Charlevoix - A Small Town With A World-Class Reputation
By Jim Favors
When I think of the perfect, small, all American hometown, I immediately think of Charlevoix, Michigan, located just north of the 45th parallel. Even though we lived and worked in Traverse City, the Charlevoix Municipal Marina was our homeport for many years during the summer months, soon after we began our boating adventures in earnest. Charlevoix has all the charm and characteristics of the kind of place many of us would like to have as a hometown. Although we are no longer seasonal slip holders, "Charlevoix the Beautiful" still has a fond place in our hearts and therefore we were excited to be returning for a long weekend, we planned our trip to back from the North Channel to coincide with their annual Venetian Festival, which dates back to 1931.
A US Coast Guard Station stands guard at the entrance to Round Lake from Lake Charlevoix.
Everyone gets into the spirit of the Venetian Festival, including our friend and Charlevoix's well-known harbormaster, Hal Evans, who on occasion will surprise us with a song.
Charlevoix is a picturesque, summer boating paradise; nestled just off Lake Michigan, downtown Charlevoix sits impressively overlooking Round Lake. If boating into Charlevoix from Lake Michigan, you gain access to town via Pine River, the channel that goes under the bridge and into Round Lake. If you continue east and through Round Lake, you'll gain access to the crystal clear waters of Lake Charlevoix, a 13-mile long boating mecca with two long arms stretching further east to East Jordan and Boyne City and 56 miles of shoreline.
As we trailered Kismet into town, on route 31, I couldn't help but get a big smile on my face. It's the little things I noticed like the colorful petunias lining both sides of the road. In 1982, about a week before the Memorial Day weekend, volunteers started this long-standing tradition of planting petunias along the curbs, literally lining the streets from one end of town to the other. The flowers are a warm welcome not only for first time visitors but also for residents and seasonal visitors, like us, reminding us how very special this small, northern Michigan town is.
Boathouses line the shore of Round Lake, you would be surprises how many old, mint condition, wooden boats are stored within.
Finally arriving downtown, we stopped just short of Pine River. The drawbridge had been raised to let the Beaver Island Ferry depart for its 31-mile daily offshore jaunt to Beaver Island (located northwest of Charlevoix), out on Lake Michigan. The bridge also opens on the half hour for most of the day as well, to let the throngs of pleasure boats cruise in and out of Charlevoix.
Our friend, Jeff came by for a visit shortly after we were tied up and nestled comfortably into our
makeshift "slip" accommodations.
With the bridge finally lowered we slowly made our way through the early Venetian Festival traffic, with plenty of time to reflect on past memories. The main drag runs right by the quaint downtown storefronts that overlook Round Lake. Charlevoix proper has a population of only about 2,500, has no box stores, and has only a couple of fast food restaurants, which help give Charlevoix its small town charm.
Round Lake, the City Park, and Municipal Marina (our final destination for the weekend) was on our left as we continued on our way to the boat launch. As I looked out my driver's side window, down the park's gentle slope towards the marina, while moving slowly in uncharacteristic bumper-to-bumper traffic, I remembered my first visit to Charlevoix. The year was 1958 when our family went on a road trip to view the recently completed Mackinac Bridge and we made a quick stop in Charlevoix. I was 8 years old, I fondly recall running down to the harbor to look at the boats, thinking what a great place this Charlevoix was. Little did I know then that someday I'd call Charlevoix our homeport as Lisa and I spent many summers exploring the Great Lakes from our seasonal slip. Today the waterfront park is larger, the marina is state of the art and as modern as any, however they still have their Rexall Drug store, the drawbridge and the annual Venetian Festival.
Waterside dining anyone? A Girl, A Guy, & A Grill have got you covered with their cute pontoon take-out diner.
We finally got through town and to the boat ramp on Lake Charlevoix where we readied and launched Kismet. Although we'd been back to Charlevoix several times since we gave up our seasonal slip a few years ago, this was our first return by boat in four years. Once launched, we took a slow cruise the one-mile distance, past Northwest Marina, then the private Belvedere Club, towards the Coast Guard Station at the entrance to Round Lake. We inched our way closer, absorbing the sights we had not seen from out on the water in four years.
Once through the narrow channel separating Lake Charlevoix from Round Lake we radioed the marina for our slip assignment. "Kismet switch and answer to channel 9," we heard Charlevoix's long time harbormaster, Hal Evans respond. After receiving our slip assignment and readying our boat for docking, we took a tour around the, one-third-mile wide by half-mile long, picture perfect, boathouse littered, boating paradise called Round Lake. I can't describe how good it felt to be back.
Early morning on Venetian Festival Saturday folks will already be setting up their chairs for the evening fireworks spectacular on Round Lake.
