Road Trip: USA Great Lakes featuring Michigan, Wisconsin, Minneapolis

When you feel like an escape into nature with a dollop of culture thrown in, perhaps consider an Autumnal road trip to America’s Great Lakes. Nature herself provides you with visual entertainment with an abundance of lushly hued foliage of orange, red, purple, browns and yellows.

It’s a mayhem of colour along miles of well-tended roads that swerve around the Great Lakes from Detroit to Minneapolis. Be assured that the word ‘Great’ is not used lightly as you could fit in the whole of Switzerland into the 300-mile width of Lake Superior. Along the way there are woods with waterfalls, changeable weather, changing time zones and plenty of craft beer brewed with the fresh clean water of the lakes.

There’s more. Bring your binoculars and wing it at Hawks Ridge to watch the bird migration, then experience the art glass blowing. It all ends with an insightful rendez-vous with Prince (of Purple Rain fame) and if you have shopping legs, a trip to the American Mall.

The gateway to this great adventure is through the city of Detroit whose bedraggled past still haunts its newly regenerated Downtown. The city is well-worth exploring before heading off into Traverse City.

Read: Travel Guide: 24 hours in Detroit 

Traverse City, Michigan

It’s a four-and-a-half hour drive to Traverse City, a farming area in Michigan with plenty of cherry trees and, unexpectedly, rows of vineyards. The scenic 65-acre Chateau Chantal Winery is located on top of a ridge on the Old Mission Peninsula. Temptingly there’s a wine-tasting session on offer where a dozen wines jostle for attention. And an outstanding view.

Chateau Chantal Vineyard
Chateau Chantal Vineyard

The combo was pretty heady stuff but the day hadn’t ended. We end up having dinner at a brewery in Traverse City and ‘heady’ soon morphed into ‘hazey’. The North Peak Brewing Company located in handsome imposing brick edifice of three floors and a basement, has hearty fare that is perfectly downed with their sometimes unusual craft beer.

Mackinac Bridge and Mackinaw City

Mackinaw bridge - five mile suspension bridge
Mackinaw bridge – five mile suspension bridge

There’s plenty of time to nap during the drive to Mackinaw City in Cheboygan County. It is at the tip of the Lower Peninsula and we stop to stare at the historic lighthouse before crossing the five-mile long Mackinac suspension bridge. It spans the Straits of Mackinac to connect the Upper and Lower Peninsula. Weirdly Mackinaw and Mackinac are both pronounced Mackinaw.

Munising, Michigan Upper Peninsula

We passed through the town of Christmas and then Marquette a hilly town by Lake Superior. We take route 31 for a 64-mile straight road to Munising in the Upper Peninsula. Maple trees and pine trees straddle the roadside offering a mix of green and shades of burnt red. The pretty harbour towns on the way are great to explore.

Charlevoix and the Mushroom Houses

In Charlevoix the cherry is king and cherry pies are everywhere. The high street is strewn with sweet shops and in The Cherry Republic shop I pick up some cherry soap and cherry chocolate covered malt balls.

This is also home to the Mushroom Houses, a clutch of mushroom-resembling homes designed by Earl A Young who rolled them out in the early 20th century.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks c. Gary McPhee.
Pictured Rocks c. Gary McPhee.

Munising shares its shoreline with the massive Lake Superior. Hopes of taking boat trip to see the “Pictured Rocks”, a mass of cliffs with colourful streaks made by various minerals are dashed. On this chilly day the rainy weather was whipping the lake water into a frenzy so we had to make do with seeing the rocks from a distance.

Further along at the Michigan Upper Peninsula deer roam in land that remains seemingly untouched. The locals are called Uppers (pronounced Youpers). It’s a quiet life here and the Youpers were keen to strike up a conversation.

Autumn in Michigan
Autumn in Michigan

Copper Falls State Park, Wisconsin

We cross the border on US Highway 2 to Wisconsin and my iphone clock skips an hour to acknowledge the time zone change. The road is still long, the weather just as windy but the cherry trees are subsiding making way for cornfields and meadows.

