By MIKE NORTON The cherry orchards are blossoming in Traverse City! If you've never seen several million cherry trees all blossoming at once, with beautiful Grand Traverse Bay in the background, you need to get up here and take a look -- it's one of the truly unforgettable signs of spring in this lovely place! Another great reminder of the season is when I look out the window and see the tall ship Manitou sailing along on the horizon. In fact, one thing that constantly surprises visitors to Traverse City is the sight of all the graceful schooners, sloops and other sailing vessels as they glide majestically across Grand Traverse Bay. Though it's hundreds of miles from the ocean, Traverse City has always been a seafaring community. It's still home to the Great Lakes Maritime Academy -- the only school in the nation that certifies deck and engineering officers for both saltwater and freshwater vessels -- but it's our "tall ships" that enchant visitors and have become our unofficial mascots. In fact, Traverse City is home to more of these imposing sailing vessels than any other port in Michigan. And although they no longer haul lumber or carry the mail, the tall ships of Traverse City play a growing role in the community's economic, educational and cultural life. Some are working replicas of 18th and 19th century ships, available for dockside tours and (if you're lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time) a free ride around the bay. Others offer excursion cruises across the bay each afternoon, and some even serve as floating science classrooms where students learn about the area's aquatic environment and its maritime history.
- Cherry Blossoms at Old Mission Harbor
Undoubtedly, the most easily recognized vessel in the Traverse City fleet is the Manitou, a 114-foot, 62-passenger schooner that offers three two-hour cruises across the bay each day of the week, as well as a number of specialty cruises (a Microbrew & Pizza Cruise, a Wine Tasting Cruise, musical cruises and "ice cream sails") at scheduled times. In the fall, Manitou becomes a floating bed and breakfast, and is available for charter sailing.. Just as recognizable, though, are the dark red tanbark sails of the Inland Seas, a 77-foot schooner operated by the Inland Seas Education Association which operates "floating classroom" programs where students of all ages learn about the ecology of the Great Lakes by spending a half-day sailing and studying science on Grand Traverse Bay. The group also sails a somewhat smaller "schoolship" - the 31-foot Friendship sloop Liberty.
- The Tall Ship Manitou
A livelier sailing experience can be had aboard the Nauti-Cat, a 47-foot catamaran based near the mouth of the Boardman River. Measuring 29 feet from side to side, it offers up to four cruises per day during the summer months, often cruising as fast as 14 knots on a breezy day. Like the Manitou, the Nauti-Cat also rents out for charter cruises, and offers passengers the opportunity to raise the sails and steer. Visitors are also likely to spot some of the many sailing vessels operated by the Maritime Heritage Alliance or see them docked at Heritage Harbor along M-22 just north of the city. Their best known vessel is 92-foot Madeline, the twin-masted replica of an 1840's commercial ship that served as Traverse City's first schoolhouse during the winter of 1850-51.
- The Nauti-Cat Cruising on West Bay
They're equally proud of Welcome, a replica of an armed British sloop from the War of 1812 that was built at Fort Michilimackinac for the bicentennial of the American Revolution; the group spent years restoring the vessel and making her fit for sailing. The Alliance also sails the 39-foot cutter Champion. The only problem with all these busy ships is that they're often out of town making goodwill visits to other Great Lakes ports. One place to see them all together - and in the company of some other distinguished vessels - is at the three-day Michigan Schooner Festival, which takes place in Traverse City each fall. This year's festival is Sept. 9-11, and will feature eight sailing vessels including Milwaukee's three-masted schooner S/V Denis Sullivan, the 85-foot Appledore IV from Bay City and the replica sloop Friends Goodwill from South Haven. The festival will begin with an evening "grand parade of sail" as the vessels make their way south to Traverse City's Duncan L. Clinch Marina.
- The Armed Sloop Welcome
Other activities will include tours, passenger rides aboard the vessels, an evening "Bassett Island Dance Hall" swing dance party, maritime music throughout the weekend, food, re-enactments and games for youngsters - as well as a tremendously popular Sunday morning "Pancakes with Pirates" breakfast. For detailed information and directions about other events, adventures, activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, as well as help with lodging and dining visit the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
- Champion and Inland Seas at the 2010 Schooner Festival