I was really looking forward to spending some time near the Great Lakes. Even though we told Rita and Charlie that these lakes are so big the look like seas, they still couldn’t believe it when they laid eyes on Lake Michigan. Our first visit to Bradford Beach in Milwaukee was ideal: the sun shining, the beach long and wide, and the water remarkably clear. It was reminiscent of the city beaches we love in Los Angeles, minus the palm trees. And no waves or surfers. And I’d imagine it would be a much different experience in winter. But there were beach volleyball courts, and they have LA beat with tiki bars out on the sand.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Milwaukee but ended up loving the city. We stayed at the Wisconsin State Fair Park about 20 minutes outside downtown. The RV park was basically a big parking lot, but it was easy to get around the city and we were right next to a great bike path. We took the kids on their longest ride, 6 miles roundtrip, with hardly a complaint. I liked the look of downtown, with restored turn-of-the-20th century buildings, some beautifully ornate, and the 2-mile long Riverwalk along the Milwaukee River. It seemed like a great place to linger over a drink in the summer, but we were there specifically to pay a visit to The Bronze Fonz statue. The kids had no clue who Fonzie was, but Chris and and I grew up with Happy Days (and Laverne and Shirley) and it was fun to pay homage to a beloved childhood TV character.
We didn’t get to visit this time, but I have to mention the Milwaukee Art Museum which has one of the largest collections in the United States, housed in a stunning contemporary building on Lake Michigan and surrounded by a big green park. The city is full of beautiful parks, and the kids and I met up with my friend at McKinley Park near the marina. She and I got to chat while Rita and Charlie played on a perfect climbing tree with a group of other kids.
(Warning: vegetarians may want to skim through the next paragraph.) We had memorable food in Milwaukee, starting with the Wisconsin “butter burger” at Solly’s Grille, which has been serving them since 1936. The “regular” was a burger topped with a thick slab of butter. The burger and Wisconsin butter were each delicious and they made a great combination, but it was a LOT of butter. Next time I’d get the “light” version (that’s a relative term when you’re referring to a butter-topped burger). At McBob’s Pub & Grill, we tried a Scotch egg for the first time, and had seriously the best corned beef Chris or I have ever tasted. We shared a sandwich, bought another one to bring home for dinner, and I still regret that we didn’t get more before we left town.
The kids got to experience their first major league baseball game, with the Dodgers in town to play the Brewers. We had a great time at Miller Park, a spacious and clean stadium with the Racing Sausages (which both defy explanation and are exactly what it says), bratwurst and frozen custard at the concession stands, and a fun Friday evening crowd. The scoreless game got a little boring for the kids, until the Brewers hit a home run and suddenly the crowd went nuts, the mascot Bernie Brewer slid down a giant yellow slide, and fireworks lit up the sky. (The Dodgers ended up winning in extra innings, long after the kids were in bed.)
Our next stop was Green Bay. Another fairgrounds RV park but totally different experience. The Brown County Fairgrounds in the town of De Pere were next to the beautiful Fox River, had spacious grass sites under tall trees, and best of all: a huge eagle’s nest with two baby bald eagles. There were only a few other campers during our stay, but almost always a car or two of locals observing and photographing the eagles. Apparently the nest has been used by a family of eagles for the past six years at least. The current babies – who are as large as the parents but still all brown – had just recently left the nest to sit out on the tree branches and hadn’t yet learned to fly. Both the mother and father, with their distinctive white heads, could be seen perched nearby and flying between the nest and the river. We heard the baby eagles cry out for food, and watched the mother feed them a freshly caught fish. Rita and Charlie lost interest after a couple viewings, but I was thrilled to be able to walk behind our RV at any time and see a family of bald eagles.
We drove into Green Bay for excellent burgers at the landmark Al’s Hamburger and to visit the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. The visitor center had engaging and fun exhibits for the kids, like a tree tunnel where you could see different animal burrows. The grounds were beautiful, but overrun with Canada geese and their… output. We took a short hike through the woods to the Bay Beach Amusement Park nearby, where the kids got to check out the rides from a distance while they enjoyed the free playground.
