yet another wanderer in search of self in offbeat America. 

Next, we hopped into Fish Hook to buy a pair of sandals, and then it was time for the most important part—the Village Cheese Shanty, better known as the Cheese Shop. We got our delicious sandwiches on fresh pretzel bread and a couple of lemonades. 

Now we were officially locked and loaded for sun and little-to-no movement for the better part of two hours. Just south of the river we staked claim at Van’s Beach. As soon as I sat down, half my sandwich was gone. She had more self-control for food, but less for butt kicking, so she dove right into her book. I’m pretty sure I saw her sneak a candy instead, but she denied it. I became less entranced by my book when the waves seemed to swell all at once, and two kiteboarders appeared as if dropped out of the sky. This is something I always say I’d like to do. Speaking of that, I went back to reading about the back roads of the northern plains. 

After sufficient sun, and a dip in the lake, we toweled off and headed towards some light afternoon adult beverages. The Verterra Winery tasting room is just around the corner from River & Main in a historic 1927 building that once was a barbershop and a pool hall, although I’m not sure at the same time. Our wonderful tasting was just the right amount of social and drink to pull us out of beach brain hibernation.

In need of an afternoon pick-me-up, we walked north and through a little courtyard area to find Blue Boat Coffee. I chatted with the barista about the regional local art scene while waiting for my pour over, and my wife consumed chapters while “sneaking” into the candy stash again. 

Before hitting the Fishtown shops, we stopped off to share an ice cream cone from Harbor House. It was nice to be distracted only by local arts & crafts, seasonal clothes and jewelry, and the calming, ever-present sound of the rushing water cascading into the canal. The charter fishermen were out already on their afternoon trips, likely cruising off the shores of Manitou Island, leaving space along the docks to peer over at the green-tinted clear water. 

Then, we saw it: the Chubby Mary at Rick’s Cafe. They had strategically placed someone near the entrance who ordered the unusual drink, consisting of a tasty bloody mary with a smoked whole chub fish sticking out of the glass like a server mistook it for a straw. We sat down and shared one. The smoked fish and crackers were just enough to bridge the gap between late afternoon and dinner.

Now it was time for the main events. We dropped off a few things at the car, and headed over to the Manitou Island Transit building, ready to embark on our evening shoreline cruise. The little ferry headed out of the harbor into the Manitou Passage, and took us on a smooth ride with views of Good Harbor Bay, Pyramid Point, and the North Manitou Shoal Light. I enjoyed a drink from the cash bar, and we kicked back as the sun began going down over the islands. 

Back on shore, it was time for dinner. We strolled up the road past well-kept homes to the left and the winding river to the right. At the Riverside Inn, we sat on the back deck with a view of the river and an orange sky, with pontoons and wooden boats cruising up and down. Following our seafood entrees was a rich dessert and decafs. We slowly devoured the last few bites as the sun went away for the night, and our day in Leland was complete. Now, to plan the repeat.