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TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - Anchoring the shores of East Traverse Bay and West Traverse Bay, Traverse City draws sun worshippers to the little pinky of Michigan all summer long. In the winter, it's the frozen water that entices them to return and play in the snow.
Year round, all that Lake Michigan water washes around Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas, moderating the spring and fall temperatures and allowing world-class vineyards and fruit orchards to thrive.
We didn't plan to taste wine at this celebrated winery, although for five bucks you could do so, and keep your glass as a souvenir. Instead, we wanted to try Black Star's apple cider, which contains 7 percent alcohol by volume - more than beer, less than most wines.
Apple cider, the potable choice of the 18th century, may be making a comeback. At least that's what we had read. Multipacks line shelves in grocery stores, cider bars are popping up in New York, and there are thousands of cider sites on the Web. We also heard that Black Star Farms makes really good cider, maybe even the best.
Turning in to the complex, the view is unexpected. With rolling hills and a compound of barns and farm buildings, it looks more like a horse farm than a winery. The main house, a luxurious bed-and-breakfast, is a looming, red-brick colonial with white pillars. On the drive toward the tasting room, we passed horse stables and fruit cellars before the vineyards and orchards came into view.
With accolades for its varietal wines and brandies dressing the walls - even a letter from the White House in appreciation of Black Star's A Capella Riesling Ice Wine - why make cider?
Don Coe says it really isn't much of a stretch from winemaking. Coe is managing partner of Black Star, which he owns with Kerm Campbell. You'll find Coe and his wife, Mary Lou, in the tasting room every day, mingling with visitors, swapping stories, and pitching in where needed.
Black Star started making cider in 2002, and they approach it the same way they do wine. Winemaker and cider maker Lee Lutes sees to that. The result? A hard cider without a yeasty finish.
"This cider is made in a winemaker style," Lutes said. "Nothing is added that would affect the vibrancy of the fruit components or mask the fruit's flavor, and that includes sugar."
This hard cider still tastes like apples - not sugary like a juice box, but sparkling like club soda. It tastes like apples with a buzz.
Unlike wine, it is legal to ship hard cider from Michigan to Pennsylvania, Lutes said.
The tasting room doubles as a viewing room of the Leelanau Creamery, so we picked up some cheese before heading back to town. Don't miss the raclette - for only $1, you can buy a cup of the cheese cubes to pair with your wine samples, or you can buy it for $11 a pound or as a spread. An eight-ounce container of dill spread is $4.49.
Another "don't miss" is downtown Traverse City, a shopper's paradise with 150 specialty stores from sporting goods to foodstuffs and coffee shops. And it is walkable. The tallest building is the 10-story Park Place Hotel. Spectacular views of the West Bay and the area's best sunset can be enjoyed at Beacon's, the hotel's rooftop lounge.
Best buy. Hands down, it's breakfast at Mabel's Diner (472 Munson Ave., 231-947-0252). Portions are served as you like them - big enough to satisfy a fullback or as single servings. As we sipped the great coffee, the waitress told us the reason the pancakes taste sweet: The cook adds vanilla to the batter. Average price per breakfast, including coffee and tip: $8.
Big splurge. Dine at Trattoria Stella on 11th Street. Stella occupies the lower level of Building 50 on the renovated campus of a former state mental institution now known as Grand Traverse Commons. The stark ambience is a perfect foil for the dramatic food presentations from the Italian kitchen. We shared a Formaggi plate - our choice of three cheeses, figs and nuts served on a wooden board, and a plate of heirloom tomatoes with goat cheese - before indulging in our entrees. The menu lists the local purveyors that provided ingredients for menu items, such as herbs and baby carrots from Werp Farms. Average price per a la carte dinner without wine: $55.
More, more, more. Pull on your hiking boots or best walkers and head out on a section of the 18-mile Traverse Area Recreation Trail. The paved trail wends its way through the heart of downtown, along the river and lakefront. Maps are available at any of the three visitors' and information centers.
Next week: Game Traveler
Feb. 4: Senior Traveler
Feb. 11: Online Traveler
Black Star Farms
Park Place Hotel