This is Michigan’s most famous vacation spot, a small island with an eight-mile perimeter that is slightly out of step with the rest of the world. It’s steeped in history, with a touch of mystery, privilege, Victorian graciousness, natural beauty, and more than a little tourist-luring tackiness, and each of those aspects has its own sizable army of defenders.
Mackinac sits in Lake Huron, a few miles east of the Straits of Mackinac and within view of the Mackinac Bridge that connects Michigan’s two peninsulas. Ferry service is the only route to the Island, and ships leave regularly from both St. Ignace on the UP side and Mackinaw City on the other side of the bridge. Three companies (Arnold, Star Line, and Shepler’s) have competed for years. ‘Fastest to the Island!’ is the claim of one; I’m not sure why anyone would count it a virtue to minimize a 20-minute ride on the Great Lakes: for me, the trip is always part of the experience. Count on about $25 for a roundtrip ticket; coupons or family tickets might reduce this a little. It cost the five of us $86 to get to Mackinac and back.
The island itself is a fairly steep, rocky place. A bluff runs around the island’s edges, just a short distance inside the shoreline. That gap provides the most flat land at the southern end, where the town and docks lie on a small bay. To head inland, you’ll have to walk uphill, and steep hills at that: Fort Mackinac sits atop the bluff, above the harbor and well above your head.
The Fort is one of many things worth your time while you’re here. It was the coolest place I’d ever been when I was eight; decades later, it’s still up there on my list. Together with the wooden Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland, it served as one of several outposts built by the European powers to protect and oversee the fur trade, and bring some sense of order to the frontier. During the War of 1812, the American garrison was surrounded, surprised, and surrendered without a shot after a British landing and stealthy approach from the island’s northwest corner. The view from the fort is tremendous, and spending a few hours here among the period-costumed rangers is always worth it.
The Fort was decommissioned in the late 19th century, as first the fur trade and then the threat from the British faded, making a garrison unnecessary. The combination of the existing facility, government ownership, growing tourism trade, scenic beauty—and, oh yes, political influence by one of Michigan’s senators—made the Island the nation’s second national park in 1875 (I only learned this on my most recent visit). 20 years later, it became Michigan’s first state park, when the national government transferred its ownership to the state, with the requirement that those lands never become private property.
Much of the land is still part of Mackinac Island State Park, but there is significant private ownership. You’ll see private homes along some of the bluffs, and a smaller number out around the island’s edges. The ‘downtown’ is near the south end, filled with docks, hotels, t-shirt shops, restaurants, and fudge shops. My guess is that if you asked most Michiganders what comes to mind first about Mackinac, you’d hear ‘fudge’ and ‘no cars’ most frequently.
That’s right: no cars. In the late 19th century, the city fathers accepted the recommendation from the carriage trade that automobiles be banned from the island (they frightened the horses). Even today, only emergency vehicles are allowed to operate on the Island. That foresighted decision has given Mackinac a unique identity, and ensured a livelihood for both bike renters and carriage men.
Carriages are everywhere, all run by Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, the company formed 60 years ago by the carriage men. The standard tour lasts just under two hours, and takes you to all the island’s highlights, with stops at some of them. A ride in the buggy is definitely preferable to hiking up the hill to the center of the island, and should be a part of any visit.
Tours all stop at Arch Rock, a natural arch near on the eastern bluff with a terrific view out over the Lakes. There’s also a monument to French explorer Joliet, the first European to pass through the Straits, beginning the four centuries of European presence in the Great Lakes. Skull Cave is another natural highlight, named for a British solider who spent the night on the run from a band of native Americans, only to find the remains of a former denizen.
The grand hotels all remain from the Island’s initial heyday. Foremost among them is the Grand Hotel, featuring the longest front porch in America, and dominating the southwestern bluff. They have a gold mine here and they know it: rates start at $235 per person per night (including breakfast and dinner). But the service and the atmosphere may be worth it, although I have yet to see for myself. Other lodging options include the Chippewa and Iroquois Hotels, of the same vintage but not quite the same stratospheric price range. There’s also about a dozen B&Bs on the island, a few smaller hotels, and the Mission Point Resort.
Even if you’re just looking to sightsee and move on, you could easily spend two full days here. Or you could make it the sole destination for a vacation, and spend the days hiking the island, riding bikes, munching on fudge, watching the sun go down at any of the waterfront establishments, and then spending the night if you can afford it; it’s a pleasure I have yet to experience. Word is that the Island is a different place after the last ferry leaves. And remember: it’s ‘mac-in-aw’, not ‘mac-in-ack’.