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Travel: Music and motor oil on road trip around Great Lakes

© Shutterstock / f11photoThe Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Downtown Cleveland, Ohio.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Downtown Cleveland, Ohio.

If you’ve visited tourist hotspots like New York, Las Vegas or Florida, it would be easy to believe you’ve seen the best of the USA, but then again there are this storied country’s real heartlands to consider.

The Great Lakes region, a cluster of states in the north east surrounding enormous bodies of fresh water, is where the nascent colony ascended to become the world’s richest country.

It’s home to a dizzying variety of landscapes, from vibrant, towering metropolises to amber waves of grain fields and stunning lakeside vistas, all connected by seemingly endless ribbons of American freeways.

With a full tank of gas in the SUV, and five cities across four wildly different states programmed into the satnav, I went, to paraphrase Simon & Garfunkel, to look for America, or at least this sprawling corner of it.

The Henry Ford Museum. © Shutterstock / Belikova Oksana
The Henry Ford Museum.

Detroit is where we, fittingly, picked up the motor for our Great Lakes road trip and made our first stop. Just Stop Oil might not like America’s obsession with petrol-gobbling beasts but even they would like the Henry Ford Museum in Motor City’s Dearborn district.

Detroit is where industrial magnate Ford midwifed America’s fascination with the automobile, and the museum has collected enough exhibits to leave you transfixed, even beyond examples of the historic Model T Ford which revolutionised the way ordinary people travelled.

Look, there’s the armoured Lincoln where President John F Kennedy was shot.

Perhaps you’d like to sit in the bus – in fact, the very seat – where Rosa Parks once made her powerful, dignified protest.

We would return to Detroit – and the city’s incredible music scene – in our road trip loop but we had to hit the highway for a three-hour schlep to Cleveland, in the neighbouring state of Ohio.

Famed Gibson guitars. © Shutterstock / Checubus
Famed Gibson guitars.

A trip to the waterfront, on the banks of Lake Erie, and the home of the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, is first. From the Gibson guitar Bill Haley used to blast out Rock Around The Clock to ethereal dresses which once draped over recent inductee Kate Bush, the building pulses with musical history. The highlight is, undoubtedly, the rehearsal room with a house band ready to jam with you; grab a guitar and join in if you fancy becoming Prince or Taylor Swift for a few minutes.

Next was an amble to Amba in the hip Hingetown district for an Indian feast in what felt like a very cool nightclub.

Go, and order the Sloppy Joe keema, a hamburger bun containing spiced venison mince. Outrageously good.

After a layover in Cleveland, we revved the Jeep up once more for a trip three hours east on the I-90 to Buffalo in west New York State. You may be familiar with Niagara Falls but there’s a modest attraction I enjoyed even more than the famed tourist trap.

The Martin House was the masterpiece home created by one of the most important figures of 20th century architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright. This was one of his earliest designs and the Charles Rennie Mackintosh influences clearly stayed with him throughout Wright’s life because the blueprints for the 1.5 acre property hung above his desk until the day he died.

The Martin House National Historic Landmark © Shutterstock / Sandra Foyt
The Martin House National Historic Landmark.

After experiencing something designed from the floorboards up it is almost comical to visit the heart of Buffalo’s former grain industry. This was, until the 1960s, the world’s largest grain port and the staggeringly large silos and elevators are being put to use after decades of dereliction.

First we meet Rick, the stetson-wearing entrepreneur and troubadour who has created Silo City; inside the towering silos which once stored tonnes of grain he hosts haunting poetry readings.

Outside, meanwhile, lurks his uber-cool dive bar, Duende, serving up crisp IPAs and rootsy folk music.

If marrying post-industrial landscape with modern Americana is genius, RiverWorks, five minutes up the road, is something else. This is a concert hall, bar and adventure playground all in one location. In a few weeks, the manager explains, the Dropkick Murphys will play while midget wrestling takes place in the backyard sports venue outside, all in the shadow of what looks as if someone turned Chernobyl into a demented funfair.

The variety of both venues is an irresistible testament to how the indomitable American spirit tackles industrial decline: with both genius and madness. Riverside is, if you’re interested, a wedding venue, too, where the bride and groom can arrive at the altar via zipline.

We hit the road again, with three more destinations in my Great Lakes road trip, which is cruising down the highway next week.

Travel: Every Motown fan’s dream – a visit to Hitsville USA


For more info visit Great Lakes USA

Book a trip here.

P.S. The Great Lakes form the largest freshwater system on earth, and Lake Superior contains around 10% of earth’s fresh surface water. While there are five lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario – only Michigan lies entirely within the USA, the rest border Canada. Lake Erie, apparently, even has its own monster, Bessie…