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“Winterlochen” – A Kid-Friendly Festival in Michigan’s Cultural Capital

This idyllic village southwest of Traverse City is best known as the home of the Interlochen Center for the Arts, one of America’s leading centers of cultural creativity.

For nearly a century, its name has been synonymous with the Interlochen Arts Camp, where student musicians, dancers, actors and artists from around the world spend summers perfecting their technique. (Its graduates include such figures as Josh Groban, Jessye Norman, Peter Yarrow, Lorin Maazel, Jewel and Linda Hunt.) Every year, thousands of concert-goers throng to the Interlochen campus for open-air performances by international superstars from Olga Kern to Bob Dylan.

Still, all that cultural muscle tends to obscure the fact that Interlochen itself is a charming resort community nestled between two lakes — hence its name — and surrounded by miles of northern forest. (Directly across the road from the arts campus, in fact, is Michigan’s oldest state park, home to a rare stand of unharvested old-growth pines.)

With a year-round population hovering around 600 souls, Interlochen isn’t exactly a metropolis, but it boasts several popular restaurants and traditional cottage-style resorts as well as a smattering of shops and galleries. And for the past four years, local civic leaders and Academy staff have taken advantage of the winter lull to celebrate their shared history with a February event called “Winterlochen.”

Winterlochen is a one-day festival held on the Academy grounds — this year it’s scheduled for Feb. 18 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. — and has grown steadily in popularity by blending traditional winter carnival activities with a menu of educational and cultural offerings and one major entertainment event in Corson Auditorium, the Academy’s largest indoor performance venue.

The 2017 headliner is Chicago comedy magician Scott Green, known professionally as The Great Scott. (The show is free, but organizers expect it to sell out, so they’re urging interested families to buy tickets online ahead of time.)

“It’s become a very successful event, aimed primarily at children and families throughout the area,” says Gwen Stinson of the Interlochen Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber organizes most of the outdoor portion of Winterlochen’s various activities – everything from a toilet seat toss (“It’s like horseshoes, only with clean toilet seats,” says Stinson.) to a frozen fish toss, a snowpile treasure hunt, snow painting, and s’mores toasted over an outdoor fire. The Arts Academy staff, meanwhile, conducts a range of indoor options: performances, workshops, readings and lots of hand-on activities designed to awaken young artists-to-be to their creative potential.

“We have a lot of things in the works,” says Katherine Trzaska of the Academy’s presentations staff. “There’ll be theatre workshops, dance workshops, instrument show-and-tells where the youngsters can talk with musicians, visual arts activities with academy faculty and students, and lots of other events that we’re still planning. It’s going to be a very full schedule.”

The village’s attractions aren’t just limited to Winterlochen, of course. The Arts Academy runs a full schedule of performances all through the year. Skiers and snowshoers are drawn to the nearby Lost Lake and Lake Ann pathways, while ice fishermen favor the frozen waters of Green, Long and Duck Lakes. During the summer months, visitors frequently take advantage of the community’s convenient location midway between Traverse City and the southern end of the popular Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Local lodging choices include the 14-room Interlochen Motel (popular with snowmobilers), the cozy Lake ‘N Pines Lodge, tucked away on a cove of remote Lake Dubonnet – a designated wildlife preserve — and the classic Ellis Lake Resort, whose 11 units include a cluster of seven little log cabins built in 1939 and a three-bedroom chalet on its own tiny lake. The resort rents snowshoes and cross-country skis, and has an outdoor hot tub that’s especially popular on winter nights.

HOW TO GET THERE: Interlochen is located 14 miles south of Traverse City, just south of US 31 on Michigan highway M-137.