The tip of the Michigan mitten's ring finger packs a lot of vacation fun: leafy drives, pebbly beaches, loon-spotting, window-shopping and fudge, fudge, fudge. Click ahead to get the scoop on four area towns in our guide, pick one to be your home base, then head out and explore. Detailed travel guides to each area are on slides 10 to 19.
In a word Bustling. In 1873, the first train arrived in Petoskey, carrying a newspaper reporter with a pen of gold. In the Grand Rapids Times, George Gage described Petoskey's "million dollar sunsets" over Lake Michigan, and tourists have flocked to this bluff-top town for summer vacations ever since.
Your kind of town?. Are you a city girl or a country gal? If you paused, you'll love Petoskey. The Gaslight Shopping District draws girlfriends and foodies; nearby rivers and trails offer kayaking, biking and hiking. Petoskey gets busy, though, and Lake Michigan serves more as a backdrop than the centerpiece. If a quiet retreat or beach time are priorities, you might prefer other towns.
Historic digs A velvety croquet lawn unfurls outside the dining room windows of Stafford's Bay View Inn, a gingerbread mansion with 31 individually decorated rooms. You'll have to drive a few minutes into town for meals and shopping, but the waterfront location and Victorian ambience make it worth the trip.
Memorable meals You don't have to look far to find great food in Petoskey. Special-occasion favorite Chandler's serves light sushi starters and inspired seasonal fare, like a bright pink beet risotto that tastes too lusciously creamy to be vegan. But you can also snag a $1.99 farm-fresh egg sandwich made with ham and local cheddar at Roast and Toast.
Pictured: Luscious preserves and gelato made with Michigan fruit have made American Spoon a Petoskey legend. The flagship store also houses a fantastic cafe serving light, seasonal fare.
Outdoorsy attractions around Petoskey make it easy to escape for fresh air and exercise. The 26-mile Little Traverse Wheelway bike path (pictured) links Charlevoix, Petoskey and Harbor Springs and offers stunning scenery (and no hills!). The best views are south of Petoskey, but head the other way to reach pretty Waterfall Park.
Keep riding north (or hop in your car) to reach the sand beaches of .Petoskey State Park, where teens bake on towels and families play in the waves. A half-hour drive inland, Big Bear Adventures outfits canoe, kayak and raft trips on the brisk Sturgeon River. For bigger rapids, explore the Bear River Valley Recreation Area, a new tree-rimmed white-water course a few blocks from the Gaslight District. You don't have to brave the rushing water to appreciate the sound track it provides for strolls on the walking trails.
Trip guide to Petoskey begins on slide 10.
In a word Easy. Check out the photo at left. Lake Michigan, Round Lake and Lake Charlevoix line up like blue pearls on a string. Charlevoix fills what little land separates the lakes with a compact business district and historic neighborhoods. Every street seemingly ends at a glittery body of water. Your strategy: Park and enjoy.
Your kind of town? Families love Charlevoix. You can dash from the sandy Lake Michigan beach for an ice cream or fudge break, and souvenir shops abound. On the Round Lake side, people picnic in a grassy harbor park with a splash fountain, umbrella tables, amphitheater and fish pond. You'll find lots of affordable condo rentals, along with grocery stores to stock the kitchens, but not as many interesting restaurants and shops as in Petoskey. Visitors should also note that US-31 cuts through town, making noisy traffic a constant.
Quiet moments What does stop cars in Charlevoix? Boats. A narrow channel links the lakes. When tall boats glide through, the US-31 drawbridge rises, drivers pause and pedestrians gather to wave at the skippers. Those transitory moments when the hum subsides define the watery rhythm of life in Charlevoix. For a longer break from the bustle, Fisherman's Island State Park, a hidden gem outside town, offers miles of untamed Lake Michigan shore. Kick back at a waterfront picnic site for a day of bird-watching and beachcombing. Keep an eye out for speckled rocks called Petoskey stones.
