``That's why,'' I told him, ``it's called a Great Lake.''
My friend can be forgiven the geographical lapse. Once my wife and I had decided that our summer vacation would be a drive around the lake, we needed some brushing up ourselves.
Here's what we reminded ourselves of: Lake Michigan is the only one of the five Great Lakes entirely within the United States. It encompasses two time zones, its shoreline stretches 1,400 miles, its waters lap up against four states and, best of all, it offers some of America's most spectacular scenery, from vast dunes to flat beaches, from rocky bluffs to pine-covered scrubland.
There are islands to tour, forests to hike, ferries to ride, shipwrecks to study, maritime museums to visit, and it all can be done in less than a week.
It's a circle tour, so you can start anywhere you want. We'd been living in Chicago and decided to drive through Indiana, where we'd grown up, and north into Michigan, working our way counterclockwise.
Since we're from Indiana and wanted to see new sites on this trip, we bypassed our old haunts there, but a first-time visitor shouldn't. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park near Michigan City offers up a visitor center and, most important, Mount Baldy, one of the world's largest moving dunes.
Winds off the lake are actually sweeping the 123-foot high dune inland about three feet a year. It's a taxing but manageable climb up the dune for a spectacular view of the lake. The winds can be a little stiff; sometimes, hang-gliders take off from the top. (One hint: If it's cool enough, climb barefoot. You don't need the extra weight from sand in your shoes.)
From Michigan City it's about a 20-minute ride into Michigan, where the first town, New Buffalo, begins a swath of resort communities where Chicagoans flock each summer. This countryside is farmland and filled with orchards. New Buffalo offers a good resting point for lunch if you've stopped at Mount Baldy.
But this was familiar territory to us, so we pushed on another hour and a half to Saugatuck for our first midday break and ate a picnic lunch at Saugatuck Dunes State Park. After lunch, we hiked about 30 minutes through some woods to the beach, our first time on this stretch of the lake. The beach there is narrow and the waters shallow, with pleasure boats pulling up to within 20 yards of shore. The pines tower within 50 yards of the beach and, if you're a homesick Easterner, you could pretend you're in Maine.
It was a good break after a morning's drive, but we still had a way to go before our first stop for the night in Traverse City. It took the rest of the afternoon for the drive. Since we knew southwestern Michigan pretty well, we had decided to draw a line across Lake Michigan about halfway up and then plotted all of our overnight stays above that line.
Traverse City, a community of about 16,000 people at the bottom of Grand Traverse Bay, one of the many large inlets along Lake Michigan's northern shoreline, was a good spot for a couple of nights. It offers plenty of hotels, motels and inns near the water, although we, traveling with our 3-year-old son, opted for a budget motel on the edge of town.
We spent two nights there to allow us time to wander the surrounding area. Downtown Traverse City has enough shops to pass an afternoon; there is a small zoo on the waterfront, which also offers rides on a miniature train for children; and you'll find several good restaurants.
One spot not to miss is Sleder's Family Tavern, which calls itself one of Michigan's oldest saloons. It's a casual place with a tin ceiling, fine burgers and, if you kiss the moose head on the wall (almost everybody does) the crowd cheers and the barmaid rings a bell.
A free day here can be spent driving out the peninsula, which divides Grand Traverse Bay at its bottom. You'll find some grand views of the water, lots of rolling vineyards and local wineries. At the peninsula's tip, the Old Mission Lighthouse sits just about on the 45th parallel, halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.
About a half-hour east of Traverse City is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Park. The bluffs and dunes rise 400 feet above the water here, and offer terrific trails for hiking or a scenic drive through the park. It's worth a day all to itself.
From Traverse City we drove through Charlevoix, stopping to watch the ferry that runs out to Bear Island and spending time window-shopping. Charlevoix and neighboring Petoskey are lovely communities that attract wealthy folks from all over the nation. The new mansions springing up, just visible from U.S. Route 31, are enormous.
The highway hugs the shoreline until just past Petoskey, where it heads inland for a short stretch until reaching the Straits of Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw). The straits separate Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas and serve as the divider between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
The only way across the straits was by ferry until 1957, when the Mackinac Bridge, one of world's longest suspension bridges, was built. It spans five miles, stretching across some of North America's most treacherous waters. Many ships have sunk over the years in the straits, and the lake here is a specially designated diving area for exploring the wrecks.
