Reflections on a journey

A road trip along the shore of Lake Michigan reveals a world of beauty, says Chris Leadbeater

The water separating Belle Isle from the mainland seems to dance. It shimmers and shakes, flares up and falls, shudders and shivers – a constantly moving corridor of blue. Its restlessness is a tribute to the currents that compete within it. Immediately to the east, Lake St Clair is visible, a wide expanse of apparently endless resources. The river takes what it needs and scurries 28 miles south-west, to the point where it pours into Lake Erie. As it goes, it casts a glance at the leafy island park – with its clustered picnic tables and wooded paths – idling in mid-stream. It gazes, too, at the Canadian town of Windsor, on its far shore. And it stares briefly at the skyscrapers on its near bank, as the reflection of downtown Detroit flickers on its surface.

Detroit, the most famous name on the map of Michigan, is many things: a city tarred with a reputation for decline and decay; a fascinating metropolis in which many of the triumphs and woes of America's turbulent 20th century played out in microcosm; a pocket of culture where opera and art wait to surprise visitors; a musical giant whose streets have cradled everything from the soft soul of Motown and John Lee Hooker's smoky blues to Eminem's enraged rap.

But, perhaps most intriguingly, Detroit is a city framed by water - which makes it a fine starting grid for a tour of the Great Lakes region. True, Chicago is a more obvious launchpad for such a journey, but Detroit offers closer access to the elements of this liquid-laced realm: Lakes St Clair and Erie on its doorstep, connected by the Detroit river; the gargantuan Lake Huron, which broods majestically 60 miles to the north-east.

Beyond, Michigan spreads north for 400 miles, increasingly quiet and rural as it goes. Appropriately, the state's name is based on the indigenous Ojibwe word mishigama - which translates as "large water".

My plan is to sample as much scenery as possible. So, after two days amid the ghostly Art Deco buildings that sing of Detroit's rich past, I flit into the genteel eastern suburbs, where Lake St Clair gnaws at Grosse Pointe, before filtering south-west - Interstate 75 never straying too far from the river - to Pointe Mouillee, where Lake Erie throws its weight against this wetland enclave and geese dart into the heavens. From here, I have two choices - the easiest being to spin north in search of Lake Huron. But I am drawn to the idea of following the traditional direction of US exploration and heading west - not least because this will bring me into contact with an American icon.

Lake Michigan makes a claim none of its colleagues can match. This huge, swollen finger prodding into the flesh of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana is the only member of the Great Lakes that sits entirely within the USA. It's a road-trip paradise. And its east and north shores are devoted to its state namesake, which decorates the waterline with small towns and calm. Nor is it difficult to find this pastoral prospect. Detroit does not protest as I leave, fading in the mirror as I pass through its attractive neighbour Dearborn (where the Henry Ford museum details the city's enduring relationship with the car), and vanishing completely as I cut across the state on Interstate 94, farms at the roadside, horses grazing. Near the splendidly christened university city of Kalamazoo, the river of the same name coils around Highway 89 - a ribbon of asphalt that delivers me back to the water.

Pitched almost on the sand, Grand Haven tempers the vastness of Lake Michigan with a classic display of small-town America. The Harbor House Inn, where I flop gratefully to sleep, has rocking chairs on its veranda and cinnamon-heavy muffins for breakfast. The main drag of Washington Avenue is alive with cafés and quaint stores. And on North Harbor Drive, the Wet Mitten Surf Shop caters to those who want to ride the lake's waves. It is a misty, reluctant day as I amble into Grand Haven State Park and spy three hardy souls, boards poised, assessing the situation. I discover a less-chilly alternative. Rosy Mound National Area throws out a mile-long trail that drifts down to the lake through thickly forested dunes. Angry gusts punch at the land, to the shaken discomfort of every outraged branch - but to no obvious concern from the hikers I meet on the way. "Good morning," rings the greeting with each encounter. In weather terms it isn't - but the vibe is cheerful.

