By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Aug 30, 2005 at 5:38 AM

{image1} When my three friends from college and I decided to meet up for a dudes weekend this summer, I knew we had to pick an interesting location for our hijinks. They were coming from Washington, D.C., and I, of course, was starting in Milwaukee. When we settled on Windsor, Canada and Detroit, I threw down the gauntlet: could I make it Canada and back on one tank of gas?

Don't call me crazy just yet. In my possession was a month-old Toyota Prius, a hybrid hatchback that had so far averaged about 50 miles per gallon. And unlike previous trips east, this time I could try out the ferry from Milwaukee to Muskegon, aboard the two-year-old Lake Express.

Friday, 5:30 a.m., Bay View

I rolled into the Lake Express terminal before sunrise and joined the long line of already waiting cars. The check-in process was swift, and I stepped aboard the boat several minutes before the 6 a.m. departure. The first thing I noticed right away is that the Lake Express ferry is nothing like its Manitowoc counterpart, the SS Badger. That experience is fun, but the boat isn't particularly fast, and it looks and feels old. The Lake Express, by comparison, is new, sleek and well-appointed. The two main cabins sport big screen TVs, and a full-service café even serves pretty good food. The seats aren't cramped, and there's plenty of room on the deck to sprawl out if you (like me) get a little claustrophobic below sea level. There are two cabins, regular and premier class. Premier class, where I sat, is a bit roomier and comes with free non-alcoholic beverage service.

The ride itself began incredibly smoothly. Before the 2005 sailing season, the Lake Express added additional stability controls -- and you can tell. As the ship glides across the lake, the experience feels more like a plane than a boat. Only when we experienced heavy winds as a storm started brewing, did the ride get choppy. Still, the ship was significantly quieter, and the ride was much more gentle than the Badger. It was faster, too -- not even counting the drive up to Manitowoc. The Lake Express reached the other side in just two and a half hours.

Friday, 9:30 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time), Muskegon, Mich.

After an orderly unloading of the cars, I headed for what would hopefully be the interstate to Detroit. I hadn't done much research on Muskegon, proper, but other than being on the opposite side of Lake Michigan, this sleepy little town is nothing like Milwaukee. Don't even consider taking the ferry without a car, which does add $118 (roundtrip) to the $85 per person fare. In short, it's not cheap, but some might argue that skipping the Chicago traffic -- and shaving about 200 miles of driving off the trip -- is worth it.

Unfortunately, I could find little signage pointing me out of this small town, but I gambled correctly and found I-96 East and began the next leg of the trip. The Detroit airport is about 190 miles east of Muskegon, but the speed limit on Michigan's freeways is 70, so the trip goes quickly. From I-96, I headed south on US 131 and finally east on I-94. The terrain is straight and flat, and I beat my friends to the airport by some time. After a little lunch, we headed through Detroit, south (yes, south) to Canada.


Friday, 5 p.m. U.S.-Canadian Border

Here's a valuable lesson: read the signs very carefully when you enter Canada. There are two ways into Windsor: through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and over the Ambassador Bridge. We opted for the tunnel, and upon crossing the border picked a customs booth that was apparently for Nexus card holders only, which is the Canadian version of the I-Pass. In this post-9/11 world, that's a recipe for getting yourself stopped. The friendly, yet serious, border guards pulled us over, inspected our documents, gave the Prius a good once over and scolded us. But that was that, and they let us into their country.

We picked the Radisson Riverfront (333 Riverside Dr. West) as our hotel, which overlooks the blue waters of the Detroit River and the city itself (and from a distance, it's a pretty skyline. Up close, it's a different story, but more on that later).

For dinner, we ate an Irish pub called Patrick O'Ryan's (25 Pitt St. East) that served good food and a fine selection of beers from the Emerald Isle and beyond. After some catching up, we perused Windsor's main drag, Ouellette Street. The drinking age in Canada is 19, and because of its proximity to Detroit, Windsor has become Ontario's version of Bourbon Street. The bars cater to American college kids, so we felt a little old (we graduated nine years ago). But it was a long day, so we didn't feel bad snacking on a little late-night falafel and hitting the hay before Canadian bar time.

