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Sunday, August 24, 2014, in Traverse City, Michigan

Hi all. We’re in Traverse City, at the bottom of Traverse Bay. Last time we wrote, we were in Northport.

Our next destination was Elk Rapids, also on Grand Traverse Bay but on the eastern side. It was a short hop across the bay, and we were welcomed at our assigned slip by two red-clad dock staff. The marina seemed vast for a small town, stretching across both sides of the well-protected harbor. After we checked in at the harbor office, we took our first walk to the village downtown.

My first impression of the town around me was as if I’d been transported back to a corporate off-site meeting at a resort conference center. At a lovely resort, the grounds are groomed and colorful, as were the public spaces of Elk Rapids. The signage in town directing you to the library or identifying the marina or even warning visitors not to violate safety protocol was consistently designed and attractive, as if directing you to the dining hall or the tennis courts. I even liked the town’s graphic logo.

A pair of elk horns found on the shoreline might have been the source of the town’s name. It’s easy to see that the Elk River that runs alongside the harbor might once have been rapids. Today, there are several small dams and falls that lead to Elk Lake, real names in my imaginary “Grand Elk Convention Center and Resort.” For the visitor, these features create a warm and shallow area for a quick summer dunk, and a placid channel for kayaking on the way to Torch Lake, and a serene parkland between the downtown and the marina, where strategically placed benches let you read or relax to a background of rushing waters.

In the center of town, there’s a coffee place, a sprawling and innovative restaurant that we simply couldn’t stop visiting, and a movie theater. Farther afield, a casual kitchen with Jamaican and African influences offers unbelievable value and a nearby restaurant offers very credible Cajun cuisine. The grocery store is large and close enough, and the walk to get there includes a pedestrian path and a wooden boardwalk platform over the shallow water.

While we were docked in Elk Rapids, I noticed a watery scent when I opened the cabinet under the aft sink. Art saw that there was a leak and came up with a theory about what might be the cause. It was a happy coincidence that we needed to leave for the weekend for a family event, and he could test his hypothesis.

The theory was confirmed when we returned. The leak happened only when we used the sink. Fixing this would have to wait until the boat was in the yard for winter storage. The drip was very manageable with occasional dabs with a sponge, at least according to me, the person who is not the dabber.

Our return to Michigan was greeted with cold and rainy weather, and then fall was in the air in the second week in August. The forecast insisted that this wasn’t permanent, and the weather got back to that comfortable breezy summer we’d been having most of the season.

Because we had guests arriving by air into Traverse City, we decided to take the boat there and pick them up. A short morning motor got us docked in time for lunch ashore and an afternoon visit to provision in the supermarket.

Traverse City had just been cited as one of the top foodie towns in the US, so I scoured the Internet for recommendations and reviews. Mario Batali, who spends summer vacations in northern Michigan, showed up on several websites with lists of recommendations in the area. I’d already visited some of the places he’d liked and agreed with his endorsements. Between his picks and several other sources, I was equipped with a list of places to try in Traverse City and a Google map that plotted out their locations.

On Patti and Dave’s arrival night, the park next door to the marina was having a paella festival, for example. But we walked through the town with Patti and Dave for a casual meal in a nearby pub. The main shopping street was cordoned off for its weekly summer Friday night block party, with bands bookending the perimeters and booths to tease the senses.

It’s a slow paced summer experience, dotted with festivals, and on Sunday, we walked to a parking lot circled with interesting food trucks and serenaded by a bluegrass duet. There was a crafts festival downtown, and we saw a movie in the cinema that is at the center of the Traverse City Film Festival.

The Festival was founded by filmmaker Michael Moore in 2005, so the festival just ended was the tenth year celebration. Moore is the founder, president and programmer of the Festival, and he oversaw the renovation of the historic downtown State Theater.