From Grand Haven, Highway 31 flirts with the lake as it slides north, doling out parcels of the pristine and pretty. At Ludington, a lone lighthouse is assaulted by spray. At the state park, further dunes are piled next to the beach, granting me another chance for a blustery stroll. Highway 22 shadows the water so closely that signs warn to "watch for drifted sand". And the road seems to heed the message, climbing steeply north of Arcadia, then providing drivers with a viewpoint that showcases what might be the entire shoreline in all its tree-swarmed magnificence. The lake, though, is unmoved - featureless to the horizon.

This sharp ascent begins a trend. Outside the hamlet of Empire, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore daubs the canvas with drama, its knolls of sand convinced they are hillsides, some topping 400ft in height. In places, this pale realm of slopes and slants feels thrillingly remote - a mood the lake does nothing to dispel. Though this is one of its narrowest portions, it is still 60 miles west to the Door Peninsula, on Wisconsin's opposite bank. I feel lost on the lip of an inland ocean.

Civilisation reasserts itself in Traverse City, a warm glow emanating from the shops on Front Street as the town nestles at the bottom of Grand Traverse Bay. Here, the 31 picks me up, and carries me 60 miles along the edge of the inlet to Petoskey - a place whose rough-hewn charm and bayside setting enchanted that eternal fisherman Ernest Hemingway, who spent childhood holidays here and later celebrated it in writing. My target, though, lies 35 miles further north. Mackinaw City is a gateway, perched on the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron mingle, their coming together akin to two superpowers holding a summit, a cold front clashing beneath the Mackinaw Bridge.

This green-grey behemoth - a lesser-known cousin of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge - will later ferry me onward into the wilderness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But first there is a ferry of a different sort, a 16-minute boat jaunt of bumps and bounces that drops me at Mackinac Island - a nugget of land that lurks on the Lake Huron side of the Straits.

Here, the past intrudes on the present. The 18th-century Fort Mackinac eyes the channel - as does the wooden bulk of the Grand Hotel, a 19th-century dame that clings to its ended era. And yet, although cars are prohibited here, the island has something in common with Detroit. The water that surrounds it seems to dance. Perhaps it is doing its duty, tipping its hat to the magnitude of its location, where two Great Lakes butt heads. Or perhaps, like much of the rest of Michigan, it is simply aware of its own beauty, and happy with it.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk), which serves Detroit via Chicago from Heathrow and Manchester. Delta (0871 2211 222; delta.com) flies non-stop from Heathrow.

Visiting there

  • Ludington State Park (001 231 843 2423; michigan.gov/dnr). $10 (£6) per car.
  • Rosy Mound National Area, Grand Haven (001 616 738 4810; miottawa.org/parks).
  •  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, near Empire (001 231 326 5134; nps.gov/slbe). $5 (£3) per person, $10 (£6) per car.

Staying there

  • Doubletree Suites, 525 West Lafayette Boulevard, Detroit (001 313 963 5600; doubletree.hilton.com). Doubles from $126 (£78), room only.
  • Grand Hotel, 286 Grand Avenue, Mackinac Island (001 800 334 7263; grandhotel.com). Double rooms from $254 (£158), full board.
  • Harbor House Inn, 114 South Harbor Drive, Grand Haven (001 616 846 0610; harborhousegh.com). Doubles from $99 (£61), incl breakfast.