Saturday, 10:30 a.m., Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Nothing like a hearty breakfast to renew our youthful vim and vigor. First, we checked out the Hiram Walker factory (2072 Riverside Dr. East), makers of Canadian Club whiskey. The stately old building had lots of potential for a great tour - until we learned that the tour didn't include the factory, just the administrative offices. In fact, it didn't even include whiskey (except for a half-shot in a commemorative glass at the end), so we hit the road to the Windsor Casino (377 Riverside Dr. East).


The casino is not unlike Potawatomi, just bigger and not Native American-themed. Some American gamblers prefer the Windsor Casino over Detroit's three relatively new casinos because of a favorable exchange rate. But losing is the same in any currency, and we four novice cardsharks left after about an hour with our pockets lightened by a few loonies (Canadian dollar coins; we weren't smuggling waterfowl in our pants).

After weighing our options, we concluded that Windsor, bless its heart, is a pretty sleepy town by day, so we crossed back into Michigan in a much less eventful trip through the tunnel. And in Michigan, there's something every red-blooded American has to try at least once: shootin'.

{image4} Saturday, 3 p.m., Madison Heights, Mich.

I won't lie to you, the prospect of trying my hand at a shooting range scared the crap out of me. I have never so much as picked up a gun, nonetheless fired one. But when in Rome, right? Fortunately, half of our group had some shooting experience, and they weren't intimidated when we arrived at the Double Action Indoor Shooting Center (32411 Dequindre Ave.) I was kidding when I requested the largest gun available. The guy behind the counter could probably tell as he watched my hands shake while I signed the waiver forms.

Instead, they provided us with a revolver and a semi-automatic Glock. Fortunately, he was patient and detailed in explaining basic gun safety, but I still felt underprepared when we donned those yellow glasses and headphones and stepped on to the course. The rhythmic booming of large-caliber guns rattled me, but I stepped up to the plate, anyway. I fired off five shots from the revolver and a few from the Glock, just to say I did it. And that was enough for me. My other peace-loving friend, Paul -- who refused to even pull the trigger -- and I stepped back to watch our other pals perforate target after target. The best was "Bad Guy," a mustachioed dude who saw his fictitious manhood blown away by Phil, and his liver and pinky wounded by Brian (who apparently couldn't hit a broad side of a barn). After about an hour and four boxes of ammo later, they were done with their gunplay, and we headed to the hotel in Troy.

Saturday, 9 p.m. Royal Oak, Mich.

The nightlife scene in suburban Detroit is different than what one experiences in Milwaukee. It's sort of like Water Street meets Whitefish Bay: lively but spread out among a placid tree-lined neighborhood. We made the rounds, stopping at a few interesting watering holes, including Gusoline Alley (309 S. Center St.) and Memphis Smoke (100 S. Main St.). There, we hung out on the roof, which provided a great view of the action, especially of our final destination of the night, Comet Burgers (207 S. Main St.). Nothing like tiny, greasy burgers to put an exclamation on a long day of "international" travel.


Sunday, 11:30 a.m., downtown Detroit

With a whole day left in our trip, we headed south to Detroit to catch a Tigers game at Comerica Park. Since we were early, we drove around downtown and checked out the scene, narrated by Paul, who spent a few post-college years in in Michigan. If you've never been to Detroit, you may not believe this account, but the city looks a lot like post-war Sarajevo (a fact confirmed by Brian, who had been to post-war Sarajevo). During the five-day race riot of 1967, some 1,400 buildings were burned, and believe it or not, many have not been rebuilt or even razed. In the last 40 years, the city has lost half of its population, and downtown feels like a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Entire skyscrapers are vacant with windows blown out. Whole neighborhoods sit empty with semi-destroyed buildings. Even the legendary Tiger Stadium remains, left for dead, as wires dangle perilously from the grandstands. In short, it's the weirdest urban scene I've ever seen, in this country or otherwise. And smack-dab in the middle of it are three casinos and a great new ballpark and football stadium. If this is Detroit's idea of urban renewal, I hate to break it them: it's not working. Though, one of the casinos does score irony points for being located in the former Internal Revenue Service building.