We stop at Copper Falls State Park and follow the “Doughboy’s Trail” over ground thick with colourful leaves. Eons of erosion of greenstone and granite mountains has produced a dramatic setting for Brownstone Falls. At the point it meets with Tyler’ s Fork two rivers converge to plunge with unstoppable power 30 feet into the Bad River gorge. It is a spectacular show complete with spray.

Cooper falls
Cooper falls

Our guide tells us that into the surrounding woods we may well have come across wolves, dear or bears. We move on.

Later we enjoy the calmer waters of Lake Namakagon. The lake spreads out from the Mogasheen (which means “Little Moccasin”) resort where we pitch up that night in one of their wooden chales. It’s a beautiful spot bought a generation ago from Native Americans.

Serene lake
Serene water of Lake Namakan

The water is supremely serene and stunningly blue in the afternoon sun. Yet it is freezing. The owners of the resort dish out hats, scarves, blankets and warm cocoa with crème de menthe to sip in the pontoon while enjoying a invigorating ride across the lake.

Breakfast is at the slightly surreal red bricked Brick House in the town of Cable, Wisconsin in the Chequamegon National Forest. There are only 800 people living in Cable and this is the only café. Some burly locals smile at me curiously as they they tuck into giant sandwiches. In the meantime my coffee cup is refilled as a matter of course while I nibble  on French toast and pancakes.

Back on the road it’s around an-hour-and-a-half to the Duluth a major port city on Lake Superior in Minnesota.

Duluth, Minnesota
Port city of Duluth, Minnesota

We arrive at the town of Petaski and grab a beer then back on the road passing through a narrow road heavily hemmed by trees – it’s dubbed the tunnel of the trees.

We stop at Hawk Ridge to channel our inner birdwatcher. This is the only place to witness the Fall migration to see migrating raptors, originating from areas as far north as the Arctic concentrate in impressive numbers at the western tip of Lake Superior.

Later and quite randomly we join a glass blowing class at the Lake Superior Art Glass in Duluth. There’s no rhyme or reason other than it’s available. I clutch my red glass pendant for the three hours it takes to drive to St Paul, the capital of Minneapolis.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

St Paul is the capital of the sprawling, vibrant metropolis of Minnesota where 11 miles of sky walkways allow locals to get around in cold weather.

Though it’s snowing it seems plain wrong not to explore especially as I am standing at the halfway point between the equator and the North Pole. So snubbing the sky walkways I make my way to the sculpture garden to browse around its 40 incredible artworks – the most famous is Klaus Van Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge with Cherry looking impressive as snowflakes begin to settle on the cherry.

Spoonbridge and Cherry, Minneapolis
Spoonbridge and Cherry, Minnesota, Minneapolis

Around Summit Avenue Victorian mansions have been preserved and the city’s cathedral is modelled on London St Paul’s Cathedral. It is also famously the birthplace of F. John Fitzgerald who penned The Great Gatsby. Dinner that night was at Fitzgerald restaurant on Cathedral Hill. They say the great author’s tipple was gin and so that night, it was mine too.

Paisley Park, the home of the legendary rock star: Prince

It’s a 30-minute drive to Paisley Park, Prince’s living and working space. It’s a massive complex treated by staff as sacred while visitors are treated as pilgrims. Prince’s ashes are in the rafters of the hall and are revered. We bow our heads for a moment’s silence. Turns out that Prince was both philanthropic and deeply spiritual as well as being a talented rock star.

The last stop is the is the Mall of America on E Broadway, Bloomington whose three levels are packed with 525 shops around a huge theme park. Best of all it is tax free shopping.

Fact File

PACKAGE: Bon Voyage can tailor make packages to the Great Lakes region.
MORE INFO: The Great Lakes USA is the largest expanse of freshwater in the world with a unique and diverse landscape. This region, which is the size of continental Europe, includes the U.S. states of Illinois, Indiana Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Travel Guide: 48 Hours in Pittsburgh, USA

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania located in the Mid-Atlantic region of the USA next door to New York, has come along way in 100 years. It was once a manufacturing city that emitted so much pollution from its steel mills that it became known as “hell with the lid off”.

Nowadays, this progressive, sprawling city with a population of over two million, is rather picturesque where people are often seen kayaking along its three rivers – the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers.