The harbor was full of activity with boats coming and going, with more positioning themselves to secure prime anchorage spots for the Venetian Festival activities. We wove our way through moving and stationary boats, as we approached our assigned "slip." Since dockage at the municipal marina is hard to come by during the big festival, we use the word loosely as we didn't have an actual dock to tie up to but were squeezed between, and tied up between two boats, luckily we were small enough to fit. We were just happy to get a spot. Plenty of familiar and friendly faces greeted us as the marina staff caught our lines, Hal was there, as he is when most boats dock, he greeted us with his all too familiar, "Welcome home, Kismet, welcome home." Hal's greeting is not only well known in the boating community all over the country, but has become another of the small town warm fuzzies, we as boaters have come to appreciate when visiting Charlevoix.
The Venetian Festival is a family oriented summer celebration that started with a simple boat parade in 1931. Today, the summer event is a community-wide celebration, which encompasses not only the year ‘round locals but the seasonal visitors as well. The attractions include, not only a carnival, antique car show, fireworks, concerts and humongous chicken barbeque, but boasts a uniquely small town parade with local marching bands, festival queen courts, fire trucks, and enough else to watch from your curb side folding chair for a solid hour. We also don't know any town in Michigan that has as good a lakeside band shell where each night during the festival a different group performs to a park full of people. The star attraction this year was rock and roll legend, Peter Noone and his Herman Hermits.
It was a magical night for a waterside concert with an overflowing crowd, good weather and the very entertaining Peter Noone.
From our spot, part way up a park monument, our view of Peter Noone's remarkably electric and entertaining performance was unobstructed. Not only were the marina docks at full capacity, there were hundreds of boats anchored in Round Lake ready to catch the free concerts. Yes, I said free, as are all the concerts during the festival and throughout the summer. Peter Noone put on one heck of a show that night as evidenced by the standing ovation at the end.
After the concert, Lisa and I walked the docks to have a look at the creative efforts of those putting decorations and final touches on their boats for the lighted boat parade, a tradition going into its 82nd year. The boats participating in the parade start leaving their slips to assemble out on Lake Charlevoix just before dusk. As the cover of darkness approaches the lighted boats enter Round Lake, through the narrow channel, in an illuminated parade, displaying their themed vessels by making one complete pass around the harbor. All parade participants receive two night's free dockage via the Best of Fleet, Best Power, Best Sail and Best Illuminated prizes. To read more click on this festival link:
Almost everyone likes the loud noises, spectacular displays and colors that come with a firework's display. What makes the last night of Venetian Festival fireworks (the second fireworks display during the festival) extravaganza even more grandiose is that they're launched from a barge in the middle of the small lake. There are no bad seats to view the pyrotechnics as most vantage points are within 200 to 300 feet of the barge.
A lot of work goes into the boat parade decorations, the harbor was lit up, and glowing as all the parade boats resumed their dockage, still illuminated, for the night.
Just as the boat parade ended the fireworks began. Sitting on the bow of a neighboring boat with three sets of friends, we couldn't have gotten any closer unless we were on the barge. Being so near the water, with no obstructions, we had the dual advantage of the clear skyline as well as the reflections of the fireworks shimmering on the moonlit, still water. Being so close, we had to twist and hold our heads up at 45-degree angles for the best optical sensations of the absolute best fireworks we've ever seen. Every year they seem to top the prior years performance. When it came time for the finale, the reverberations from the powerful display could be felt against our bodies as the pressure resonated around the harbor. Another advantage is that we didn't have to fight the mass traffic exodus when the festival ended, we sat in the cockpit of Kismet and enjoyed watching the activities slowly wind down.
Being docked at the marina for the Venetian Festival has its advantages. Not only is it considerably less expensive than a hotel, we had ringside seats for the concerts, parades and fireworks. When we wanted to take a break from all the activities, all we had to do was hop in our dinghy and cruise around the harbor, we often like to check out the anchored boats, cool off and have some quiet time.
Many, in the boating community, consider Charlevoix, especially its Municipal Marina, to be a world-class boating destination; big on reputation while keeping a small town Americana type atmosphere. Boats from all over the world have found their way to Round Lake, including a few small cruise lines.
We started to wind our trip down when we left the marina late Sunday morning. We wanted to close our three-week long vacation by anchoring, in a favorite, well-protected spot, behind Holy Island, on the south arm of Lake Charlevoix. We spent the afternoon swimming and enjoying time boating in the Great Lakes region again. Our decision to switch to a trailerable boat has made many things possible for us and is proving to be an excellent mode of travel for our growing interests and our need to expand our cruising horizons.