East of Green Bay is the Door County peninsula: the Cape Cod of the Mid-West. I would have loved to have explored more, but we only had time for a short excursion. The beach at Bay Shore County Park was pretty but underwhelming, except for the flies, although we may have missed the real beach and only gone to the boat launch area. Wequiock Falls was kind of a reverse experience. We stopped at a pleasant but unremarkable park just off the highway. I thought we were in the wrong place; it was hard to imagine a waterfall anywhere nearby. But sure enough, we found a staircase behind a stand of trees that led to a path along a stream, and a beautiful waterfall emerging from the striking rocks of the Niagara Escarpment. It was fascinating to think that Niagara Falls itself runs over this same geological formation.
After Green Bay, we made our way north into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the UP) and Lake Superior. We had one of the best camp sites yet, right on the lakeshore at Munising Tourist Park Campground. It would have been perfect if not for the bugs. Black flies, to be specific. The late spring weather was beautiful, but it coincided with black fly season. They didn’t bite, but there were a whole lot of them and they would gather on the side of the RV and have to be waved away every time we went in and out.
That didn’t keep us from enjoying the location and incredible sunsets, although we did limit our time outdoors. The kids loved walking up and down the narrow beach, finding big branches as well as rocks to throw into the water.
Rita and Charlie also earned a Junior Ranger badge at Pictured Rocks nearby, the first designated National Lakeshore. Even though we only scratched the surface of what Pictured Rocks has to offer, we saw a stunningly diverse variety of landscapes in a small area, from pinnacles at the edge of endless Lake Superior, dense forest, and waterfalls.
We couldn’t leave the UP without sampling their signature dish, the pasty. These traditional meat pies were brought over from Cornwall, England and adapted as a warm and filling one-handed meal for mine workers. We tried beef, chicken, and blueberry (three separate pasties, to be clear) and had enough left over for dinner. They were delicious, and definitely filling.
Our next stop was up in the air, but after learning about the fascinating Petoskey stones we figured why not stay in their namesake town and see if we can find some? It ended up being a great decision. The town has a historical neighborhood of gorgeous Victorian homes, extensive bike paths, and one of the nicest libraries we’ve visited. We had another awesome campsite in a city park right next to Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay – and no flies! Best of all, Chris’ friend from high school happened to live right in town and we had a great get-together with him and his wife and kids. Oh – and we found Petoskey stones! The beach combing was wonderful even without these treasures. There were so many fossils to see in the limestone rocks that covered the beach, and other colorful and unusual rocks. Over a couple days we covered our picnic table with a growing collection, and even after culling through the piles we still kept more rocks than from anywhere else.
We decided to detour to Sleeping Bear Dunes next, even though it was in the wrong direction from our eastward journey. Sleeping Bear is another National Lakeshore so there was a junior ranger program, and I really wanted to see these dunes that rise dramatically up from Lake Michigan. The visit was a bit of a bust since it rained the one day we had to explore. But what we will remember from our stay at Empire Township Campground is making great friends with our neighbors. A 6-year-old boy and his grandmother were staying next to us, and I have never seen Charlie with such a kindred spirit. They were fast friends and spent every moment they could together, while Rita and I enjoyed great conversations with his grandmother. The setting was beautiful too; large sites under tall and narrow pine trees that creaked in the wind, with hardly anyone else around.
I have two other friends in Michigan that I was hoping to get to see, but unfortunately our route didn’t take us close enough. Instead, the serendipity of travel let us connect with a childhood friend and his family unexpectedly, who then led us to new friends by recommending Sleeping Bear as our next destination. And now we have more people to look forward to seeing next time we are in Michigan.
Next up: A trip to Canada that turned into an overnight, and our return to New York, my home state and where Chris and I met. The land of low bridges and toll roads, humidity and deer ticks. I kid. We love New York, and are happy to be back!