Step back in time to a place where cars are banned, horses and bicycles rule the roadways, and a sense of friendly but traditional hospitality make for a relaxing and memorable respite.
Photo by Kim Schneider
Close enough to Chicago that a famous sailboat race traverses the northeasterly route across Lake Michigan lies an island that seems to float in time — a Victorian Michigan version of Brigadoon, if you will.
Pull up to the ferry docks, for instance, and you will find taxis waiting. But the Mackinac Island version of the “yellow cab” is a pair of high-stepping Percheron horses hauling a British-style coach with enough headroom to accommodate a top hat — should you happen to be wearing one, as did many of the early male visitors to the island. On this conspicuously motor vehicle-free island, bicycles are as modern as transportation gets.
Downtown, you can chat with the island blacksmith, learn fur trading tips and peruse tintypes of island landmarks like impressive Arch Rock. Or browse modern boutiques, sample a sushi roll (there’s a new Sushi Grand) and head to the new spa and craft cocktail garden at Mission Point Resort. Just know that whatever activity era you pick during your island time, tradition dictates the stay is paced with a nod to breezy porches, high tea and Adirondacks positioned for the best view of the sparkling Straits of Mackinac — the narrow waterway that connects two of the Great Lakes, Michigan and Huron.
Mackinac Island, for most of its relatively recent existence, has had tourism as its central focus. The Grand Hotel is the most iconic — and ongoing — connection. Built in 1887, the famous wood-framed hotel-on-a-bluff has hosted five sitting presidents, inventor Thomas Edison, author Mark Twain and many celebrity guests. Its white-pillared veranda, teeming with geraniums, remains the world’s largest porch, so popular that non-guests pay $10 to sit for awhile or stroll its length. The entrance fee, deducted if you buy the Grand Lunch Buffet, also allows for exploration of the grand lobby decorated by New York’s Carleton Varney, a look at memorabilia related to the movie, “Somewhere in Time,” filmed mainly at the Grand, or the chance to try your hand at a lawn game like croquet. (For more on the hotel, see “Where to Stay in Grand Style” on the following page.)
While steamship was once the most common way to reach Mackinac Island, today’s travelers generally start on one of three ferry lines. For a travel bonus, check the Shepler’s or Star Line ferry schedules for the “under bridge” or “Mighty Mac” departures — those take a short detour under the impressive Mackinac Bridge, the suspension bridge that connects the state’s upper and lower peninsulas.
Once on the island, look up and you’ll see Fort Mackinac. The impressive fortress towering above Marquette Park and the island harbor is one of the best spots at which to learn about the island’s history and travel traditions, and in an interactive and engaging way. Mackinac was one of the nation’s earliest national parks — second only to Yellowstone — operating from 1875 to 1895 under federal control.
Now part of Mackinac State Historic Parks, interpreters costumed as soldiers share stories related to the island’s historic “big five”— faith, fur, fort, fish and fudge. Soldiers staffed the still-intact fort when it was built during the American Revolution, though saw no action; through the War of 1812, when there was one battle on the island; and served through much of the fort’s history as park caretakers.
Play judge at an interactive court martial, take a “People of Mackinac” tour, or march in formation across the parade ground — it’s a laugh-inducing and memorable way to get a feel of island life past. There’s even a restaurant on-site — the Fort Tea Room, notable for its pretty cliffside yellow umbrellas and offering light fare with the island’s best view.
You could spend a weekend just shopping in the growing number of downtown boutiques, eating at restaurants from pizzerias to gourmet lakeside dining. There’s Mackinac’s Little Gallery for Impressionist-style island scenes, the Island Bookstore and Coffee Shop for a great selection of island and vacation reads, the Jaunting Cart for items fitting to Mackinac’s Irish heritage and Baxter’s for the ultimate romantic souvenir — that’s where Christopher Reeve bought the 1912 coins that let him travel in time in the island-filmed romance, “Somewhere in Time.”
A pound of fudge is pretty much a requirement and likely a craving. For that, thank Harry Ryba — a relative of the current owners of Ryba’s Fudge — who put his carnival past to new use and fanned chocolate smells onto the streets. Murdick’s Fudge was actually the first purveyor of the chocolate, founded the same year (1887) the Grand Hotel opened. Many companies have since joined these two — the island imports 10 tons of sugar each week for its fudge, selling so much that visiting tourists have come to be affectionately known as “fudgies.” There’s even an island fudge festival, this year Aug. 19 through 21.
