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American Beauty

Rumbling along the blacktop between heat mirages and fields of towering corn somewhere around Nappanee, Indiana, I found what I was looking for at a crossroads -- a weathered sign that said simply: 'Son, please come back to Jesus.'

I saw it again in the face of a tired waitress at Ma's Coffee Pot on Michigan Highway 140, as she cleared away plates from a breakfast of blueberry pancakes, sausage patties and eggs "over easy", when, with a half-smile straight out of a Lucinda Williams song, she asked: "More coffee, hon?"

And it raised hairs on my arms as I put my hand on the very car in which JFK was assassinated and when I sat in Rosa Parks' 'whites only' seat on an otherwise unassuming southern city bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, near Detroit.

America. The real America.

I'm pretty sure my wife got a sense of it on the bow of a schooner named Wind Dancer, sunset on her face and rum cocktail in her hand, as we slipped out of the serene, 1950s' Deco town of Grand Haven and whispered full sail into the vast, clear waters of Lake Michigan.

To paraphrase one of Simon & Garfunkel's all-time greatest and most evocative songs -- one about chasing dreams along highways, junk food and strangers, Greyhound buses, strange cities and homesick nostalgia for small towns in big states -- we had all come to look for America. It was our dream road trip, one that would take our family of six on a 1,600-mile car journey from shining Chicago to tattered Detroit, through the shrieking thrill parks of Sandusky, Cleveland, to the Amish farmlands of Indiana -- a thorough circumnavigation of the very heart of the Great Lakes.

We flew from Dublin to Toronto and on to Chicago, on the cheapest tickets we could find, and packed light, carry-on only, knowing it would be hot and humid, and that we could easily buy anything we'd forgotten for virtually nothing at a Target or Walmart store once there.

On the final leg of that flight we first experienced a real appreciation for the scale of the landscape we'd shortly be undertaking. Vast, flat farmland unfolding between lakes so huge that even at 18,000 feet above Lake Michigan, it was impossible for a time to see either shore.

Then suddenly, quite literally out of the blue, Chicago, all glass towers glinting like Oz's Emerald City; then leafy neighbourhoods with blue swimming pools in every back yard, and we touched down, quickly disembarked and inhaled our first hot, moist breath of Midwest American summer air.

We nabbed the free coach from O'Hare to the Thrifty Car Rental and were on our way within an hour, bleary-eyed but excited, in an all-American, honkin' great Dodge Caravan car with room for seven and enough trunk space (trunk is the boot and the hood is the bonnet) for all our luggage.

Driving is easy here, highways are wide, on-ramps well-numbered and there are few sudden turns. Rentals are automatic, so just point the car in the right direction and press the pedal. Gas (American for petrol) is dirt cheap; it cost about $45 ($35) to fill a tank.

South Haven was just three hours' drive around the south shore of Lake Michigan, a quietly bustling community of restaurants, antique shops and cookie stores, and we arrived just in time for the July 4 parade, all vintage fire engines and homecoming queens showering candy on the kids.

Surrounded by pick-your-own blueberry fields, a state park and busy marina, South Haven was our first taste of one of the seemingly endless and totally salt-free, sea-sized Great Lakes. Swimming and sunbathing was a dream, with long, white beaches onto which waves of warm, drinkable water crashed.

We watched late-night fireworks from cliff-top blankets, reserved all day with a thousand other little unmanned mats while we'd gone off and explored the town, eating huge American cookies filled with crumbly chocolate chips.

Nearby town-sized lakeshore 'cities' include beautiful St Joseph to the south and, to the north, Grand Haven -- all brown-brick period buildings and '50s clapboard houses (one made with a kit from a department store catalogue, we were told on our trolley tour), vast sandy shores with great restaurants (the Bil-Mar serves classic American fare right on the beach), river walks, enormous sand dunes and, of course, the sailboat schooner Wind Dancer, which we took on a sunset cruise one evening and enjoyed the views, while Captain Jake taught the kids to steer and haul sails.

"I love America," said our young son Sammy. "Why don't you marry it then," said our eldest, Zachary.

Due east from Grand Haven is Grand Rapids -- a spotless little city of quaint family attractions, including the extraordinary Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, packed with huge, bronze spiders, horses and abstract creatures among a lush botanic landscape.

We stayed at the towering Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, where presidents have been and everyone, it seems, is treated like royalty, even a sticky, sunburned family of six, and we had a bird's eye, 360-degree view at breakfast in the VIP room on the 25th floor.

Directly south is the delightfully named Kalamazoo, where a weekend, outdoor, riverside blues fest was in full swing. We'd gone to see the Air Zoo, though -- a jaw-dropping collection of airplanes from every era where we all took turns in flight simulators, shrieking and driving our planes into the sea.

Stomachs churning and eardrums ringing, we spent much of that night and the next day by the pool at a Holiday Inn. You can't get much more all-American than a Holiday Inn. The Inn has adjoining rooms and a barbecue restaurant, which delivered beer and pizza right to our loungers.

An hour or so south, we whizzed past Toledo and arrived with great excitement at the oldest rollercoaster park in America -- Cedar Point. From miles away, you can see the huge towering thrill rides, but it's only on the final approach that you begin to hear the screams.

Cedar Point is the size of a city, covering an entire peninsula -- and every square inch is devoted to fun. There are 75 rides -- including the Maverick, which pinned our grinning faces to the backs of our heads better than plastic surgery -- and an 18-acre water fun park, Soak City.

The Kalahari Resort Hotel, where we stayed, had a 170,000 sq-ft indoor water park. The wave pool alone was 12,000 sq ft and on one water ride you could stand-up surf or boogie board on the spot -- well, the kids managed it. Everything was African-themed, and outdoors was a zoo and high-wire adventure complex. Take it we got very, very wet.

Our longest drive was back west to Amish country in Indiana, where we chilled among farms and home cooking in Nappanee, with its 11,000 Amish and Mennonite inhabitants going about their peaceful business in horse-drawn carriages as if it was still 100 years ago.

Returning to Chicago, we spent our last few days on the lake shore, basing ourselves at a great little hotel called the Essex Inn, near the city's best museums and attractions. We wandered around the Field Museum, where the most complete skeleton of a T-Rex resides, swam in Lake Michigan once more, and happened upon live music and happy, dancing people.

Leaving our car rental was like saying goodbye to a seventh family member. We had all found the real America together, in the nation's most beautiful vacation land, the Great Lakes. It will stay with us forever, although, as Simon & Garfunkel sang: "Michigan seems like a dream to me now."


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