In Traverse City, “In-between” Season Has Charms of Its Own

Traverse City resident Mike Norton used to dread the weeks between Halloween and Christmas, but now he’s learned to appreciate this “in-between season” for its quiet beauty, slower pace and lower prices. In Traverse City, especially, early winter is a time of relaxation, coziness and charm, he says.

I moved to Traverse City because I love being outdoors, and I still do. In the summer, you’ll find me walking this town’s beautiful beaches, kayaking on Grand Traverse Bay or hiking through the Pere Marquette State Forest. In winter, I’ll be out on my skis at Old Mission Point or snowshoeing around the Boardman Valley.

But there’s one time of year that I’m only beginning to appreciate. I mean the season we’re going through right now – these six to eight weeks between the end of fall color season and the start of snowsport season. It’s too cold for swimming, too early for sledding. Is it late autumn or early winter? And what in the world can you do?

Plenty, as it turns out. Over time, I’ve learned to appreciate and even welcome this odd “in-between” season – especially here in Traverse City, where it’s actually become one of my favorite times of year. It’s a quieter, friendlier time, I think, when the true flavor of this lovely place begins to re-emerge after months of overstimulation.
Once October ends, there’s a sudden shift in the rhythm of life in Traverse City. The hectic crowds of summer and fall dwindle to a more manageable level, even on weekends. Suddenly you’re not waiting in line to get a table at a restaurant. Suddenly, hotel rates are much lower, store clerks are much more relaxed, and everybody seems much happier to see you.

The Traverse City area has over 4,000 guest rooms and a wide range of choices, from large full-service resorts to cozy family-operated motels, from condominiums to B&Bs. There are unique winery chateaux, rustic Up North cabins, laid-back beach resorts and an elegant casino hotel. And it all seems just a little bit more relaxed this time of year.

Part of the appeal, I admit, is that there are fewer kids around. I love youngsters (really I do!) but there are some things that just aren’t much fun when you have to share them with the younger set. Once the little ones are safely back in school, Traverse City becomes a perfect setting for adults who want to slip away for a little fun of their own, whether that’s a romantic weekend, a holiday shopping trip, or a girlfriends getaway.

The truth is, I’ve learned to enjoy some of the indoor pleasures of this season. That isn’t hard in a place like Traverse City, which keeps picking up national and international praise for the quality of its restaurants and its outstanding wines. Dining out is much more pleasant when you can do it without feeling crowded or rushed  –  and I always try to get a table near the fireplace, just to enjoy the cozy snap and crackle of a real fire.

On the other hand, “quiet” shouldn’t mean boring — and fortunately, Traverse City isn’t the kind of resort town that shuts down in wintertime. If anything, I think its nightlife actually seems to improve as the weather turns colder — whether that’s a concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, some stand-up comedy at the City Opera House, or the gaming tables at the Leelanau Sands or Turtle Creek casinos.

And shopping? Things are still humming along nicely this time of year in Traverse City’s historic and pedestrian-friendly downtown with its fascinating boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops and galleries, and at the Grand Traverse Commons, a fascinating “village” of shops, eateries and homes in the turreted buildings of our 19th-century mental asylum. This is when all those places start running their holiday specials – and when their owners actually have the time to stand around and chat with you.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still an outdoorsy guy, and I still prefer to be outside whenever I can. And I’ve learned to enjoy the austere beauty of this season, with its browns and maroons and dark golds framed by the electric-blue water of Lake Michigan and the increasingly dramatic skies of winter. I still like to get the kayak out and paddle across the bay, and I love to hike the deep forests of pine, spruce and hemlock that cover the hills south of town.

But the most fun of all, I think, is being able to combine indoor and outdoor activities by touring Traverse City’s legendary wine country.
Many of the 28 wineries on the Old Mission and Leelanau peninsulas are located on high hilltops with wonderful views of the surrounding landscape, and there’s something about that splendid setting that goes particularly well with their crisp fruit-forward wines.

So mark me down as a former skeptic who has mellowed in his opinions about this once-scorned time of year. Here in Traverse City, at least, I don’t think of it as “in-between season” anymore. Now it’s my new “relax-and-unwind season” instead!

Mike Norton, a native of Grand Rapids, spent 25 years as newspaper writer and columnist before starting a second career as media relations director at the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. An avid hiker, skier and cyclist, he lives in the village of Old Mission.