A river runs through it: The Detroit Riverfront

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

Many of the world’s great cities sit on the banks of important rivers. Detroit has just such a river, taking its name from the French, Rivière Détroit, or River of the Straight. The Detroit River flows 24 nautical miles, a natural border between the United States and Canada. It’s been designated a Heritage River in both countries.

Today, this historically important riverfront, on one of the busiest waterways in the world, is also one of the clearest symbols of the city’s resurgence. While there are nearly 14 miles of frontage, the action today is centered on a 5 ½ mile strip that includes the iconic Renaissance Center — seven interconnected, round glass skyscrapers that include the General Motors world headquarters.

The RenCen is also home to a nice Marriott Hotel, where we decided to anchor our two-day stay. Ask for a room on one of the higher floors with a river view, for a spectacular view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Seriously, this was one of the best views from any hotel I’ve ever visited.

The RenCen offers IMG_4353a food court and several restaurants, including Andiamo, part of an upscale chain, serving very tasty northern Italian food with great views and outdoor seating. I stuck to a Mama’s Chopped Salad, with all of the usual ingredients, plus kale. The lobster ravioli was extremely rich, but oh so tasty.

Trying to exit the RenCen was more challenging that it should have been. I have to admit, I always get lost trying to go from the hotel to the other towers. On a hot summer day, it seemed a good idea to get out on the Riverwalk early. It’s a wonderful wide walkway, great for strolling or running if you are so inclined, and one of the prettiest walks anywhere in the city. The splash pad was filled with kids and their parents enjoying some summertime fun.

Just a block from the hotel, we discovered the custom-made Cullen Family Carousel, which features carved animals all native to the Detroit River —except for a sea serpent and a mermaid. Farther on, we connected to the 31-acre Milliken State Park, which offers picnic areas and shoreline fishing. We settled for a few selfies with the 63-foot-tall lighthouse.

In the historic Globe Building, we discovered the Outdoor Adventure Center. The mission of the center is to bring Michigan’s outdoors to the heart of Detroit, courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. What a great place for kids (and adults acting like kids) to learn about fishing, hunting, hiking and nature in a tactile and accessible way. We crawled into a bear den (minus the bear, thank goodness) and had a quick slide through a massive burr oak. The entrance prices are very reasonable for families, and scholarships are offered to school groups to help with transportation costs.

There is something to do on the Riverfront for every age group and taste. Every Sunday, animal lovers are invited to join the Pack Walk for a guided walk at 10:30 a.m. Moonlight Yoga, Riverfront Tai Chai and a fun run occur almost every weekend. And on every other summer Thursday, you can enjoy Riverfront Relaxin’ Music and Movie Night from 6 to 10 p.m. The last Music and Movie Night is scheduled for Aug. 25 and features “A Hard Day’s Night” with a Beatles Tribute band, The Backbeats.

Detroit’s Riverfront is a meeting place for all, giving both residents and visitors a place to enjoy the lovely river on a lazy day or on a day packed with lots to do and see — your choice.

Detroit: one neighborhood at a time

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer

As I’ve gotten to know Detroit, I’ve come to understand that just when you find some wonderful part of the city, you cross the next street and find another treasure. Detroit covers approximately 143 square miles, about 100 more than the city of Battle Creek. With 92 different neighborhoods in Detroit, I’m going to have to accelerate my exploration of the city if I want to visit all of them.

I’ve spent time downtown and midtown where most tourists focus. I want to take you further to the southwest, however, and show you more of the “real” Detroit. According to savorsouthwestdetroit.org, Southwest Detroit offers 130 different restaurants, 30 bakeries and 25 markets. Two absolutely great communities in the neighborhood are Mexicantown and Corktown — different, but both built on the bedrock of different waves of immigrants.

With a rapidly growing Latino population, this part of Detroit is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. Immigrants from Mexico began settling here in the 1920s, and by the 1980s the area had received the moniker Mexicantown. The major thoroughfares are Bagley and Vernor streets, and you know you’ve arrived when the buildings start featuring vibrant colors and hand-painted murals dot their sides.

As a California native, I set a very high bar for authentic Mexican food, and I wasn’t disappointed by a fabulous meal at Armando on Vernor Highway. They have a huge menu with all the favorites and then some. I ordered three tacos — chicken, steak and tilapia. Each had its own perfect flavor and featured fresh corn tortillas and two salsas with varying degrees of heat. The salsa was worth bringing a quart home.

I don’t think you can go wrong anywhere in Mexicantown for excellent Mexican food, but that’s not all you can find. When I need a plantain fix for example, I also love El Comal, which boasts exceptional Central American cuisine featuring Guatemalan and Salvadoran recipes.

If you are counting calories, do not visit La Gloria Bakery. It’s a self-service experience, and I was soon armed with a tray and tongs. My choices included fresh pastries, cookies, breads, empanadas and churros, to name just a few. I really wanted to take home a Tres Leches cake, a lovely squishy dessert sensation, but I resisted.