Architecture buffs journey to Charlevoix to see native son Earl Young's Mushroom Houses. These 26 midcentury homes with curved roofs, deep eaves and cottagey stone walls echo the Lake Michigan landscape and look like homes for fairy-tale creatures. They're privately owned, but the Chamber of Commerce offers a self-guided driving tour brochure. Young, who only built in Charlevoix, also designed Stafford's Weathervane Restaurant and the adjacent Weathervane Terrace Inn and Suites, a budget-friendly hotel with a memorable lobby and an appealing outdoor pool.
Trip guide to Charlevoix begins on slide 14.
In a word Preppy. The northernmost community on Little Traverse Bay feels like a posh suburb of Petoskey. Equestrian clubs surround town, and you'll see many cardigans draped just-so over shoulders. But you don't have to flash a membership card to soak up the New England-like atmosphere before exploring the Tunnel of Trees byway, which unfurls north of town.
Your kind of town? Tellingly, you won't find many inns in Harbor Springs. Unless you plan to rent a cottage and settle in for a week, think of this as a day-trip escape from the busier towns.
Destination dinner A restored water taxi bobs in the yacht basin outside Stafford's Pier, a refined backdrop for drinks on the patio or dinner in the white-tablecloth Pointer Room. Meals start with pleasantly retro smoked salmon spread. Signature oak-planked whitefish flakes at the mere sight of a fork. You can save money by eating in the Pier's pubby wood-paneled Wheelhouse Lounge, which fills with laughter every night.
Local secret Pop into Howse's Fudge shop and ask owner Chris Howse to point you to the steep steps and boardwalk that loop up the bluff behind downtown. In early June, fragrant lilac bushes bend over the path, and at the top, you'll be rewarded with a view of the harbor, treetops and white steeples. When you come down again to Spring Street, snag a treat at Tom's Mom's Cookies.
Pictured: Tidy shops and galleries, including Tvedten Fine Art, fill downtown Harbor Springs.
Arched branches over the road gave the stretch of M-119 north of Harbor Springs its memorable nickname. The winding, 20-mile scenic byway (pictured) leads to a day's worth of delightful stops. The Good Hart General Store bakes chicken potpies. Next door, Primitive Images sells gorgeous, woodsy home goods and art. Stop by the tea shop or the seasonal Northern Crepes cart outside. Quirky Legs Inn. serves Polish food in Cross Village, and at the end of the route, Wilderness State Park has sublimely empty Lake Michigan beaches with a jewel box of colored pebbles.
Trip guide to Harbor Springs begins on slide 16..
In a word Peaceful. Boyne City hides just 15 miles from Lake Michigan on Lake Charlevoix. Long a blue-collar community that suffered from the big lake's magnetic effect on tourism dollars, Boyne City has reinvented itself as a laid-back version of the shore towns.
Your kind of town? A lone angler casts a line from his boat, silhouetted against a sky that has melted into pools of gold. A few kids eat ice cream; the tiny downtown stands silent. It's a 25-minute drive to busier Charlevoix or Petoskey, yet you'll return to a town that feels largely your own. If that sounds idyllic, Boyne City will delight you. But if you crave the wide beaches, rolling waves and sealike air of Lake Michigan, Lake Charlevoix (vast as it is) can't compete.
Waterfront steal Within walking distance of downtown, the Water Street Inn offers 23 clean (if not chic) condos with full kitchens and spacious balconies overlooking Lake Charlevoix, plus a private beach and on-site laundry room. The price? Just $199 nightly.
Creative class. On a quiet June morning, a garden club member unloads flats of flowers for the downtown planters. That grassroots spirit shows up all over Boyne City. The Local Flavor Bookstore wisely added a coffee bar. Historical plaques inspire self-guided walking tours. And the colorful gallery Freshwater Studio hosts concert nights and a summer festival to promote the fledgling SoBo arts district.
