Our First Family Vacation: Traverse City, Michigan

The idea of the DadTherapy blog is to recap the gear, entertainment, sports, food, spirits and anything else that helps keep dads – mainly me – a bit more sane amidst the swirling storm of insanity that goes along with raising kids. After months without a decent break from work I was more than ready for a vacation and this past week the wife, kids and I went for our first vacation together as a family, alone.

My wife is a planner and handled the entire trip herself. Kudos to her.

She picked Traverse City, Michigan as the destination, a five-and-a-half hour drive from our home in suburban Chicago. It was hailed as one of the most beautiful places in the country. It also happens to have lots of beaches and a resort with a full-sized, indoor water park. For Carter, four-and-a-half, and Evie, three, this last part was key.

*Before I start talking about where we stayed, ate and otherwise spent our own hard-earned money, I want to declare we did indeed pay for everything on this trip. We weren't on any travel agency, travel bureau, city chamber of commerce or resort chain sponsored trip. Yes, sometimes those places pay for dad/mom/offspring-raisers' entire vacation to blog about after the fact. That's not what this story is, although I’ll be rating many places in detail with links to help other families who might be thinking of a trip like this. Now onto the rest of this scheduled blog post.

On our way up to Traverse City we knew the kids would need a break from the long drive. Previously they've only handled two hours at a maximum in the car. We made it to South Haven, Michigan with no stops. Not sure how the kids made it since Dad needed to go pretty badly after two-plus hours in the Subaru. (We also drove our own family car, no test car for me and yes, Courtney drove her car both ways for the full drive.)

We hit the beach in South Haven and the kids loved building sand castles and testing the freezing cold water. This was the first day I started to feel relaxed on vacation and sifting sand with my two children was as joyous as sitting on a lounge chair with my wife on our vacations before the kids were born. The kids also think I’m the best sand castle architect ever.

We grabbed lunch in town at a dive of a sandwich shop called Nemo's but it got the job done. On the way to and from lunch we witnessed our first tractor pull. I've never seen one and now Carter and Evie have too. It was loud, and a bit bizarre to see large men racing hopped-up tractors.

A few more hours in the car, including a blissful two hours where the kids actually napped, and we arrived at the Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City. This is a hotel with indoor water park, Chuck-E-Cheese level game room, ice cream shop and even animal characters walking around like you’re at Disney.

The room was pretty cool with a little alcove designed like a log cabin that fit one kid-sized bunk bed and one more kid-single. The kids really liked the layout and Evie got to sleep on the bottom bunk since Carter has his own bunk bed at home.

The rest of the room was well sized with a table to eat at, kitchenette with a dorm room refrigerator and microwave and a small couch. There were also two very small TVs very far away from where you watched them.

Besides a little more counter space to house all the food we had brought with us to save on breakfast and lunch (we had PB&J, cereal, fruit, drinks etc.) the room was great.

Weather didn't cooperate the next day so we hit the water park first thing. The kids loved it and we spent a few hours every day of our visit there. Even dad got to ride the big slides with inner tubes. Otherwise the kids loved to tackle their appropriately-sized slides. Once Carter realized the larger slides he was allowed to ride weren’t scary he was giddy about them. Evie was still scared of them so her favorite part of the park was a small bucket that filled up with water every 15 seconds or so and then dumped said water on daddy. This made her laugh…a lot.

We also spent two nights, and $40, in the game room to rake in tickets that the kids loved collecting. Some 800 tickets later and we had a few race cars, a monster truck and a squishy caterpillar to show for our efforts. But we all had fun.

We went out to dinner most nights in town. The first place we went was North Peak Brewery. There are a lot of brew-pubs it seems in Traverse City. The food here was good but not great and the service decent. Oh, service almost everywhere we went and at the hotel was excellent. Everyone was very friendly and most seemed to be locals proud that folks traveled to visit their town. Beer at North Peak was also what I’d call above-average.

The next night's dinner though was sublime: Bubba’s.

It too had a kids eat free night. Courtney had found places with free kids nights for two nights which was good planning if you're on a budget…or not. Hey, saving ten bucks means a few more microbrews for me.

Bubba's was awesome. It is known for burgers and…Mexican food. Courtney and I were a bit tired of burgers and I had a steak the night before so she had a small steak burrito and I had a large shrimp burrito. They both came "wet" smothered in red homemade salsa and were amazing. I had a Bell’s Oberon on draft and life was good. It was so good I wanted to go back the next night . Our waiter was also terrific stopping by many times to check on us and keep drinks full.

Courtney said we should go try something different though the last night in town. We hit Mackinaw Brewing Company and while my fried perch and her salad were good, they didn't compete with Bubba's. Yes, we should've gone back to try the burgers. Beer here was a little better than North Peak but in the end Bells makes better beer. Sorry. Mackinaw is also in the heart of the quaint downtown area complete with boutiques and tourist-aimed stores.

I also stopped at Doug Murdick’s Fudge to get some sweets to take home: nearly four pounds of fudge for less than $20. The hotel sweet shop was charging nearly $30 for that much and I doubt it was as good as this. I wanted to get a cheesy t-shirt to commemorate the trip but found a surf shop called M22 with a highway-themed design that was more my style and nice quality.

We made sure we spent one morning traveling to Sleepy Bear Dunes. This is the national park that inspired the "most-beautiful" status of Traverse City. Unfortunately, it's about 20 miles from the town. The kids weren’t impressed by the long, windy, scenic drive and the beach, while beautiful, wasn't good for building sand castles, a major fault it seems. There were lots of rocks to throw in the water though. After about 30 minutes at the beach we packed everything up to head back to the hotel and water park. The kids cheered for that.

Four days of vacation with the kids was a welcome recharge of my batteries but by that second long drive home I think we were all ready to get home. Evie was especially evil (her nickname) in the car. Even the iPad full of new cartoons didn’t help that much.

We stopped at the children’s museum in Grand Rapids to keep them entertained. It's a lot like Kohl's here in the suburbs and because we’re members there we could go to the Grand Rapids’ museum for free.

It rained the entire drive and we were all happy to hit Chicago, traffic and all. We even saw the Blue Angels fly overhead during practice for the air show.

With children this age I don't think you can travel somewhere that doesn't have entertainment on the level of what Great Wolf provided. At least you'll want it to keep them happy and tired enough to not complain/whine at the end of the day.

Next time, maybe we try something closer to home but otherwise we didn't hit much turbulence. That gives me some confidence as we plan a Disney World visit in December.