Since 1991, the purple Matrix Theatre has been an iconic part of the neighborhood arts and culture scene. And don’t miss another much older community hub, St. Anne’s Roman Catholic Church. The Gothic revival style church was built in 1886 and has some of the oldest stained glass in the city.

For a different feel in Southwest, try Corktown, one of the oldest parts of the city. Like Mexicantown, Corktown takes its name from the original residents, Irish immigrants from the County Cork who came to work in the emerging industries in the 1830s. Today, it’s a bustling neighborhood filled with places to hang out and enjoy the summer. In 1978, Corktown was listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of its brightly colored Victorian townhomes and original Irish businesses.

While it’s not very Irish, Le Petit Zinc is a charming, small Corktown creperie that offers both sweet and savory crepes. This time of year, sit outside on the patio, sip an espresso and enjoy a casual brunch.

Another spot not to be missed is Mudgie’s Deli.

Southwest Detroit — one neighborhood down…only 91 more to go!

Winter Can be a Blast in Detroit

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer, Feb. 1, 2014

Given the recent arctic temperatures, it seems ironic to suggest people attend Detroit’s Winter Blast at Campus Martius Park downtown. However, if you can’t beat the weather, you might as well have some fun joining it.

Now named the Meridian Motown Winter Blast (after a new sponsor), the event started as a way to showcase Detroit’s downtown to travelers attending Super Bowl XL. Nine years later, the Winter Blast will draw both local families and visitors to Detroit next weekend.

Over the two-day celebration, make sure you try out the Buick 200-Foot Snow Slide. For $3, you travel 200 feet in seven seconds. Whoosh. For those of us more interested in being tethered to the ground, the ever-popular free ice skating is available on the rink in the center of the park. Professional ice skating demonstrations are scheduled, or strap on a pair of free snowshoes and see downtown from a unique perspective. If you aren’t planning on getting up north for the Iditarod, you can see Bob Shanahan and his Dog Mushing Team in action. I am also looking forward to the “Taste of Detroit” exhibition, which features food and drinks from many restaurants I haven’t yet had a chance to visit personally.

With two stages and non-stop music from 50 local bands and music groups, the festivities will keep your feet tapping and help you avoid frostbite. You can also warm up by toasting marshmallows. Purchase a marshmallow or s’mores kit and huddle around the brazarios. Seriously, event organizers do understand that we live in Michigan, and they offer heated tents or buildings every 150 feet to ensure visitors can come in from the cold.

It’s a feel-good event that uses the price of admission to do good. Three canned food items or one children’s book serve as cost of admission. If you pay the $2, it is donated to Matrix Human Services to help others.

I also recommend you take a break from the Blast and stop into one of the nearby restaurants such as Texas de Brazil in the Compuware building. This restaurant is part of a chain that is a must-stop for all carnivores. The Hard Rock Cafe is in the same building. The Fountain Bistro opened four years ago as breakfast and lunch spot and has been evolving ever since. It is now a full service restaurant, and on a cold winter day, you might want to sample one of their 21 specialty hot chocolate drinks. The Hudson Café whips up a really good breakfast with red velvet pancakes — a treat that shouldn’t be missed.

A little farther walk is Small Plates, just a few blocks away on Broadway. I love the concept — the American take on what the Spanish call tapas. Theirs is a menu that begs to be shared around the table. I can personally vouch for the mac and cheese, the fish tacos and the sweet potato fries. I’ve also nibbled on the lettuce wraps and the dragon shrimp. On my next visit, I would like to try one of their craft cocktails. How about a “Sloe Work Day,” with sloe gin, crème de cassis, dry vermouth and IPA style beer, or a “Kiss Yo Mama,” with tequila, ginger brandy, mango, Tabasco sauce and lime juice. That second one sounds like it might warm me up for sure.

Get out of the house before cabin fever sets in and get moving to Detroit’s Winter Blast. Show old man winter how to have some fun.


Spend some cool turkey time in Detroit

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer November 24, 2013

If you want to start a new Thanksgiving tradition, kick-off the holiday season by attending a wonderful parade in downtown Detroit. The parade, called “America’s Thanksgiving Parade,” is one of the country’s oldest and most celebrated. It’s now in its 87th year.

It starts Thursday morning at 8:45 a.m. on Woodward Avenue and Kirby and ends at Woodward Avenue and Congress. Jim Leyland, the former manager of the Detroit Tigers, will be Grand Marshal, joining Santa Claus, who always makes an appearance in his sleigh.

Generations of Detroiters have enjoyed the tradition of going downtown to celebrate Thanksgiving. The nearly three-mile long parade, lined with families and even a few pets, includes 60 parade units, marching bands, 500 clowns, specialty acts, celebrities, the Big Head Corps and the Distinguished Clown Corps. This year’s theme is “Downtown, Our Town.”

The parade has some unique traditions, including “Big Heads,” some 300 papier-mâché heads worn by local volunteers. A 30-year tradition is the Distinguished Clown Corps, when corporate and community leaders make donations to trade their business suits for clown suits and join the parade.

