“RUN!” shouted the bear handler ...and by the look on his face he wasn’t joking.
A tree had just fallen, crushing the electric fence – the only thing separating us from two huge brown grizzlies.
Luckily, TV’s Jeff “The Bear Man” Watson was on hand to lure them back to their lair with an emergency bucket of fried chicken.
And although a little hair-raising, the encounter with Bob and Screech at Wilstem Ranch, southern Indiana, was a real highlight of our 1,100-mile fly-drive across the USA’s Great Lakes.
The wildlife park is home to dozens of animals, including elephants, and you can even hand-feed lettuce to giraffes.
Our journey had begun in Detroit, Michigan. High crime, unemployment and a plummeting population left the city bankrupt in 2013.
But Detroit is living up to its motto: “We hope for better things; we will rise from the ashes.” New businesses and apartments are popping up everywhere. Alleys that were once no-go areas are filled with murals and cocktail bars.
Downtown is full of speakeasies and restaurants in grand Art Deco buildings.
Wright and Co, which specialises in sharing plates made from seasonal ingredients, had queues round the block. And after sampling the lamb skewers with flatbread I could see why.
The Detroit-based luxury brand Shinola has recently launched a super-stylish hotel in the city’s historic Woodward district.
Detroit has cool in its veins. It’s the birthplace of Motown, so a visit to the studio where Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and The Supremes recorded their hits is a must.
At Hitsville USA, the original home of Motown Records, holes in the floor show where founder Berry Gordy stomped to the beat.
Down the road is Detroit’s oldest neighbourhood Corktown, with colourful clapboard-fronted houses and Folk, a cosy restaurant famous for its waffles with pistachio butter.
Join the hipsters at the Two James Distillery nearby. Or for a true taste of the city, try Grey Ghost – their filet mignon comes with zip sauce, the original Detroit steak-eater’s drizzle made with butter, herbs, garlic, mustard and Worcestershire sauce.
We drove on to Cleveland, Ohio, which is foodie heaven thanks to the state’s abundance of farms and orchards.
At Greenhouse Tavern try Flintstone-style ribs with no-name frites, smothered in bacon, eggs and mozzarella.
Then walk off the calories at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a distinctive pyramid-shaped building packed with 6,000 music artefacts.
Breakfast at Lucky’s Café in the Tremont area was superb, with fresh bread and dishes made using local ingredients.
Pushing on to Holmes County with its endless rolling hills, big red barns and grazing animals, at the Berlin Farmstead we sampled good old-fashioned pie.
Dutch apple, key lime, pecan…there are 32 varieties on offer.
Arriving in Columbus, we discovered it is a craft beer destination, with 51 of the 300 breweries in Ohio.
The Short North Arts District is dripping with galleries, museums and trendy hangouts. Rooftop bar Lincoln Social was heaving on a Tuesday night.
The Buckeye State’s capital is affordable, bustling and young, with a big chunk of its population under 40.
Dinner of parmesan creme brûlée and prosciutto-wrapped scallops at lively Italian Basi proved it isn’t all about the kids here.
The next morning we strolled around the historic German Village eating gooey cinnabuns from bakery Fox In The Snow.
In Cincinnati we visited Over The Rhine, aka “OTR”, a trendy neighbourhood named after the German immigrants who built it in the 19th Century.
Water back then was so stagnant they drank beer instead – a tradition that never ended!
So we sampled local brews at Rhinegeist before dinner at Boca, a swanky French/Italian restaurant. Sotto is Boca’s sister restaurant in the basement and their ricotta doughnuts are legendary.
Next morning, after trying local delicacy goetta – a German sausage meat and oat patty – at Maplewood Kitchen and Bar, we hit the road. Three hours later we were sitting in rocking chairs on the French Lick Resort’s porch in Southern Indiana.
The decadent hotel dates back to 1845. Gangster Al Capone gambled away his loot at the casino here.
It’s also the birthplace of tomato juice. In 1917 chef Louis Perrin ran out of oranges so squeezed tomatoes, adding sugar and seasoning.
Embracing our Indiana idyll, we took a boat trip on Patoka Lake, then indulged in “wine slushies” – wine, fruit juice and ice, at Patoka Lake Winery.
At the West Baden Springs Hotel, 100 yards down the road, I was blown away by its grandeur, particularly the awe-inspiring domed roof spanning 200ft.
At fine-dining restaurant Sinclairs I had a beautiful dish of blackened fish in lemon butter sauce.
Two blissful days later we drove to Indianapolis, stopping in Plainfield for some 1950s-style hospitality at the Oasis Diner where we slurped cream sodas and snacked on fried green tomatoes.
If you have kids, visit the city’s Children’s Museum, the largest museum of its kind in the world, with five floors of fun.
A steak at Harry & Izzy’s hit the spot before we checked into the luxurious Omni Severin Hotel.
Forget its undeserved nickname of the “flyover states” – for a road trip packed with history, unique attractions and some incredible food, the Midwest is definitely best.
- Vacations To America offer an 11-night fly-drive to the Great Lakes from £2,335pp, based on two adults sharing and flying with Delta (delta.com) from Heathrow on May 10 with a midsize hire car (affordablecarhire.com).
Includes two nights’ hotel in Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati and French Lick and one at Detroit airport. More details and bookings at vacationstoamerica.com.
Tourist information at greatlakesusa.co.uk.