Horses are as inspirational — and iconic — as fudge on Mackinac. Here, horses pull work drays of groceries, gardening supplies and garbage. They also haul travelers in carriages or on their backs — and that’s been true since 1898 when — 10 years before the Model T was even invented — a noisy “horseless carriage” spooked a team of horses and the carriage drivers convinced the city to ban them. The ban has been challenged a few times since but — with the island’s 500 horses and the culture developed around them such a major tourist draw — the ban has always been upheld.
Mackinac Island Carriage Tours is still owned by relatives of one of those early carriagemen, and the nearly two hour tours cover plenty of island landmarks and (sometimes tall) tales. Take the reins yourself, if you dare, through a rental from Jack’s Livery Stables. A quick tutorial covers the basics, but if the tricky downhill past the Grand Hotel poses a daunting challenge, know that passing carriage drivers are generous with advice when you shout questions like “How do you slow down?!”
Likewise, Cindy’s Riding Stables works toward a careful match between rider and horse if you opt to take a trail ride — one of the best ways to explore shady wildflower-lined inner island paths.
New fleets of bikes — 21-speed, fat tire, tandems and more — at rental spots like Mackinac Island Bike Shop, Mackinac Wheels and Mackinac Bike Barn open great possibilities, too, for exploring on two wheels.
Pick up your picnic at Doud’s Market, America’s oldest grocery store, then circle one of America’s prettiest bike routes, the 8-mile shoreline route on M-185 — the state’s only highway closed to cars. Opt for a mountain bike if you want to explore the many inner island trails. Some take you past a one-time battlefield, now Wawashkamo Golf Course, others to Fort Holmes — the island’s highest point and site of a newly reconstructed fort, built by British forces during the war of 1812. You can’t beat the sunset view.
Oral traditions hold that the island was created at the beginning of the world and tell of a multitude of spirits living on, under and around the island, something you’ll learn on the newest interpretive exhibit on the island — a series of signs at scenic bicycling turnoffs that describe various aspects of Native history. On this, the “Great Turtle,” spirits were said to have bestowed gifts to the native Anishnaabek people — the island’s original residents — gifts like the knowledge of how to produce fishing nets.
Learn of spirits of a different sort on nightly island ghost and legend tours launched by an author who wrote a book about island hauntings inspired by his
own supernatural experience as a youth (hauntsofmackinac.com). The chance to follow a hooded cloaked guide and great storyteller down dark island streets and hear tales is as good an excuse as any to stay the night. Some tours let you play amateur ghost hunter in a supposedly haunted Mission Point Resort theater. And if a different type of spirit is more your style, try one of the resort’s new craft cocktails, all inspired by herbs grown on site, or a new menu at high-end Chianti, where every meal starts with prosecco — gratis.
Other dining options abound. For special occasions, head to the waterfront Carriage House at Hotel Iroquois. There’s nightly piano entertainment, and the hotel itself has been awarded a perfect 100 location points by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine for its gorgeous waterfront setting. More casual dining can be
found at the Draught House, opened last summer and boasting 50 beers on tap, and the adjacent Mary’s Bistro, with great house-made thin crust pizzas. The Pink Pony is worth trying, too, both for its fun waterfront vibe and Lake Superior perch.
The true spirit of the island comes through best at dawn, when you wake to the clip-clop of horse hooves and wonder exactly which century you’re in. That’s true whether you’ve opted to stay in one of the island’s oldest residences, the Harbour View Inn’s The Chateau LaFramboise — the one-time home of famous fur trader Madame La Framboise — or its newest, the Bicycle Street Inn and Suites.
Harbour View is one of several historic inns — others include the Chippewa Hotel, with its waterfront jacuzzi suites; and the Inn at Stonecliffe, a Tudor-style mansion situated high on the island’s west bluff. Stonecliffe offers 16 bed and breakfast style guest rooms, and the more modern Summer House Suites, with 31 suites decorated in a classic summer cottage style with a light Victorian influence.
