Detroit has had it tough, but among the disarray, Amy Hopkins finds a city on its way back up – and a gateway to a spectacular family adventure in Michigan
Google ‘Detroit’ and you’ll quickly discover that this is a city that's had it rough. Scrolling through images of abandoned neighbourhoods and derelict homes, it's hard to believe this was once America’s great industrious city. In the 1950s US industry toppled and Detroit crumbled so dramatically that it was eventually declared bankrupt, in 2013.
None of this exactly screams family holiday. But for families looking for authentic and soul-stirring travel experiences, this slightly scary-sounding city makes a perfect starting point for a fly-drive holiday in Michigan.
For a taste of the real Detroit, head to the 150-year-old Eastern Market, which is the oldest open market in the US. Meander through the high-rooved sheds, which have recently been rebuilt from the ground up, where stalls heave under the weight of fresh flowers and local produce, including some truly enormous egg plants (aubergines).
Local vendors share uplifting tales about how the market has expanded in recent years, thanks to a scheme that helps local people set up small businesses by making food and crafts at home and selling them at the market. On Sundays, the place transforms into a sprawling flea market where local musicians perform against a backdrop of colourful murals that have been paid for by sponsorship from local businesses. There are schemes and projects like these springing up in every corner of Detroit – including tax breaks designed to encourage young people to move to the city – and these initiatives seem to be working. In the wake of Detroit’s collapse, it seems something special is happening.
If there’s one thing Detroiters love, it’s their sports. Embrace the all-American experience by watching an NFL game at the Ford Field football stadium. The city People Mover (monorail) is a quick and easy route to the stadium and squeezing into a carriage full of blue-faced Detroit Lions fans is the best way to feel the buzz. Lions fans are known for being especially passionate, despite the fact their team rarely wins. With cheerleaders, fireworks and live music, and lasting for up to four hours, American football games are as much about the atmosphere and socialising as they are about sport. If it's your first time, chances are you won't understand the rules, but you'll have so much fun waving your foam fingers and cheering that you won't care.
Mortoring fans or not, a visit to the Henry Ford site is a highlight of any trip to Detroit. With airplanes hanging from the ceiling, row upon row of cars, monstrous farm equipment and steam engines, the Ford museum is literally full to the rafters with 150 years of vehicle history. Peer at the chair Lincoln was shot in (still bearing a grisly blood stain) and the car Kennedy rode in as he was assassinated. For kids learning about the civil rights movement in school, sitting inside the bus where Rosa Parks started her boycott will bring their history lessons potently to life.
Detroit’s soul is rooted in music. Follow in the footsteps of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Marvyn Gaye and make your way to Hitsville USA, a house on Westgrand Boulevard where Berry Gordy built the famous Motown record label. The tour costs less than £9 and ends with a group singalong to My Girl in world famous Studio A. Don't forget to buy Motown CD in the gift shop on your way out. The smooth sound of Detroit provides the perfect soundtrack as you leave the city and head upstate.
250 miles of freeway leads to Traverse City, a paradise for outdoorsy types and the ideal antidote to city life. Miles of natural trails are waiting to be explored by bike or on foot, or embrace the outdoors lifestyle by tucking into plenty of farm-to-fork meals and practising landscape photography skills. You’d be hard pressed to find a prettier place in autumn, when the city’s rolling hills glow with oranges and sunny yellows and Grand Traverse Bay shimmers sapphire blue.
In spring and summer the days are pleasantly warm and exploring the sandy shoreline of the great Lake Michigan is a blissful way to while away an afternoon. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is a 35-mile stretch of protected land along the eastcoast of the lake. It has been voted ‘the most beautiful place in America’ by the viewers of Good Morning America – as proud locals are keen to report. It's possible to drive to the top of Sleeping Bear Dune, up winding roads flanked by tall pines on either side. Indian legend has it that a mother bear’s cubs drowned in the lake, and the spirits had pity on the mother and raised her cubs up from the water, and they became the dunes.
Just standing on top of the sandy mountains and looking over the lake is a stirring experience in itself, but kids are inevitably delighted to discover that you can also lie down and roll down the dune to the beach below. But before you give into temptation, take heed of the signs that warn that the walk back up takes two-three hours. If you're brave enough to put this to the test, make sure you take a bottle of water down with you.
If you book in advance you can arrange a free tour from a real-life park ranger, complete with a Yogi Bear ranger uniform (a reference sadly lost on most kids today). The powdery slopes are hard to resist and even if you're not dressed for climbing, before long your shoes will be off and you'll be scrambling on hands and knees, slipping and sliding in a race to the top – which is further away than it looks.
En-route back to Detroit, make time to stop at the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge, about midway between Traverse City and Detroitm for an airboat eco-tour with Johnny Panther, an eccentric one-of-a-kind tour guide. The Shiawassee Flats are like the Everglades of Michigan (minus the snakes) – one of the state’s richest wildlife habitats, home to beavers, deers, ducks, herons and hundreds of types of birds – all of which come with their own amusing and sometimes saucy story courtesy of Johnny Panther (real name Wil Hufton).
Tours take between three and five hours and are specially tailored to your group’s needs. The kids might be less than keen on the boat's 8am departure, but the complaints will soon stop if you're lucky enough to spot bald eagles perched on top of a dead tree. Johnny's boat glides into the mist, as his passengers snuggle up in the thick blankets he provides. Spend a couple of tours exploring the tributaries, listening to white tailed deer snorting softly in the marshes, and watching pretty wood ducks playing on the river.
Beavers can be seen working on their dams and migrating hawks and blue herons fly over, like prehistoric terradactols. In May and June, the cotton trees shed their fuzzy balls and thousands of carp suck them greedily from the water. The water at this time of year looks like glass, with thousands of pairs of orange lips smacking on its surface.
The state of Michigan offers breathtaking natural beauty, wide, bright skies and plenty of family fun, and the jewel in its crown is a capital city that is rising from the dust with an addictive new optimism. Take a punt on flying to Detroit, hiring a car, and creating your own adventure. You'll be forever grateful that you looked beyond America’s more tried-and-tested family holiday spots, and were bold enough to experience the wilderness and spirit of Michigan.