Pictured: Most visitors enjoy a sunset stroll along Lake Charlevoix while staying in Boyne City.
Boyne City's food scene has blossomed in the past few years. Longtime fave Red Mesa Grill makes fresh mango margaritas and sizzling fajita platters, while its newer sister Cafe Sante serves European-inspired fare like Belgian frites and tiramisu. Lake Street Market (pictured) stocks a tempting array of gourmet goods. Order sandwiches and pizza at the deli, or try to snag an überpopular scone at the bakery counter. The Wine Emporium and Market sells packaged products, too, including local jam and curiosities like squid-ink pasta.
Trip guide to Boyne City begins on slide 18.
For information or to plan your trip, contact the Petoskey Area Visitors Bureau. (231) 348-2755; petoskeyarea.com 
Big Bear Adventures An excellent Sturgeon River outfitter offers rentals to suit any skill level. (231) 238-8181; bigbearadventures.com 
Bear River Valley Recreation Area Birdsong accompanies walks through wooded and open scenery along downtown Petoskey's new white water course. (231) 347-2500
Crooked Tree Arts Center Galleries and studios fill a beautifully restored Methodist church. (231) 347-4337; crookedtree.org 
Little Traverse Wheelway Take time to pull aside for photo ops along this scenic bike path. (231) 348-8280; trailscouncil.org 
North Country Cycle Sport Knowledgeable staff map out their favorite trails at this bike rental and sporting gear shop. (231) 487-1999; northcountrycyclesport.com 
Petoskey State Park Relax on the sprawling beach, but don't forget bug repellent. (231) 347-2311; michigan.gov/petoskey 
Pictured: Downtown Petoskey has 90 shops and restaurants.
Fustini's Oils and Vinegars (pictured) Sample intriguing flavors like Cinnamon Pear Balsamic Vinegar. (231) 758-3575; fustinis.com 
Grandpa Shorter's A colorful array of toys, gifts and classy Michigan souvenirs fills two large floors. (231) 347-2603; grandpashorters.com 
McLean and Eakin Booksellers An outstanding independent bookstore offers hours of browsing. (231) 347-1180; mcleanandeakin.com 
Sky Iris A new shop sells home accessories ideal for kids and teens. (231) 487-0805; skyiris.com 
Symons General Store Foodies flock to this gorgeous gourmet food shop. (231) 347-2438; lakeandhoward.com 
Twisted Olive Cafe (pictured) Sweeping Lake Michigan views complement delightful breakfast and lunch fare. (231) 487-1230; twistedolivecafe.com 
American Spoon Gelato flavors include Michigan Blueberry and Wildflower Honey; the restaurant is outstanding. (231) 347-1739; spoon.com 
Chandler's Seasonal dishes like veal tenderloin with ricotta gnocchi shine amid rustic decor. (231) 347-2981; lakeandhoward.com 
Knot Just a Bar Choose among 60-plus beer varieties in Bay Harbor's fun, faux-nautical saloon. (231) 439-2770; knotjustabar.com 
Palette Bistro Upscale Mediterranean food complements stunning views of Little Traverse Bay. (231) 348-3321; palettebistropetoskey.com 
Roast and Toast Stop by for sandwiches or coffee. (231) 347-7767; roastandtoast.com 
The Inn at Bay Harbor - A Renaissance Golf Resort Splurge on a first-floor room with lake views and Adirondack chairs on the patio. From $159. (231) 439-4000; innatbayharbor.com 
Stafford's Bay View Inn The charming Victorian property defines quiet getaway—no TVs or phones in the guest rooms. From $99. (231) 347-2771; staffords.com 
Stafford's Perry Hotel Though not as atmospheric as its sister property, the Bay View Inn, this historic hotel offers a convenient location in the Gaslight District. From $149. (231) 347-4000; staffords.com 
Pictured: Guests at the plush Inn at Bay Harbor savor the sunset.