It’s still a steel city and even has an American football team, “The Steelers”, named after this long standing manufacturing heritage. However it has been dubbed “The City of Bridges” thanks to a whopping 466 bridges that connect the region’s valleys, hillsides, river plains, and, what would otherwise be isolated communities.

Must visit

If you’re staying in Downtown Pittsburgh, you’re well placed to visit many of the city’s most famous museums. Start with the Heinz History Center, an excellent museum that documents 250 years of Pittsburgh’s history. There are seven floors so we recommend picking one or two to explore if you’re only there for a few days.

Our favourite was the Heinz room, which celebrates the joys of Heinz tomato ketchup and baked beans with great aplomb. You can watch some very amusing historic ketchup adverts on era-accurate television sets.

Heinz History Centre
Heinz Room at the Heinz HIstory Centre (c) Andrew Moss

For art lovers, the Andy Warhol Museum is an absolute must-see. The king of pop art was born in Pittsburgh and many of his most famous pieces are housed in the museum, which also includes loads of interesting details about his life and legacy. There’s also an excellent contemporary art museum nearby, The Mattress Factory, which has nothing to do with beds but everything to do with art from the daring to the downright barmy.

If you’re interested in local history, take an Uber to the Frick Art & Historical Center in the city’s Point Breeze neighbourhood where you can visit several museums, a cafe, lovely gardens and the home – “Clayton” – of 19th century industrialist and art collector Henry Frick. Frick was spectacularly wealthy and it’s worth taking a tour of Clayton just to see the sheer opulence of the decor.

Another highlight is the dreary sounding but highly impressive car and carriage museum, where you get to see a 120 year-old automobile. The museum café serves delicious, homely lunches and scrumptious desserts.

Randy in Randyland
Randy Gilson in Randyland (c) Andrew Moss

Pittsburgh also has several quirky museums, such as the free to enter Randyland. Created by artist, Randy Gilson, Randyland is a small plot of land filled with colourful murals and a host of brightly painted random objects that the artist hopes will “bring happiness to his neighborhood”.

For a full list of museums and galleries, have a look on the Visit Pittsburgh website.

Must squawk

A weekend in Pittsburgh would be incomplete without a visit to The National Aviary, America’s only independent indoor non-profit zoo dedicated to birds and to preserving their habitats. There is an incredible number of bird species, including adorably ditzy penguins, flamingos, snowy owls and majestic bald eagles.

Bald eagle at the National Aviary
Bald eagle at the National Aviary (c) Andrew Moss

Must shop

If you’re a comic book fan, a film nerd or record collector, head to Eide’s Entertainment in Downtown Pittsburgh (close to the Heinz History Centre). Set over four floors, it is full of collectable movie posters, figurines, comic books, vinyls and other paraphernalia. You can grab a bargain for as little as a dollar, and the figurines are surprisingly cheap.

If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, which has a wonderful variety of American sweets and chocolate. There is also a great selection of whimsical gifts, from Donald Trump “Impeachmints” to “Instantly talk to your cat” minty mouth spray.

Must eat

You’ll never be hungry in Pittsburgh, that’s for sure. Portion sizes are beyond generous and the quality of the grub is very good indeed. For breakfast, follow in the footsteps of 44th US President, Barack Obama, and order pancakes at Pamela’s in the city’s Strip District. You’ll be presented with a pile of sweet, crispy pancakes bigger than your face.

Obama loved them so much he invited the owners to the White House to cook pancakes as part of a Memorial Day celebration. This is a proper American diner with a buzzing atmosphere and should not be missed.

Pizza at the Federal Galley
Pizza at the Federal Galley (c) Andrew Moss

For dinner, head to the newly opened Federal Galley, a food hall and beer garden with proper cutlery and modern fixtures. There’s four food stalls to choose from, which have everything from deep pan pizzas to Poutine (glorified chips with cheese and gravy) and Korean fried chicken. Our favourite stall was “Provision”, which served melt-in-your-mouth pork belly.

Must drink (craft beer)

Pittsburgh has welcomed the booming craft beer industry with open arms. Almost every bar in the city serves craft beer on tap and prices are reasonable (around 3-8 dollars for a large beer). The bars are the perfect place to meet the friendly locals, who are very fond of recommending their favourite places to eat and drink (it’s how we heard about Pamela’s).

