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Belle Isle Detroit Aquarium Oldest In USA - Best Urban Beaches

Updated on March 8, 2015
Belle Isle was originally called Swan Island by the local Native Americans.
Belle Isle was originally called Swan Island by the local Native Americans. | Source

Over 100 years old, Belle Isle Park became Michigan's 102nd State Park in 2014.

An Urban Beach In a Floating World

The City of Detroit has successfully developed the Detroit International Riverfront as a business and recreation district and a draw for visitors to the city. I enjoy riding the central city's People Mover monorail out over the water where I can see more of the riverfront and the developments that are ongoing in Detroit.

One of these developments is the startling complex of activities and venues on Belle Isle - including a beach - all accessible by the General MacArthur Bridge from Downtown Detroit in a distance of less than one-half mile. The distance can be easily walked on sidewalks separated by a barrier wall from East Grand Blvd., which runs over the bridge, and biked on a bicycle lane painted between the auto lanes and the walkway walls on either side of the bridge. The island area has become scenic to the extent that it has appeared in several locally produced films and television shows in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and views of the Detroit Skyline from the island are popular photographic subjects.

Many of the buildings on the island are from the turn of the 20th Century, and some are undergoing redevelopment. The old Belle Isle Zoo closed, was replaced by a Nature Center and in the 2010s, was targeted for refurbishing into a Michigan-based species wildlife zoo in association with the Detroit Zoo. Approximately 300 animals were gathered form the closed island zoo to create the Nature Center and a small heard of fallow deer still live at the center.

Aside from all this, Belle Isle contains several of its own lakes and nearly three miles of canals to travel by canoe. While outdoor activities are many, the island also sports a hsitoric casino building that is used only for weddings and receptions.

The Belle Isle Aquarium opened in August 1904, closed from 2004 - 2014, but reopened in February 2015, because the community came forward to keep it running.

Scott Memorial Fountain

Bikes and Water

Near the Riverwalk on the International Riverfront, Wheelhouse Bicycle Shop rents bikes of all kinds at reasonable rates and services any bikes, so you can rent a bike or take yours and head over to Belle Isle along bike paths near the waterways - I love this service! In fact, Wheelhouse runs a host of bike tours around the city, based on interests and themes like architecture, outdoor building murals, historic auto plants, festivals, markets, and one of them is a tour to Belle Isle! Another is a ride around the city's "green" sustainable waterways. Wheelhouse staff lead a tour around the Belle Isle venues, architectural achievements, State and National Historic Sites that include ride-bys and stops at:

  • The Flynn Pavilion - At the corner of Picnic Way and Loiter Way at Lake Tacoma. Rent boats here to experience the 2.5 miles of canals on the island.
  • Famous designer Albert Kahn's Belle Isle Aquarium - Opened in 1904, the venues closed to visitors in 2004, but the aquarium is still rich in architecture. It reopened in February 2015, featuring many fish that are extinct in the wild. A special dinner fund raiser was held in 2009 in the aquarium itself (see video below). and pother fund raisers were held.
  • Detroit Yacht Club, Detroit Boat Club
  • Island Casino
  • Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse
  • General Alpheus Starkey Williams statue and his horse Plug Ugly
  • The James Scott Memorial Fountain
  • The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory and Botanical Gardens -- Free admission 365 days a year.
  • Belle Isle Nature Center
  • Dossin Great Lakes Museum - History of Great Lakes ships and boats and naval battles, e.g. War of 1812 - 1814. See "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" below.

Check out Wheelhouse "Tours" page for the weekly and monthly Bike Cruises you can join around Detroit the next time you're in town. This is the most biking fun I have seen anywhere.

Night at the Aquarium Fundraiser

  • Many of the shop's bikes are Kona, a US and Canadian-owned manufacturer that is into philanthropy. For every two bikes the company sells, it donates one bike to a mobile home healthcare provider in Africa.

Belle Island, Detroit:
Belle Isle, Detroit, MI 48207, USA

get directions

There's plenty to do on Belle Isle, and at the DeInternational Riverfront are many places to eat and visit. River and bike cruises depart frequently.

Belle Isle Tour

Belle Isle Beachfront

Belle Isle Beach supports green space and a substantial half-mile tract of sandy beachfront that visitors can use for swimming and photography of subjects like the MacArthur Bridge, the Ambassador Bridge to Windsor ON, freighter ships, and a number of Detroit River cruises that include at least one old fashioned Riverboat. A giant water slide operates from June through Labor Day and a playland for children is open during these dates as well.

Other areas of the waterfront are used for boating and fishing. In addition to all this, the island offers a Par 3 golf course, and a separate set of practice putting greens, sand traps, and a driving range. Further, the island holds a number of basball diamonds and tennis courts, other recreational sports venues, and the headquarters of an adult co-ed Futbol soccer league (see link below).

Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The anchor of the wrecked ship at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.
The anchor of the wrecked ship at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. | Source

Marble Lighthouse on the Beach

Belle Isle is furnished with its own lighthouse, called the William Livingstone Memorial Light, which stands on the east end of the island. It is, to date, the only lighthouse in America constructed of marble. It was constructed and named as a monument to a man that advocated for safety in shipping and navigating of ships through the Great Lakes.

Many sailing and steamer ship accidents have occurred through the centuries around the Great Lakes, their bays, and other inlets. Most of the US States surrounding the lakes offer tours of sunken ships around the Great Lakes shorelines. Although rather sad, the boat skeletons are also fascinating pieces of history and legend. Cities along the shores of Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan often sponsor film festivals and historical events in which films are shown concerning famous shipping accidents and mysteriously "disappeared" ships.

Gordon Lightfoot: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald; 1976

Award Nominations:

Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance

Grammy Award for Song of the Year

City of Detroit III

Commemorated at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.
Commemorated at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. | Source

Whitcomb Conservatory

Belle Isle's Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, near the aquarium, are divided into many sections, according to theme and plant type. Tropical plants are lush and abundant with such as ferns, palm trees, orchids, and others; while a desert area includes cactus and other arid climate plants Asian plants are also displayed and one section of the conservatory is dedicated to commercial plants like coffee, sugar cane, and bananas. A huge fountain is located in the conservatory as well for water interest. Outside, the complex features several gardens, one with a lily pond.

© 2011 Patty Inglish MS


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