Recently, I discovered a Michigan B&B that lacks fancy rooms and big windows, but views are picture perfect and the accommodations are classic.
That's because this bed and breakfast floats along the edge of Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. The 380 degree views from the Manitou depict real time scenes small sailboats adrift between shore and the horizon, piers lined by neat rows of masts, bustling marinas and boaters swabbing their decks. And just like in pictures, waterfowl flying overhead dot the blue skies.
Discovering the serenity of sailing on a tall-masted schooner before spending a snug night aboard turned out to be a pleasant surprise for overnight guests, including Jim and Beth Ridge of Portage, Michigan.
"We were just looking for a B&B, but when I found out about this tall ship, I said 'wow!' Jim enthused. I thought it would be the perfect way to introduce my wife to sailing," he explained, enjoying steaming coffee, morning views of West Grand Traverse Bay and scones still warm from the galley's wood-burning stove.
"He planned it all, right from the beginning," added his spouse, Beth, who lacked any past sailing experience but was as surprised as he to find a schooner turned B&B. "We may come back, at least for another day cruise," they agreed. The concept of spending a night aboard the replica vessel, like those that plied the Great Lakes and Eastern seaboard during the 1800s, appeals to "old salts" as well as novices who aren't sure they're ready for a longer sail, but are enticed to learn a bit about sailing traditions.
The Ridges met up with other overnight guests at 5:45 at the office across the street from pier, bought souvenir t-shirts and hats and road by van to the pier just across busy M-22, known to locals as Southwest Bayshore Drive. Driving across the road was a safety precaution and didn't interrupt motor traffic the way individuals walking across might, the driver explained.
Once aboard, it was backwards down a steep, narrow ladder holding onto the brass railings for support to find our cabins and stash our duffels. Four small cabins waited below the main deck. With another eight cabins forward, there's space for 24 passengers. Cabins on the Manitou replicate those on antique models measuring a minuscule six feet by eight - tiny by motel standards and astonishing to many first time passengers. "How will I breathe? I feel claustrophobic already!" was Charlene Hayes' first reaction. Each cabin is outfitted with two narrow bunks made up with fresh white linens and gray wool blankets, a small window, reading lights, a wall light and a plastic hospital-type basin that can be filled with water from a common sink shared by four cabins so you can wash your hands and face in the privacy of your cabin, if you wish. There's also a small wall mirror.
If it sounds cozy, it is. Rest assured, there's space for a couple to dress, but perhaps not at the same time. The person in the top bunk needs to remember to avoid sitting upright in bed and that a metal beam jets across the ceiling about forehead level. Some passengers opt to bring a sleeping bag and sleep on deck under the stars, but the cabin quarters, albeit confined, offer a comfortably good night's sleep. Although I was looking forward to the gentle floating motion, I didn't feel the sway of the schooner, perhaps because the lake was like glass or the mooring at the private pier was so secure.
Captain Dave McGinnis patterns his guests' experiences after the nearly week-long stays aboard the early sailing vessels that tack in Penobscot Bay, Maine where he earned his training aboard a schooner similar to the Manitou. Small towns, like Camden and Rockland, Maine have ports lined with antique boats ready to initiate patrons with sailing styles of long ago. Boats there moor in safe harbors during the evening while passengers and crew sleep. Here, in Michigan, McGinnis does much the same thing, only for shorter periods of time: two-hour sails in Grand Traverse Bay and single night stays docked at the boat's private pier.
Traditionally, boats plying the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Coast used wood burning stoves for cooking and heating water and masts for power. In keeping with the past, the Manitou's wood burner also heats water for the showers located in the two bathrooms and Manitou's chef, Australian-born Stacey Ingram, prepares a full hot breakfast over fire wood.
By the time she rang the breakfast bell, signaling the start of the sit-down family style meal featuring bowls of fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages and stacks of pancakes, we already sampled her warm pastries and coffee set out on a tray topside. Another custom taken from New England trips, blueberry scones and a cup o'joe were the perfect accompaniment for quietly watching the sunrise.
This summer is the first time for McGinnis' full time role as innkeeper, but it compliments his captain's duties. His uniform a well-worn baseball cap and a t-shirt with the schooner's logo is casual, but his care for safely and professionalism abound, along with an affable and approachable personality. And it doesn't matter whether he's shouting sailing orders or offering would-be sailors a chance to steer.
"The Manitou, a replica of a 'coasting' cargo schooner from the 1800s, was built in New Hampshire in 1983 as a passenger vessel," Dave explained as he joined passengers at breakfast. He brought the schooner to Traverse City in 1991 for the owners, Traverse Tall Ship Company, and captains cruises by day and operates the B&B in the evening.
The evening sail, like the two other daily events aboard the Manitou, are open to the public who usually reserve space ahead of time, but the 6:30 p.m. sail is part of the B&B package. Once off the dock, the crew sells soft drinks, wine, beer and even champagne from a picnic cooler.
The evening we chose was perfect for a walk on one of Traverse City's sandy beaches, but not for catching enough wind to sail the five-masted Manitou. Time was spent quietly drifting or touring under motor, with the wind picking up long enough to give passengers a tease of what true sailing might be like. No one seemed to mind the lack of wind in the sails, especially the young couple seated nearby.
Luckily there was that champagne in the cooler because the twilight sail served as a lovely backdrop for a surprise engagement toast. Courtney Bowers thought the cruise was a romantic, 25th birthday present from her boyfriend, Nate Mazwrek until he kneeled, proposed and placed a diamond ring on her finger with Captain Dave snapping the camera. The picnic dinner a turkey sandwich, brownie and small servings of pasta salad and Cole slaw wasn't much of an engagement dinner and couldn't compare to the sumptuous meals served in New England so after the cruise, several guests, including the betrothed, took in a lively local spot, the Apache Trout Grill, overlooking the water and less than a mile from the Manitou. McGinnis recommended it for its nautical ambiance, outdoor tiki bar and good food, and it was a perfect spot to take in local color.
There's a curfew of sorts on board the plank is lifted so no one can come aboard after 11, but that's okay sailing is relaxing and tiring at the same time. Weather is not a factor captain or guests can second-guess. Infrequent inclement conditions may cancel the sail, but overnight guests have several options, including a money-back refund. Another is to sleep on board and sail the next day if there's room. Adjustments are given no matter what guests prefer. "To our knowledge, the Manitou's the only schooner on the Great Lakes offering overnight amenities," McGinnis thinks, adding regional B&B associations and national websites are glad to have a floating B&B amongst its members.
One of the differences between the Manitou, with her home on the Great Lakes, and Eastern crafts is that she bears a steel hull, designed for freshwater sailing, the captain explained. Otherwise, she's similar, down to the two tiny bathrooms (called "heads") each with a toilet that required pumping, and small basin with a shower overhead. A schooner sailing adventure with limited cabin space, a fend-for-yourself deck sans private bathrooms, service staff and comforts of luxury liners isn't for everyone. But for those willing to try it, spending the night on the Manitou is an easy commitment for novices and it's a closer to home tall ship experience for Midwesterners. Passengers like the Ridges say they'll try it again, hoping for more wind.
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