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Issue Date: April 2004 Issue

Ripe For the Picking

Life's a bowl of cherries in Traverse City, Mich.
Barbara Wayman

Quick, when you think of cherries, what comes to mind? Perhaps a homemade cherry pie, still warm from the oven. Or maybe a handful of red, juicy lovelies to savor one by one while slowly rocking on a porch swing.

Chances are, you didn't visualize yourself running through a cherry orchard with boughs of fluffy pink and white blossoms floating overhead. And you almost certainly didn't conjure having your naked body scrubbed with cherry-scented sea salts and then smeared with fragrant cherry lotion. But experiencing these delights broadened our appreciation of the humble cherry. And that's just how the folks in Traverse City, Mich., like it.

A seven-hour drive from Cleveland, Traverse City is blessed with topography and weather that allow it to grow 37 percent of the nation's tart cherry crop each year, making it the cherry capital of the world. (The state of Michigan produces 75 percent of the U.S. tart cherry crop.)

ΩWhile thousands of people make the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., each spring to see the blossoming cherry trees that line the Tidal Basin, Traverse City has got the nation's capital beat for sheer volume. The town boasts well over 2 million cherry trees, yielding an annual average of 160 million pounds of cherries.

Residents don't want you to consider the cherry as a mere adornment for the bottom of your cocktail or the top of your ice-cream sundae. This is a town where you can find anything and everything cherry, from a slice of pie (Grand Traverse Pie Co.'s is famous) to an edible cherry postcard.

A unique cherry spa experience awaits you at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. "Cherries have been found to have some really beneficial antioxidant properties to them," says :ike DeAgostino, the spa's public-relations manager. While you have to eat the cherries to derive those health benefits, spa personnel have found that the cherries grown in their own back yard can enhance the appearance and feeling of one's skin when incorporated into massages, baths and exfoliation treatments.

The 100,000-square-foot spa's signature treatment is the Cherry Honey Glow. First, the skin is slathered with a mixture of locally grown cherries, honey, Jojoba oil and Dead Sea salts. Then, it is scrubbed vigorously before shower jets suspended above the treatment table rinse the sticky mixture away. An all-over application of cherry-scented lotion finishes the treatment, which lasts 50 minutes and costs $90.

The Cherry Essence Massage, Cherry Manicure and Cherry Pedicure are good choices for those who prefer a more subtle cherry fragrance. After some cherry spa services, our skin was so soft and smelled so good that we kept having to stifle an urge to lick it. The resort often offers package deals that combine overnight stays and spa treatments at discounted rates.

To fully appreciate cherries you've got to see how they're grown. Just down the road from the spa is Amon Orchards, run by second-generation grower Dave Amon and his wife, Judy. With their 150-acre plot, the Amons are among the largest tart cherry growers in the world. More than 75,000 visitors come each summer to pick the ripe cherries and take the orchard tour to learn how cherries are raised, harvested and marketed. Dave and Judy have also created an assortment of cherry delicacies that are sold in their retail shop.

"My battle cry is ‘Cherries aren't just for dessert anymore!' ",says Dave. Cherry mustard is their best seller, but you'll want to sample their cherry jam, syrup, salsa and barbecue sauce, too.

May is the best time to see the flowering trees in all their glory. Over the weekend of May 15 and 16, the town will hold the Blessing of the Blossoms. What began as a simple ritual to help ensure a bountiful harvest has evolved into a weekend of cherry-wine tastings, delicacies and giveaways at area restaurants, shops and bed-&-breakfasts. When the cherries ripen in July, Traverse City holds the National Cherry Festival. The eight-day event attracts more than 500,000 people and celebrates the region's unique qualities that make cherry growing possible.

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