DETROIT — Spend some time on Belle Isle and it’s not hard to imagine what it must have been like in the early 1900s. You almost expect Daisy Buchanan to come walking out of the Yacht Club to offer a tour.
And though I imagine the “Great Gatsby” character would have loved partying by the fountain or strolling through the conservatory, the public beach and family zoo may not have been her style. But you could have found all of those things on Belle Isle.
Belle Isle is a 2.5-mile-long, 982-acre island park located in the international waters of the Detroit River. The city of Detroit bought the land in 1879 as a way to create an oasis just a bridge ride from the city. A little over a decade later, the prestigious Detroit Yacht Club moved to the island. And in the following years, famous architects built significant buildings there.
Today, Belle Isle Park is owned by the city of Detroit and is managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. It has reopened after being closed during the pandemic, and park managers say it’s been very popular. That’s because it’s a respite, a playground for tourists and the people of Detroit — full of museums, recreational activities and even a yearly IndyCar race, the Detroit Grand Prix, which takes over the island in May (though it was canceled this year). The island offers spectacular views of the Detroit and Windsor, Canada, skylines. You can rent watercraft, bikes, snow shoes and more.
More than half of the island is covered by three lakes, a lagoon and 230 acres of forested wetlands. Several hiking trails make for a fun afternoon where you might see raccoons, opossums, great horned owls, beaver, and a variety of birds.
If hiking’s not your thing, here are some of the many attractions you will find on the island, and most of them are free (see info on B10 on paying to get on the island).
Belle Isle Aquarium • Don’t think of this as you would our new St. Louis Aquarium. You won’t find giant tanks with sharks here. Imagine this as it was in the early 20th century catering to Americans who hadn’t seen tanks of exotic species of sea life. The long hall is lined with tanks, and there are certainly some fun animals to view, such as the electric eel, but the star here is the architecture. The building was designed by famed architect Albert Kahn and opened in 1904 with rare, green opalite glass tiles lining its vaulted ceilings. It’s a breathtaking building.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory • Perfectly suited for visiting any time of year is the conservatory, the oldest continually running one in the United States, dating to 1904. Inside you’ll find a palm house, with a giant palm reaching nearly to the 85-foot ceiling; a tropical house; a cactus house; a sunken fernery; and an ever-changing show house. The 13-acre grounds include a formal perennial garden on one side and a lily pond with koi on another. The domed, glass building alone, also designed by Kahn, is reason enough to visit, but the plant displays are quite breathtaking.
Dossin Great Lakes Museum • My (unexpected) favorite stop on the island was this gem right along the water. As you step in, you are immersed in the Gothic Room, a rebuilt portion of the City of Detroit III Great Lakes cruise ship, complete with English oak and stained glass. Steve Mrozek, manager of the museum, explained the history of the ship, a sidewheel steamer built in the early 1900s and sold for scrap in the 1950s. “The whole riverfront used to be docks,” he said. “Detroit used to be one of the busiest seaports in the United States.”
Several other exhibits teach you about the history of the river and the Great Lakes; a theater tells the story of Belle Isle, and for that reason maybe this should be your first stop. Head to the back of the museum, toward the water, and you feel like you are boarding a ship, the William Clay Ford Pilot House. It’s the bridge of a Great Lakes freighter where you actually can see how all the gadgets and gizmos work. If you are lucky, like I was, you’ll see a freighter coming down the river in front of you.
The museum also holds Miss Pepsi, a championship hydroplane raced by the Dossin family in the 1950s when such racing was popular around the island. Outdoors, you can explore maritime artifacts including the bow anchor of the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, the Great Lakes freighter that sunk in a Lake Superior storm in 1975.
Belle Isle Nature Center • The highlight of this center, tucked away on the back of the island, is the deer encounter. About three times a day you can watch workers interact with and feed (and even feed them yourself) fallow deer that once roamed wild on the island. Legend has it, the workers told me, that they were a gift from the president of France in the late 1800s and were part of the Belle Isle Zoo. You can see the remains of that zoo, tattered and overgrown not far from the nature center. It’s both eerie and endearing, with raised wooden walkways above the forgotten animal enclosures. It was closed for good in 2002, and the nature center rose up in its stead. The new center mostly houses a few amphibians and reptiles, aside from the deer. A large picture window looking out onto a bird garden with lots of bird feeders and houses, much like at our Powder Valley, is a fun diversion.
The James Scott Memorial Fountain • On the western end of island is a stunning fountain designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the St. Louis Art Museum and the Central Library. The marble fountain was completed in 1925; at its base it is 510 feet in diameter. There are sculptures all around of turtles, lions, cupids and more along with big pools, smaller pools and bas relief panels. It could take hours to explore and take it all in. Or just enjoy the 40-foot sprays on a beautiful day.
Other attractions • The fountain, along with the popular beach area and a giant metal slide ($1 per ride) are only open in the warmer months. And summer is definitely the time to see the island hopping. You can rent bikes or watercraft, catch a carriage or ped-cab and even grab an ice cream cone from a truck along the road. A 9-acre driving range is open March to October.
At the north end of Belle Isle is a gorgeous lighthouse constructed of marble, the only marble lighthouse in the nation. But you can only admire it from the outside these days.
Yacht club, casino and boathouse • The Detroit Yacht Club, founded in 1868, is the largest and one of the oldest private clubs in North America. The current Mediterranean-style clubhouse was completed by George Mason in 1922; he’s known for designing the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.
Farther west on the island, the Belle Isle Casino (never an actual gambling place) is an event center now, as is the 118-year-old Boat House, formerly the Detroit Boat Club. Work began a few years ago to restore it to its original grandeur. Now, it retains the charm of the early 20th century, making it the sort of place you may see Daisy Buchanan throwing a party.
None of the museums on the island charges admission. But it does cost to drive your vehicle onto the island, which is accessed from a bridge near downtown Detroit. For a visitor from out of state, it’s just $9 for a day pass. Or, you can take an Uber or even walk or bike across the bridge onto the island for no charge.
For visitors with mobility issues, there is a chair program where you can get, for free, off-road, electronic chairs that can easily handle trails, snow, sand and up to 8 inches of water. They are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the park headquarters office.
More info: belleisleconservancy.org
Where to eat • In warmer months, you can find some concessions on the island, but without a membership to the Yacht Club, you won’t find a sit-down restaurant. No worries, just a couple of minutes drive across the bridge takes you to some great restaurants in an area known as the West Village. Stop for a meal at the full-service butcher-shop and farm-to-table restaurant Marrow (marrowdetroit.com). It was a James Beard semifinalist in 2019 in the nationwide best new restaurant category. After a brunch of pumpkin pancakes, winter vegetable ramen or huge dumplings filled with local meats, walk a few doors down to Sister Pie (sisterpie.com) where Lisa Ludwinski and her crew bake up a variety of pies every day. I tried a coffee chess pie and a salted maple. After a few bites — maybe more than a few — it wasn’t hard to see why she was a finalist last year for James Beard Outstanding Baker.