It's a weekday in late June, and in the grass not too far from the waterfront of Little Traverse Bay kids are snatching fireflies and giving them temporary homes in jars. Two couples sit at a picnic table, sipping sodas — correction, this is Michigan, so they're sipping "pops." A 30-foot Tiara idles around a little burr in the bay called Harbor Point, its passengers fully relaxed and partially sunburned as the boat quietly motors toward one of the 46 transient slips at the Harbor Springs Municipal Marina. Exactly an hour ago everyone on or near the water watched a spectacular sunset over Lake Michigan. It is still dusk at this moment, with enough twilight to play or cruise. And it is 10:32 p.m.
After a long winter, the boaters in northern Michigan reap in such mass quantities something few others around the country can: time. For a month and a half when spring turns to summer, the sun officially rises before 6 a.m. Because Harbor Springs is so far north and on the western edge of the Eastern time zone, for 22 of those days the sun will set at 9:30 p.m. or later — and that doesn't begin to account for the long, post-sunset light.
"On a good day in July, I wouldn't want to boat anywhere else," says Tom Pagel, who has cruised the entire eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast. "It's a small town, but the energy is impressive. There's something here, I call it a 'freshness,' to the way people live in summer."
The water itself looks as fresh as filtered. On a jaunt through the bay and into Lake Michigan last year, our Florida crew paid most attention not to the surrounding rich forests or the Little Traverse Light or the nearby dunes, but to the clarity of our boat's wakes. Water-management efforts and a strong presence of zebra mussels have maintained a Caribbean quality to the bay and big lake.
Then there is the Harbor Springs waterfront. The city fathers know this is their bread and butter, so they've invested in picnic tables, a long walking pier, trails and bike racks. Harbor Springs recently introduced a Borrow-a-Bike program, where you can hop on specially designated bikes, ride to the next bike rack and leave it for someone else. There's even one at the city-run marina and next door at the Zorn Park Beach. The beach at Zorn Park is one of six wide sand beaches within a few miles of Harbor Springs, and the park is one of seven in the city (or one for every 224 year-round residents). It's all part of the fresh lifestyle in a place where, for a few months anyway, the light rules.
First Impression: Green is all around the energetic downtown, from the big and deep hardwood trees to the clear bay and lake water.
Something You Have to Do: Drive through the Tunnel of Trees, a canopy that hangs over M-119 as it winds along the high bluffs of Lake Michigan.
Trivia: Michigan has a state stone, called the Petoskey stone, a smooth fossilized coral that is rarely found anywhere outside this part of the state.
Trailering Here: U.S. 131 gives way to two-lane roads, which are more scenic than challenging.
Local Flavor: We'd start out with a stop at Pond Hill Farm for a bag of fresh local fruit to pick at throughout the day. Might as well grab a chocolate chunk cookie from Tom's Mom's Cookies, too - voted one of the nation's best by Family Circle. The big meal would be at Stafford's Pier Restaurant - unique because it sits on original pilings over the harbor.
Bedding Down: Rent a condo, cabin or home from one of at least seven vacation-rental agencies in the area.
Distance from Mackinac Bridge: 40 miles
Best Contact: boynecountry.com
It's better for some buyers to stick with the cost of a lake-view home instead of anteing up for lakefront property — and worrying about the erosion that comes up every couple of generations. We found a three-bedroom, three-bath home with big windows and a huge Midwestern-style deck that looks out toward Lake Michigan. They were asking $389,000 at harborspringsrealty.com.