Cruising the Comeback City


Cruising the Comeback City

by Susan R. Pollack
Visiting Detroit, Michigan by boat is a unique way to see this resurgent city. Starting at the riverfront — as the earliest settlers did more than three centuries ago — provides a great opportunity to explore a batch of new breweries, trendy restaurants, world-class museums, eye-catching architecture and bustling public spaces. From their riverside playground — Detroit’s dynamic front-door — Motor City residents warmly welcome boaters and are eager to show off the city they call “The D.”
Ray Batt has a vivid memory of the summer day 10 years ago when he took a dozen business associates from across the country on a cruise of the Detroit River aboard his 42-foot Meridian, The Batt Cave.

From the upper helm on the bridge, bound for Lake St. Clair, he felt great pride as his colleagues raved about the unexpected beauty of Detroit and its riverfront. The water — clean and clear — dazzled in shades of Caribbean blue-green with the gleaming Renaissance Center skyscraper, Ambassador Bridge and Belle Isle as a backdrop. The idyllic scene, he says, was a far cry from his guests’ preconceptions of Detroit as a down-and-out Rust Belt city. 

“They began remarking as soon as we pulled out of the harbor,” says Batt, commodore of the Detroit Yacht Club, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. “They were blown away at the beautiful color of the water, the proximity to Canada and the beauty of the city as seen from the water. It was also a reminder to me of how special it is to be able to boat here.”

Detroit and its waterfront, settled by the French more than three centuries ago, have only gotten better. After decades of urban decay and economic decline, including a 2013-14 bankruptcy, Michigan’s largest metropolis is now gaining momentum as the nation’s great “comeback city.” 

Last year, Detroit landed on the New York Times' annual list of “52 Places to Go in 2017,” among destinations such as Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Detroit also ranked No. 2 in guidebook publisher Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities to visit in 2018, behind Seville, Spain.

Once an important port for fur trading and ship building, Detroit remains one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways. With Michigan ranked third nationally in registered recreational boaters, it’s also a mecca for pleasure boaters. In season, you’ll see everything from kayaks, powerboats and sailboats to 1,000-foot lake freighters and ocean-going vessels, nicknamed “salties.” 
It’s all thanks to Detroit’s strategic location in the Great Lakes region, Batt says, citing easy access to Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and, eventually, the St. Lawrence Seaway.

From Belle Isle, “Lake Huron is about a 2½-hour cruise, and it’s just 45 minutes to Lake Erie,” Batt says. Lake St. Clair’s Nautical Mile is also just 20 minutes by boat. 

The pace of development in and around downtown Detroit is dizzying, marked by the September 2017 opening of The District Detroit, a multi-billion dollar sports and entertainment complex that brings all four of the city’s professional sports teams within blocks of one another. 

The long-awaited QLine streetcar system now connects 3.3 miles of Woodward Ave. from downtown through Midtown and the New Center. For boaters and others without cars, QLine offers convenient access to top city attractions: Among them is the Detroit Institute of Arts and its Diego Rivera murals; hand-assembled watches, leather goods and bicycles at Shinola; hand-pressed vinyl records at Jack White’s Third Man Records; and vintage apparel at the new Peacock Room in the Fisher Building.

Detroit’s dining scene, meanwhile, has exploded with new restaurants, bars and breweries, thanks to an influx of Millennials, artists and entrepreneurs drawn to the city by affordable housing and tech jobs. Pedestrians, including suburbanites, are out and about day and night — something not seen downtown for decades. 

Tie up and stay awhile

Yes, it’s a great time to steer your boat to Detroit. But if you visit during popular river events — the June 25 Ford Fireworks and the Gold Cup hydroplane races August 24-26 — it’s not too soon to reserve space at a local marina.

There are plenty of places for visitors to dock, dine and explore the city, including the venerable Detroit Yacht Club on a manmade island off Belle Isle, several marinas on the Detroit River near downtown and other marinas farther upriver on Lake St. Clair’s Nautical Mile. What’s more, Windsor, Ontario ports are just across the Detroit River. 

With 35 transient slips and 16 seasonal, William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor — Michigan’s first urban state park — is the marina closest to downtown attractions. Located just east of the RenCen, General Motors’ headquarters, the marina is on the 4-mile long RiverWalk, which is the heart of Detroit’s waterfront revival. 

Buzzing with walkers, cyclists and skateboarders, the promenade stretches from the Ambassador Bridge almost‚ but not quite, to the MacArthur Bridge at Belle Isle, the city’s island oasis in the Detroit River. Highlights of the RiverWalk include a carousel, the Chene Park amphitheater (boaters can listen to concerts for free from the water), and Hart Plaza, a site for outdoor fitness programs and music events such as the annual Memorial Day electronic Movement Festival and Labor Day Jazz Fest. There’s even a guided dog-walking group on Sunday mornings. 

Kid-activated water cannons and a schooner-themed water feature at Mt. Elliott Park & Pavilion are among the newest additions to the RiverWalk. Near the Port Authority, there’s a shipping container turned museum with an interactive computer system that tracks Great Lakes vessels in real time. 

