Together, they form the largest body of fresh water on Earth; and their shores are blessed with wonderful scenery, plenty of raw nature and enough activities to keep Bear Grylls busy for a year. They are the Great Lakes – and they are bursting with history as elemental as North America itself.
Some 14,000 years ago this region lay under ice a mile thick, and when the Laurentide sheet rolled back it left behind a geological wonderland that soon filled with wildlife. This natural bounty later proved fundamental to early settlement, both for Native Americans and European colonists. The combination of geography and ethnicity forms the backbone of a visit to Lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior.
The region stretches almost 1,000 miles from Duluth, Minnesota, to Kingston, Ontario, at the start of the St Lawrence River in Canada. From north to south it spans 500 miles, from Ontario's Nipigon at the top of Lake Superior to Gary, Indiana, at the lower end of Lake Michigan. It touches eight states on the American side of the border and a whopping 2,000 miles of Ontario shoreline, the lone Canadian state with Great Lakes status.
But the numbers are only the start of a journey of immense proportions and contrasts, from imposing Niagara Falls to high-rise Chicago, with the vast territory in between full of small-town charisma and timeless charm. Much remains virtually untouched from the arrival of the first European settlers; the frontier spirit is still in evidence.
Sharp, hot summers give way to bright, brilliant autumns, and winter is simply a sub-zero invitation to try snow-shoeing, ice-fishing or snowmobiling. However, trying to see it all in one go is not terribly practical; a simple circumnavigation would cover 8,000 miles. Far better to concentrate on a representative sample and soak up the atmosphere of almost 400 years of this heady mélange.
Chicago makes the ideal starting point, the gateway to a circular road-trip taking in three of the five lakes – Michigan, Superior and Huron. The French and British laid claim to this region, before grudgingly giving way to the fledgling countries of the US and Canada.
From the Windy City, head north to unique Wisconsin Dells, "the waterpark capital of the world", where a series of theme parks borrow from Mount Olympus, Noah's Ark and Atlantis. Add in jetboat rides, kayaking, fishing and zipline tours and this resort town confidently caters for all tastes (001 608 254 8770; dells.com).
Continue north-east to Door County – a narrow peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan – and you find seriously scenic territory, where the region's signature lighthouses jostle with rugged shorelines and heavily forested state parks (001 920 743 4456; doorcounty.com).
Northern Wisconsin then merges imperceptibly into Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Here, the locals call themselves "Yoopers" (from the initials UP) and the lifestyle seems to have an uninterrupted link with their pioneer ancestors.
Today, what you find is unspoiled state parks (michigan.gov/stateparks), such as the hiking paradise of Tahquamenon Falls with its centrepiece 50ft cascade (the third-largest falls, by volume, in the US) and rustic Palms Book, where you can pull yourself across the crystal-clear waters on a glass-bottomed cable raft. Meanwhile extensive Hiawatha National Forest offers hundreds of miles of nature trails and 600 miles of shoreline (munisingmiup.com).
While the landscape may loom large, the towns are notably small-scale, collections of a few thousand hardy individuals who make light of the bitter winters in order to enjoy balmy summers. You can circle the Peninsula on Highways 2, 41 and 28, stopping off at Munising for pretty-as-a-picture Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with its 15 miles of multi-coloured sandstone cliffs (001 906 387 3700; nps.gov/piro); Whitefish Point – via a detour on Highway 123 – where you can learn the Lakes' staggering history of shipwrecks (001 906 492 3747; shipwreckmuseum.com; admission $13/£8.50); and the engineering marvel of the Soo Locks at Sault Sainte Marie, second only to the Panama Canal for the amount of traffic it handles (001 906 632 6301; soolocks.com; visitor centre free; boat tours from $21/£14).
Boat tours, yachting and fishing charters are commonplace on the Peninsula but if there is one to try, it's Pictured Rocks Cruises (001 906 387 2379; picturedrocks.com; May-Oct only), which features three different daily tours, including a sunset cruise highlighting the evening glow of the cliffs at $35 (£23.30).
