Interpreter Ryan Locke answers questions on the Sleeping Bear Point Trail

By MIKE NORTON Sometimes I wonder if we Traverse City folks get so caught up in all of our town's great food and wine, entertainment and shopping that we start to forget what brought us here in the first place: the sheer beauty that surrounds us on every side. That's the true value of things like the recent vote by viewers of Good Morning America who named our own Sleeping Bear Dunes the "most beautiful place in America." People can quibble with the results (there are lots of beautiful places, after all) and people can talk about how much good this will do for the local economy. But I think the best part of it is to serve as a reminder that we're all -- visitors and residents alike -- members of a privileged group and custodians of a very special part of the world.

Emily Shaw helps a budding water quality specialist on the Inland Seas.

That thought kept coming back to me during the last few days, as I participating in a special "environmental familiarization" program with Oakland County outdoor writer Jonathan Schechter together with J. Mike De Agostino and Shaina O'Dwyer of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa. We sailed on the "schoolship" Inland Seas to watch youngsters discover the history and ecology of Grand Traverse Bay, hiked through the beautiful Boardman Valley to learn about efforts to restore Traverse City's most celebrated river, experienced the sweeping grandeur of Sleeping Bear Point with interpreter Ryan Locke and visited Bowers Harbor Vineyards to learn about sustainable viticultural practices in the local wine industry. Some people seem to think we can best protect these wonders by keeping them a secret, known only to the privileged few. Others (and I'm one of these) want to let the world know about them, in hopes that when other people see what an amazing place this is, they'll be motivated to guard and protect it just as we were. I think one of the best things about my job is when I have the opportunity to take someone out to one of these places for the very first time. I love to watch the light come into their eyes as they step out onto a high overlook above the lake or take their first sip of a brilliantly crisp Pinot Grigio. Ninety percent of the time, the first words out of their mouths will be "I had no idea!" That's right, I think. But now you do. It's like somebody said on one of our Facebook forums recently. Come and visit. But play nice.

A late-summer hiker at Sleeping Bear Point.

Speaking of visiting, we're nearly into the fall season, and autumn is an enchanting time in Michigan's beautiful Grand Traverse Bay country -- perfect for a visit to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, a dining adventure, some shopping, a round of golf on our championship courses, or a tour of our beautiful wine country. It's also the perfect season to save money and receive great value on a vacation getaway. From Sept. 9 through Dec. 19, the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau will offer its "Fab Fall" getaway special, available at two dozen participating resorts and hotels. Fab Fall rates start as low as $22.50 per person/per night midweek and $30 per person/per night on weekends (plus tax, based on double occupancy). In addition, they include extras like discount offers on shopping, dining, wine purchases, movies, spa services, and $10 in casino e-credits. The specials must be directly booked through hotels. (Just make sure to ask for the Fab Fall special.) For a list of details, including participating hotels, check out the Bureau's web site at