Big wheel: 100 years of the Motor City

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Detroit got Americans on the road and gave the world Tamla Motown. It's also the gateway to the spectacular shores of the Great Lakes. Ben Ross hits the highways of Michigan

John F Kennedy died here. Not in this building, though; not even in this state. He died here, in this car. A 1961 Lincoln. Black. Sleek. Massive. The bonnet gleams under the electric lights, the chrome glitters brightly, the white-rimmed tyres look brand-new. An American flag hangs limply at the front bumper. I fight in vain against an awful urge to peer at the interior and check for bloodstains; the dark leather is dull and inscrutable.

But there's something about the car's squared-off, blunted shape that doesn't feel quite right. Of course: the roof. After 1963, this ill-starred limousine wasn't honoured as a national shrine, nor was it sent to the crusher's yard. No, it remained quietly in government service for another few years, during which time some bright spark welded on a hard top. Try to subtract this unwelcome addition; try to put the sheer physical presence of this vehicle into that iconic, tourist-cine-camera footage from Dallas, Texas. The sense of connection is visceral.

They call this place The Henry Ford. They also call it "America's Greatest History Attraction". It certainly feels like the definite article as far as US museums go, and when you consider how important the car industry is to America and Americans, the secondary tag line suddenly doesn't seem too far-fetched, either. The Henry Ford lies 10 miles west of downtown Detroit in the city of Dearborn, still home to the headquarters of the Ford Motor Company. It was founded 80 years ago by Ford himself, his intention to collect "the history of our people as written into things their hands made and used". His own contribution to that history is, of course, almost impossible to overstate.

In 1908, Ford started mass production of the Model T in Detroit. The world's first affordable motor vehicle, it "put America on wheels" and instantly created a US middle class. Ford paid his workers decent wages – and they spent them on his cars. The balance of the American economy shifted; the shape of its cities changed. People flocked to work in the "Motor City" and by 1960 Detroit was the fourth-largest metropolis in the States. The car was the star.

On a trip round The Henry Ford you see lots of big cars and very few small cars; you see cars in the shape of hot dogs (the 1936 Oscar Mayer Weinermobile) and cars where the names are as American as apple pie: Chrysler, Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Pontiac, Ford. An exhibition celebrates 100 years of the Automobile in American Life, with the emphasis on liberty.

"The automobile has allowed generations of restless Americans to thumb their noses at geography and to find happiness on the open road," reads one display. Antique footage of that open road is accompanied by similar slogans: "We could experience nature first hand" and "Speed didn't matter – there was so much to see along the way".

It's all designed to emphasise that life without a car was, and still is, unthinkable.

The collection of The Henry Ford is huge, dazzling and eclectic: continuing the grisly presidential assassination theme, it even has the theatre chair where Lincoln was shot, which now stands in a glass box. A fleet of vintage aeroplanes is on display, plus side-shows loosely themed around American innovation (furniture, clocks, silverware). But it all comes back to the internal combustion engine in the end: Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in that bus over there; Reagan was shot next to that limousine (another Lincoln, as it happens).

Ah, you begin to wonder, but what about the Hondas? And the BMWs? Keep walking, friend. This is an American museum, celebrating a time when American cars ruled the world. You want Hondas and BMWs? They're all outside, jamming the parking lot.

The headline of the local Sunday Free Press is stark enough: "Troubled month has Detroit 3 on edge: another jolt could tear them asunder, analysts say." Nobody buys American any more – General Motors, Chrysler and Ford are on the skids. In two generations, Detroit has gone from being the fourth-largest city in the US to the 11th.

These days few people have anything good to say about Detroit, which is a shame. I was stopped at the immigration desk of the city's Wayne County airport, not because of any inconsistencies with my paperwork, but because of the official's sheer incredulity as to the reason for my visit: "You're a travel writer and you're writing about Detroit? Why?" I asked her where she would rather live, if she had the whole world to choose from. "Chicago," she said, then added urgently, "anywhere but here."

From immigration, I made my way to the car hire desk, which had clearly decided to present itself as a metaphor for the city's problems. I could choose any car, it seemed, as long as it was a Kia Sorento SUV. Kia is a Korean manufacturer, SUVs guzzle gas, and gas has reached $4 a gallon (equivalent to 60p per litre) – the Michigan airwaves talked about little else.

You can see why the price of fuel is of such pressing concern to the people living here. The shell-shocked hinterland of the Detroit suburbs doesn't make sense unless you've got your own vehicle: public transport is sporadic at best, and there's real dereliction visible in the crumbling sidewalks and hulking, empty buildings. If it gets too expensive to drive, then pretty soon everyone will just have to stay at home.

