A long time ago, a strange, noisy contraption appeared on Mackinac Island, a tranquil haven of woodland in straits between two of America’s Great Lakes. The year was 1898, and it was the islanders’ first encounter with the nascent automobile. It scared the horses that drew their carriages, so they banned it.
“Horseless carriages” are still barred from the small island, along with chain stores, which means it’s blissfully free of the infernal combustion engine and fast-food joints. People love it.
I discovered this heaven for cyclists and horse lovers on a cruise from Chicago to New York, via four of the five Great Lakes and the Erie Canal. The 1,575-mile cruise was a voyage through time and space, with evidence aplenty of America’s fondness for preserving and celebrating vestiges of its short history.
Mackinac, lying in a channel between Lakes Michigan and Huron, is a time warp place of wooden clapboard stores and Victorian mansions dominated by an 18th-century fort, built by British troops to protect the lucrative fur trade. The roads are quiet, the only hazard being the natural by-product of heavy horses that draw carriages of tourists, and anything else that needs moving. In forests covering most of the island, the loudest sounds are of birdsong and the clip-clop of hooves.
Except when men in period US infantry uniforms fire guns in the fort, recreating a battle in 1814 when British redcoats and Indian warriors made short work of an American invasion. Cycling through inland woods and around a scenic coastal road with only cyclists, hikers and horses for company was a joy. I discovered the battlefield is now a golf course, designed by a Scotsman who added insult to past British injury by winning the US Open Golf Championship.
Homely rather than fancy, the ship I was on, the Grande Mariner, was a modest vessel, with no pretensions to luxury, but fitting the bill in terms of her ability to navigate shallow waters and canals, thanks to a shallow draft and an innovative retractable bridge. The 20 or so crew maintained a casual and friendly atmosphere among our group of 80 (mostly American) passengers. There are loungers on the sun deck and bicycles for exploring. There were lectures on the lakes and canals, photographic workshops and gigs by local musicians and a panoramic lounge was the venue for talks, movies, games and cocktails.
Cars may be abhorred on Mackinac, but are revered in Detroit. Pride and nostalgia for American ingenuity and extravagance (brought to a shuddering halt by Japanese competition) survive in a huge museum complex bequeathed by Henry Ford in his hometown near the city, and we had a day ashore to wander around it.
Cars, trains and planes from wooden stage coaches to a 600-ton steam locomotive and a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis crowd exhibition halls in which Ford’s Model T has pride of place. The stars are glittering chrome icons of Cadillac, Chevrolet and Ford Mustang, and an elongated, black 1961 Lincoln Continental with presidential flags on its wings. It is the car in which President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
We step further back in time in Ford’s adjacent “Greenfield Village”, a collection of historic buildings from throughout the US which have been dismantled and reassembled in an open-air museum. Model T Fords chug along tree-lined avenues past the family home of the aviation pioneers the Wright Brothers, the laboratory of Thomas Edison, and the farmhouse where Henry Ford grew up.
It is borderline cheesy, verging on a Disneyworld, but the buildings are authentic time machines. In the interests of journalistic research, I ordered a beer in the Eagle Tavern that opened its doors in Clinton, Michigan, in 1837, and imagined the Sundance Kid sitting quietly in the shadows.
Our itinerary usually afforded time to explore independently on foot and by bicycle. Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie is another city that’s fallen on hard times, but its efforts at urban renewal include a splendid Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was catapulted back to the Sixties in a blizzard of memorabilia and music, from John Lennon’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band outfit to Gerry Marsden crooning Ferry Cross the Mersey.
My prize exhibit is JC Unit One, Johnny Cash’s black- and-silver tour bus that was his home from home for the last two decades of his career. As a young reporter I interviewed Cash on a UK tour. He came across as a gentle giant, rough at the edges with a voice to match, and I was star-struck. Being in the inner sanctum of his road trips felt like a pilgrimage.
One morning I awoke early to see a glorious sunrise on Lake Erie, the first natural feature in the United States to be granted an equivalent of human rights. After decades of pollution by agricultural fertilisers and toxic algae its water became undrinkable and the city of Toledo voted to accord it a Bill of Rights that allows local communities to sue anyone who fouls it.
The water was calm and cool; the first rays of a golden sun low on the horizon, as I breathed in the beauty of a pale-blue sky streaked with rose-tinted clouds. It felt good to be alive, and sailing to new horizons.
The next day we found ourselves in a thundering maelstrom, a heart-thumping experience of nature’s raw power in a miasma of roaring mist. We had transferred briefly to Maid of the Mist, a sightseeing boat that ventures to the foot of Niagara Falls, drenching passengers with the sound and fury of the most powerful falls in North America. Her decks were crowded with passengers wearing identical blue plastic macs which make them look like a flock of sodden penguins.
