LELAND, Mich. —Superstar chef Mario Batali owns a home in Leelanau County, Mich., and calls this area one of the most beautiful places in America. Based on my three-day visit there, I'm inclined to agree.
If Michigan were indeed a left-handed glove, Leelanau County is the pinky, a leafy, breezy peninsula that juts into northeast Lake Michigan.
In winter, there is downhill and cross-country skiing nearby. In warm weather, you can stop by the many mom-and-pop farms that sell fresh cherries and asparagus, or climb up the sand dunes at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and perform a scene-by-scene remake from "Lawrence of Arabia."
The port town of Leland, 30 minutes outside Traverse City, is a great home base, in the middle of everything.
Checking in: We pulled into the gravel driveway of the Whaleback Inn, rang a bell and walked into a gorgeous lakeside cabin that encapsulates, in so many words, Northern Michigan: woodsy, serene, friendly. We were greeted by Scott Koehler, ever warm and helpful, who runs the inn with wife Tammie. We asked what there was to do around town, and he enthusiastically handed over enough maps, brochures and pamphlets for a startup tourism board.
Rooms: There are six types of rooms, from a single queen with no lake view to a free-standing homey cottage suite with its own living room and wood-burning fireplace. Our queen room with lake view was cozy but spacious and airy, filled with various pieces of knotty-pine furniture, including two rustic queen-size log beds (pillows, thankfully, come in several levels of firmness). There are 70-plus digital cable channels available on a flat-screen TV, and as I typed this, I was using free wireless Internet access. The inn's greatest feature, though, is outside: a porch overlooking the blue waters of Lake Leelanau, a panoramic view that will knock you for a loop. I envy the feeling you will experience when you open the vertical blinds in the morning for the first time.
Dining: Breakfast is a highlight. It's served from 7:30 to 9 a.m., and in warm weather it's on the wraparound porch of the main house, where the Koehlers live, looking over the same serene lake view. Local produce is served not only by choice but by necessity; there are no chain supermarkets or chain anything for miles. Cinnamon bread comes from Bay Bread Co. in Traverse City, and the delicious cherry butter from Rocky Top Farms in Ellsworth, Mich., mixed into yogurt is worth a second cup.
Bathroom: With a sliding door shower and toilet, our bathroom was low key, serviceable and, most important, clean. My one quibble about our stay was the running water. The inn gets its supply from a well, which has very hard water. Though it's treated with a water softener, the water in the shower still gives alternately a sulfurous and iron-like smell. Let it run for a few minutes, and it goes away — somewhat. That said, purified drinkable tap water is available in the community kitchen.
Accessibility: You have to climb stairs to reach the check-in area and dining nook, though most of the rooms are wheelchair accessible.
Kid friendly: Of course. They can run around the front yard or shoot some hoops in the back.
Bonus: For boaters in fair weather, the inn has its own dock.
Rates: Winter rates Oct. 27 to April 23: $109 for a queen to $199 for the Maple House Cottage. Summer rates June 12 to Sept. 7: $169 for a queen to $279 for the Maple House Cottage. Spring and autumn rates fall in between those.
Bottom line: You'll be hard pressed to start the car and drive off to begin your touristy endeavors — mornings here are so picturesque, the air so pure and quiet, the lake in front of you so blue and the conversations with the Koehlers so lovely, you just might want to throw away the stack of brochures and stay here the rest of the day.
1757 N. Manitou Trail, Michigan Highway 22, Leland, MI 49654, 231-256-9090 or 800-942-5322; whalebackinn.com