Aim for Alpena

Marie Havenga • Nov 4, 2017 at 2:00 PM

We spend so much time watching sunsets over Lake Michigan from our glorious side of the state that we may forget there are two sides to every story.

Welcome to Alpena – the sunrise side.

We piloted our motor home on the five-plus hour journey to this Lake Huron perch and spent a few nights at Campers Cove RV Par and Canoe Livery, which boasts an indoor swimming pool, miniature golf course, wagon rides, banana bike and boat rentals, and enough scheduled activities to keep the kids busy from morning 'til night.

But you won't want to spend all your time at the campground, even if you luck upon a waterfront site, like we did.

Get out. Roam. Explore.

Since spring and summer are peak seasons in Alpena, you have plenty of time to research motels, campgrounds and book a long weekend or week's vacation there (anything shorter and you'll be wishing you had stayed longer).

Here are 10 must-see-must-dos in the Alpena area:

1. Glass Bottom Boat Shipwreck Tours – This is what drew us to the area. I've been a licensed scuba diver for almost 40 years, and had hoped to dive or at least snorkel a few of the wrecks during our visit. But, the weather was cold, and waves, choppy.

So, we opted for the next best thing – a glass bottom boat cruise. Don't be fooled by the title – the boat's bottom isn't made of glass, but there are several glass panel viewing wells where passengers can lean over safety rails to glimpse a mariner's world of long ago.

The two-hour tour aboard the “Lady Michigan” takes visitors over several of the 200-plus shipwrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Wreck viewing can vary due to weather.

Thunder Bay's reputation as one of the most dangerous passages in the Great Lakes is eerily reflected in this tour of what is known as “Shipwreck Alley.”

On our trip, we hovered over 167-foot-long Monohansett, which met its watery demise in 1907. The crew anchored the ship to wait out a storm and reportedly, an onboard oil lamp set it ablaze.

We also viewed the Haltiners/Scandlins Barge, which went down in 1929 with 88 people on board.

Fortunately, no one perished.

In fact, First Mate Brenden DeRoque told us that the tour never includes any vessels where lives were lost.

“We're not keen on showing graveyards,” DeRoque said.

Besides the wrecks, we were amazed at the Caribbean-like greenish-blue hue of the water, caused by the predominant limestone basin releasing calcium.

2. Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center – The shipwreck tours depart from this small gem of a nautical museum at 500 West Fletcher St.

Before boarding your tour, save time to explore the 10,000 square feet of maritime exhibits.

You can walk on a replica of a Great Lakes schooner which rocks and rolls as if you're in a storm. There's even makeshift wind for added effect.

You'll read about many of the shipwrecks off the coast and get a chance to see an ultra cool “science on a sphere” 3-D exhibit.

Be sure to duck into the film room for footage of some of the ship's journeys to their watery Lake Huron graves.

Best part is, your bank balance won't be sinking by spending a couple of hours here. Year-round admission is free.

3. Rockport State Recreation Area – If you want to feel young at heart, try hanging out with a bunch of Devonian era fossils.

You'll get your chance at the Rockport State Recreation Area, Michigan's 100th State Park.

The 4,237-acre park includes a deep-water harbor, and perhaps the star of the show, a 300-acre abandoned limestone quarry.

You can climb the rock hills (use caution for sure) for amazing views of the Lake Huron shoreline.

We found three fossils in about an hour's time. You're allowed to take up to 25 pounds home with you.

The park also features a series of sinkholes, bike and hiking trails, a boat launch and picnic area.

4. Dark Sky Parks – This is my kind of “night life.” The Alpena area has not one, but three designated Dark Sky Parks.

Designated in early 2016, these three state parks are immune from light pollution, giving a gallant glow to our galaxy and beyond without man-made illumination clouding your vision.

Take your pick or hit all three – Negwegan State Park, Rockport State Recreation Area or Thompson Harbor State Park – and wish upon a star.

5. Pretty Presque Isle Lighthouses – We happened upon a free pulled pork with-all-the-fixings picnic at the newer of the two area lighthouses, provided by the Presque Township Parks and Recreation Committee.

These lighthouses are a must-see, each distinct in its own way.

The newer version, built in 1870 and automated in 1970, is the fifth tallest beacon on the Great Lakes and the tallest that is open for visitors to climb.

If conditions are clear, you can see Canada!

Even if you can't, the view and breeze from the top is worth the rigorous 130-step climb.

The older Presque Isle Lighthouse, constructed in 1840, is a picturesque photo stop, with a shorter climb opportunity.

This house has some mystique, and if you ask an attendant, you may hear a ghost story or two.

6. Arzo Amusement Park – If ghost stories aren't wild enough for you, check out this smallish fun park just north of town.

You'll find bumper cars, the longest go-cart track in the state, a bungee-trampoline jump, simulated space ship ride, miniature golf and more.

7. Take the trolley – Why drive when you don't have to?

You can hop on or off at any of the Alpena trolley's 15 designated stops to explore beaches, parks, restaurants and shops.

8. Sausage sensations – There are few better savory scents than smoked sausage and Alpena is home to a fine family of sausage makers. Nowicki's Sausage Shoppe doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside, you'll find a daily selection of already-cooked sausages and brats, which you can plop on a bun and adorn with a slew of condiments of your choosing.

If you'd rather, you can grab some homemade buns and sausages to go and cook them at your campground or a nearby park.

Interesting flavors here – I chose spinach and feta.

9. Frolic in the 50s – If you're looking for fun family food with an iconic twist, head to Nick's Southside Diner.

This former New Jersey diner, built in 1955 and moved to Alpena two decades ago, features pink booths and counter stools.

And how's this for customization – the cooks will whip up a pancake in practically any shape you request.

Our 6-year-old daughter ordered up a bunny.

“It's so cute,” Lainey said when the server placed the pancake in front of her. “I don't want to eat it. It's too cute.”

If you're not craving cutesy pancakes, be sure to sip some of their French onion soup, some of the best we've ever tasted.

10. Ocqueoc Falls – As long as you've driven this far, head just a bit further to check out the Lower Peninsula's largest waterfall.

Despite chilly conditions, more than a dozen kids were sliding and or jumping down the falls.

Don't expect Niagara here – it's a fairly subtle drop, apparently safe enough for swimming, with precaution.

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