Where some families have recipes that they hand down through generations, my family has canoes and sand dunes.

Every summer since my grandmother was a girl, my family has made the trek from wherever we are living to a little lake cottage in Northern Michigan. We spend our days riding bikes and playing in the lake. We take long rock-collecting walks and sand dune hikes and get ice cream in town. In the evenings, we light beach fires and watch while the sun electrifies the sky.

It's idyllic and timeless. The tradition of it has trained me to anticipate my week of relaxation. I plan dinner outfits all year. I used to tell Michigan stories the way some people told band camp stories in a certain movie. It becomes more than a week at the beach. It becomes a touchstone to reset, recalibrate and reconnect to the parts of me I cherish and the people who love me no matter what.

This doesn’t have to be a family tradition. Taking a week (or more) to disconnect from full schedules and busy days to fill your days with the things that bring you joy is an experience anyone can create. Here are my top tips to help you make this happen.

Planning some time on the beach? Here are 9 of the very best in Michigan

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Search for the signature stone in Petoskey, float the Crystal River in Glen Arbor or chill by one of the many lakes near Frankfort © Sarah Stocking, Lonely Planet

Step 1: Choose where to base yourself

Northern Michigan is tailor-made for road tripping. There are small hamlets to stop in, parks to camp in and boundless adventures to be had. But in order to really create a slow-paced, connective and fun vacation, I recommend finding a cottage, bed and breakfast or small motel in which to base yourself for the week. Day trips are abundant if you get bored (we rarely do). Here are some of the best places to stay.

Frankfort

Vibes: Surf town meets Americana charm. Frankfort has a thriving main street that deadends into a gorgeous white sand beach. Ice cream shops mixed with cute boutiques and a plethora of t-shirt shops make for a fun stroll.

Do: Rent paddle boards and bikes from Crystal Lake Adventures Sports and have a blast in the water and on the incredible bike trails around town.

Eat: Storm Cloud Brewery is the local microbrewery with a tasting room at one end of town (with food trucks) and a restaurant at the other. I also particularly like Goody’s Seafood Shack, which is great for a calamari snack while the kids play at the playground on the harbor across the street. Finally, Port City Smokehouse has fish sandwiches for takeaway, trout dips for cocktail hour fare and fresh cuts to make at home.

Stay: Harbor Lights Resort sits right on Frankfort Beach. Its simple, straightforward rooms and condos are just what you need when returning wet and sandy from a day at the beach. Alternatively, look for home rentals on Crystal Lake. The smaller lake is ideal for boating and swimming.

On a road trip? Here's our guide to the best driving routes in Michigan 

Glen Arbor

Vibes: Art Galleries and waterfront dining amidst outdoor adventure haven. Located on the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, Glen Arbor is great for those stretches of empty beaches, but it's also surrounded by smaller lakes, making this a good place to rent a little cottage.

Do: Rent a canoe or kayak and float the Crystal River. It meanders through overhanging forests and reedy eddies, making it a magical nature moment. Bring a picnic and plenty of water as it's a long day.

Eat: Cherry’s Public House takes full advantage of local cherries and makes jams and pies – even its seasoned fries have a hint of cherry. But the best part is the outdoor patio seating in the front and back.

Stay: This is where to pick a lake and find a cottage. The Glen Lakes have numerous vacation rentals with listings in all the usual places. 

Petoskey

Vibes: Posh sophistication in a quaint beach town package, perfect for a romantic getaway or a weekend with friends. Petoskey is the hub for resorters who stay in the surrounding area, like Bay Harbor, Bay View and Harbor Springs, among others. The town has excellent shopping, a summer concert series and movies in the park for evening fun.

Do: Head to Lavender Hill Farm. Inland Northern Michigan is filled with gorgeous farms, and Lavender Hill is exactly as beautiful as it sounds. Plus it smells heavenly.

Eat: For an evening when you want to dress up and eat lavishly, head to Walloon Lake Inn, about 10 miles out of town, where local wines are paired with locally sourced fish.

Stay: Again there are small lakes surrounding Petoskey that are prime for summer vacation rentals. It's also home to Stafford’s Bay View Inn, a dreamy Victorian inn and resort that harkens back to days when travelers arrived via ferry with their steamer trunks for the entire summer. The wrap-around front porch begs for long, lazy mornings and the lawn chairs await sunset views with a glass of wine. 