Not if Jeanette Pierce has anything to do with it, however. Jeanette is the founder of Inside Detroit, which, she says, "exists to fill the holes. We want to show people this incredible city." We drove downtown together, then left my Kia behind and continued on foot. Her enthusiasm for the place was evident and infectious: Downtown Detroit is an impressive place, and it's surprisingly easy to get around. There's even a loop of monorail called the People Mover that takes in a three-mile circuit of the area. Tickets cost just 50 cents.

The glistening blue tube of the modern GM Tower, which juts upwards from the waterside Renaissance Centre, served as a handy navigational aid as we took in some of the Art Deco architecture that lies nearby. The 1920s Penobscot building features striking reliefs inspired by Native American culture; the Guardian building, once a cathedral to finance, is decked out in gaudy tiles. The banking room is now given over to retail outlets; here "Pure Detroit" sells handbags made out of car seatbelts.

Canada is over there. No really, just over there. The Ambassador Bridge links Detroit with Windsor, Ontario, making this the only city in the US to look south into Canada. You can drink aged just 19 in Canada, but Jeanette assured me the traffic flows both ways.

Perhaps the Canadians come here for the music. Detroit invented techno; Eminem was born here. The White Stripes are locals. But far more importantly, Detroit was once the home of Motown. I took the $10 tour of "Hitsville USA", the suburban house where Berry Gordy founded the Tamla label in 1959. The highlight came when Taylor, our guide, asked whether any of us would like to sing "My Girl" in Studio A, where it was recorded. Two of our party proceeded to sing in perfect harmony and with such obvious affection for the music that I felt the hairs on my arms begin to rise.

Gold discs line the walls, but Motown was a family affair. Diana Ross was the receptionist here; Marvin Gaye was a janitor; Stevie Wonder got signed up when he was just 11. Gordy trained his protégés in everything from dance moves to etiquette – and the hits just kept coming. Then, in 1972, he upped sticks and headed west for LA. Hitsville USA is how Detroit remembers the good times, when there was dancing in the street.

Drive north from Detroit and Michigan turns on the charm, as the city gives way to green fields, beech woods and the occasional clapper-board farmstead. The state is divided into two peninsulas: the Lower Peninsula (often described as being in the shape of a mitten) where most people live, and the Upper Peninsula, which is bolted on to Wisconsin at one end and is full of trees. The two are united by the Mackinac Bridge (pronounced "Mackinaw"), the third-longest suspension bridge in the world.

Surrounding these peninsulas lie four of the five Great Lakes of North America: Lake Michigan to the west; Lake Eerie and Lake Huron to the east, and up above, the largest of them all: Lake Superior. It's said that there is enough water in Lake Superior alone to cover the North and South America land masses in a foot of water. It's also said that you are never more than 85 miles from a Great Lake if you live in Michigan.

The statistics don't quite get to the heart of things, though. At the heart of things is Mackinac Island, the tiny button of land in the Straits of Mackinac, which link Lakes Michigan and Huron and divide the Upper from the Lower Peninsula. The contrast between Mackinac Island and Detroit is simply boggling. First, the demographics: Detroit is 85 per cent black, and many people struggle to make a living there; by contrast, visitors to Mackinac Island are predominantly white and well-heeled. Second, the bicycles: you aren't allowed cars on the island.

It's a dinky holiday destination, a summertime-only fantasy isle, stuffed with home-made fudge shops and horse-drawn wagons. As I chugged across on Shepler's Ferry from Mackinaw City (the spelling may be different, but it's pronounced the same), the island's tiny Main Street revealed itself as a line of dainty white houses. Behind, 80 per cent of the land is protected national park: steep and wooded. I hired a bike and took in Mackinac's eight-mile circumference, with the elegant suspension bridge drifting in and out of view. It took about three- quarters of an hour, the only inconvenience being the need to avoid the horse dung strewn liberally across the road. I didn't miss the Kia at all.

Back in the day, the island was a base for fur traders, and its strategic position meant that it was later used by the military (hence Fort Mackinac, the white-washed sides of which face back towards the mainland). But for more than a century, this place has been about going on holiday. Specifically, it's been about going on holiday at the Grand Hotel.

The Grand was built out of wood in 1887. It has 385 rooms and a staff member for every two guests. It has the longest porch in the world (660 feet of it, running all the way along the façade). And it's a throwback to a bygone era. Gentlemen need a shirt and tie even to get into the place, and people promenade in all their finery in the evening as a harpist plinks and plonks nearby. The dining room is vast, a monument of glass, mirrors and crisp white linen. After supper, there's jazz and dancing.

The Grand even has a resident historian, Bob Tagatz, who showed me round. He was fiercely proud of the place. "People want a true historical experience, not a Disneyland experience," he said. "Our crooked hallways and stairs were built 121 years ago." I asked him whether the outside world ever intruded on Mackinac Island. "Drive-by fudgings are the full extent of crime here. Our last murder was in 1960." In contrast, Detroit averages one homicide each day.

