Wear your swimsuit and fill a backpack with extra clothes and munchies - it's all aboard a rented pontoon to spend a lazy day on the world-class waters of the Chain of Lakes. You'll swim, fish, browse small-town downtowns and end it all with an old-fashioned-sized ice cream cone.
Your smooth cruise begins at Riverside Marina (115 W. Cayuga, 231-533-8559, riverside-marina.com) in Bellaire where rentable pontoon boats are the mode for exploring the Lower Chain on 10-hour day trips. Before casting off, head up the street to the cozy North Perk Café (113 N. Bridge St., 231-533-5540) for espresso, homemade white chocolate cherry pecan biscotti or a cool Italian soda like the Torch Breeze - a citrusy wake-up concoction made with orange, pineapple and raspberry juices.
Maps are available at the marina to help plot your voyage; to allow for lots of lollygagging, Torch Lake is about as far as you should plan to venture. Budget about two-and-a-half hours to get there and three hours to get back. That gives you four full hours to divvy up any way you like: drop a line, take a dip or mosey up Main Street in one of the pocket-sized towns bordering the chain. Slowly motor into Lake Bellaire, then aim toward the southeast side where the lake feeds into Grass River. Named for the sedge mats that dot its slow waters, Grass River flows quietly along more than 1,000 acres of protected lands as part of Grass River Natural Area (grassriver.org). As you putter by, heed the No Wake signs and keep your eyes peeled for herons, loons and eagles.
Steer into Clam Lake then northwest into Clam River and Torch Lake. Go ahead, swim, fish and play hard - you can always refuel with the monstrous scoops of ice cream dished out daily in the back of the old fashioned Higgins Store (9105 Helena Rd., 231-331-4200) in Alden, conveniently located on your way home.
Emily Bingham is assistant editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine.
Note: This article was first published in May 2007, and was updated for the web February 2008.