Riding the rails to Michigan


Detroit, Michigan by Cindy Richards

Neither my husband nor I enjoy driving—and the kids hate it since we traded in the mongo SUV for a little car with a cramped back seat. The thought of arriving at O’Hare International Airport two hours early for a one-hour flight sends us over the edge, so we opted for an old-fashioned mode of travel when we set out for Detroit: We took the train.

As committed CTA users, we know our kids love to ride the rails. But spending 20 minutes on the Green Line is far cry from settling in for a five- or six-hour ride to Detroit. I arrived loaded down with books on tape and other kid-friendly activities aimed at making the train trip fly by.

We used all of the distractions at one point or another, but none of it was really necessary. Amtrak’s Lakeshore Limited was entertainment enough.

Shocked to learn there were no assigned seats, the kids ran up and down the aisle, testing to see which seat would be right for them. They loved the foot rests that allowed them to stretch out and I marveled at how clean the train was—it smelled better than any plane I’ve been on recently.

No sooner had we settled in than it was announced the dining car was open—they were off again. The “dining car” was little more than a fast-food counter charging too much for cellophane-wrapped microwaveable eats. The kids ordered, and I made a mental note to bring lunch next time.

Back at our seats, we settled in for the ride. We parents pointed out landmarks—“Look, we’re riding right past the steel mills,” “That is the exit we take when we go to Grandma’s house”—and the kids marveled at the snow piled up between the train cars and argued over whose turn it was to push the button that opens the automatic doors.

We arrived in Detroit relaxed and free of the travel-induced stress that follows me off airplanes these days.

We were met at the Detroit Amtrak station by Adolfo Campoy, a representative of Michigan’s tourism office, our host. Had he not met us, we would have rented a car. This is, after all, the Motor City. (It’s easy to do. Just pick up the courtesy phone at the station, arrange for a cab to take you to the nearby airport where you pick up the rental car and are reimbursed for the cab.)

We stayed at the Detroit Marriott, a poor choice. I have stayed in many Marriotts over the years and this one offered, by far, the worst service. Our phone was not turned on, the rollaway bed and extra towels arrived only after several requests, and the restaurant’s service was worst of all. The tables weren’t cleared—we ate next to a pile of dirty dishes—and we couldn’t get orange juice for the kids at Sunday brunch because they had run out. OK, that happens. But they still hadn’t fixed the problem at 10:30 on Monday morning.

On future trips, I would stay in the suburbs—and not just because of the poor service at the hotel. Detroit is a city in distress. We did not feel safe there, driving past the boarded-up, graffiti-covered buildings within blocks of our hotel. No one walked the streets after dark, even downtown. And there is little reason to venture into the city. Many of the best tourist attractions are in the suburbs—even the Detroit Zoo is outside Detroit.

Dearborn is home to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. The world-famous attraction, newly renamed The Henry Ford: America’s Greatest History Attraction, was a highlight of the trip for my baby boomer husband and me. While the kids ran from one exhibit to the next looking for hands-on features, my husband and I marveled at the exhibits of our youth—soda fountains, sports cars, McDonald’s arches and the Holiday Inn hotel room, complete with the same green/orange motif and shag carpeting we remembered from our younger days.

Unfortunately, Greenfield Village was not open that bitterly cold January weekend. The outdoor museum, which showcases early American life, is under renovation and scheduled to reopen in June. One fussy friend who visited with her son labels it fabulous. We plan a return trip just to see that.

The Detroit Zoo, located in suburban Royal Oak, also is fabulous, even on a frigid winter day. We braved the winter winds to walk from one end of the zoo to the other in search of the polar bears, who didn’t seem to mind the biting weather one bit. Although we could no longer feel our toes once we arrived at the famous “Arctic Ring of Life” exhibit, it was worth the trek.

The two attractions well worth a trip into the city are the Detroit Institute of Arts and the New Detroit Science Center.

The art museum’s Friday night program allowed us to join our kids making an art project, sketching in the galleries, watching an artist create a new masterpiece and listening to music. It’s all free with the affordable $4 per adult and $1 per kid admission.

At the Science Center, the kids can do their own thing—from exploring sound waves to learning about pulleys—or they can watch one of the regular science shows and howl along with the rest of the audience as a group of moms and dads form the “Chain of Pain” and shock one another with static electricity. Admission is $7 for adults; $6 for seniors and children 2-12, free for kids under 2.

After a whirlwind weekend, we headed back to the Amtrak station, blessed with a new-found appreciation for Mayor Daley and looking forward to several hours of unwinding on our way home to the City That Works.


Just the facts Travel Michigan (888) 78-GREAT, www.michigan.org.

Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau (800) DET-ROIT, www.visitdetroit.com.


Cindy Richards in associate editor of Chicago Parent.

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