Travel review: From Motown to the Great Lakes in Michigan

Downtown in Grand Rapids.
Downtown in Grand Rapids.
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From remote sand dunes and the Great Lakes to the birthplace of Motown and the heart of the US brewing scene, Grace Hammond sets off on a road trip around Michigan.

Bill Bryson is right about many things. The Notes From a Small Island author was on the money when he said that most English people look ridiculous in baseball caps. He was also correct when he said you can’t make a waiter see you until they are ready to go home.

However, even Bryson gets it wrong sometimes. In his book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, he said Michigan was “shaped like an oven mitt” and was “about as exciting”. It’s a pretty mean description of the 26th state and should he ever return, Bryson should get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness.

Sandwiched to the south by Indiana and Illinois and to the north by the Great Lakes and Canada, a road trip through Michigan is a journey from wild landscapes to the home of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and the Ford car via beautiful lakeshore retreats and university cities that have become a mecca for craft brewing fans. In short, it’s a journey into the heart of America.

Flying into Chicago, our road trip proper began with a six-hour drive north in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a long slither of land which juts out into three of the Great Lakes. There are no big cities here, just small fishing towns like Munising.

It brims with the kind of warm hospitality the Midwest is known for and is the perfect base for exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. These miles upon miles of multi-coloured rocks rise up from the edge of Lake Superior, which like much of the US is nature on a grand scale.

Containing enough H2O to leave the whole of North and South America under a foot of water, the lake dominates the small settlements which lie along its shore and these outdoorsy resorts are an escape from the stresses of modern life.

During a 13-mile hike along the rocks, dropping down through forests and waterfalls to deserted coves and beaches, we barely saw another soul. It is possible to kayak the length of Pictured Rocks with an expert guide, but the following day with the weather looking a little chilly, we chose instead to board one of the boats run by Pictured Rocks Cruises.

Our guide tells us that in winter, waves on tidal Lake Superior can reach up to 25ft. Little wonder then that this stretch of water has been the cause of hundreds of shipwrecks and it’s worth hopping aboard one of Munising’s glass bottom boats to see a couple of them pass beneath your feet.

Waving farewell to Pictured Rocks, we began our journey south, stopping off at Traverse City, a laidback corner of Michigan, which as well as laying claim to the title of “cherry capital of the world” also boasts 180 miles of beaches.

Not to be missed is Sleeping Bear Dunes, just a 45-minute drive away. Part of America’s impressive National Parks portfolio, this curious, almost lunar-landscape is open all year round, but for those, like us, short on time, the Piece Stocking Scenic Drive offers a glimpse of the highlights.

While signs warn against it, at the end there is also the chance to walk down one of the dunes to Lake Michigan below, but even from the top these are picture postcard views.

As the sun began to set, we were on the road again for the two-hour drive south to Grand Rapids. Its name suggests a sleepy backwater, but this is Michigan’s second biggest city and a great advert for what investment in culture and a few beers can do. A decade ago, most of the students who attended Grand Valley State University left shortly after graduating. Now most choose to stay, which lends a young, vibrant feel to downtown.

Numerous factors have been at play in the city’s revival, but the now biannual Art Prize has undoubtedly been a catalyst. Offering a top prize of $200,000, for two-and-a-half weeks the city is turned into one giant gallery, as established artists exhibit alongside unknown names. Our visit happily coincided with the final week of the event and began with a trip to the Frederik Meijer Sculpture Park.

Run on a similar philosophy to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – it even has a few pieces by those twin giants, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth – it’s a place easy to linger.

We saw only a fraction of the Art Prize entries as we wanted to make sure we had enough to time to sample Grand Rapids’ other main draw – beer. The city is now home to 60 craft brewers, most of whom run their own tasting rooms-cum-restaurants, offering something different every night of the week.

As the judges deliberated over this year’s Art Prize winners, we headed on to our final stop – Detroit. There’s a truth universally acknowledged in this part of the US that if Motor City is doing well, the rest of Michigan is doing well. The last decade hasn’t been easy, but headlines of industry in decline fail to tell the whole story.

Downtown Detroit feels like it’s on the up again and it’s worth a stop-off just to visit the Motown Museum. Housed in the original headquarters of Tamla Motown and employing the most enthusiastic tour guides you are ever likely to meet, there’s a chance to step inside the studio where the likes of Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder recorded their early hits.

Add in the sprawling Henry Ford Museum, set up by the man who first got America moving, Art Deco jazz clubs and a burgeoning fine dining scene, and Detroit is busy writing its own next chapter.

Michigan might be shaped like an oven mitt, but don’t listen to Bill Bryson. This 
is a state with a fascinating story to tell.

GETTING THERE

North Star Hotel Pictured Rocks, Munising; northstarhotelpicturedrocks.com

Cambria Suites, Traverse City; choicehotels.com

Amway Grand Plaza, Grand Rapids; amwaygrand.com

Atheneum Suite Hotel, Detroit; atheneumsuites.com

For more details on accommodation, events and things to do, visit the Pure Michigan website at www.michigan.org

Eight days’ car hire starting from Chicago with Hertz.co.uk costs from £28 per day.