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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
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
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Excellent opportunities are available for par...

    Investigo: IT Auditor

    £60000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits : Investigo: A global leading travel busi...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie x 2

    £16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This charming and contemporary ...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin