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Reaching Back to a Scene That Stopped a Heart

VACATION MEMORIES: This is one of a continuing series on Memorable Vacations that appears from time to time in the Travel Section.

August 02, 1987|ELIZABETH HARRYMAN | Harryman is a Beverly Hills free-lance writer.

PETOSKEY, Mich. — "Are you looking?" I kept saying to my husband as we drove the deserted two-lane highway that cut through the pine forests of northern Michigan.

"It's coming up soon . . . over one of these hills." I didn't want him to miss it--the view that, in my childhood, had stopped my heart every summer when we crested that last hill in the family Lincoln with the luggage rack on top and the trailer behind.

And, finally, there it was--Little Traverse Bay--a niche on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan that shimmered like quicksilver in the afternoon sunlight.

Below us was the town of Petoskey, with houses dotting the hillside and white church steeples rising above the trees. Across the bay were the summer mansions of Harbor Springs, with farmland and wooded hills beyond. It wasn't quite the same. In 20 years, trees had grown up to obscure parts of the view. But the teal blue, white-capped waters of the bay still inspired reverence.

We descended the hill into Petoskey, a once-obscure town now grown into a small city.

A gas station now occupies the corner where "Wimpy's" stood--a mom-and-pop drive-in that used to serve the best hamburgers in the Midwest. The train station where we used to meet my dad, when he would come up from Indianapolis on weekends, is now a shopping arcade.

However changed Petoskey was, Bay View--where I'd spent every summer for 19 years--was the same as I'd remembered it. The wooden Victorian homes overlooking the bay were still there, and residents still gathered at the tiny post office to chat and gossip. Music from Albion Summer School still drifted across the park as old men played shuffleboard and engaged in lawn bowling.

Founded in 1870s

Bay View was founded by Methodists in the 1870s as part of the Chautauqua movement. Fine Victorian houses were built among the tall pines and along the rocky shores, and the Bay View Assn. was host to summer concerts and talks by William Jennings Bryan and Gen. Robert E. Lee. Families would come back summer after summer for the pine-scented air and lakeside pleasures.

Today visitors to the area can rent a cottage by the week or month, or can stay in one of the restored Victorian hotels.

Stafford's Bay View Inn, on Little Traverse Bay, is known for its period decor and fine food, and the 1911-era Terrace Inn, near the park, has authentically restored rooms and a warm, pine-paneled lobby.

After a day in Bay View, we walked down to the dock to watch the sunset.

"The Rec," a youth recreation club where I'd suffered the bittersweet pangs of summer love in my teens, was boarded up for the winter, and hordes of sea gulls had appropriated the stone pier where my father used to cast for perch.

We scoured the beach for Petoskey stones, those polka-dot fossils that so captured the fancy of summer visitors that the rocks have become Michigan's state stone. We found 13--so many we grew blase and kept only the most perfect specimens.

Shores of Solitude

We stood on the wind-swept shore and watched the sky above the bay turn to bright magenta and deep purple. A lone woman came down to the beach and stopped a short distance away. We stood silently for some time, watching the changing colors as the wind whipped around us, bringing an early warning of fall. Finally, I spoke to the woman.

"I used to come here every summer," I said. "My family owned a cottage."

"Which one?" she asked.

"Block 44, Lot 1."

"That's our cottage now!" she exclaimed, inviting us to see it.

In our car we followed her across the railroad tracks and up to the large yellow cottage at the edge of the woods. We were relieved to see that the woods my brother and I had explored with several generations of family dogs hadn't been cut down to make way for condos or a shopping center.

Inside, the furniture was different but the pine-wood walls, stone fireplace and stained-glass windows brought back memories of family card games, rainy afternoons spent playing with a magic set from the souvenir shop and breakfasts of fresh Michigan blueberries. The family who now lived in "our" cottage had built a sun deck out over the creek in back, where I used to watch dragonflies and listen to the frogs.

Ski Resort Nearby

It was dark now, and time for us to find our own lodgings. We took the road that leads around the bay to Harbor Spings, and turned off into the hills to Boyne Highlands--a large, alpine-style lodge at the foot of ski runs.

The resort seemed only half-awake, biding its time until winter, but we were captivated by the stillness of the forest setting and the startling brightness of the stars shining through the clear Michigan air.

The following day we explored the enclave of Harbor Springs and saw the summer homes of families with names like Ford and Gamble. Huge wooden mansions with sparkling windows are laughingly called cottages here. Luxurious vessels from as far away as Europe line the yacht harbor and sail out to the tip of Harbor Point, a mansion-studded peninsula which curves into the bay.

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