Boaters needing exercise may rent a bike from Detroit Wheelhouse on the RiverWalk or join an organized bike tour. Another two-wheel option is MOGO Detroit, a new bike-sharing program with 43 stations across 10 neighborhoods. A popular destination via the paved 2-mile Dequindre Cut greenway is the historic Eastern Market, which has been around for more than 150 years and has been born again with colorful murals and special events. While Tuesdays (in the summer) and Saturdays (year-round) are the best days for fresh produce and flowers, a number of shops and restaurants in the Eastern Market now stay open most days. DeVries & Co., a gourmet grocer dating back to 1887, is a great place to load up on cheese and other provisions. Vivio’s makes a mean bloody mary, Supino Pizzeria serves a nice slice and Bert’s Marketplace is a late-night club known for jazz and barbecue. Newer additions are Eastern Market Brewing Co., Detroit City Distillery and two restaurants, Gather and Antietam. 

Joining the Detroit beer scene, Founders Brewing Co. opened its first taproom outside of Grand Rapids in the Midtown district. Founders' opening marks Detroit’s 10th brewery taproom, up from three in 2013.

Within walking or biking distance of Milliken Harbor and other marinas east of downtown is a warehouse- style district that’s home to the original Atwater Brewery, offering German-style craft brews and a new rooftop deck. Nearby, Andrew’s on the Corner is a classic Detroit bar celebrating its 100th anniversary.

Campus Martius, downtown Detroit’s focal point, is within easy walking and biking range of the RiverWalk. It’s a people-watching park with a man-made sandy beach where you can grab a snack from a food truck. Or, sample a Detroit-favorite hot dog at the Lafayette or American Coney Islands nearby. 

For fancy drinks and fare, check out the Apparatus Room in the Detroit Foundation Hotel, the city’s hot new digs in the former Detroit Fire Department headquarters. Designers kept the building’s original red arched firehouse doors but added striking details, such as the circular bar with cascading glass lights. 

A cheap way to get around downtown is the elevated PeopleMover train, a 2.9-mile loop that offers a scenic view of the city. Among the 13 stops is Greektown, a lively district that has drawn visitors even in Detroit’s quietest times. Greektown is home to restaurants, Astoria Pastry Shop and Greektown Casino.

Detroit’s other two casinos, Motor City and MGM Grand, are best reached by cab, Lyft or Uber. For non-gamblers, the new Topgolf Swing Suite offers a fun golf-simulation experience at the MGM Grand.

A trip to Detroit wouldn’t be complete without visiting the Motown Museum, also called Hitsville U.S.A. The modest home-turned-studio is where Berry Gordy launched the Motown sound in 1959. You’ll bop to the music of Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations during an hour-long tour that’s best reserved in advance.

Beautiful Belle Isle 

Back on the Detroit River, Belle Isle, with 7 miles of shoreline, has undergone a $32-millon transformation since becoming a Michigan State Park in 2014. Improvements include a new kayak launch, 24-hour security, upgraded pavilions and street lights, and an accessible kiddie playscape.

The 982-acre island, initially designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of NYC Central Park fame, is a great place to ride bikes. With its landmark 85-foot dome, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory showcases a 600-plant orchid grotto, a koi pond and gardens. 

Another favorite is the historic Albert Kahn-designed Belle Isle Aquarium. Under an arched ceiling lined with green opalite glass tiles, visitors can ogle a new Great Lakes sturgeon exhibit and collections including air-breathing fish, South American piranhas and North America’s seven species of gar.

Of interest to boaters, Belle Isle’s Dossin Great Lakes Museum features marine history exhibits including the Edmund Fitzgerald’s anchor. William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse on the north end facing Lake St. Clair is the nation’s only marble lighthouse.

Marinas, galore 

Designed in a Mediterranean style by architect George D. Mason, who also created Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, the Detroit Yacht Club (DYC) is among the world’s largest yacht clubs. It has a restaurant, two pools and a full activity schedule, including free sunset concerts on summer Saturdays. Past members include Horace Dodge, Edsel Ford and racing legend Gar Wood, a former Commodore. 

About three dozen of the DYC’s 360-plus wells are available to member-sponsored boaters or members of reciprocal clubs more than 50 miles from Detroit in the Intra-Lake Yachting Association (ILYA). According to Batt: “Space is not a problem. We make a habit of finding space for affiliated members interested in visiting for the night or weekend.” 

In addition to its prime Riverwalk location, 31-acre Milliken State Park offers fishing platforms, picnic tables, a wetlands demonstration project and a lighthouse at the harbor entrance. 

Four miles east of downtown on the Detroit River, Kean’s Marina is a full-service “resort marina” with a tiki bar, music and pool, says co-owner Mike Litt: “We’re like a concierge service here in the office — whatever people need, we’ll point them in the right direction.” 

About 20 of the marina’s 340 slips are open to transient sailboats and powerboats, Litt says. He adds that it’s a popular destination for boat clubs from downriver Detroit, Toledo and elsewhere. 

Kean’s Marina is next to Sindbad’s, a nautically-themed restaurant and marina on the site of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. Known for its homemade clam chowder, fish sandwiches and Sunday brunch, it offers free dockage for diners and rents overnight slips for bigger boats. Sindbad’s also provides shuttle service to major Detroit sporting events. 

Nearby, the city-run Erma Henderson Marina reserves six of 243 slips for transients, and the 174-slip Riverside Marina offers four for transients. 

The Nautical Mile in nearby St. Clair Shores — 11 miles by car from downtown — offers unique shops, restaurants and marinas, including Jefferson Beach Marina.

“Detroit grew up along the river and along Lake St. Clair — it’s our front-door playground,” says Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society. “People around here like playing on the water, even if it’s just going down to Belle Isle and watching the boats go by.” 

And there’s no better time than now to join them.  

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