The mighty Mackinac Bridge connects the two parts of Michigan across the five-mile Straits of Mackinac. When it opened in 1957 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world (and is still the third-longest today). It funnels traffic down into the larger part of the state, en route for elegant, Victorian-tinged Petoskey (001 231 348 2755; petoskeyarea.com) and artsy Traverse City (001 231 947 1120; traversecity.com), which also serves as a gateway to glorious Sleeping Bear Dunes, a 35-mile stretch of Lake Michigan coastline that boasts 500-foot-high dunes (001 231 326 5134; sleepingbeardunes.com).
You can complete the coastal drive south taking in more historic towns – Manistee, Ludington, Muskegon, Holland and Michigan City – back to Chicago, or catch the venerable ferry SS Badger from Ludington to Manitowoc in Wisconsin (001 800 841 4243; ssbadger.com; May-Oct only), at $70 per person and $59 per car, and drive south via Sheboygan and Milwaukee.
Either way, you'll have sampled the core Lakes experience: the plentiful wildlife (whitetail deer, moose, wolves and even bears, plus the ever-present chipmunks and raccoons) the friendly people and the hearty food. And, once you have heard the coyotes howl at night and seen more stars than you ever imagined possible, you'll know why they called these lakes "great".
A Canadian story
The region is not solely a US experience. Fly in to Toronto and you can tour the Canadian way, with a big chunk of southern Ontario that is bordered by lakes Huron, Erie and Ontario. The confluence of Erie and Ontario offers the majestic Canadian side of Niagara Falls (001 905 356 6061; niagarafallstourism.com) and Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill once described as "the prettiest Sunday drive in the world", while Ruthven Park National Historic Site near Cayuga (001 877 705 7275; ruthvenpark.ca) delves into the lives of the 19th-century settlers. Continue south-west and you reach Point Pelee, Canada's most southerly point and a birding wonderland, with some 380 species (001 519 971 8158; pointpeleetours.com). Nearby Chatham offers a historical gem as the terminus of the Underground Railway that helped 5,000 fugitive slaves escape to freedom from 1850-61 (001 519 352 4799; buxtonmuseum.com; $6/£3.70). It also boasts that other Great Lakes feature: miles of sandy beaches.
Getting there and getting around
The Great Lakes have three direct gateways from the UK. Fly to Chicago from Heathrow with United (0845 844 4777; unitedairlines.co.uk), Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com) and from Manchester with American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk). Detroit is accessed from Heathrow with Delta (0871 221 1222; delta.com). Toronto can be reached from Heathrow with BA, Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com/en) and Air Transat (020-7616 9187; airtransat.co.uk); Air Transat also flies there from Exeter, Gatwick, Prestwick, Manchester and Newcastle.
Trains and buses do not get you far in the Great Lakes, so a rental car is near-essential. The best deals are often for fly-drive trips booked as a single transaction. Alternatively, Holiday Autos (0871 472 5229; holidayautos.com) has a week's small car rental for £135 in July, while Alamo Car Hire (0871 384 1086; alamo.co.uk) is quoting £240 for a week from Toronto.
While the Great Lakes may no longer be uncharted territory, many roads are minor and signposting can be rudimentary, so a SatNav system is worthwhile. Be warned, though, that it can add a steep $12 (£8) a day to the total.
Thrills and spills
Beyond the natural splendour, the Great Lakes can deliver big-time excitement. And they don't come much bigger than Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Right on the southern shore of Lake Erie, "America's Roller Coast" features the largest collection of roller-coasters on the continent – including the unfeasibly tall and fast Top Thrill Dragster (reaching speeds of 125mph, and a height of 400 feet), as well as dozens of other attractions for all ages (001 419 627 2350; cedarpoint.com; May-Oct only; admission $47.99/£32).
Six Flags Great America, 25 miles north of Chicago in Gurnee, delivers another dose of high-adrenalin fun for big-ride fans, with 50 attractions rating from gentle to "Woooaargh!", plus the Hurricane Harbor water park with its six new flumes for 2011 (001 847 249 4636; sixflags.com/greatAmerica; May-Oct only; admission $56.99/£38).
