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Budget Travel: The Lake Effect Wine Trail
Summary: In the heartland of our very own United States of America, "lake effect weather" has given birth a strip of wineries along the southeast coast of Lake Michigan.
Lake effect weather is a well-documented phenomenon which results in far more precipitation, especially snow, on the southern and eastern sides of large lakes than the northern and western sides. More precipitation means lots of grapes, including ice wines and varietals that can withstand the midwest's strong heat and bitter cold.
Have a look at these resources which make for a much more budget friendly wine country tour than a trip to France (or even Napa Valley). Did we mention that most tastings at Indiana and Michigan wineries are free?
Getting in: You can start your eastern midwestern wine revelry in Michigan by flying into the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport (they have a snappy song on their airport website -- who could resist?), serviced by Northwest, Conair/Delta Connection, American Eagle, and DirectAir, or in Indiana at South Bend Regional Airport, serviced by Allegiant Air, Continental Connection, Delta Connection, Northwest/KLM, and United Express. Of course, we are talking about the middle of the United States here, a.k.a. prime road trip territory. You could tack it onto a trip to Chicago, or a pass through Big Bone Lick or Santa Claus, Indiana if you're coming from the south.
We recommend you drive. You'll have to rent a car to get to all the wineries if you fly, but if you're coming from far away, Kalamazoo and South Bend do have all the usual car rental companies handy.
Where to stay: There are plenty of cheap hotels all along the wine trail. You can find gads of them on ChoiceHotels.com, but here's a tip: Don't make your reservations in advance. Even hotel chains will haggle with you. If you walk in the door of a tricked-out Comfort Suites and tell them you can only stay there if they'll give you a suite for $40, they just might give it to you! Be sure and mention if you plan to stay multiple nights; it'll help them give you a lower price.
Another suggestion? Lee's Inns. There a nice Lee's Inn in Kalamazoo.
What to see: Sometimes we forget to look in our own backyards for the finer things in life. You don't need to go somewhere fancy to find beauty, hard-working people, terrific stories, and darn good wine. What's more, the wineries along Lake Michigan's shores come with a little less snobbery than you might find in California. It's a great place to go to learn about wine.
Tastings at most Indiana and Michigan wineries are free. The bottles of wine vary in price, naturally, but you will always be able to find something affordable.
The best online resource for scouting wineries along Lake Michigan is the Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail. Not every winery in the area is listed, but if you hit a couple in person, you'll find other brochures that lead you to the rest. Talk to people in the area, ask at your hotel. The reason nobody goes around broadcasting information about these great wineries is that nobody knows they're a secret!
Our favorite is The Round Barn Winery. The scenery is spectacular -- and yes, there's a big round barn. Round Barn specializes in wine but also makes fruit infused liqueurs and cordials and their very own range of beer! Definitely something for everyone.
A close runner up is Contessa. Be sure to try the merlot, and, if the weather's nice, sip it out on their stunning terrace and gaze across the rolling hills of your very own America.