In total, the island boasts 1,300 rooms, from those in larger resorts like the Grand Hotel to downtown bed and breakfasts to the Mission Point Resort, where new owners are gradually renovating all guest rooms and adding amenities like this year’s new spa. Mission Point also offers sunrise hikes and a special breakfast.
Wherever you stay, a great way to start the day is a pre-dawn, paddling adventure with a guide from Great Turtle Kayak Tours. Being on the water is a great vantage point from which to catch the sunrise and see the harbor awakening in shades of pink, with the soft clanging of a buoy adding to the peaceful nautical ambiance. Glancing up at the painted Victorian cottages and rocky formations said to have been ancient portals for spirits, you can be forgiven if you have no idea what era you’re in. You’ll just be glad you’re there.
WHERE TO STAY IN GRAND STYLE
A coalition of railway and steamship companies was worried about a shortage of overnight accommodations for their tourism passengers when they bought land on Mackinac Island in 1886 and built the Grand Hotel. By the following year, well-heeled guests were arriving by lake steamer from Chicago, Erie, Montreal and Detroit and by rail from elsewhere, paying just $3 to $5 a night. But competition for wealthy Victorian vacationers quickly intensified, and the hotel set itself apart in a variety of ways, hoping — as did their competitors — for a mention in the society pages of a visit by the wealthiest and most newsworthy visitors of the day.
The front porch — still the longest in the world and a wildly popular spot for mingling — became the island’s key meeting place and a so-called “flirtation walk” for romantics. The Edison Phonograph was first demonstrated there, and Mark Twain lectured in the hotel casino. But the hotel also went to extra lengths to attract a Vanderbilt or others who’d bring their high-society friends back with them the next season. If you headed to afternoon tea, still offered daily, you’d be served by waiters decked out in beaded dresses or turbans. Today’s servers are in tuxes, but the experience is still grand — French macaroons, tea sandwiches and chef-made pastries served along with cognac or champagne, tea and live harp music. While the hotel owner no longer greets guests by name while wearing a long beaver coat and top hat, as once was the case, guests still enter up a red carpet and a full orchestra plays during and after dinner, when ballroom dancing and demitasse are unmovable traditions.
The upscale dining traditions and menu options originated as a way to offer elegance in a region once presumed rustic and wild, explains Bob Tagatz, the hotel historian. You may not find dishes like the tenderloin of beef larded with mushrooms, or mutton and capers offered on a July 1890 menu, but dinner remains an occasion, the formal dress code upheld, even as Wi-Fi and colorful décor updates have been added.
The hotel also stays true to the hospitality tradition of one-time owner W. Stewart Woodfill, who once proclaimed in a speech, “I have always felt that it must be operated in a grand manner or there will be no Grand Hotel.”
PARTY AMID THE LILAC BLOOMS
Mackinac Island has been called the Galapagos of lilacs, as in a spot that preserves — and celebrates — the best of many species. There are lilacs blooming
everywhere, with 90 varieties in Marquette Park alone, so it’s little wonder that a group of Mackinac islanders got together back in 1949 to throw a parade when the lilacs were in bloom and at their most fragrant.
The spontaneous celebration of the pretty and sweet scented flower has blossomed into a 10-day celebration of island food, Michigan wine, Celtic heritage,
horses and pets. This year’s fest (June 3 to 12) will feature some high-end fun like the Taste of Mackinac’s sampling of favorite menu items from island
restaurants. But don’t miss the guided, narrated walks featuring fun facts about island lilacs, history and architecture or the quirky, sweet Feast of Epona — the Celtic goddess of horses. There, a local priest blesses island animals — from pet ponies to golden retrievers — decked out in necklaces of lilacs.
THE CHICAGO TO MACKINAC RACE
“It’s fun, but it’s serious fun,” one veteran sailer said of the Chicago to Mackinac Race, the world’s oldest annual long distance freshwater sailboat race and one of the most prestigious, being held this year from July 23 to 25.
From its humble beginnings of five boats in 1898, it has grown to an international 289.4 nautical-mile competition that hosts sailors from as far away as Hong Kong and New Zealand as well as from across the U.S. Spectators can visit cycracetomackinac.com during the race to watch real-time positioning of racing boats.
Those in the know stake out a table at waterfront pubs like the Pink Pony to celebrate with arriving crews.Edit Module