Belle Isle. What is this magical place Detroiters speak of? For the past few years, my limited knowledge of the well-known recreation area led me to imagine the park in ways I’d only seen illustrated on postcards and travel booklets: picnic areas swarming with family reunion cookouts (sorry, I know they’re called “barbecues” up here), cyclists peddling a safe distance away from city traffic, and hey–there’s supposed to be a fountain, right?
Located between the United States and Canada, Detroit’s Belle Isle is the third largest island in the Detroit River –even larger than Central Park in New York City! With just under 1,000 acres of land, Belle Isle offers plenty of places to visit and see or plenty of space to spend a lazy summer afternoon away from the city heat.
Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and the Belle Isle Aquarium are grouped together on the southwest side of the island. The Dossin Museum features exhibits on Great lakes Maritime history covering everything from freighters to the famous Miss Pepsi hydroplane. Facing the riverfront is the wheelhouse from the William Clay Ford freighter, offering visitors the opportunity to experience what it’s like to be the captain of a ship. The museum property outside also boasts an anchor recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald and cannons from Commodore Hazard Perry’s victory of the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812. Additionally, William Livingstone Memorial Light, built in 1929, is located on the island and remains the only marble lighthouse in the United States.
Across the street from the Dossin Museum, people can visit the Whitcomb Conservatory, which houses exotic plants from around the world, including bananas, coffee, orange, and sugar plants, as well as a variety of cacti. Next to the Conservatory are the remains of the Belle Isle Aquarium. The Aquarium was open from 1904-2005, when Detroit budget cuts forced it to close. During its time, the aquarium was the oldest running aquarium in the United States. Preservation groups recently secured funding to restore the aquarium and renovations begin in May of this year. Check the websites, as the hours are limited for these places due to funding, but they are all free to the public when open.
A short jaunt north on the island takes visitors to the Belle Isle Zoo. The Zoo is a microcosm of plants and animals found around Michigan. Aside from informative exhibits, the Zoo offers a small petting area and deer refuge for children to explore.
Belle Isle also features a number of parks and beaches for gatherings. On almost any windy summer day, visitors can see professional kite fliers around the island. People can also fish from the beaches and bike around the island on the bike paths. The island even features the Belle Isle Casino, which can be rented out for events! People can spend easily a day exploring all the free exhibits and places to visit on Belle Isle.
Things to Do on Belle Isle
Armed with enough food to feed an army, my husband and I crossed the MacArthur bridge one afternoon to picnic on the mysterious “Beautiful Island.” An initial drive past several occupied picnic shelters revealed that we had forgotten a blanket to sit on, so we opted for a quick lunch in the car across the street from Belle Isle Beach. After finishing our meal, we walked over to the sandy shoreline to say hi to the seagulls and get a better view of the Detroit skyline. Other than a few people taking photos or enjoying an afternoon reading break, the beach was quiet on that post-Labor Day weekend and offered a great way to see the Motor City from a whole new angle.
Next, we drove alongside avid cyclists (man, Detroiters love their bikes!) as we circled the island to the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. An offshoot of the Detroit Zoo, this little nature preserve offers a family-friendly environment for spectators to learn more about small, native-to-Detroit creatures. Amphibians, reptiles, and an active beehive dominate the indoor exhibits, while a large, windowed area looks out to a garden filled with active birds and funny, little chipmunks.
With the afternoon ticking away and two Belle Isle sites checked off our list, my husband and I began a quest to find the magnificent James Scott Memorial Fountain. All we knew about this fountain was that it was very large and seemed to be synonymous with the island itself. At least, that’s what all the travel pamphlets said.
Once we got within spitting distance of the fountain, we were told that public access was closed for the week because of an autonomous car testing event.
NOOOOOOO! But . . . it’s . . . the fountain . . .
Schlumping away from our intended destination, we admitted defeat. Okay–we admitted defeat after another event worker gave us permission to try a different entrance, only to be shut down again by a very unhappy co-volunteer. Something about autonomous cars being really fast and dangerous or something like that.
So, while the fountain would literally remain a distant memory, there were still plenty of areas left for us to explore. We found an MDOT shuttle to take us to the Belle Isle Aquarium, which ended up being one of the coolest parts of our visit. Housed in a stunning, brick building circa 1904, the aquarium is currently the oldest in North America and until its brief closure from 2005 to 2012, was the oldest continually-operating. Inside, mermaid-esque green tiles adorn the arched ceilings, and several original skylights were recently restored and revealed to the public for the first time in over 60 years. While attendance was lower than normal on the day we visited (limited traffic due to the ITS World Congress), a member of the all-volunteer staff told us it wasn’t unusual for a line of people to extend far outside the front doors. After 100 years, it’s amazing that the interest for this attraction is still alive and well.
As our feet grew tired (Belle Isle is gigantic!), we decided to step next door for one last hurrah at the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory. Packed to the brim with tropical plants, cacti, you name it–this larger-than-life greenhouse is surrounded by surreal outdoor gardens and is the perfect spot for a wedding venue. Taking a load off, my husband and I sat on the edge of a fountain adorned with a gazelle statue. It wasn’t the James Scott, but it would do. It became apparent to us that Belle Isle had much more to offer than we could possibly cover in one day–so, of course, I’m already planning a second trip . . . and next time, we might just bring our bikes.
What should I plan for my next trip to Belle Isle? Comment below with your favorite activities and places to visit!
contributors to this article include Jennifer Bowman and Krissy Schwab