Why Detroit — yes, Detroit — was the perfect place to bring my mom for her first post-pandemic flight
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During the days of lockdown, I swore to use my time after being vaccinated to create more amazing experiences and memories. Gazing out of my New York City apartment window, I longed to travel again. I wouldn’t take that freedom or privilege for granted any longer.
So, once I got that second shot in my arm — OK, even before then — I was busy booking new adventures.
First on the list was a long weekend away with my wife in Big Sur, California. We also planned a number of road trips with our 6-year-old daughter to visit theme parks and beach towns.
But, like many travelers out there, I was sitting on a mountain of points, miles and free room certificates that needed to be put to use.
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The year started with five companion tickets in my Delta Air Lines account. Yes, five. I used to have three Delta American Express cards: a personal and a small business Delta SkyMiles Reserve card and a Delta SkyMiles Platinum card. Each comes with one free annual companion certificate. (I have since closed one of the Reserve cards.) With the pandemic, those certificates were extended to June 30, 2022. But I also earned two new ones upon renewal.
My family does a lot of flying, but we also all had about $800 in unused flight credits from canceled trips. Those needed to be used up first. But I still had all these certificates.
That’s why I decided to take my 73-year-old mother on a quick one-night getaway using one of my certificates. At the time, my daughter had just returned to daily, in-person classes and suddenly the idea of a quick trip away didn’t seem like a major imposition on my wife.
Hours later, I had two tickets booked to Detroit.
That’s right: Detroit.
It’s not the most exciting destination, but in a year of overwhelmed national parks and beaches, city trips are a smart alternative with great food, history and amazing architecture.
And, personally, I think travel is a chance to connect with others and learn something along the way. Because my mom and I are both history buffs, we were excited to visit the Motown Museum, the nearby Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Michigan, and walk the streets of downtown Detroit to admire the cityscape.
It turned out to be a great trip.
Chicago has made a business of showing off its architecture. There are boat cruises and more than a dozen walking tours.
Detroit isn’t as lucky. We tried to book one of the few tours we could find online, but they were either sold out or never returned our calls. But Detroit’s buildings are just as — if not more — interesting than what you’ll find in Chicago. So, we made our own tour.
A few highlights include The Westin Book Cadillac Detroit (a hotel dating back to 1924); the famous Fox Theatre and the 1970s GM Renaissance Center designed by architect John Portman. Many travelers will recognize Portman’s name, as he’s the architect behind The Hyatt Regency Atlanta and its famous atrium. Later, he would go on to design other atrium hotels, including the New York Marriott Marquis.
Standout Detroit hotels
A few years ago, I stayed at the Aloft Detroit at The David Whitney. The hotel sits as the base of a 19-story tower built in 1915. (Above is a photo of the specular lobby.)
For this stay, I wanted to check out another historic building that’s been reimagined as a hotel. Since I was traveling with my mom, I also needed extra space so we could spread out and have our privacy.
Enter the Element. Similar to Aloft, which is also part of Marriott Bonvoy, this hotel gave new life to another architectural gem. The Element took over the Metropolitan Building, a historic office building downtown. While the lobby isn’t as grand as the Aloft down the block, the hotel still presents a unique experience.
I booked the only suite category the hotel had, though unfortunately, Element is one of the few Marriott brands where you can’t apply the suite upgrade nights that are earned after reaching 50 or 75 nights a year with the chain.
So, I ended up paying full price even though the hotel was empty. The hotel also lacked its normal free breakfast, something the front desk said was due to COVID-19 but has been part of a larger pattern during the pandemic. Basically, there’s no consistency across brands or even cities about what amenities are offered. You have to call individual hotels to find out.
And no tale about cool hotels in Detroit would be complete without a mention of the Shinola Hotel. I strolled through the lobby, but you can read our full review here.
For those who don’t know, Shinola is a company based in Detroit that makes watches, bicycles and leather goods. It’s named after a shuttered shoe polish company but, in the past decade, has been known to make some pretty cool luxury products. Shinola is now also making amenity kits for American Airlines, along with some AvGeek-worthy clocks made from decommissioned McDonnell Douglas MD-80s.
