A mere 35 minutes by car from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park and 27 miles from Traverse City, Leland’s historic district, Fishtown, is a blast from the Great Lakes’ maritime past. Wooden shanties line a narrow canal in which charter boats and fish tugs float, undulating on Lake Michigan’s gentle swells.
Though previously dependent on fishing as the main source of revenue, since the 1970s, the Fishtown community has increasingly relied upon seasonal tourism to fuel the economy. Nevertheless, the historic district has retained its old-fashioned aesthetic. The wooden architecture and layout create the impression of a smaller, simpler version of a Japanese fishing village like Ine-cho, full of the same quaint charm.
Some of these waterside huts were once inhabited by families, and now many have been converted into stores and restaurants that purvey local cherry products, smoked fish, artisanal sandwiches, ice cream, cheese, local beer, and handicrafts. One of the buildings has been renovated as a hotel for visitors who wish to spend more time exploring Fishtown and the surrounding nature. Another is now a museum, housing creations from indigenous Odawa artists as well as records, archives, and artifacts from Fishtown’s earliest days.
People come to the lakeside village for waterskiing, paddle boarding, kayaking, boating, hiking nearby Sugarloaf Mountain, and exploring the old fishing shanties. This, of course, creates a challenge as the town’s tourist-based revenue dries up in the wintertime. So in 2007, locals formed the Fishtown Preservation Society with the goal of keeping this slice of the past alive for future descendants and visitors alike. Their efforts have been largely successful, and, at least for now, Fishtown will continue to provide visitors with a glimpse into a way of life that has become increasingly rare in the United States.
Know Before You Go
There is parking available in the harbor parking lot and along Lake Street and Main Street in Fishtown. From there you can walk around and check out the plethora of shops, eateries, and activities. It’s also possible to take a ferry over to the Manitou Islands for a day trip or to camp for the night.