Not quite on the same proportions but still a family-friendly proposition is Michigan's Adventure park in Muskegon, especially with its new Beach Party water play attraction that guarantees huge appeal for the 6-14 age group (001 231 766 3377; miadventure.com; late-May-Sept only; $26/£17).
Not a theme-park person? Then try river-tubing, a real Great Lakes speciality. Just hire an over-sized inner-tube along specific stretches of many rivers throughout the region and float with the current for an hour or two to the pick-up point. Wolf River Trips in Wisconsin is a good example, with tubing, fishing, canoeing and camping offered at its well-organised campground close to New London, west of Door County (001 920 982 2458; wolfrivertrips.com; from $9/£6 per person).
Camping is well catered for from May to early September. Campgrounds provide extensive facilities, including water, electricity, showers and, often, Wi-Fi. Wisconsin Dells (001 800 462 9644; dellsjellystone.com); St Ignace (001 906 643 9522; lakeshoreparkcampground.com); and Sandusky (001 419 626 1133; campsandusky.com) offer pitches from $27-$39 (£18-£26).
A time-warp island
Mackinac Island (mackinacisland.com) in upper Lake Huron is a former Ojibwe Indian sacred site and was the centre of the 18th-century fur trade; it was then converted into a holiday resort and remains a slice of living history.
All automotive transport was banned in 1898 (the island council clearly had a better grasp of a "green" future than most). While there are too many tacky gift shops on Main Street, it is easy to escape the tourist trappings on foot, by bike or even horse-drawn carriage. The Grand Hotel lives up to its name as a 19th-century period piece and setting for the 1980 film Somewhere In Time with Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve.
Day visitors flock in by ferry from St Ignace and Mackinaw City on mainland Michigan (001 906 847 3351; arnoldline.com; $22/£15.50 return), but an overnight stay showcases the island at its best.
If the Grand (001 906 847 3331; grandhotel.com) is a touch pricy at about $295 (£184) with breakfast, there are slightly more modest options such as Hotel Iroquois (001 906 847 3321, iroquoishotel.com) which has doubles from $215 (£99) room-only, or the self-catering Harbor Place Studio Suites (001 906 847 3347; harborplacestudiosuites.com) from $250 (£166).
The Lilac Festival held each June is another big draw. During the winter the island is simply stunning, with cross-country skiing trails, snow-shoeing and a sense of intense quiet.
Where to stay
Many of the big-brand hotel chains can be found across the region, but look for some of the boutique, backwoods and unique options for a more interesting stay.
In Ohio, consider Glidden House (001 216 231 8900; gliddenhouse.com), an impressive mansion built in 1910 that is now a boutique hotel on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, with doubles from $149 (£99) including breakfast. Adjacent to Cedar Point, Hotel Breakers (001 419 627 2106; cedarpoint.com) is an extensive 100-year-old inn right on Lake Erie, with doubles from $125 (£83) room-only.
In Michigan, try Cocoa Cottage (001 231 893 0674; cocoacottage.com), a 1912 Arts and Crafts-style bungalow in Whitehall on Lake Michigan, with four guestrooms named after chocolate-makers, which has doubles from $129 (£86) including breakfast.
Stafford's Bay View Inn (001 231 347 2771; staffords.com/ bayview) in Petoskey, is a haven of charm with doubles from $99 (£66) including breakfast. Or try the Inn on Ferry Street (001 313 871 6000; innonferrystreet.com) in Detroit, a collection of stylish Victorian-style homes and carriage houses with doubles from $159 (£106) including breakfast.
For the best of Wisconsin, look for the Queen Anne-style Rittenhouse Inn (001 715 779 5111; rittenhouseinn.com) in Bayfield, close to the stunning Apostle Island National Lakeshore, with double rooms from $115 (£77), including breakfast.
Door County's antique-laden Eagle Harbor Inn (001 920 854 2121; eagleharbor.com) in historic Ephraim, with nine rooms named after women innkeepers, has doubles from $86 (£57) including breakfast.
Otherwise, there is the outrageously scenic Stout's Island Lodge (001 715 354 3646; stoutsislandlodge.net), listed on the National Register of Historic Places and accessible only by ferry. It offers doubles from $169 (£113), which includes breakfast and the ferry service.