Travel America: Great Lakes ... and the beaches aren't bad

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The Independent Online
Rolling surf, deep forests ... You name it, Michigan's got it. Donald Hiscock is smitten by the mitten-shaped state

"If you look at my little finger, just by the nail, that's where I come from. Over here, that's kind of where we are right now," said the friendly waitress at Don's Drive In, a pink-and-blue recreation of a Fifties' restaurant. It looked like the one where Fred Flintstone orders the brontosaurus burger that's so big it capsizes his car. Don's is situated on Grand Traverse Bay, next to Pirate's Cove mini-golf and in a perfect situation for spectacular sunsets. Our waitress for the evening was happy to locate us in that time- honoured way that people from Michigan have, by holding out their hand and pointing confidently to a knuckle or a crease or a mole. It's a quaint global positioning device; Michigan is famous for being shaped like a mitten.

We spent a summer family holiday up in the north-west corner of that mitten in Traverse City, the cherry-growing capital, as it is known - even if the volume production is now out west. We lolled around Lake Michigan, revelling in a state more famous to us in Britain for cars, Kellogg's Corn Flakes and our tendency to mispronounce it Mitch-igan. In the past I had dismissed Michigan as being synonymous with crime and industry, but it's home to the real Midwest.

Michigan may be bordered by Great Lakes, but there is also an abundance of far smaller lakes, with beaches and forests. My family and I don't dream of revisiting Traverse City for the cherry products, or the enormous burgers and cholesterol-inducing milk shakes; we want to get back to the rolling surf and white, sandy beaches. Our favourite trick back in England is to put photos of beaches down on the table when after-dinner conversation turns to foreign travel. "Where do you think that is?" we ask. "Barbados? The Algarve?" they guess. Most are bowled over when we tell them. We do the hand held up like a mitten bit after that.

Front Street, Traverse City is the main thoroughfare. On Friday evenings in summer they close it to traffic, and the shopkeepers open stalls on the street. The Downtown area becomes a mini-carnival site with musicians, country dancers and low-key street entertainers.

Here the deputy sheriff, leaning against his long white Chevrolet, talked to us about England, where his sister lives in Godalming. "Have you heard of Godalming?" he asked. He was tickled pink to be told that we'd been there. He, like most other friendly folk in Northern Michigan, liked to hear our accent. "Thanks for visiting with us," they say. When you're done talking they thank you for the conversation.

The city was founded by lumber barons last century, whose grand mansions are still to be seen on Sixth Street. The Boardman river, once used to transport timber, curls slowly through the historic heart of Downtown. Boys fish from wooden decking below the grand Carnegie Library building. Traverse City is not remote from the rest of the state, but when we drove through forest on quiet roads one afternoon it certainly felt like frontier country.

One hot day we went out to the Platte river, near a town called Honor, after calling in at Bud's Party Store to buy beer, soda and chips. Like the Michiganders around us we stripped off and pushed out two rented aluminium canoes and let the gentle current take us downstream. It didn't take long to get used to paddling in a straight line; the difficult bit was negotiating families sitting inside rented inner tubes drifting slowly in front of us. We felt conspicuously British as we asked them to move out of the way. "Excuse me, please." "Are you British?" some shouted back, waving a friendly beer can as if in a toast to international accord.

It was a cooler day when we visited the Sleeping Bear Dune National Lakeshore, to the north of Traverse City on the Leelanau peninsula. We joined other families trudging up the seriously high dune that rises to more than 400ft, only to find yet more sand stretching out in front of us. And, yes, the reserved English tourists couldn't help themselves and joined in the fun of rolling all the way down again, laughing, screaming and getting a mouthful of grit. "Way to go, man!"

Our favourite beach was on the narrow, 17-mile peninsula that pokes out north from Traverse City. This is an area of comfortable homes that are beginning to use up the land once occupied by acres of cherry orchards. At the tip of the peninsula is Old Mission Lighthouse, set right on the 45th parallel, level with Bordeaux; hence the proliferation of vines in the area. Cherry-flavoured wine, anyone? Of course, we'd come not for the wine but for the beach at the state park next to the lighthouse. The sand shelves so gently, you can walk out through smooth rocks in clear water for about 100 yards. We were there one evening and watched an awesome ball of red sun sink into the lake. But after the pleasure came the pain, as the bugs began to bite.

For all that, one of the simplest and best moments of a holiday up in Michigan is when you sit out at night and look at the stars. We were staying out of town where there was little street lighting. The sky was blacker than we had ever seen it, and we gazed at the Milky Way and constellations that we hadn't realised were there all the time.

It's corny, I know, but after the children had gone to sleep on the last night of our stay, we couldn't help but make a wish out loud when a shooting star blazed across the heavens, distracting us from the soporific sounds of the waves lapping the lakeshore just a few yards away. We wished that we could return soon - every summer would be just fine - back to that place I can point to quickly in the palm of my hand, thanks to Lindy at Don's Drive In.

Detroit is served daily from Heathrow by British Airways, and from Gatwick by Northwest. Alternatively, nearby Chicago has flights from Heathrow (Air India, American Airlines, BA and United), Birmingham, Glasgow and Manchester (all American Airlines). Fares in high summer are likely to be pricey, but until mid-June expect to pay about pounds 300 return through discount agents.

Discount travel agents may rent you a car for less than the hire companies offer direct; you should find an economy car for about pounds 30 per day, fully inclusive. If you prefer not to rent a car, the air pass offered by Southwest (01293 596677) is excellent value.