If you're taking a Circle Tour around Lake Michigan, plan ahead - and then hang on tight

dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 21, 2013 

My family just returned from a 3,000-mile road trip. In 10 days, we did what the tourism boards in the Great Lakes region call a "Circle Tour."

It wasn't exactly a circle, especially when we got through with it.

We chose the tour around Lake Michigan.

We drove to Chicago, hung a left into Wisconsin, went north and across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, traversed the Mackinac Bridge and headed back to Chicago, and then home.

Our goals were simple: Have fun, see some new stuff, and avert disaster.

Oh, and stay cool. That's why we were heading so far north.

It was new territory for us, so we went online and did our research. When my wife, Bess, and I and our four children left Columbus, we had reservations for six different hotels, as well as tickets for a round-trip ferry ride, a folk rock concert, two major league baseball games and America's largest outdoor water park.

We had a plan. Here's what actually happened:

Day One

The plan: Leave Columbus around noon and drive to Dyersburg, Tenn., to spend the night with Bess' parents.

What actually happened: Exactly that.

Nicest surprise: When we arrived, Bess' parents served us pot roast, roasted potatoes, squash casserole and fried green tomatoes, with peach cobbler for dessert. A great start to the trip.

Random observation: Teen girls know they're not good drivers; teen boys think they're good drivers but aren't.

Miles traveled: 415

Day Two

The plan: Wake up refreshed and drive to Kenosha, Wisc., for the start of our Lake Michigan tour.

What actually happened: I forgot it was Wednesday, which means at 5:30 a.m. my father-in-law woke me up, along with my three sons, to attend his weekly men's prayer breakfast.

Nicest surprise: We'd chosen Kenosha only because it had a hotel right off the Interstate. But we found a drive-in diner called The Spot, where we picked up cheeseburgers, onion rings, fried cheese squares (yeah!) and a gallon of homemade root beer, then headed to a park on Lake Michigan. We donned our jackets, ate our greasy good food, then skipped stones and watched the fog roll in and the lighthouses flicker on.

Random observation: America has a lot of cool little towns.

Miles traveled: 549

Day Three

The plan: Wake up early and head to Milwaukee to tour the Harley Davidson Museum and walk along the river walk. Then go to Miller Park to see the Brewers play the Cubs at 1 p.m. Then end our day in Madison, where we'll tour the University of Wisconsin's art museum and then check out the football stadium.

What actually happened: We didn't rise early -- Bess and I

"slept" on the sofa bed, and the kids were hopped up on homemade root beer for most of the night. So we skipped the Harley museum and river walk. At Miller Park, they closed the roof in the sixth inning just before a thundershower hit. Cubs won. In Madison, we saw a Grandma Moses and a collection of Nazi coins, but had trouble finding the football stadium. Guess we're not in SEC country.

Nicest surprise: There's actually a deer crossing sign on the Interstate in downtown Milwaukee. Oh, and the secret stadium sauce in Miller Park is great on bratwurst, and you can even buy it in Wisconsin supermarkets.

Random observations: Nobody over the age of 40 can get a good night's sleep on a hotel sofa bed. And it's kind of funny when the stadium roof doesn't seal correctly and everybody six rows in front of you gets soaking wet.

Miles traveled: 129

Day Four

The plan: Drive to Noah's Ark Water Park in Wisconsin Dells, then head to Green Bay for the night.

What actually happened: I actually rode the Scorpion's Tail, billed as America's first upside-down looping body slide that drops you from a trap door. Feel like I spent the night on a sofa bed.

Nicest surprise: Wisconsin is the home of the Friday Night Fish Fry. You can find one in any restaurant, but Bess suggested we take a back road and look for something more authentic. Sure enough, the folks at the American Legion in Wrightstown (pop. 2,857) were frying up perch, walleye, haddock and redfish. Wish I had a dollar for every time somebody said to us, "You're not from around here, are ya?"

Random observation: Not sure there are many gyms in Wisconsin. At the water park, my boys told me it was OK to take off my shirt. "Compared to some of these guys, you look buff," one of them said. Gee thanks.

Miles traveled: 181

Day Five

The plan: Check out the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame, head across Michigan's Upper Peninsula, then cross the Mackinac Bridge into Mackinaw City.

What actually happened: We stuck to the plan. The kids sat at Vince Lombardi's desk and did the Lambeau Leap. Later, had a picnic at Sand Point Lighthouse featuring Wisconsin cheddar, cheese curds, summer sausage and fresh chocolate milk, then eventually crossed the bridge and saw a lumberjack show.

Nicest surprise: At a stoplight in Menominee, Mich., we turn and see a bearded young man behind the wheel of a Subaru station wagon. He's smoking a pipe. In the cargo bay he's got a banjo and on the roof rack he's got a pair of kayaks. And in the front seat next to him is a beautiful … bird dog. America!

