Photo Courtesy of Cheboygan Chamber of Commerce
Discover the surprising small city at the Eastern edge of the Straits of Mackinac.
Visitors are waking up to the charm of Cheboygan, located at the top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula along the US 23 Heritage Route. The area where the Cheboygan River meets Lake Huron is a four-season destination with an abundance of maritime and recreational experiences, growing cultural and arts scene, and an energized Main Street.
“We are a hidden gem off the beaten path. People are starting to notice,” says Carole Yeck, executive director of the Cheboygan Area Chamber of Commerce.
Gateway to the waterways
Travelers know that before heading out in any unfamiliar area, it’s important to get oriented. In Cheboygan, you can find your bearings at the bar. Specifically, the 24-foot-long copper and mahogany beauty at The Nauti Inn Barstro on Main Street.
Sharen and Brian Lange commissioned Michigan talent to create the “Waterway Bar” as the centerpiece of their bistro where, from May through December, small plates and seasonal entrees are served in a setting with the ambiance of a classic wooden boat. The gleaming bar is topped with area maps made of thick sheets of Michigan copper.
“Our bar has become its own sort of destination,” Sharen says. “If you’re from Cheboygan, you can point right to where so-and-so lives, or where you caught a fish, or your favorite kayak spot. For those not from here, the bar gives us a spectacular visual to share our special Inland Waterway.”
That’s the watery route that stretches 38 miles westward from Cheboygan and was important to Native Americans centuries ago. “Cheboygan” may be based on the Ojibwe word meaning “through passage,” because it was a protected, alternative course between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The waterway was dotted with encampments — archaeologists have discovered evidence of about 50 settlements along the way — and Ottawa and Chippewa Indians used it to meet and trade.
In 1778, a British trader arrived and stayed for two winters, but it wasn’t until 1844 that permanent settlers moved to the thickly forested area and constructed the first sawmill. Much work was required to realize the potential of the waterway, including dredging, widening, creating a canal and building a lock. By the late 1800s, the lumbering boom was on, and the population topped 8,000.
Tourists started to arrive by passenger ships from Detroit and Cleveland. In the style of the era, advertising hyperbolically touted traveling The Inland Route, “One of the marvels of the 19th century” and “The most picturesque trip in the world.”
Today, paddlers, pontoons and powerboats spend a day or more following the Inland Waterway, which connects Lake Huron with the Cheboygan, Crooked and Indian rivers, and Mullett, Burt, Pickerel and Crooked lakes.
A port city
The Port of Cheboygan is an active, deepwater port that allows access to all of the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and the world. In addition to pleasure craft, it accommodates domestic and international freighters, and is the home of marine contractors. The Kristen D ferries cars and passengers 45 minutes to Bois Blanc Island, a sparsely populated getaway.
Stationed here is the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WABB 30); at 240 feet, it’s the largest icebreaker on the Great Lakes. Its predecessor, commissioned 1944-2006, is now the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum, 15 miles west in Mackinaw City.
Photo Courtesy of Cheboygan Chamber of Commerce
Photo Courtesy of Cheboygan Downtown Facebook
Fun for all
Learn about the area’s past at the museum compound that includes the 1880s sheriff’s residence and jail. Check out the restoration in process at the Front Range Lighthouse. Catch a performance at the historic Opera House. Admire the rotating exhibit by local and regional artists at Ottawa Art Park.
The Children’s Trail at Major City Park engages kids with nature and storytelling, through a changing storybook, interactive art sculptures, checkerboard table and special activities. It’s connected by a pedestrian bridge over the Cheboygan River to Washington Park, where there are concerts at the gazebo. Cheboygan has earned designation as a Pure Michigan Trail Town for the area’s wealth and variety of non-motorized (hiking, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, equestrian and biking), ORV and water trails. These include the North Central State Trail, North Eastern State Trail, and paths at the Cheboygan and Aloha state parks.