“Disco Dogs & Cool Cats” is a new float this year— more than 120 feet long and 14 feet tall, adorned with more than 17 cats and dogs, an 8-foot tall disco ball and more than 100 dog bones.

To get the best spot on the parade route, you should consider starting out early by staying at a downtown hotel on Wednesday night. At last check, several hotels still had rooms available, including the well-located Downtown Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites. Otherwise, plan a very early start, so you can get into the city by 7 a.m. to get parking and a viewing spot. Parade veterans also suggest a thermos of something hot and snacks to help you stay warm. Grandstand seats take out some of the guesswork and can be bought online. Two local newscasters, Carmen Harlan and Devin Scillian, WDIV’s evening anchors, have hosted the parade for the past 20 years.

Forget about cooking — make reservations at one of Detroit’s many restaurants with special holiday menus. Try Honest John’s on Selden and Cass Avenue, a nice “dive joint” with excellent burgers and breakfast, located about one block west of the parade route. The Majestic Cafe hosts a Thanksgiving Breakfast Buffet from 7 a.m. until noon, so that you have a nice, warm place to watch the parade. The Whitney is hosting both a Thanksgiving Brunch with VIP Parade Seating at 7:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, as well as Thanksgiving dinner a bit later.Cass Café, an art gallery and restaurant, and Union Street on Woodward, are open for business. Traffic Jam and Snug is known for its in-house bakery, microbrewery and dairy. Slow’s Barbeque To Go is open for takeout, so you can get a turkey sandwich (aptly called “The Sleeper”) to munch on the way home.

How about a Thanksgiving tailgater? It was the Detroit Lions who started playing football on Thanksgiving Day in 1934, much to the chagrin of nonfootball fans everywhere. That year, the Chicago Bears faced off against the Lions. This year, they will be playing the Green Bay Packers. Some fans tailgate at Eastern Market, about 10 minutes from the field. The market has parking starting at $40 for a tailgating spot or $15 for parking. The shuttle to the game costs $5.

A grand parade, a wonderful meal with no dirty dishes to wash, and a pro-football game — what a great Thanksgiving! And it’s as close as a trip to Detroit.

Zoos bring out the kid in all of us

Published in the Battle Creek Enquirer, September 27, 2013

IMG_1349I can’t remember the first time I visited a zoo, but it was probably before I could walk. Growing up, I lived two hours from one of the world’s greatest zoos in San Diego, Calif. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the San Diego Zoo with the next generation of our family, and I saw the zoo through fresh, young eyes.

Children, of course, love the animals most, but today’s zoos offer so much more on the state of the natural world and the conservation of animals in their habitats.

Our own Binder Park Zoo has been around for 33 years, and hosts more than 30,000 children and their families every year. What’s not to like about a local zoo with one of the largest giraffe herds in the country?IMG_1347

I think they do an especially wonderful job at making conservation education fun. Binder Park is active in species survival programs and manages several rare and endangered species such as Delilah, the zoo’s female red panda and her cubs. I especially love the zoo during the fall. The cooler weather requires some of the animals to be inside, but most are still out enjoying the season. The zoo is open every day for one more week and then offers several fall events through Halloween.

Coming up next Sunday, from 6 to 10 p.m., the zoo will host its fourth annual BontebOktoberfest. The event is named after the bonteboks, a species of antelope from the grasslands of South Africa (you can visit the herd on the savannah at Binder Park’s Wild Africa exhibit). Designed for the 21-and-older group, the event will feature beer from several Michigan craft breweries. Live music and food make this a very special kind of Oktoberfest. Tickets are needed, but you’ll also get the first opportunity to taste a special Binder Park Zoo brew from Arcadia Brewing Company. For the first time, out of town guests can get a special room rate at the Holiday Inn in Battle Creek along with shuttle service to the zoo.

Kids are the special guests at The Great Zooboo Oct. 11–27, when the zoo sets up a special trick or treat trail through the park. I’ve participated in the merry, not scary, event for many years. The trails are lined with carved, lighted pumpkins. As night falls, it’s a very special place to be, as kids of all ages walk around dressed in their Halloween finest.

You don’t have to stop going to the zoo once Binder Park closes for the season. Two hours down the road, the Detroit Zoo is open all year long. My favorite exhibit at the zoo is the Penguinarium, the first facility in North America designed specifically for penguins. Watching the penguins “fly through the water” is a special design feature of the exhibit’s continuous pool, which allows the penguins to swim fast enough to fly — well, almost! The exhibit simulates the habitats for the different species that live there, including king, macaroni and rockhopper penguins. The zoo also has a special penguin experience called “Happy Feet Mumble’s Wild Ride.” In your specially equipped, motion-simulated, big-screen theater seat, you’ll find yourself traveling down the frozen cliffs of Antarctica.

Other major exhibits include the Arctic Ring of Life, Australian Outback Adventure, Great Apes of Harambee, National Amphibian Conservation Center, Holden Reptile Conservation Center and the Butterfly Garden. Check out their website for special events all year long, starting with the fall festival next weekend.

Get in touch with your inner wild animal and make a trip to any one of Michigan’s 48 zoos (michigan.org/zoos).