Tiny Beaver Island, Michigan, is home to stunning natural beauty and a magical summer music festival.

Tiny Beaver Island, Michigan, is home to stunning natural beauty and a magical summer music festival.

In our limited series this week, Sarasota Magazine's editors share the highlights of their summer vacations. Here's where our editors went and what they did—from Michigan music festivals to New Hampshire mountain adventures to snorkeling in the Bahamas.

Tourists flock to the fudge shops and horse-drawn carriages of pretty Mackinac Island, but a lesser-known Michigan island offers scenic beauty without the commercialization. This July, when we attended the 18th annual Beaver Island Music Festival, we realized we’d stumbled upon one of the state’s best-kept secrets, a self-contained little world with an authentic character all its own.

At 13 miles long and six miles wide, Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan. Most of the settlement is along the perimeter, with homes, many of them summer “cottages” belonging to wealthy vacationers, perched in the woods overlooking the water. Tiny St. James, at the northeastern tip of the island, has a handful of businesses, restaurants and shops. But most of the island is undeveloped, a natural wonderland of forests, marshes, meadows, lakes and wildlife. Nature, hiking and biking trails crisscross the interior, but there are only a few roads, and only one of those is paved.  Some 600 hardy souls live here all year long, relying on ferries or small planes to bring in everything from meat to refrigerators to baby goats. In summer, the population swells to more than 20,000, many of them campers, bikers and hikers.

Hop on a ferry to get from Charlevoix, on the mainland, to Beaver Island

Hop on a ferry to get from Charlevoix, on the mainland, to Beaver Island

The Beaver Island Boat Company runs ferries from Charlevoix on the mainland, except during winter, when ice floes make the lake impassable. You can rent cars on the island, and a shuttle service provides transportation during the festival, but we were lucky enough to snag the last spot for a car on the ferry when we made our reservations. The boat is big and roomy, with covered and open spaces, and we enjoyed sitting outside, looking across an endless expanse of ruffled royal-blue water and checking out the mellow, friendly crowd, which included other tourists, musicians with their instruments, and families with kids and dogs. It’s a measure of how small and convivial the festival—and island—are that by the end of the weekend, we were greeting some of our fellow travelers—and their dogs—by name.

After two hours, we pulled into Paradise Bay and docked in St. James. Paddleboarders glided over the transparent turquoise surface; beneath it, geometric underwater sand patterns sparkled in the sun. After checking into the Emerald Isle Inn, a comfortable, rambling structure with single rooms and suites with kitchens, we stopped by the Marine Museum, housed in a 1906 wooden net shed, for a crash course in island history.

First settled by Native Americans, the island was discovered in the 1840s by Jesse Strang, an ambitious Mormon leader. He and his followers drove away the handful of white settlers and established what came to be known as America’s only kingdom, where the charismatic Strang oversaw the development of roads, infrastructure and property. Strang was crowned king in 1850, but six years later he was shot and killed by followers fed up with his imperious ways. Soon after, the Mormons were driven out and replaced with fisherman and farmers, most of them Irish. Many of today’s residents are descendants of those Irish settlers, who gave the island its nickname: America’s Emerald Isle.

Surrounded by some of the richest fishing grounds in the world, Beaver Island became a power in the country’s fishing industry, growing to more than 1,000 residents by the middle of the 20th century. But an invasion of lamprey eels decimated Lake Michigan’s fishing populations, and at one point only 200 or so residents remained. Tourism has revived the island, with new construction now the main industry.

We found plenty of side attractions during the three-day festival, from driving along the coastline, with its beautiful views of water and an historic lighthouse, to a fantastic meal at the Beaver Island lodge, a former hunting and fishing camp with a cozy cocktail lounge and stone fireplace straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie. Looking down at Lake Michigan in the lodge’s Sunset Restaurant, we feasted on fresh, panko- and Parmesan-crusted whitefish topped with Meyer lemon beurre blanc. In addition to several small eateries, St. James offers a buzzing bar scene at The Shamrock, and my personal favorite destination, the Beaver Island thrift shop, with wonderful castoffs from summer residents, including a forest-green Art Deco ceramic fawn that I bought for $1.

The Beaver Island Music Festival was founded by Dave and Carol Burton 18 years ago.

The Beaver Island Music Festival was founded by Dave and Carol Burton 18 years ago.

But the music festival was the main event. Founded by islanders Carol and Dave Burton 18 years ago, the festival takes place on 10 acres of the couple’s campground deep in the woods and features a variety of Michigan musicians. The state has a rich and lively music scene, and the Burtons spent months choosing the 15 featured acts from more than 600 who applied. They and a few music-loving friends listen to every tape that’s submitted and rank their favorites, making sure to select a range of genres. “We want to get the group that’s the very best at what it does,” Dave Burton told us, standing by the big campfire on opening night.

We were captivated by the performers, but it’s the setting that makes the Beaver Island festival magical. Instead of the merchandise, beer tents and funnel-cake vendors that crowd most festivals, this one is pure and simple, an almost spiritual celebration of music and nature. In a clearing in the forest, the Burtons have built two side-by-side stages (one act sets up behind curtains while the other plays, so the music is continuous) along with the campfire and a small food tent. There’s a great sense of camaraderie, too. Many of the 1,200 who attended camped in the surrounding woods, where tents sprouted like mushrooms. Walking around, we were invited to hang out with one of the bands and greeted by a young man who’d made us pizza that afternoon in St. James. Several islanders introduced themselves and asked if we were enjoying their festival.  

The Burtons hand-picked each of the festival's 15 acts from more than 600 applicants.

The Burtons hand-picked each of the festival's 15 acts from more than 600 applicants.

Halfway through the last night, the generator went out and the musicians lost power. But the band played on, unplugged. Lit by the campfire and a few beams of moonlight piercing through the evergreens, the fans kept the energy going, lustily singing along to Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and applauding and whistling when volunteers got the generator roaring back to life. As we threaded our way through the grounds and back to our car, guided through primal darkness by the gleam of my cell-phone flashlight, we were already making plans to return next year.

If you go: The Beaver Island Boat Company (888-446-4095), Fresh Air Aviation (1-888-FLYRIGHT) and Island Airways (800-524-6895) provide transportation from Charlevoix. The island has a few hotels. At the Emerald Island Inn, new owners Vic and Anna are upgrading the property and were incredibly helpful; our suite with a kitchen was simple but roomy and had everything we needed. $265-$285 per night. The Beaver Island Lodge, a bit more upscale, offers lodging and a lake view. Summer rates range from about $200-$300. In addition to the Sunset Restaurant at the lodge, we had a very good meal at Circle M, housed in a historic church rectory, and St. James has nice spots for breakfast and lunch along with several markets. Next year’s festival is scheduled for July 14-16. Info: bimf.net

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