Sadly, the Grand Hotel was full, so I headed for the chintzy but charming Chippewa Hotel on Main Street. It might have been less grand than the Grand, but down in the bar a country and western couple were singing lovelorn laments, which more than made up for not having a harpist to listen to.

From Mackinac Island, I took the coast road down to Traverse City, along the Lake Michigan shoreline, slipping through dense woodland and past the occasional glimpse of beach. I stopped for a coffee at Harbor Springs, a spick-and-span resort town – not smug, but reeking of contentment. Shorts are well-pressed here; a game of tennis was being played next to the marina. The view out over the yachts was stunning.

Further south, beyond the town of Charlevoix, the vistas became ever-more widescreen, as the road looped and curved away from the coast, and fruit trees began to line the highway.

People come here for the cherries. And the wine. And the sand-dunes. The scenic drive round Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, to the west of Traverse City, is dramatic enough, winding through scenery carved by ancient glaciers, past maple and beech groves, along the shores of the pretty Glen Lake, and out alongside Lake Michigan itself, with striking views of the nearby Manitou islands. But the punch-line comprises the dunes themselves: standing 450ft high, they are serious sand real-estate – and there's an immediate temptation to roll all the way down them to the calm waters at their base. Signs warn you, though, to expect an "extremely exhausting" return journey.

You'd be better off saving your energy for consumption of the local produce. Michigan grows about 75 per cent of the tart cherries produced in the US and 20 per cent of the sweet variety. In the tiny hamlet of Glen Arbor, just north of the dunes, a wood-framed shop called Cherry Republic sold chocolate cherries, yogurt cherries, cherry muesli bars and cherry jam. It also sold cherry wine. I recommend the "Conservancy", priced $14 (£8), and surprisingly dry.

If you want the real thing, though, take a drive along the Old Mission Peninsula, an utterly beautiful strip of land that runs north from Traverse City itself. When your eyes aren't drinking in the views of Grand Traverse Bay, you can stop for a taste from one of the vineyards scattered along the interior. I broke off from my journey at the Brys Estate for a thimbleful of Riesling, then felt honour-bound to sample the Pinot Noir at Chateau Chantal. Finally, I had a swim at a tiny, empty beach, which lay at the very tip of the peninsula.

Even after taking the plunge into its clear, fresh water, it's still hard to get a sense of perspective on Lake Michigan. It's just too big. The quickest way across it is by the fast ferry that runs from Muskegon (around 100 miles south of Traverse City) to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and even that takes two-and-a-half hours. When you're in the middle of the thing, you can't see either shore.

Natural wonders such as these present a tidy obstacle to the motor car, even one designed by Koreans. In the winter months, when there's no car ferry, the round-trip is around 400 miles. But 100 years ago, managing great distances was what the Model T was all about, the reason why people felt able to "thumb their noses at geography". "Paved roads tied us together," it says back at The Henry Ford. I wonder what the master of innovation would have done about the $4 gallon.

Population: 10 million
Area: 12 times the size of Wales
Capital: Lansing
Date in Union: 26 January 1837
Flower: Apple blossom
Motto: "If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you" Nickname Wolverine State/Great Lakes State

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

The writer flew from London Heathrow to Detroit, Michigan with KLM/Northwest (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com). To reduce the impact of your flight on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Getting around

Avis (0844 581 0147; www.avis.co.uk) offers five days' car hire in the Michigan region from £115.

Staying there

MotorCity Casino and Resort, 2901 Grand River Avenue, Detroit (001 866 7829 622; www.motorcitycasino.com). Doubles from $269 (£141), for the room only.

Chippewa Hotel Waterfront, Mackinac Island (001 800 241 3341; www.chippewahotel.com). Doubles from $95 (£50), room only.

The Grand Hotel, 1 Grand Avenue, Mackinac Island (001 800 334 7263; www.grandhotel.com). Doubles from $450 (£236), half board.

Pointes North, 2211 US 31 North, Traverse City, Michigan (001 231 938 9191; www.pointesnorth.com). Doubles from $79 (£42), including breakfast.

Visiting there

The Henry Ford (001 313 982 6001; www.thehenryford.org), 20900 Oakwood Blvd,

Dearborn; entry $14 (£8),

Motown Historical Museum (001 313 875 2264; www.motownmuseum.com), 2648 West Grand Blvd, Detroit; entry $10 (£5.30).

Inside Detroit (www.insidedetroit.org) offers a selection of tours from $10 (£5.30) per person.

More information

www.greatlakesnorthamerica.co.uk; 08456 020 574

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