For beer lovers, head towards PNC baseball Park and enjoy a well-earned drink at Beerhead Bar, where you can choose from 650 beers and 50 rotating taps. There’s also an excellent bar in Pittsburgh’s South Side called Brewski’s, which is covered in graffiti and sports posters and has an excellent section of beer on tap. The crowd is delightfully eccentric – we witnessed two blokes playing Nintendo switch while smoking cigars.

Tip: it is possible to smoke in some bars in Pittsburgh as long as they don’t serve food – make sure you check with the owners before lighting up.

Must stay

Fairmont Pittsburgh is perfectly located in the city’s Golden Triangle and is walking distance from the Andy Warhol Museum and Heinz History Centre. There are plenty of bars and restaurants nearby, and the hotel itself is excellent.

Hotel Lobby Fairmont Pittsburgh
Hotel Lobby (c) Fairmont Pittsburgh

Getting there

For a budget option, Wow Air offers flights to Pittsburgh via Iceland for as little as £139.99 each way. Just bear in mind you’ll get the Ryanair experience so bring your own food and drink with you and make sure you have plenty to entertain you (there’s no inflight entertainment on offer).

If you’re travelling from the airport, the easiest way to reach the hotel is by Uber (it takes about 25 minutes).

5 family days in SLO CAL – San Luis Obispo County – California, USA

Roughly halfway between the booming technology hub of San Francisco and the showbiz cauldron of Los Angeles to the south, SLO CAL is fast carving out a name for itself as, not just a handy pit stop between the two cities, but a fascinating holiday destination in itself.

Journeying around parts of San Luis Obispo County, as it is more formally known, can often make you feel like you have entered a time machine back to the 1970s which is frankly part of its charm for someone like me who is an unabashed child of the 70s.

When my wife and I first started looking at places to spend five days, we were instantly drawn to the wild Pacific coastal area.

My wife, toddler son and baby daughter had never travelled to the States before and I was steadfast in finding us a family friendly area to kick back in.

Village of Cambria

We settled on the sleepy seaside village of Cambria for our rental house and it met our modest needs brilliantly as well as being in striking distance of the wonderful Fiscalini Ranch Preserve. The ranch was created by a group of locals had clubbed together to protect it from property developers.

An early evening walk as the sun started to dip allowed us to slip into a relaxed groove from the outset.

The ranch was packed full of slumbering elephant seals, curious turkey vultures and cheeky California ground squirrels that darted in and out of burrows on the edge of the cliffs.

Cayucos resort town

Cayucos: view from the Pier
Cayucos View from the Pier

The following morning, we took a short drive to Cayucos resort town on Estero Bay. In Cayucos, the vibe is even more laid back. The town has just 13,000 people and lovely views over Cayucos Pier and miles of sandy beaches.

In town we tried the Brown Butter Cookie Company, whose slogan is “butter makes everything better.” The place a hive of youthful activity which churns out hundreds of their nutty brown butter flavoured cookies by the hour.

Later is was the fish tacos that we enjoyed at Ruddell’s Smokehouse down by the beach. With old Garbage Pail Kid stickers from my 1980s youth adorning the top of the grill, I instantly knew this was my kind of restaurant.

San Luis Obispo

The buzzing county capital San Luis Obispo awaited us on the Saturday and, after a lazy stroll amongst the merry students out celebrating their university graduation, we chanced upon the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum.

We hadn’t planned on it, but the kids loved the vibrant mix of indoor and outdoor activities with the train theme upstairs going down a storm with our son as our daughter delighted at the pretend shop and experiments on offer.

San Luis Obispo Children's Museum
San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum

Atascadero

Atascadero
Atascadero

Having hit our stride with three relaxed days, we stepped it up a notch on Sunday. At coffee shop Malibu Brew in Atascadero located opposite the Sunken Gardens park, we experienced the best coffee we had drunk Stateside to that point and was combined with delicious cream cheese bagels, muffins and tea cakes to die for.