More information

greatlakesusa.co.uk

0845 602 0574

discoverillinois.org

michigan.org

travelwisconsin.com

DiscoverAmerica.com

Voices
Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond delivers his speech at the Scottish National Party (SNP) Spring Conference in Aberdeen, Scotland April 12, 2014.
voices
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as the troubled, melancholy Don Draper
tvAnd six other questions we hope Mad Men series seven will answer
Life & Style
The new low cost smartphone of Motorola, 'Motorola Moto G', is displayed in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 13, 2013. The smartphone, with dimensions 65.9mm W x 129.9mm H x 6.0 - 11.6mm D is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 with quad-core 1,2 GHz CPU, a 4.5-inch display and Android Operating System 4.3 and a suggested price of $ 179 USD.
techData assessing smartphones has revealed tens of millions of phones are at risk of being harvested
News
David Beckham is planning to build a stadium in Miami’s port for a new football team he will own
news... in his fight for a football stadium in Miami's port area
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
weird newsMan live-photographs cracking of mysterious locked box on Reddit
Sport
Oliver Giroud kisses the Arsenal badge after giving the Gunners the lead
sportArsenal 3 West Ham 1: Two goals from the German striker and one piece of brilliance from Giroud puts the Gunners back above Everton
News
Plans to decriminalise non-payment of television licence fees would cost the BBC £500m according to estimates drawn up within the Corporation
people
News
weird news
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
filmAs 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star James Dean perfected his moody act
News
Obesity surgery in rats has been found to change the way the body processes alcohol
news
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
artThe Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
Life & Style
US Airways has been at the centre of a Twitter storm after it responded to customer complaints with a graphic sexual image
techUS Airways takes an interesting approach to customer service
Arts & Entertainment
Philip Arditti as Yossarian and Christopher Price as Milo Minderbinder in Northern Stage's 'Catch-22'
theatre
Arts & Entertainment
The Purple Wedding: Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell tie the knot
TV The second episode of the hit series featured a surprise for viewers
Life & Style
Back to nature: women with body issues have found naked yoga sessions therapeutic
lifeDoing poses in the altogether is already big in the US, and now it’s landed here – in mixed classes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Corporate Sales Manager, Slough

    £30K- £35K pa + Commision £10K + Car and Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly ...

    Sales Manager, High Wycombe

    £30K- £35K pa + Commision £10K + Car and Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly ...

    Travel Consultant - Aberdeen

    £18000 - £27000 per annum: Flight Centre Limited: Join one of the biggest trav...

    Travel Consultant

    £15000 - £27000 per annum + Benefits & Uncapped Commission: Flight Centre Limi...

    Day In a Page

    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
    Supersize art

    Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

    The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    James Dean: Back on the big screen

    As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act
    Catch-22: How the cult classic was adapted for the stage

    How a cult classic was adapted for the stage

    More than half a century after it was published 'Catch-22' will make its British stage debut next week
    10 best activity books for children

    10 best activity books for children

    Keep little ones busy this bank holiday with one of these creative, educational and fun books
    Arsenal 3 West Ham United 1: Five things we learnt from the battle between the London sides

    Five things we learnt from Arsenal's win over West Ham

    Arsenal still in driving seat for Champions League spot and Carroll can make late charge into England’s World Cup squad
    Copa del Rey final: Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right

    Pete Jenson on the Copa del Rey final

    Barcelona are paying for their complacency and not even victory over Real Madrid will put things right
    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    Rafa to reign? Ten issues clay courts will serve up this season

    With the tennis circus now rolling on to the slowest surface, Paul Newman highlights who'll be making the headlines – and why
    Exclusive: NHS faces financial disaster in 2015 as politicians urged to find radical solution

    NHS faces financial disaster in 2015

    Politicians urged to find radical solution
    Ukraine crisis: How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?

    Ukraine crisis

    How spontaneous are the pro-Russian protests breaking out in Ukraine’s east?
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    The first execution at the Tower of London for 167 years

    A history of the First World War in 100 moments
    Fires could turn Amazon rainforest into a desert as human activity and climate change threaten ‘lungs of the world’, says study

    New threat to the Amazon rainforest:

    Fires that scorch the ‘lungs of the Earth’
    Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City: And the winner of this season’s Premier League title will be...

    Who’s in box seat now? The winner of the title will be ...

    Who is in best shape to take the Premier League prize?