Comerica is a little like Miller Park, but without the roof. That said -- and I'm probably the first person to ever pay it a compliment like this -- West Milwaukee is far prettier than Comerica's surroundings. Outside, dust from vacant lots and burned-out buildings swirled around the car as we parked it. A smattering of sports bars and the Fox Theater greet fans as they approach the park. But inside, the park is great. It's an open-air stadium with a gigantic center field - a territory so huge they ought to rename this vast plain Comerica National Park. Beyond the wall is a fountain that erupts every time the Tigers score a run, which they did plenty of that day, as Detroit clobbered the Blue Jays 17-6. To describe Detroit as surreal would be an understatement. I can sadly say I have no desire to ever return.


Sunday, 5 p.m., Detroit Metro Airport

Dropping off the guys at the airport, I was reminded of one more strange thing about Michigan: Nearly every car on the road is American. Literally, not figuratively, we saw fewer than a dozen foreign cars all weekend in Detroit. And more than one gas-guzzling SUV pulled up to my little hybrid and shot me a dirty look. At one stop light on famous-for-cruising Woodward Avenue, I was sandwiched between two Detroit classics, a Chevy Chevelle and a Ford Mustang. The Prius' electric engine could give no retort to the pistons issuing a challenge on either side of me, though I took solace in knowing they probably refilled their tanks two or three times for each time I stopped at a fuel pump.

Sunday, 10 p.m., Muskegon, Mich.

I left myself plenty of time for the easy drive back to the ferry, and it was a good thing that I got there early. After watching the sun set over the beautiful western shores of Lake Michigan, I took my place in line at the terminal. The trip back, while smoother sailing, was to be a rougher journey. First, the ferry officials had me booked for the wrong return trip. They had me pull over and sit on standby while they tried to find a way to squeeze me on board the sold-out ship. After about a half an hour, the polite crew did find a spot for me. It was a more than a minor nuisance, considering my reservation was booked weeks in advance, but they accommodated me, and for that I was appreciative.

On the ship, I sat down in the premier class again, and the attendant asked to see my boarding pass. I pulled it out, and it indicated that I was booked in the main cabin - perhaps during the confusion of the botched reservation, they also put me in the wrong seats. "You don't belong here," the stewardess proclaimed loudly. But I was too tired to argue, so I headed to the main cabin.

About an hour later, I wanted a little air, so I attempted to walk through the premier class cabin to the outer deck, when again, the protective attendant stopped me. She actually said, "This area is for premier class customers only. If you had listened to my announcement, you'd know that. Now, please don't walk through here. I would appreciate it ... and so would everyone else."

Well. The premier class was lovely and all, and I certainly enjoyed the complimentary beverage on the trip over, but this wasn't exactly the first-class cabin of the QE2, and her attitude was more than a little rude. By now, it was almost 1 a.m., so I chose not to fight with her. I did not expect, however, to be dressed-down like a 16-year-old trying to sneak into better seats at a Brewers game.

The rest of the trip went without incident, and I rolled home with 560 miles on my tank. Sure, it was flashing empty, but I averaged an impressive 50 miles per gallon that weekend. I did, in fact, make it to Canada and back -- with lots of subsequent driving -- on just one tank of gas. Mission accomplished.


Was the ferry ride -- and all of that driving -- worth it? Depends. If you have more time than money, and you insist on driving to the other end of Michigan, then it beats driving through Chicago. It'll save a few hours and miles on your car, and it's a stress-free way to make across the lake. However, at a little more than $200 for the ferry ride plus car, it's cheaper just to drive the long way, and probably faster just to fly to Detroit.

On the other hand, you'll absolutely need a car wherever you go in Michigan, and renting a sedan for four people will cost, too. And, if the journey, itself, is part of the reward, especially if you have kids, the ferry is a fun way to experience Lake Michigan. If it's a business trip to Grand Rapids, for example, and the company is picking up the tab, it's a no-brainer -- go for it.

And finally, if it's just about a fun and different weekend away from home, why not? I've driven through Chicago more times than I can remember, and not one of those experiences has been memorable. By comparison, I'm sure I won't forget this weekend trip any time soon.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.