For information, contact the Charlevoix Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. (231) 547-2101; visitcharlevoix.com 
Fisherman's Island State Park Quiet beaches provide families the perfect break from Charlevoix's bustle. (231) 547-6641; michigan.gov 
Maison and Jardin (pictured) Browse condiments, cookbooks, home decor and clothes at this lovely French-inspired boutique. (231) 547-0550
Murdick's Famous Fudge A local staple since 1953, this shop offers 16 classic flavors in thick 1-pound slices. We recommend the classic chocolate. (231) 547-4213
WHERE TO EAT
Simonsen's Bakery and Cafe (pictured) Sit outdoors and savor a cherry scone while watching the traffic roll by on Bridge Street. (231) 237-9480
Stafford's Weathervane Restaurant Enjoy Michigan-inspired fare on an airy deck overlooking the Pine River Channel. (231) 547-4311; staffords.com 
WHERE TO STAY
Weathervane Terrace Inn and Suites A pool with a view draws families to this quirky but clean hotel. From $75, including breakfast. (800) 552-0025; weathervane-chx.com 
For information, contact the Harbor Springs Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. (231) 526-7999; harborspringschamber.com 
Pond Hill Farm (pictured) You'll love checking out the fresh plants; kids enjoy hayrides and pig races. Don't miss the cafe and amazing selection of canned goods. (231) 526-3276; pondhill.com 
By the Bay Artwork, books and home accessories capture the mystique of boat life. (231) 526-3964; bythebay.com 
Good Hart General Store The authentic 1934 general store has a deli, bakery and U.S. Post Office. (231) 526-7661; goodhartstore.com 
Howse's Fudge Try the chocolate-covered peanut brittle—a local favorite. (231) 526-6121; harborfudge.com 
Primitive Images Unique furnishings and antiques attract shoppers to a log cabin hideaway. (231) 526-0276; primitiveimages.com 
Tom's Mom's Cookies A tiny bakery makes tasty cookies in flavors like oatmeal butterscotch. (231) 526-6606; tomsmomscookies.com 
Tvedten Fine Art A gallery of paintings created by local artists reflects different sides of Michigan's natural beauty. (231) 526-2299; tvedtenfineart.com 
Wilderness State Park Drive 30 miles north from Harbor Springs to explore grassy dunes, dense forests and 26 miles of shoreline in a park also known for its great campsites. (231) 436-5381; michigan.gov/wilderness 
For more information, contact the Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce. (231) 582-6222; boynechamber.com 
Horton Bay General Store (pictured) Ernest Hemingway was a regular here; the 1876 charm (and free coffee!) still draws locals, while a new B&B appeals to travelers. The quirky Red Fox Inn bookstore next door offers a wealth of lore, if you manage to find the shop open. (231) 582-7827; hortonbaygeneralstore.com 
Freshwater Studio More than 100 Michigan artists show their work in a spacious gallery. (231) 582-2588; freshwaterstudio.org 
Lavender Hill Farm Outside town, shop for fragrant soaps and jellies on a small lavender farm. (231) 582-3784; lavenderhillmichigan.com 
Local Flavor Satisfying brews plus good reads equal one cozy shop. (231) 582-7499
Wine Emporium and Market An airy new gourmet shop offers an interesting variety of fresh and packaged goods. (231) 582-2151
WHERE TO EAT
Cafe Sante (pictured) Order the Draught Sampler for a great mix of local and European brews. (231) 582-8800; cafesante-bc.com 
Lake Street Market The curiously named sandwiches—like Mr. Wubbly's Fat Bass—are perfect for a classy picnic. (231) 582-4450; lakestreetmarket.com 
Red Mesa Grill Flavorful dishes like Costa Rican garlic steak shine at this Latin American restaurant. (231) 582-0049; redmesagrill.com 
WHERE TO STAY
Water Street Inn Private beach access and reasonable rates make these condos perfect for family getaways. From $199. (231) 582-3000; boynewaterstreetinn.com 
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® May/June 2012.)