At Gordon Turner Park, an astounding 15-acre cattail marsh attracts winged visitors. Located on the Sunrise Coast Birding Trail, it’s a hotspot for viewing shorebirds, osprey, snowy owls, bald eagles, gulls and many other species throughout the seasons. There’s also a boardwalk, the photogenic Cheboygan Crib Lighthouse, a playground, beach, picnic tables and distant view of the Mackinac Bridge.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays from Memorial Day Weekend through October, Cheboygan Farmers’ Market at Festival Square draws local growers and makers who sell produce, meats, baked goods, honey, syrup and handcrafted items (check the Facebook page for off-season indoor market information). Aboard Captain Jenn Robyde’s Nautical North Family Adventures, everyone has a chance to view Lake Huron shipwrecks without getting wet. Yankee Sunshine, her 28-passenger, glass-bottom boat, makes 90-minute, narrated tours from May to October. She also offers kayak rentals and shipwreck diving trips. Not into scuba Ask about the boat tour with the option to snorkel over an 1891 shipwreck.
“Yes, we stop and throw people overboard,” she laughs.
Sip, SUP, shop
Main Street Cheboygan invites strolling and dropping into an eclectic mix of one-of-a-kind shops and dining spots. At her cheery, namesake café, Libby Davis buzzes about, greeting a steady stream of guests who come for inventive dishes from breakfast through dinner, and her famous pies. This is Libby’s third Cheboygan location, and she’s happy to be back downtown.
“The more restaurants, the better,” she says, adding, “I love seeing people with shopping bags on the streets.”
Urban Bird & Company carries fun fashions and accessories for women, and kids gravitate to the hands-on activities at Creation Station & Right Brain Toys. Bittersweet is a modern general store with a wide selection of edibles, collectibles, household and seasonal items. MichMash mixes Michigan-made products, decorative and home goods, food, jewelry, accessories and more.
Refresh with a Lighthouse Amber, Blood Orange Honey or Blueberry Cream Ale at Cheboygan Brewing Company. Originally founded in 1872, the brewery faded away in 1911 and was revived a century later, with an indoor taproom, outdoor patio and rooftop seating. Hive North offers Michigan-made mead, cider and beer, acoustic music jams, locally crafted goods and special events at the arch-ceilinged gathering spot described as “a coffee house with alcohol.” Plain-to-fancy caffeine fixes are nearby at Cheboygan Coffee Roasters and State Street Coffee Company.
Longtime local food favorites include breakfast at Alice’s Restaurant, Mulligan’s (Good Food. Bad Shots.) something-for-everyone menu and friendly service, and the parmesan-encrusted whitefish at Great Lakes Grill, a Cheboygan institution since 1996. At Yeck Family Drive-In, a 45-year summertime tradition, a car hop delivers your burger, coney dog, shake or root beer float.
Along Main Street, what looks like a row of colorful shops from Merry Olde England comprises multiple businesses invented by Marcella and Brit-born John Costin. The couple has a raft of honors recognizing their contributions to Cheboygan’s current revival. Note: Tongue-in-cheek humor and adult beverages are involved. Their first foray was Simply Marcella, a boutique featuring women’s fashions and accessories, including her own original pearl jewelry. Next door, Stormy Kromer: A Cap & Ale House, is dedicated to the iconic Upper Peninsula outdoor wear — and a pint or two at the pub-like bar. Fresh fudge, truffles and other sweets and treats, plus adorable pig-themed goods, fill The Pig ‘N’ Whistle, where adults can whet their whistles with Pink Pig Rumrunners.
Attached, but facing Huron Street, The Queens Head Wine Pub earns rave reviews for its wine list, fresh take on pub fare and Royal Libations like the Dirty King and Twisted Tudor. The Lark Theater is an intimate performing arts space with its own cozy lounge.
When John and Marcella have a rare day free, they often hop on their cruising yacht and head out onto the water. A favorite destination is Mackinac Island — it’s 48 minutes from the Cheboygan County Marina to Haldimand Bay.
“We have the opportunity to go in so many directions,” says John of the boating options, another benefit of the area. “Cheboygan does have a huge amount of momentum. It had a lot of potential and just needed to be opened up.”
Photo Courtesy of Cheboygan River Front Range Light Facebook Page
Dock & dine
The rustic Hack-Ma-Tack Inn was built in 1894 as a hunting and fishing lodge on the Cheboygan River at Mullett Lake, with plenty of room for boaters to tie up. The menu oozes old-school fine dining: Escargot, prime rib, roasted duck and surf & turf.
Throughout the season (May through mid-October), boat slips await at Pier M33 On The Cheboygan, a casual, nautical setting with a variety of international flavors and a water view (open year-round).
Photos Courtesy of Restaurants