Mackinaw City is the last town before the bridge on the lower peninsula and has a small downtown geared to souvenir-seeking tourists. It also has Colonial Michilimackinac, the site of an old fort that has reconstructed buildings and costumed re-enactments, and docks for ferries leaving regularly for Mackinac Island.
We crossed the bridge, though, to the upper peninsula's gateway city, St. Ignace. We spent two nights in a terrific motor lodge called the Harbour Pointe Motor Inn, in a room whose patio opened directly onto Lake Huron. From our chairs, we could watch the ferries, which also leave regularly for Mackinac Island from St. Ignace, as they shot across the deep waters to the pine-covered island. (The lodge also offered a nightly bonfire, complete with marshmallows.)
All activity here is centered on tourism for the island, home to the famous Grand Hotel, where they charge you to walk on its vast porch to take in the views. The island is one of the major tourist destinations on Lake Michigan, and we spent a full day touring.
The ferry ride from St. Ignace or Mackinaw City takes about 20 minutes, and the boat's motor is the last mechanical sound one hears when stepping onto the island, where cars are prohibited. Everyone from tourists to the few hundred year-round residents gets about by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage.
The main shopping and dining area near the docks is way too touristy for our tastes, filled with fudge shops, which are ubiquitous on the island. But the side streets offer a chance to look and tour some of the old houses, several of which are bed-and-breakfasts.
We also hiked through Fort Mackinac, which sits on a hill overlooking the harbor. During the summer, the fort is the site of cannon firings, concerts and other re-enactments from the latter half of the 19th century, when it was an active garrison. The displays are entertaining and interesting enough for history buffs.
Our best move, though, was to hire a carriage and guide for an hour's ride about the island. That got us away from the crowds and into the woods, spying the old cemeteries and catching vistas we never could have seen on foot.
We spent two nights in St. Ignace before taking a day to drive the northern shoreline of Lake Michigan back down into Wisconsin. Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a world unto itself, vast and undeveloped.
U.S. Route 2 follows the lake about half the way to the Wisconsin line. It also cuts through sections of Hiawatha National Forest. With a 3-year-old, we didn't stop to hike, but wished we could have.
Our one big mistake in planning was on judging how long to give ourselves for this leg of the trip. We planned to stay in Green Bay, Wis., figuring that we would have had plenty of time in the car by then and would need a break for the night before driving another hour to Door County for our last few days.
We found that if we had left a bit earlier, we could have easily made Door County from St. Ignace in less than a full day - and wished we had. (For football fans, Green Bay is worth a visit for the Packers Hall of Fame and a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field. Otherwise, there's not much there.)
Door County is the thumb into Lake Michigan that forms Green Bay; the town is named for a body of water. It gets a lot of tourists in the summer, but by heading out nearly to the end of the peninsula we got away from the crowds and found the best scenery. We had selected the simple Grand View Motel based on the guidebook and were glad we did. It's aptly named. Each room had a veranda with a fine view of the bay, sprawled out beyond a sweeping hillside of pines.
Here, we were able to engage in our favorite of vacation activities: recharging our batteries by afternoon naps and long sessions buried in books.
We avoided the most crowded towns and, by exploring the furthest tip of the peninsula, discovered Bea's Ho-Made Products in Gills Rock. What looks like a converted garage is a shop brimming with jams, jellies, fresh pies and other goodies. We loaded up.
Rested and with our new provisions, we were ready for home. It's nearly a five-hour drive to Chicago. The trip down is, unfortunately, mostly by interstate.
Along the way is Milwaukee; while we didn't stop this trip, we recommend including it. It offers a fine zoo, a pretty walk along the Milwaukee River and a rich German heritage that includes some good eating. (The best known German restaurants are Karl Ratzsch's and Mader's.)
On the way south toward Illinois on Interstate 94, don't miss Mars Cheese Castle, the best of the many cheese shops in that part of Wisconsin. As for Chicago, it obviously offers its own attractions beyond being a stop on a tour around Lake Michigan. For us, after seven nights and nearly 1,400 miles, it meant home. The circle was complete.
IF YOU GO * Many sources will provide information to visitors who plan to travel around Lake Michigan. Here's a basic list of them:
* Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Park, 219-926-7561, Ext. 225.
* Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, 616-947-3134.
* Mackinaw City Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-750-0160.
* Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce, 906-847-6418.
* St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-338-6660.
* Harbour Pointe Motor Inn, St. Ignace, Mich., 1-800-642-3318.
* Door County Chamber of Commerce, 920-743-4456.
* Grand View Motel, Ellison Bay, Wis., 920-854-5150.