BELLAIRE, Mich. -- The signs of recession still linger in this tiny outpost in northern Michigan.
The T-Bones Restaurant & Grill, Bellaire Golf Club and Bellaire Lanes bowling alley are all shuttered along the main drag. So how, with all this blight, does Bellaire state such a strong case as one of northern Michigan's best golf destinations?
The recipe starts with Shanty Creek Resorts, a 4,500-acre oasis of three resort villages home to four golf courses and three restaurants. Two other courses -- The Chief and Hawk's Eye -- also pair well with the village's quaint downtown and its well known brew pub and bistro.
California's Bel-Air in Los Angeles is swanky and snobby. Northern Michigan's Bellaire, population 1,100, is simple and unpretentious. Bellaire isn't blessed to kiss the shores of Little Traverse Bay, like Petoskey or Harbor Springs. Its substitute -- the clear blue waters of nearby Torch Lake -- might be better for boaters and swimmers than the chilly waters of Lake Michigan anyway. Traverse City's collection of courses, beaches and restaurants are tough to beat, although its growth has ushered in touristy commercialism that will never plague Bellaire. Gaylord boasts Bavarian charm, city conveniences and golf galore. Even still, you could argue that Bellaire feels more like northern Michigan than any of them.
The Shanty Creek factor
It appears Shanty Creek -- rescued from bankruptcy by Trinidad Resort & Club, LLC in 2006 -- has finally found its niche in northern Michigan. Its four courses cater to hardcore golf groups, competing with other large multi-course resorts such as Grand Traverse Resort & Spa in Acme, Treetops Resort in Gaylord and Boyne Highlands Resort in Harbor Springs.
Multiple pools and recreational opportunities -- like basketball, tennis, biking and footgolf -- welcome families as well. The Summit Course has become an incubator for grow-the-game initiatives like FootGolf, a cross between soccer and golf. The maintenance staff recently cut 15-inch cups on every green to give everybody a chance to sink a 40-footer. FootGolf, costing just $10 per player, provides a great afternoon outdoors activity for all ages and skills. It's essentially a walk in the park among beautiful surroundings.
After playing The Legend by Arnold Palmer and Cedar River by Tom Weiskopf on back-to-back days, I'm more torn than ever about which course is better. The elevated tees of The Legend lead to narrow passages through trees and wetland. It plays much tougher than the 6,269 yards (from the blue tees) would indicate. Cedar River might be wider, but its bunkers are deeper and bolder. Both are definitely must-plays, with the Schuss Mountain Course as a solid third option.
I haven't played Hawk's Eye since its grand opening in 2003, so I'll defer to the users at GolfAdvisor.com, who give the hilly, scenic course mostly high marks of four and five stars. The Chief, a tricky test of target golf by John Robinson, gets more mixed ratings online.
Back at Shanty Creek, the $10-million renovation of the Lakeview Hotel & Conference Center in 2007 still looks fresh and modern. The view from the lobby and outdoor pool down to Lake Bellaire never ceases to amaze. I wish more resorts followed Shanty Creek's lead by putting microwaves and fridges in every room. It just makes traveling so much more convenient.
The breakfast buffet at the Lakeview Restaurant feeds golfers at the crack of dawn before their tee times and caps the day with a fine-dining experience as the sun dips below the lake on the horizon.
The surprise discovery of my three-day trip was the River Bistro inside the Lodge at Cedar River. The brisket and microbrew recommended by the bar staff went down smooth.
Bellaire and beyond
Pardon my English; Downtown Bellaire ain't much. What's there is perfect enough for an evening away from the resort. The Little Treasures toy store and nearby ice cream joint will entertain children. The Bellaire Cinema, featuring two screens, usually shows at least one family friendly flick.
After my latest experience at the famous Short's Brewing Company, I'm worried that this hip hangout has grown too popular. I remember the good old days when you could pop in and sit on its funky old couches for a unique pint or three. Short's awkward first-come, first-serve policy turns busy nights into total chaos. While my foursome was waiting for a table near the front door, people would walk in and hover over a table until a spot opened up, leaving the considerate customers like us feeling cheated. I heard numerous people storm out, grumbling.
I'm sure the deserters ended up at Lulu's Bistro, an upscale restaurant next door with a great reputation (I've never eaten there), or the Bellaire Bar & Restaurant, the perfect dive that serves the self-proclaimed "Best Burgers in Northern Michigan."
Alden, an even smaller village 10 miles south of Bellaire, and The Dockside on Torch Lake, a great spot right on the water, provide even more options. For such a small town, Bellaire sure sells big fun for golfers and their guests.