Once a private estate, the island has long been a site of frivolity and parties and picnics. It officially became "Belle Isle" in 1845, and in the 1880s, the designs for an urban park were created.
When I last drove across the island it was 2006, and it was basically ruins. In 2011, the Grand Prix put millions of dollars into the roads so the island could host racing events. In 2013, with the city in bankruptcy, the state took over the park, promising to make up to $20 million in improvements over the next 3 years.
During this most recent visit, it felt like I'd stepped into the site of a former World's Fair (it never was one), with ornate buildings dating back to 1904.
Clearly money has been spent recently to restore some of the island's highlights, including the James Scott Memorial Fountain, the Casino (not used for gambling, but rather public events), and a Conservatory with beautiful gardens. I was particularly impressed with the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, which has to be one of the most well designed and interesting museums I've ever been in, including the front bow of a boat that extends out into the river.
There's also an Aquarium (BEAUTIFUL building from 1904 in need of a patron sponsor for some necessary tank renovations), Skating Rink and Boathouse, Nature Zoo (there used to be a full zoo on the island), municipal Golf Course and private Yacht Club.
The island was bursting with activity the afternoon we were there. Birthday parties, and company picnics, bikers and runners. It was so different from the place I saw 9 years ago, and there is so much potential to turn this into one of the state's top destinations. And it is right near downtown Detroit....
It reminds me of Central Park in NYC, right in the middle of the city, yet a world all it's own. And what would NYC be without it's parks?