Random observations: (1) Cheese curds really do squeak when you eat them. (2) If at night you leave the light on in your hotel room and also leave the door open to your lakefront balcony, your room will fill up with an interesting array of insects. (3) When you're a lumberjack on a floating log and you're trying to knock off an opponent, you should never try to kick the water with both feet at the same time.

Miles traveled: 274

Day Six

The plan: Take the 8 a.m. ferry to Mackinac Island, rent bikes and ride around the island, then eat a picnic and return to the mainland. Drive to Traverse City, where we'll stay for two nights.

What actually happened: Had a refreshing ferry ride, then a great 8-mile bike ride around the island, then another excellent dairy-based picnic in Marquette Park. Hiked up the hill to Fort Mackinac, where we saw a giant, creepy statue of Gerald Ford's head. Really. On the way to Traverse City, we bought cherries from an orchard. After checking into the hotel, we drove over to Sleeping Bear Dunes, where we stood on a mountain of sand and looked down across our shoetops where people were standing on the shoreline, as small as ants.

Nicest surprise: There is perhaps no more beautiful place in America than Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan. Words and even pictures don't do it justice. Then we went down to the shore where families were burning bonfires and playing with their dogs. We went for a cold swim at sunset.

Random observations: Nothing delights a crowd of Japanese tourists like your 15-year-old son putting his hand in Gerald Ford's nose.

Miles traveled: 161 (plus 14 miles by ferry and 8 miles by bicycle)

Day Seven

The plan: Drive back to Sleeping Bear for a dune climb, then relax at the hotel before going to dinner and an Avett Brothers concert at the Interlochen Center for the Arts.

What actually happened: We did everything except relax. The 4-mile dune climb was grueling, and demoralizing when we met a woman at the halfway point who was eight months pregnant. On the way to the hotel the boys suggested we stop at a 24-hole disc golf course. Please! It's the No. 9 best course in Michigan! At dinner at an excellent Latin/Asian restaurant, my 13-year-old son asked the chef to fix him his hottest dish. The chef went back to the stove, put something into a hot frying pan and we could barely breathe.

Nicest surprise: Traverse City is a real foodie town with a great local bookstore.

Random observations: How in the world can a guy play the cello while jumping up and down? Oh, and never tell a chef that you want the hottest thing he can make.

Miles traveled: 78 (plus 4 miles across a sand dune, uphill both ways)

Day Eight

The plan: Wake up early and drive along the shore to Chicago, where we have hotel reservations and want to beat the rush hour traffic.

What actually happened: Mission accomplished. After two straight nights in the same hotel, we wake up refreshed and hit the road by 7 a.m. By 10:30, we're taking a short walk along the wall toward the North Breakwater Light in Ludington. By late afternoon, we've checked into our hotel and are staring up at the stained glass dome of the Chicago Cultural Center. Soon we're headed to the White Sox game.

Nicest surprise: The Cubs were out of town, so we took the L Train to U.S. Cellular Field, where it happened to be Polish Heritage Night, and where it also happened to be 55 degrees. We listened to accordion music, ate perogies and potato pancakes, caught four balls during batting practice, and then got a round of Italian sausages and sat in our seats, where we were serenaded by the singing beer man. His best song was "You Should Drink All Night Long" in the key of AC/DC.

Random observations: (1) ButterBurgers, which you'll find at a Northern fast-food chain called Culver's, are a beautiful thing. (2) There's a special place in the afterlife for grown men who knock down children so they can get a baseball.

Miles traveled: 336 (plus 8 miles by L train)

Day Nine

The plan: See some art, eat some authentic deep-dish pizza, and get out of Chicago before rush hour and head back to Tennessee.

What actually happened: On the way to the Chicago Institute of Art, we stumbled upon Cloud Gate, a stainless steel sculpture in Millennium Park that's nicknamed "The Bean," casts a brilliant reflection of everything around it, and is nearly impossible to resist photographing. The museum was as good as advertised, with plenty of paintings the kids had studied in school. We found our authentic pie at Lou Malnati's and should have ordered one for the road. We didn't beat the rush hour, but the city had already cleared out for the Fourth.

Nicest surprise: There's a pile of candy in a corner of the modern art wing of the Chicago Institute of Art, and you can help yourself.

Random observations: (1) Chicago is a great city to visit with your family. (2) When folks in Chicago say they're putting sausage on your pizza, they're not kidding.

Miles traveled: 469

Day Ten

The plan: Actually, spend a couple of days at the in-laws before heading home.

What actually happened: That's about it.

Nicest surprise: It was fun to be in new places, but it's not bad coming home either.

Random observation: I left a wheelbarrow upright in our backyard, and it was full of rainwater when we returned. Guess we picked a good time to get out of town.

Miles traveled: 414

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com.

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