DETROIT: Gone Fishin’

4 Feb

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The earliest public aquariums in America started springing up in the late 1800’s, large wealthy cities such as Washington D.C, San Francisco and New York were the first to build such an attraction. Detroit was not far behind, calling on Albert Kahn (again) to design the building, the Belle Isle Aquarium opened in August of 1904.  Until 2005, it was the oldest continually operating public aquarium in North America. The city had fallen on hard times, attendance was practically non-existent, so the city decided to close it for good (duh!). Both the building and the fish had a loyal following; people who knew the aquarium could still be a viable attraction. Working together, raising funds, applying for grant money, volunteering countless hours cleaning and repairing the building and tanks, they finally succeeded; the aquarium re-opened in 2012, 108 years after it originally opened it’s doors. Currently you can visit on Saturday’s from 10am to 3pm, admission is free.

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We have been inside the building a few times since its closing for special events, but we had not been back since its official re-opening, until today that is……There were a large number of vehicles in the parking lot, a good sign. We paused outside, getting a good look at the building; brick and stone, it definitely has the look of a different time. The entrance is a large, double stone arch, the very top ornately decorated, the second arch, the entryway, features the face of a mythological figure in the center. On each side large stone columns rise up, thick bands of icicle-like carvings give way to richly detailed capitals. Inside I am always taken aback, the barrel-vaulted ceiling covered in gorgeous green tile makes me feel as if I am underwater. Walls are black tile, tanks are inset, a half-wall runs down the center of the room, separating the two sides, it’s like going back in time. About a dozen tanks have been restored and hold live fish, eels and frogs and a coral reef; feeding times are written in bright colors on the front of tanks. Remaining tanks are ‘dry’ and are used to display work by local artists and items from local merchants, what a great idea. One of my favorites holds all kinds of memorabilia, postcards, and photos of the aquarium in its prime; they even have the original Albert Kahn blueprints for the building on exhibit, so cool! As we check out each tank we come across a young woman hula-hooping, the plastic ring aglow with L.E.D. lights, why not? About half-way down the tunnel-like aisle the ceiling opens up into a grand dome decked out in the same green tile, a skylight opens up to the sunny sky above. We come to the end of one side, turn, and walk back up the other, large free-standing tanks are surrounded by black tiles and are covered with a metal roof, resembling a small building. The space is crowded with visitors, multi-generational families out for a Saturday afternoon in the city, digital cameras and smart phones capturing the memories. The donation box near the entrance is stuffed with dollar bills, a sign of appreciation for this wonderful experience.

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A few steps away is the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, don’t ever pass up a chance to stop in. This building too is abuzz with people, we see some of the same faces we saw next door. Nature is always changing, there’s  something different blooming each time we come, today the Orchids are dazzling, fancy cameras rest upon tripods capturing their beauty. Clusters of grapefruit hang from branches, oranges look ready to be picked  The showhouse is winding down from the winter show, Poinsettias are still blooming in reds, pinks and whites. Soon they will be preparing for the Easter show, don’t miss it. We follow the narrow paths through the rest of the building, even a few of the cactus are in bloom. Both the conservatory and aquarium benefit from the newly formed Belle Isle Conservancy, these people volunteer their time and energy to take care of these incredible historic Detroit landmarks. 

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Time to eat! Located just off the river on Joseph Campau is a place called They Say…….Though the restaurant itself is not new, they have recently renovated and it is fantastic. It’s a two-story  brick building, the wood trim painted red, the front a series of large glass windows. Inside feels upscale; exposed brick walls decorated with bold, colorful paintings featuring Jazz artists. The bar sits in the center of this room, counters line the walls inviting you to pull up a chair and have a drink. We are seated in the dining room in a comfy booth overlooking Joseph Campau, this room is also very attractive. The menu has something for everyone, a good place to bring the family or a group, we hear their wings are awesome. I order a cup of chicken potpie soup, it’s delicious. We choose the house salad, it is huge, the lettuce is fresh and crisp. The club sandwich arrives, four triangles surrounding a mountain of french fries. I remove the toothpick from the bread, wondering if I will actually be able to fit my mouth over the point, I sink my teeth in and find it to be wonderful. The bread perfectly toasted, mayo squeezes out from the layers, the bacon is crisp, I think they grilled the turkey, there is melted cheese and the crunch of lettuce and tomato. Kris and I agree it is probably the best Club we have ever had. I go crazy eating, Kris saves room for dessert, our waitress enticed him when she told us about their homemade bread pudding, he cannot resist. A large rectangle of warm bread pudding arrives, it sits in a bourbon sauce and is topped off with a dollop of whipped cream. I can only take a bite, warm and moist it reminds me of a cinnamon roll, the sauce is excellent. I watch as Kris does his best to finish it off, he sets down the fork and asks for a box, there’s always tomorrow! It has been another great day in Detroit.

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