What's a wanderlusty Detroiter to do this time of year, when mid-winter voyages feel forever ago, but summer vacations still lie months ahead? Time to pencil in a day trip—somewhere you've never been to or perhaps never even heard of.
Here, we've rounded up five unexpected and overlooked destinations all about a one-hour drive from Detroit, allowing you to spend the day feeling a world away—yet get there and back on a single tank of gas.
Point Pelee National Park
If you normally head to the nearest metropark to get your wilderness fix, try changing it up with a visit to this gem across the border in Ontario, Canada. Less than 40 miles from Detroit proper, Point Pelee occupies a lush, tapering peninsula that jabs into Lake Erie like a dagger, affording it an unusually temperate climate for the region, and therefore an ecosystem unique in the Great Lakes. The place is rich with vegetation and rare wildlife, and is regarded as one of the finest birdwatching spots in all of North America. This time of year, it's a veritable birding bonanza as migrating species pass through on their journey back northward.
Because of its swampy terrain—two-thirds of the park is composed of freshwater marshes—Point Pelee is also a great spot for paddling. Canoes are available for rent onsite, allowing you to cruise peacefully around the park and observe marsh wildlife up close. A series of short, self-guided nature trails are good for a post-paddle leg stretch. Pack a picnic to make a day of it, and don't forget your binoculars.
Boardwalk in Point Pelee - by Quozl at en.wikipedia [Public domain]
1118 Point Pelee Dr., Leamington, Ontario; 519-322-2365
Regardless of whether or not you've already been to this world-class institution just 20 minutes south of the Michigan-Ohio border, it's high time to head south on I-75 for a visit. The zoo's brand-spankin' new aquarium just opened last month, weighing in at four times the water volume of the old aquarium and boasting more than 3,000 species of aquatic animals. Visitors can pet stingrays, interact with divers in a reef tank, and witness species all the way from the Amazon to the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. The structure itself is beautiful, too; the renovation preserved the architectural integrity of the aquarium's original Works Progress Administration-era building, which was a marvel of modern engineering during its 1930s construction (its cement pilings extend 60 feet into the ground to prevent settling despite the weight of the massive water tanks within).
East side of the Toledo Zoo Aquarium by Jay Hemdal, Toledo Zoo
Coral reef exhibit at the Toledo Zoo Aquarium by Andi Norman, Toledo Zoo
Of course, the 51-acre zoo, known for being one of the most complete zoological collections in the country, has plenty of other fantastic exhibits—many also housed in historic WPA-era structures. In addition to the animals, there's also gorgeous gardens, outdoor sculptures, a vintage carousel, and other reasons to while away an afternoon.
2 Hippo Way, Toledo, OH; toledozoo.org
Cell Block 7: Michigan's Prison Museum
Cell Block 7 catwalks - Photo courtesy of Cell Block 7 Museum
Daytripping to a prison? Bet it's never crossed your mind. But if you're a Michigan history nerd looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences, Cell Block 7 belongs on your bucket list.
The museum, which will mark its one-year anniversary in June, occupies an empty cell block amongst the still-operational prisons located in Jackson. Organizers say it's the only museum in on the campus of an active penitentiary. It offers a rare glimpse into the correctional system and sheds light onto an often-overlooked aspect of regional history, as it was an expansion of Michigan's first state prison, once the largest in the world. It makes for an unusual destination, for sure.
"One of our taglines is 'It's as close to prison as you'll ever want to get," says Elizabeth Palmer, museum manager.
Tours through the 25,000-square-foot space are self-guided, but volunteers and docents—some of whom are retired corrections officers who worked in this cell block—are on hand to answer questions and share stories about life within these walls.
3455 Cooper St., Jackson; cellblock7.org
Pioneer Wine Trail
When it comes to Michigan wine, Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas usually snag the spotlight. If you head west of Detroit and just past Ann Arbor, however, you'll find yourself in the pastoral Irish Hills area, which is home to 10 wineries scattered around Jackson and Tecumseh. Collectively, their tasting rooms form the Pioneer Wine Trail, which makes for a laid-back road trip in a pretty part of the state. April is Michigan Wine Month, so there's no time like the present for a tour (just be sure to designate a driver or limit yourself to a few stops.)
The particular climate and soil in this region lends itself to a variety of grapes, so you'll find a range of wines here, including reds, whites, blends, and fruit wines. Don't know a gewurztraminer from a riesling? Don't worry—the vibe in the tasting rooms is easy going, and the folks pouring the tasting flights are happy to act as your trail guides.
Plenty of small towns call themselves charming, but Marine City is truly deserving of the word. Nestled along the banks of the St. Clair River (so close to the Canadian shoreline, in fact, that your wireless carrier may think you've left the country), this historic town of about 4,000 residents is authentically sweet and mellow, providing the perfect backdrop to a lazy day spent poking around with zero agenda. The hour-long drive there from Detroit is flat and pretty in that farmland-and-wildflower-fields way, and the waterfront downtown capitalizes on its location by mixing up shops and restaurants with beaches, parks, and boardwalks.
Marine City was once a worldwide player in the wooden shipbuilding industry, resulting in beautiful turn-of-the-century architecture and neighborhoods graced by stately Victorian homes. Downtown is home to historic storefronts, a growing crop of antiques shops, and stalwart establishments like The Little Bar, one of the state's first establishments to gain a liquor license post Prohibition. Our suggestion? Stroll around, shop a bit, then pop into Zimmerman's Meat Market for some cold sodas and snack sticks—still made in house from the original 1941 recipe—and stretch out on the beach at the end of Water Street to watch the freighters slowly motor past.
Emily Bingham writes about health, lifestyle, and Great Lakes travel and culture for a variety of publications.