If cherry pie on July 4 is the ultimate expression of Americana, then the ultimate American destination for Independence Day weekend might be Traverse City, Mich. — home to the oldest and biggest festival celebrating the red, juicy summer fruit in all its glory.
I am a sucker for cherry festivals of any kind, not to mention pastry. Apparently, I have lots of company: The National Cherry Festival, held in Traverse City during the first full week of July, regularly draws a half-million revelers to an eight-day party on the shores of Lake Michigan. This scenic resort in the state’s far north is wedged into a U-shaped crook between Western Grand Traverse Bay and Boardman Lake, with shimmering blue water around every bend, as well as some of the Midwest’s finest beaches.
Traverse City makes an ideal summer detour for those driving to or from Chicago; connecting flights from New York to the Cherry Capital Airport are relatively inexpensive, too. Midwestern families have been flocking to the limpid turquoise waters of Traverse Bay for generations, but East Coasters are discovering the area’s beaches, boutiques and arts. Cherries aren’t the only crop here, either: the Traverse City region is becoming known for its wineries, many of which are picturesque waterfront destinations in their own right.
But pie lovers plan their visit around the Cherry Festival’s fireworks, nightly outdoor concerts, dazzling air shows, the nation’s largest cherry-themed children’s parade — and, naturally, plenty of cherry confections. Every year since 1925, the Festival also crowns a Cherry Queen to represent the industry and the region.
Pie is just one slice of the Northern Michigan baking tradition; challah is another. Home cooking has been a proud feature of local Jewish life since the late 1800s, when Jewish pioneers came west for the lumber trade, put down roots and helped settle merchant communities on the country’s northern frontier. In 1885, these families built a simple, elegant white clapboard manse for Congregation Beth El, which today is on the State Register of Historic Sites as Michigan’s oldest synagogue in continuous use.
Jewish numbers have waxed and waned over the decades since, but the now-Reform congregation is going strong — holding services monthly from September to June and weekly in the summer. Whatever the season, Michigan’s Jewish cooks and bakers proudly share their recipes at the post-service oneg, at potluck Shabbat dinners and at the many holidays and simchas that punctuate the year. (More than 90 families also worship nearby at Traverse City’s “new” synagogue, the unaffiliated Congregation Ahavat Shalom.)
In the summer months, sanctuaries swell with Jewish vacationers who escape sweltering Chicago and Detroit and head to the country roads and thick maple forests of Traverse City’s abundant parkland. In addition to miles of wide, sandy beaches on Lake Michigan, there’s Power Island, a 200-acre preserve of woods, wetlands and scenic bluffs rising from the bay; this onetime playground of Henry Ford and other auto magnates is accessible by ferry and offers a network of paths, campsites, unspoiled beaches, and a tiny harbor for boaters.
You can stroll by the water even in downtown Traverse City, where a wooden walking trail runs alongside the inlets of Boardman Lake. The city center is vibrant and charming; tree-shaded, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks are dotted with boutiques, restaurants, retro street fixtures, and vintage theaters.
Several of these theaters — along with a good share of the downtown’s vitality — owe their renaissance to the Traverse City Film Festival, founded and helmed by local resident Michael Moore, of documentary fame. (Larry Charles, the Brooklyn-born Jewish “Seinfeld” writer and “Borat” director, is on the festival’s board, alongside other arts luminaries — many of whom have Michigan ties.)
During the last week of July, the Film Festival screens a diverse lineup at the State Theatre, Traverse City’s downtown landmark, and other historic venues that the Festival was instrumental in renovating and reviving. For a memorable evening, you can even reserve space on the Festival catamaran and take in a movie while cruising the Bay by night. The boat departs nightly just before 10 p.m., as guests don sweaters against the breeze, gaze at the stars above, and munch popcorn washed down with specialty drinks.
Onshore or off, the local arts community has long roots — notably in the nearby town of Interlochen, where Interlochen Center for the Arts was founded nearly a century ago. A 15-minute drive southwest of Traverse City, Interlochen’s campus sprawls over 1,200 rolling, wooded acres, where hundreds of young adults gather from across the world to study visual and performing arts (alumni include such figures as Rufus Wainwright, Norah Jones, Jewel, Lorin Maazel and Ida Kavafian.)
For visitors, Interlochen offers the opportunity to stroll by the practice huts or spread out a picnic blanket for the summertime concert series — with a slice of pie, of course.
Images: Wikimedia Commons