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Summer Guide: Golf cart livin' in Northport

A fly-in pancake breakfast, an island overrun by herring gulls, and a village as charmingly peculiar as it is gorgeous

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Not since between the ages of three and five, when I made it my short-term mission in life to convince my parents to buy me a Fisher Price Power Wheels truck, did I covet a lazy-moving, four-wheeled vehicle as badly as I did a golf cart following my visit last summer to Northport, Michigan. Located in Leelanau Township, near the tip of the mitt's little finger, the low-key, resortlike village sits about 45 minutes north of Traverse City (and nearly six hours from Chicago) and is scattered with the no-longer-working man's preferred mode of electric transportation. And I have a few hunches as to why.

Northport's "downtown"—which is a five-minute stroll west of its 100-slip marina (67 transient, 33 seasonal)—is about three blocks wide. And though you're prohibited from cruising your cart down its main drag, you can park on a side street and walk the 50 feet to one of a handful of art galleries—or maybe to the North End Eatery for wood-fired pie, or to Motovino for a wine tasting.

In addition to being CO2-free, golf carts also can squeeze in anywhere—tight driveways, crowded parking lots, front yards, backyards, beach trails, sailboats, living rooms, etc.

Finally, have you ever driven or ridden in a golf cart? It's like going nowhere really slowly and basking in the grandness of every mundane detail as you piddle along—similar to how the moderately happy population of retirees lives. What qualifies as a mundane detail in Northport is subjective, though, I guess. Because the longer you stretch out here, the more rapidly the little nuances coalesce into magnified charm.

That charm is evident most conspicuously in the post-Memorial Day summer events. Like any good arts-based village, Northport holds a fireworks extravaganza every Fourth of July in which its 600 full-time residents, its bed-and-breakfast guests, and interlopers from neighboring towns—like Omena, a ten-minute drive south—gather in the park, lawn chairs in tow, and gaze at streamers bursting over Lake Michigan.

This year's fireworks aren't the be-all-end-all to the holiday. The inaugural North by Northport Music Festival (get it?) runs July 4 through July 7 and will showcase the likes of sweaty art-punk duo Japanther and weirdo pop team Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt!—which, considering the town's usual easy-listening-jazz fare, seem like such bizarre inclusions in the festival's lineup. But whatever, these ambitious additions to Northport's old-money aesthetic will be made even more fun by the arrival of Northport Brewing, the new craft microbrewery that intends to open its doors over the long weekend. The brewery will produce small, barrel-and-a-half batches and feature six beers on draft—and there will be golf cart parking, of course. (The village is also planning a bowling alley to open by year's end and is scheduled to break ground on a nine-hole golf course soon.)

As the summer grows older the celebrated events in Northport get slightly more eccentric. A favorite is the Fly-In, Drive-In Pancake Breakfast, a fund-raiser on the final Saturday in July that's hosted by the Northport Lions Club to aid in Leelanau Township's maintenance of Woolsey Airport. The public airport—which sits four miles north of Northport and has no control tower—plays host to dozens of small aircraft and vintage cars, which in and of itself would be a scene when viewed together on a turf runway. Add in pancakes, though, and it's a party.

Also, on August 10, dozens upon dozens of dogs will be fancied up in their best tutus and sweaters and pranced through downtown for the Northport Dog Parade, an annual celebration of dressing your dog up to make him or her begrudge you. The parade coincides with the Northport Wine Festival—I did previously make note of the town's many art galleries, right?—which includes, well, smelling wine, swishing wine, tasting wine, and, more importantly, the chance to maybe spot Mario Batali drinking wine; the Iron Chef owns property just north of Northport at Cathead Point.

Cheryl Parker Newport Michigan Summer Guide 2013 Kevin Warwick
  • Cheryl Parker
  • Ruins of the home built on Gull Island

Northport's annual claims to fame are easy to single out, but the everyday opportunites to explore the area are just as satisfying. Eight miles north of Northport, at the very tip of the mitt, is Leelanau State Park, where, aside from the usual hiking and nature studying, there's the stoic Grand Traverse Lighthouse (built in 1850) and Cathead Bay—one of those pristine white-sand beaches where every photograph taken is required to be taken at sunset.

Finally, if you are ever blessed with the chance to rent (or hijack) a boat and sail out on Lake Michigan, head east from the Northport marina toward Gull Island, or at least until the stench of seagulls becomes unbearable. The property of a Harvard professor in the early 20th century, the island was quickly taken over by swarms of herring gulls who eventually pushed the professor out of the home he'd constructed there and started their own colony. Now owned by the Leelanau Conservancy, the island is uninhabitable by humans, with the remaining pieces of rubble from the professor's house acting as the seagulls' constant reminder: no golf carts allowed.

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