Ten minutes later, we ambled around Charles Paddock Zoo – the red pandas and prowling tiger was of particular fascination to the inquisitive young minds in our charge.

It is no San Diego Zoo, that much was clear from the muted décor and limited animals on show, however it didn’t cost much and was right next to Atascadero Lake Park where our son could let off steam on the plush playground as we chatted to locals entranced by our British accents.

Charles Paddock Zoo
Charles Paddock Zoo

Tin City

The collective highlight of our SLO CAL trip arrived next in the form of Tin City, which safely ranks in the best and most eclectic food and drink emporiums that my wife and I have enjoyed in our 10 years travelling together.

Tin City
Tin City

Housed in an industrial park by the historic 1,200 mile Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, the relatively new addition to the local food and drink scene was fizzing with the sound of satisfied punters across all ages.

We had lunch at the Tin Canteen with my wife opting for the moorish snapper fish and chips, while our children devoured tomato pasta and I tucked into a juicy, lamb burger and garlic fries. Even though it felt more like a hip, adult restaurant on entering – nestled as it is amongst a slew of tasting rooms spotlighting the booming local wine – the waiting staff soon put our children at ease with colouring books and crayons while our food was being cooked.

Tempted as my wife and I were next by the buzzing beer and cider places inside Tin City, our son launched himself like a torpedo towards the Negranti Creamery, where the strawberry basil ice cream proved the standout flavour once we had negotiated a lengthy line of loyal customers.

Add in whistle-stop visits to a few recommended tasting rooms and I can see why Tin City could become an ever bigger attraction once the word gets out properly to tourists.

Pismo Beach

Pismo
Pismo Beach

Our final SLO CAL day saw us head down to Pismo Beach to enjoy its wide open soft sand beaches – the type of place where kids love to make sandcastles and sporty types go surfing.

We stopped for breakfast and, when I say breakfast, I mean a huge freshly made roll from Old West Cinnamon Rolls covered in luscious frosting and bacon that could feed a family well for a week back in the UK.

Old West Cinnamon Rolls
Old West Cinnamon Rolls

We love throwback places like this, so it was an easy win to start the day especially when I could show my son how to play the retro arcade game in the corner in a nod to a good-sized portion of my misspent youth.

With sugar now zipping merrily around our bloodstreams, we sauntered down to Pismo Pier which was exactly what I had pictured in my head when it came to the surfing culture I had only been privy to before via television, films and books.

Teenage boys jostled for position in the water with grizzled, middle-aged men and a few skilled women carving their way across the waves as they curled towards us and the giant columns below.

My wife and I could have stayed there quite happily for longer, but the children needed a change of scene and the nearby Dinosaur Caves Park was a cut above your average playground thanks to a cool view out to sea and an eclectic mix of fun equipment.

Arroyo Grande

Our charming stay neared its end in the small historic coastal town of Arroyo Grande with lunch at Klondike Pizza and dessert at the original, quirky Doc Burnstein’s store serving more traditional ice cream flavours that somehow topped the ones that we had had the day before.

A stroll along the Swinging Bridge and trip to feed the hungry goats at the idyllic Avila Valley Barn wrapped up our family SLO CAL experience – one that we shall look back on with fondness and highly recommend to those willing to put in the miles on the road and looking for new American places to explore.

Fact File

FLY: British Airways or Virgin Atlantic into Los Angeles or San Francisco

Note: The odd bargain can also be found flying into San Jose or Oakland. There are several car rental firms at the various airports, regular California bus services through Greyhound while the California Amtrak train line that runs through San Luis Obispo is very good.

Where to stay

There are plenty of B&Bs, hotels and motels in the SLO CAL area, particularly around the Paso Robles and Edna Valley wine regions, with RV parks, campgrounds and vacation rentals also worth investigating. For something a bit special and colourful, try the peculiar Madonna Inn just south of San Luis Obispo.

Where to eat

Great seafood restaurants and quality Mexican food are everywhere in SLO CAL, while the boom in the wine industry has also seen the classy wineries start to cater properly for foodies as well as the drinkers. Creekside Gardens is a friendly restaurant in the heart of Cambria with an inviting outside area, who will set you up for the day with a classic, hearty American breakfast.