Called "the last best place" by Ernest Hemingway, northwest Michigan's Lake Charlevoix is just as good as it was before World War I, when Papa spent time on its northern shore. By then, the once-thriving local logging industry was dwindling, and tourists had discovered the area. Today, the permanent population is actually smaller than it was then, and the massive lake remains remarkably pristine-especially considering the hundreds of sailboats, canoes, powerboats, ferries and jetskis that ply its 17,000 acres.
The lake has three arms (east, west and south), and small towns dot its shoreline. The largest are Boyne City, at the tip of the east arm, and Charlevoix, on the west arm.
A good base of operations is the 300-site Young State Park Campground, just outside Boyne City. From there, it's a short jaunt to the Avalanche Park Overlook (formerly a community ski hill). A 10-minute climb up wooden steps to the summit yields a view of the entire lake. Kayakers like to put in the Boyne River three miles east of town, at Dam Road. The 90-minute paddle back to Boyne City features gently flowing water with a few novice-grade mini-rapids before the river empties into Lake Charlevoix at Veteran's Park in the center of town, where visitors can watch sailboat races every Tuesday.
The city of Charlevoix, on the lake's western shore, separates Lake Charlevoix and Lake Michigan. On blustery days, sailors opt for the more protected Lake Charlevoix, while in good weather many slip under the drawbridge and onto Lake Michigan. (Sunshine Charters in Charlevoix offers two-hour sailing adventures, or you can take a day-trip on the Emerald Isle ferry to Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.) In downtown Charlevoix, visitors stroll through art galleries and boutiques and enjoy oysters on the half-shell and Great Lakes whitefish from Whitney's Oyster Bar on Bridge Street.
The south arm's claim to fame is the Ironton Car Ferry (pedestrians, 50 cents; vehicles, $2), which has been operating since 1876 and is a designated Michigan historical site. The ferry transports vehicles across the 600-foot mouth of the lake's south arm, four cars and 26 people at a time, saving an hour of drive time via the shoreline route. The unusually designed ferry has propellers at both ends but no rudder and is steered by two submerged cables. Once ashore, enjoy lake views and tender perch filets at The Landings at Ironton Cove Marina. Linger too long and, like Hemingway, you may come to Lake Charlevoix as a visitor but end up a local. -Jim Neff
For information, contact the Charlevoix Area Chamber of Commerce (231-547-2101, charlevoix.org), the Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce (231-582-6222, boynecity.com) or the Boyne Country Visitors Bureau (800-845-2828, boynecountry.com).