The screening room is awash in red velvet curtains, including the one that covers the screen and inches up at the beginning of the performance like a shy stripper. The ceiling is dotted with thousands of pinprick lights, like stars in the sky above. Indeed, the ceiling was designed by a local astronomy professor and other enthusiasts, and it’s said that if you opened up the roof in August, your view wouldn’t change.

We moved on to Suttons Bay, a place we’d visited on our own, but had left because of a generator failure that had since been fixed. For this visit, the large slip in the marina was available, so we didn’t need to anchor out. It’s always fun to rediscover a place with friends and enjoy that experience through someone else’s eyes. Suttons Bay is a tiny place, but it covers the essentials and more; we saw another movie in the town’s downtown movie house. Besides exploring the theaters themselves, we all enjoyed both movies even beyond our high expectations.

Posters around all the towns tell of musical performances, festivals and other events of interest in the whole area. Without a car, we’re limited to places we can reach on foot. We saw that there would be an outdoor concert that looked interesting: bluegrass by a duet on guitar and mandolin. But the Lake Leelanau location was far; there’s no taxi service and marina entrepreneurs would be hard to coordinate; we had no chairs to bring, and it looked like rain. Then I noticed that the same band would be in Northport the next night when we’d be there. If two things are in Northport, not only is motor transportation unnecessary; you’d almost have to avoid the event on purpose not to see it.

The next morning, we motored to Northport. The young dock hand who tied our line was quite the master at his craft. Indeed, I didn’t know it was a craft until I saw him. From a standing start, he could whip the line around the cleat at his feet, an interesting but not remarkable accomplishment. But I’d never seen or even heard of someone who could tie a hitch with a lock in it without so much as bending over. It’s proof that anything can be art.

That afternoon, we made a dinner reservation at Lelu to ensure a great table for the concert. At one table next to us were people from our marina. On the other side of us was our waiter from our lunchtime at a different eatery down the street, with his family. It isn’t easy to stay unrecognized in Northport.

So it didn’t really surprise me when I saw the back of a familiar head, with its short red ponytail. Then I wasn’t sure when I saw the silhouette, but then I realized that I should simply look down. And that’s when I was sure of the orange Crocs of Northport resident Mario Batali.

The concert started, the bluegrass music performed so well by the band Billy Strings and Don Julin. I was captivated by the guitar playing of Billy Strings, at a speed that was a musical metaphor for G-forces. (It wasn’t a surprise to realize that Strings isn’t really his surname.)

I thought about all the help I’ve gotten in the kitchen and the galley from Mario Batali (which sounds like the beginning of a limerick: “I saw Mario Batali, who has given me help in the galley…”) And, of course, his restaurant recommendations have helped me in my endless quest for lunch and the occasional dinner.

And I realized that there is something about them all that is akin to close-up magic, the close television camera view where I have watched Batali mince garlic or estimate the right amount of olive oil to sauté, or my front-row seat where I could watch Billy Strings create a chord I wanted to replicate by adding what looked like a C7 note to a G chord.

The next morning, I noticed a tweet that showed the band having dinner at Mario Batali’s house, a nearly literal example of singing for your supper where everyone gets a fine evening out of it.

The morning farmer’s market is lovely and a decent size for a town that is as tiny as Northport, and I couldn’t help but go through it, even though we had no need at all for new provisions. Displays of giant zucchini, purple string beans, tiny cucumbers, a rainbow of potatoes, and crisp kale that would be at home in a flower arrangement all reminded me of the markets I love in the south of France.

Our guests needed to arrive at Traverse City’s airport at some ungodly time on Saturday morning, so we headed back down the bay in time again for the Friday night downtown block party. Again, there were food kiosks, not-for-profits building awareness and seeking donations, a marathon music jam outside a bookstore, someone playing chess with passers-by on six chessboards at once, and a young man tossing about fire and knives so dramatically that I had to duck into an open shop rather than watch.

I knew during our short visit a week earlier that we’d be back in town, and it was clear to me that Traverse City is a place that I can stick around for a while.

We’re settled here for another week or so, which will give us lots of time to explore more.

Love, Karen (and Art)