Robert Spellman discovers amazing diversity on his Michigan road trip.
Well, this was a hiccup: arriving at Detroit’s Motown museum and nobody home. The weather had done its bit – late summer sun and temperate – but an air of gloom as the gathered throng discover why.
Admittedly, I was looking forward to visiting this towering if tiny place, where some of the greatest music of the twentieth century had been made. Motown label founder Berry Gordy moved his fledgling recording operation to this modest town house on West Grand Boulevard in 1959, and his family to the upper floor above Studio A which is now the museum. Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5… your dearest Motown tune was almost certainly recorded here between that year and 1972, when Gordy relocated to LA. In the 1960s, Motown produced hits like the city’s General Motors did cars.
But it wasn’t to be. The tornadoes that swept across the state a few days before had put the museum’s electrics out so that was that – and it was back to Detroit Airport in a few hours for London. This should have hurt, but I was still on a high from a Great Lakes road trip and my brush with the storm had been mercifully slight: dining one minute in a Grand Rapids bistro, directed to the basement by anxious looking staff the next, as the winds outside sped up. I could return to Motown, and besides, I’d clocked up at least one authentic Motor City experience on the night of landing in Detroit at the baseball, before leaving to tour the state the next day.
Catching a Game of Baseball in Detroit Michigan
The Detroit Tigers versus Chicago Cubs is a 100-year-plus rivalry, and while I had little clue of the rules beyond the obvious, the buzz alone at the Comercia Park stadium had me sold. I had a seat, but it was also fun to walk the Park’s vast inner shell surrounding the pitch, hit the odd bar and chat to fans as Johnny Cash, Britney and Queen boomed at key moments. Games are commonly three hours long but the Park, a sort of circular village, has every sustenance you need. I took mine before the game at a popular haunt of baseball fans, the Union Assembly diner on nearby Woodward Avenue, with a miso-seasoned steak and their “maple cherry fashion” cocktail. So, the best of starts – and the Tigers won.
Henry Ford Museum
If the tough, blue-collar automobile industry was once the energising force of Detroit, that force is now high-tech and multi-faceted, and so downtown, where Comercia Park and my hotel the magnificent Roost are situated, all is calm if somewhat peopleless. But eight miles away in the city of Dearborn, the Ford Rouge complex, the plant opened by Henry Ford in 1927, is still operative. From galleries above the shop floor you can peer down as workers construct vehicles on the assembly line and then learn about modern Ford’s cutting-edge ways on a tour.
A short bus ride away in Greenfield Village is the Henry Ford Museum of American innovation, where Henry’s legacy becomes a catch-all for new world ingenuity – mainly of the motorised sort – and a little social history. Some of the exhibits are powerful, such as the bus that activist Rosa Parks refused to vacate – you can even climb aboard to sit in her seat – and the black Lincoln Continental presidential limousine that carried John F Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas 60 years ago.
Michigan Road Trip : Holland
With its quintet of “great” lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario), Michigan (pronounced “Mish” not “Mich”) offers a contrast between the industrial and natural that few states can rival. One hundred and sixty miles west on the other side of the state I visited the cities Holland and Saugatuck, two examples of mid-western cuteness on the shore of Lake Michigan that couldn’t feel further from Detroit.
With its thriving little town and tranquil parks, Holland seems to maintain the smart, can-do example of its Dutch settlers. These were rebel Calvinists led by Dr Albertus Van Raalte, whose zeal for settlement provided a total vision for the town, says my guide Lisa Kaiser, whose family stretch back to these mid-19th century times. Holland is proud of its liberal arts college Hope, and the pretty main (and only) strip is lined with appealing restaurants and book and ceramic ware shops oozing good taste. It’s so easy to imagine boardwalks instead of sidewalks and horses not cars, here.
Street life continues even in the cold months courtesy of “snowmelt”, a clever pipe system beneath the pavements that circulates water warmed from heat waste – a real Holland ace. Another is Windmill Island Gardens, about a mile north, which features an operative mill, “de Zwaan”, imported from the Netherlands in the 60s, and you can ascend the creaky structure with a costumed guide who imparts its detailed history. In May’s Tulip Time Festival, the three-and-a-half acre space beams with bright flowers.
Michigan Road Trip: Paddle Boat in Saugatuck
A twenty-minute south-westerly drive away, the hip and elite come together in Saugatuck, a leafy town on the lip of Lake Michigan. Derived from a native Indian word meaning “river that pours out”, Saugatuck sits on the Kalamazoo River estuary, and has been a haven for artists for over a century and latterly the LGBTQ community. Expensive, panel-fronted homes nestle on lightly wooded streets, while on the main drag, Butler Street, you can sip a seasonal coffee from the Uncommon Coffee Roasters (my choice) and browse the art galleries and high-end tat shops. Book a room at the homely Judson Heath Colonial Inn, about a minute from town, and innkeeper Stephen will tell you all about the place’s stagecoach past over a glass of wine. Then retire to your wonky, antique-furnished bedroom.
A 90-minute paddle boat trip on the Star of Saugatuck reveals the true splendour of the area and in the evening everyone heads to Oval Beach, and elegant sweep of sand and dune, for the sunset. An interesting wrinkle in this idyll is the Sand Bar on Butler, a lively, no-frills saloon where I drank an evening beer by the intense pool table area and watched the bikers come and go.
Michigan Road Trip : Sleeping Bear Dunes and Grand Rapids
Oval Beach was but nothing compared Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, however, 180 miles north, and not far from Traverse City. The Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive will take you through climbing forestry that follows an edge of Glen Lake to the east before reaching the mountainous dunes which lie on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan, where its spectacular blue vastness can be experienced along 35 miles of park-shore. One can tumble down the sand for a swim but this is only recommended if you can scale a 400-foot hillock afterwards. The microclimate of the Traverse and Leelanau counties is also ideal for wine making and Rieslings, Pinots and Chardonnays all flourish here.
Next was Grand Rapids, 140 miles south, and before my tornado encounter, an afternoon spent at the Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. The gallery and gardens were founded by businessman Frederik Meijer, and are both a botanical wonder and outdoor exhibition space for an impressive array of 20th-century heavyweights, including works by Elisabeth Frink, Henry Moore and Louise Bourgeois. Visitors can explore the gardens on foot or by tram.
Back in Detroit and kicking my heels outside the Motown museum, I killed the free hour before flying home by serving my full-blown vinyl problem at Peoples Records in the nearby Eastern Market, a hipster bar and restaurant area. The city once famed for thriving soul, blues, jazz and rock scenes (and innovated techno later on) crawls with record collectors and my shameful urges could be contained no more.
Things to Do in Detroit Michigan and the Great Lakes America
Main image: Photo Credit John F Martin, Courtesy of Ford House. Background image: Detroit at night by Vito Palmisano. All images by author or courtesy of Visit Detroit.