Vacation homes in the hinterlands of Northern Michigan

What makes one of America’s more glorious regions so flat-out other-worldly is how everything comes together in Northern Michigan, particularly in the summer.

Temperatures and humidity: 80 degrees or a bit higher with, oh, 60 percent humidity, and lots of sunshine bouncing off nearby lakes. For kickers, northern nights tend to get pull-up-the-covers cool, which means a crack of the window is generally sufficient for eight hours of stone-dead slumber.

Ambience: Ever been to Charlevoix, bucko? How about Petoskey or Harbor Springs? You ever heard of the Leelanau Peninsula? Listen, Sparky, until you’ve caught the flavor and awe of Little Traverse Bay’s cobalt-blue depths, or stood along a sheer sand bluff 150 feet above Lake Michigan’s roiling surf, you have not sniffed heaven’s gate.

Golf: Northern Michigan is these days about the hottest – as in coolest – American golf destination going. Just quiz those infallible experts: golf-resort connoisseurs, course-design critics (see: Golfweek’s lists and critiques), course architects, not to mention folks who already have traveled there to tee it up. Most have been saying for the past decade that Northern Michigan has one of the most dazzling strings of visually enticing, player-pleasing, full-flavored golf experiences anywhere.

“Northern Michigan is where people escape from the cities, much like The Hamptons is for New Yorkers,” said Rees Jones, who two summers ago completed his first Northern Michigan project, Black Lake, a smashing 18-hole design near Onaway. “I just think the land there is so adaptable to golf. That’s why Pinehurst was successful, and that’s why Northern Michigan has such great golf.”

Real estate: Increasingly, people are choosing to live alongside a golf haven that is wired into the culture of Northern Michigan’s arts-and-crafts, restaurants-and-pubs, resort towns. The newcomers are opting for a second home, a condo, or cottage tucked into the woods, a few feet from the tee. They are building log-stone-and-glass, three-bedroom getaways along a sandy lakeshore, whether it happens to be Great Lakes water or one of those sparkling inland lakes that you seem to bump into every half-mile or so throughout the northern tier of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

And they are doing it in diverse ways. From a $2 million palace at Bay Harbor (a Boyne USA affiliate) to a simple, $16,900 lot procurement at Thunder Bay (northeast Lower Peninsula), there is dimension in Northern Michigan’s real-estate market on a par with the region’s environmental charms.

It has helped make Michigan the second-largest second-home state in America, next to Florida, “and golf is a considerable component in that,” said Dave Morris, director of marketing and research for Travel Michigan.

It is in the Lower Peninsula’s bluffs-and-orchards northwest quadrant that many of the premier properties rest. It is a heritage that was born more than a century ago when Chicago residents joined Michigan’s city-dwellers in migrating each summer to a sun-and-water paradise.

Boyne USA’s Michigan properties are based there and span a range of locations and investment levels: Homesites at Boyne Highlands, outside of Harbor Springs, open at $69,000, while the Ross Cottages – three bedrooms, 1,730 square feet – that rest along the 14th hole of the Donald Ross Memorial Course begin in the upper tier of $200,000.

Homesites at Boyne Mountain, 22 miles south, start at $56,000 and are part of a $250 million expansion and revitalization that will feature a new hotel, 125 condos and Pete Dye’s first Northern Michigan design, which is set to open in 2004.

Boyne has also began getting into the “fractional” marketplace, selling an interest in a condo or cottage on a quarterly, even monthly, level. A 1/12th interest in an Alpine Village condominium at Boyne Highlands goes for $28,900, or whole ownership for $200,000. One-quarter ownership on a cabin at Boyne Mountain can be acquired for about $125,000.

Crystal Mountain, an exceptional ski-and-golf resort just east of Lake Michigan, is also discovering that quarter-interests make sense for families that may not require more than 12 or 13 weeks of usage in any given year.

“People are saying, ‘I want to spend quality time with friends and family, but I don’t need that option 365 days a year,’ ” said Chris MacInnes, a senior vice president at Crystal Mountain, where a Scottish-flavored, 48-condo layout is part of the new Kinlochen Lodge & Clubhouse. “Quarter-shares ($129,000 at Kinlochen) are an exciting niche. What it allows us to do is to give people the kind of property, the kind of experience, that’s pretty high-end in terms of finishes and square feet. But with the amenities at a price people can afford.”

Shanty Creek, which borders gorgeous Lake Bellaire, is also pushing quarter-shares, but homes are a centerpiece of this property, with a 4,000-square-foot, log-and-fieldstone jewel on The Summit tract going for $915,000. Less-opulent, but roomy dwellings – framed by beech, maple and aspen – can be bought for well under $200,000.

Shanty Creek is a diverse property, with a variety of golf and skiing outlets, as well as some of the top panoramas in Northern Michigan.

Farther east, in Gaylord, the Otsego Club is taking advantage of the Sturgeon River Valley’s awesome vistas by adding homesites to its new, Gary Koch-designed course, The Tradition.

East of Gaylord, at Garland, new homes and condos are flourishing at one of the most meticulously cared-for retreats in the Midwest. Garland is something of a mecca, and not just because of its graceful 90 holes of golf or its distinctive birds, flowers and wildlife. The real estate here has been diligently planned and executed: stone, logs and glass are the core theme. And one peek at the beauty and symmetry of Garland speaks to careful and genuine stewardship.

A three-bedroom, 1,900-square-foot French country villa, tucked along the Fountain Course’s 12th hole, lists for $249,000. Furnished golf cottages, sporting two bedrooms and 1,100 square feet, are listed in the mid-$100s . A 1.12-acre home site on the Swampfire Course: $77,000.

What the demographic experts all say about Northern Michigan, of course, is that the northern tier – an area of unlimited woods and water – hasn’t yet begun to peak as far as golf and residential development is concerned.

“With the shift of the Baby Boomers to either retirement, or to relocation from the cities, this is going to be one hot real-estate market,” said Stephen Kircher, head of Boyne USA’s empire.

“If anywhere is hot,” Kircher said, nodding, “this is going to be hotter.”

Hot, as in cool, of course. Or, as the pop linguists might say: Northern Michigan rocks.

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