From the Great Lakes to the Smoky Mountains and beyond, 2019 was a terrific travel year

Susan R. Pollack
Special to The Detroit News

An up-close encounter with country legend Dolly Parton in her Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, and golfing with a caddy at the American Club resort’s Whistling Straits, the challenging Wisconsin course that will host the Ryder Cup in September, rank as my top 2019 travel memories.

Viewing spectacular Bond Falls in the far western reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was another standout. With panoramic views from the wooden walkway, it looks like a beautiful tiered wedding cake. And on our late-afternoon, end-of-summer visit, my husband, Steve, and I had it virtually to ourselves.

Other highlights included visits to Cornell University’s fascinating Lab of Ornithology, in Ithaca, New York, complete with bird-watching out back, and the stunning Museum at Prairiefire near Kansas City, whose iridescent glass exterior evokes a giant glowing jewelry box. Afterward, we were wowed by chef Rob Magee’s creative barbecue fare, including mouthwatering brisket burgers, at Q39 South in Overland Park.

In an all-domestic travel year, I explored destinations such as Wichita, Kansas, and the UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula for the first time. I also returned to some old favorites, including Graceland and the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and several spots in northern Michigan.

Wichita surprised me with its thriving arts scene and murals, especially Horizontes, spread across a giant concrete grain elevator. I loved the iconic riverside Keeper of the Plains statue and the huge Miro mosaic, Personnages Oiseaux (Bird People), on the façade of Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House is a must-see for design buffs.

West of the city, at Tanganyika Wildlife Park, adults were as delighted as the kids at the chance to hand-feed the giraffes and ringtail lemurs or pet Chewie the two-toed sloth. Later, we got a kick out of the gnome-themed décor at Hopping Gnome Brewing Company in the Douglas Design District. 

Back in Michigan, I checked off some UP gems on my bucket list: Lake of the Clouds in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, scenic Brockway Mountain Drive, Copper Harbor, and the Jampot, a monk-run bakery in Eagle Harbor. Between Lake Superior sight-seeing and sampling Keweenaw pasties, we relaxed in the lovingly restored Laurium Manor Inn near Calumet.

Fun stops on Mackinac Island included lunch at the legendary Pink Pony Bar & Grill and an overnight at Mackinac House, the island’s new boutique hotel. And the fall colors and elk-viewing around Gaylord were spectacular.

Revisiting the Inn at Bay Harbor near Petoskey, I indulged in a treatment at The Spa and shared a decadent high tea with new friends in the resort’s “lobby living room.” Later, in two resort restaurants, we spotted comedians Lewis Black and Kathleen Madigan; she was performing at Bay Harbor’s impressive new Great Lakes Center for the Arts. We heard they planned to golf, but didn’t see them – or any birdies – at Crooked Tree Golf Club, my favorite Michigan course, across the road.

While Up North, we also golfed, for story research, at two new top-tier courses, Sage Run at Island Resort & Casino near Escanaba and the South Course at Arcadia Bluffs near Manistee. Listening to the bagpiper during sunset over Lake Michigan on the original Arcadia Bluffs course always gives me goosebumps.

And nothing beats introducing great-nieces and -nephews visiting from Portland, Oregon, and New York City to Michigan’s natural wonders. The kids loved the Dune Climb at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Moomers ice cream cones and playing outside at Lake Ann Brewing Company.

On a road-trip through Wisconsin, Steve and I tasted cherry-laced food and drinks up and down the Door County peninsula, which some have dubbed “the Cape Cod of the Midwest.”  We also sampled an array of craft brews and learned beer history in Milwaukee, fittingly known as “Brew City.” Crossing Lake Michigan on the Lake Express high-speed ferry from Muskegon was half the fun.

And staying downtown in Milwaukee’s Saint Kate, the Arts Hotel was a real treat. Delegates assigned there during the Democratic National Convention, July 13-16, will find a ukulele, record player and a few records in every room, along with drawing paper and colored pens that could come in handy for making spontaneous campaign signs.

We popped into the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum, near the Historic Third Ward, where politicians of all stripes are represented among the sports figures, celebrities and super-heroes in the kitschy, 10,000-head collection.

In Tennessee last spring, we enjoyed driving through the Great Smoky Mountains, America’s most-visited national park, including the so-called “Missing Link.” It’s a winding, scenic section of the Foothills Parkway which was finished in late 2018 after more than 50 years.

An hour away, in Knoxville, we created our own beer glasses at Pretentious Glass Brewing Company, a combination glass-blowing studio and craft brewery.

Across the state in Memphis, we explored the life and times of Elvis Presley at his home, Graceland, and its newly expanded museum complex. Staying at the upscale Guest House at Graceland resort, listening to Elvis tunes and making a version of his favorite peanut butter and banana sandwich at the PB &J station, added to the fun.

Back on the home front, our adventures continued with a visit to Ann Arbor to see the giant mastodon skeletons and planetarium show at the new home of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. We also spent a few days volunteering and watching PGA Tour pros compete in the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club.

Next up: vacation time in Venice, Florida.

Here’s to happy travels, near and far, in the new decade ahead.