We cruised through small-town America, where I enjoyed an obligatory hot dog at a Little League baseball game, browsed craft fairs and fine art galleries, and experienced a classic American diner with red leatherette benches and old-timers putting the world to rights over eggs and coffee.
I also learnt about the origins of “Uncle Sam”. He was a meat packer called Sam Wilson from the town of Troy, New York, who distinguished himself in the War of 1812 and became the inspiration for America’s national symbol.
We were in the heartland of America’s colonial past, where interpretation boards at forts and museums recount histories of fur trading, wars of independence, canal building, and the rise and fall of manufacturing. We passed clapboard homes peeping from woodland, skeletons of long-abandoned mills and engineering works, and men messing about in boats.
The Great Lakes are essentially inland seas and for the most part land (when visible) is low lying and featureless. Scenic highlights came later, on the Hudson River, which swept us to a spectacular finale in New York.
Entering the Hudson we were a few hours from New York, in Orange County, but the banks were a largely untamed wilderness of deep forests above sandstone cliffs. A complex of stone walls and towers rose at a bend in the river like a modern-day Camelot. One of our lecturers, a former cadet at the United States Military Academy, gave us an insider’s account of life preparing to fight for America.
The river grew wider, gaining power and a sense of freedom as it neared the ocean, the jagged, skyscraping profile of Manhattan looming in the hazy distance like the opening scene of an apocalyptic film. Then we were under George Washington Bridge, and sailing by the brownstone blocks of the Upper West Side into a harbour teeming with ferries, yachts, schooners and an old gaff-rigged whaler heading home to Connecticut.
Canyons of glass and concrete monoliths were dominated by the Empire State Building and the golden art deco spire of the Chrysler tower. The climax of our voyage was a sail around the Statue of Liberty as the captain played God Bless America on the ship’s sound system, followed by Sinatra’s New York, New York.
Even for a Brit, the iconic sights and sounds of American patriotism were a moving experience. Uncle Sam Wilson would have loved it.
Gavin Bell travelled with The Cruise People (020 7723 2450; cruisepeople.co.uk). Blount Small Ship Adventures (blountsmallshipadventures.com) has regular 15-night Great American Waterways cruises between Chicago and New York on Grande Mariner and her sister ship Grande Caribe between June and September. Fly-cruise packages, including flights from London to Chicago and return from New York with airport transfers and one night’s pre-cruise hotel in Chicago, cost from £5,770pp. Cruise-only fares from £4,870pp.
- Miracle On Ice hockey team defend their decision to appear on stage at a Trump rally wearing 'Keep America Great' hats after being slammed on social media
- Blizzard could dump 4 feet of lake-effect snow on upstate New York
- Tom Cruise wants to fix your TV, films PSA from
- Explore coastal towns this spring with a Pacific Northwest mini cruise
- New York homes covered in ice, resemble 'Frozen' after storm brings strong winds, lake-effect snow
- The Mummy director on Tom Cruise, zero-gravity stunts and Universal's Dark Universe
- Lake Erie Dead Zone: Don't Blame the Slime!
- Cruise industry buoyant despite negative coronavirus PR
- Elated passengers are let off coronavirus cruise ship Westerdam after being given the all-clear following seven days in quarantine
- Nazi 'supersub' rumored to have smuggled Hitler to South America at the end of World War Two is discovered at the bottom of the sea ten miles north of Denmark
- ‘The Great’: Hulu’s Elle Fanning & Nicholas Hoult Comedy Lands At Starzplay, Channel 4
- Kyrgios overcomes hostile crowd, arch-rival Wawrinka for another epic win in Mexico
- Cruise ship denied entry by four governments to finally dock in Cambodia
- Wesley Snipes' Blade Returns in Epic What We Do in the Shadows Vampire Crossover
- American coronavirus cases rise to 53: Five evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship and one from Wuhan diagnosed with the infection in Texas - but Trump insists the outbreak is 'very much under control in the USA'
- With gratitude and awe, New Orleans holds a funeral for the ages for the epic chef Leah Chase
- What belongs on a pizza? And seven more all-time epic food wars
- Ron Howard on Made in America: 'Jay Z was worried what Odd Future might do to me'
- Henry Cavill Becomes Wolverine in Epic BossLogic Poster
- Maybe America Wasn’t Crazy to Elect Donald Trump
An epic cruise through America's Great Lakes have 1730 words, post on www.telegraph.co.uk at March 13, 2019. This is cached page on Talk Vietnam. If you want remove this page, please contact us.