Detroit is probably best known for making cars and great music.
At the center of that musical revolution was Motown and its various record labels. I might have been born in the late 1970s, but I’m still very familiar with Motown artists such as Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and The Supremes, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
The original studio that dates back to 1959 (where many of these acts got their start) is now the Motown Museum.
Neither my mom nor I are major Motown fans, but we were both stomping our feet along with the familiar songs and enthralled with the history as we explored the museum.
Dining out in Detroit
For our one-night stay in Detroit, I struggled to hone in on one restaurant because there were so many places to eat. Because I knew it would be a long two days of travel, I narrowed my focus to a neighborhood just north of downtown, along the Woodward Avenue Streetcar (also known as the Q Line) that’s filled with great dining venues.
After consulting a few folks, I settled on Grey Ghost Detroit and was not disappointed.
The menu features comfort foods such as a burger and steaks and a hearty duck breast with cheese grits.
But it’s some of the smaller menu items that really jump out, including a carrot tartare with whipped horseradish and fried bologna on a potato waffle with sharp cheddar and jalapeño.
Yes, you read that right. And, of course, I went ahead and ordered the fried bologna.
As for drinks, well, I couldn’t resist ordering one named after Betty White that featured bourbon, pineapple juice and Pineau des Charentes (a French aperitif).
The Henry Ford, Greenfield Village and Ford Factory tour
Halfway between Detroit and the airport sits one of my favorite museum complexes.
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is a collection of all things that advanced technology — or the way we live our lives. It starts with colonial kitchens, has a section on farming, another on power generation, plenty of airplanes including a DC-3, big trains (my favorite is a Canadian snow plow engine) and, of course, a collection of cars including presidential limousines, such as the one Ronald Regan was riding in when he was shot.
Travel buffs will appreciate a display about Holiday Inn and how that brand help spread road trips through its clean and predictable rooms, many that you could just drive right up to.
There’s also a powerful exhibit on segregation in America, including a “whites only” water fountain from a bus stop, segregated waiting rooms and, according to the museum, the bus Rosa Parks rode the day she was arrested.
Right next door is Greenfield Village. This collection of historic buildings and recreations was originally built by Henry Ford to educate school children about history. Today, it’s a sprawling outdoor museum. Tip: Bring some good walking shoes.
Noah Webster’s house is here, along with the original Wright brothers cycle shop. Added to the mix is a glass-blowing workshop, a printing press and a historic church. For an added fee, you can catch a ride on a Model T or a steam-powered locomotive.
Throughout the grounds are guides — some dressed in period attire — who help explain the significance of each building and contextualize the history of the complex.
The final bit of the Henry Ford experience is a tour of a working Ford factory just a few miles away.
The Ford River Rouge complex is one of the most important factories in automobile history. A bloody fight occurred there between Ford security forces and union organizers in 1937. While Ford won that fight, the company’s reputation was tarnished, union support rose and, three years later, the company signed a contract with the United Auto Workers.
The factory was also one of the largest and most modern of its time. During times of war, it made jeeps, aircraft engines and other products to support the allied efforts. During peace, it rolled out the original Mercury, the Ford Thunderbird and the Ford Mustang.
Today, the factory makes the Ford F-Series pickup trucks, the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. It will also produce the F-150 Lightning, the new electric version of the popular pickup.
The factory tour comprises promotional videos, a view from a tower where you can get a sense of the vast complex and then a walk on an elevated path overlooking part of the factory floor. (During my visit with my mom, the line was shut down due to the global computer chip shortage.)
The pandemic has, hopefully, shifted the way we think about travel.
Sure, we all have our checklists and the fancy hotels we would love to stay at. But taking a trip is also a great opportunity to connect with a loved one, without all the distractions of daily life.
No, Detroit wasn’t at the top of my list of destinations to visit. I still had a great time there, however, and would recommend a similar trip to anyone searching for any easy domestic getaway. And most importantly, I got to spend quality time with my mom and create new memories with her.
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