Step 2: Book your accommodations

Look for cottages around the above towns and book early. If you can start looking in January, that’s best, but there are ALWAYS last-minute options, and TBH, you can’t go wrong when you’re heading Up North. Remember: the important thing is a place to rest your head at the end of the day. You’ll be outside 99.9% of the time, so the decor really doesn’t matter. But be aware. A lot of these cottages have been in the same family for generations and are not in their prime. There are bugs and critters and drafts. There are plenty of posh, remodeled options too, but sometimes the sound of the slamming screen door or the rocking chair creaking on the porch is worth more than all the stars in the rating.

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Learn to paddleboard, bike through the serene countryside and run down the dunes, among other things to do in Northern Michigan © Sarah Stocking, Lonely Planet

Step 3: Plan the best things to do with your days in Northern Michigan  

There are some great day trips

  • Mackinac Island is a fantastic day trip. It's pricey to stay and kitsch to the max, so just cross the bridge for a day and enjoy the old-timey charm of this car-free island.
  • If you’re interested in a more cosmopolitan experience, head to Traverse. This sweet city is rapidly rising but with a steady eye toward charm and comfort. The shopping is fabulous, and many wonderful restaurants line the waterfront. I particularly enjoyed an afternoon at the Little Fleet Food Truck park.
  • Head up the Leelanau Peninsula. Fishtown near Leeland is an interesting stop. The fishing shanties that line the mouth of the Leeland River have been in use since the 1800s. Most have been converted into shops, and it's very atmospheric to roam along the boardwalk. Keep driving up the peninsula admiring the gorgeous coastline and dense old-growth forests until you get to Northport. Stop, eat and meander through this tiny, quaint village. 

Climb the dunes

Hiking through Sleeping Bear Dunes is a rush. The run down the dune is a particularly joyful experience – the kind of thing that makes you forget how old you are. It's a long way back up, though, so take it slow and remember it's supposed to be fun. 

Look for Petoskey stones

Take long walks along the white sand beaches and sift through the sand for a special rock only found here in Northern Michigan and in Florida. The sunburst pattern on the rocks glistens under the water. We like to bring our treasures back to the cottage and keep them in a bowl to admire. Then we return them to the lake at the end of the week.

Experience the best of the outdoors

What do you like? Golf? Tennis? Kayaking? Hiking? Swimming? All of the above? Great. It's all available. Bring your bikes or rent them when you come to cycle the winding country roads. Spend your days swimming in the clear, cool lakes, feeling the rush of the world fade off. These hikes are almost all in the area (the Empire Bluff one is my favorite). Or, bring a good book (or buy one at a local bookstore), find an Adirondack chair, sit back and enjoy. I would caution less is more – don't plan too much and trust yourself to find bliss.

Traveling as a family? Here are the best things to do in Michigan with kids

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The produce in Northern Michigan is incredible. There are farm stands along all the highways and farmer's markets in the small towns, and many of the restaurants are farm-to-table © Yolanda Gonzalez Photography, Patt_c, Garry Ennis, Getty Images

Step 4: Shop and eat the best local produce

Scout out grocery stores and markets. There are farmers markets in Frankfort and Glen Arbor throughout the summer. These are the best places to pick up fresh local produce. So much is grown in the farms surrounding these beach towns — strawberries in the early summer, blueberries in June and oh, the cherries. There are plenty of u-pick places too! Farm stands dot the highways with fresh eggs, fruits and vegetables. Stop and get your fare for the week. Pick a few nights you want to go out for meals, but eating in makes the days longer and the evenings more relaxed. In all the small towns, there are specialty food shops with cheeses, bread, dips and other delicious items to build your cheese board with. The local grocery stores sell wine, beer and other liquor. Stock up on s’more fixings and you’ll be good to go!

Step 5: Decide how you will get there

We always road trip in. We used to travel from Colorado, taking two days to get to Chicago, where we’d stay with grandparents before making the trek up the mitten to M-22. The plusses of driving in are that you can load up your car with everything you need — bikes, paddle boards and sand toys galore. But if you don’t have the time or inclination, fly into Traverse City and rent a car.

Step 6: Pack your bags

I’m going to be honest with you and admit that I never pack light for Michigan. I change my clothes at least three times a day. I like a morning outfit for breakfast, usually something cozy but cute. I need hiking clothes and biking clothes. I need ALL my swimsuits. I also need cute sundresses with a light wrap or cardigan for dinner outfits, and finally, I need jeans and sweatshirts for the evening. You can make your own decisions of course, but you will want to dress in layers. Mornings and evenings can be chilly, rain is always possible and its never particularly hot. Men should have collared golf shirts or button downs for nicer dinners. Sundresses are perfect for women. Bring water-worthy shoes for river trips and dune hiking– something like Tevas or Chacos – that are more than a flip-flop.  

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