BY ROBERT GLAZE
I was glad to get back to the island in October after several years. It continues to be a charming spot to go back in time.
Mackinac Island is a 3.8 sq. mile island that sits in Lake Huron, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Mackinac Island State Park—with trails, woods, and rock formations—covers most of the island. It was settled by Europeans in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and soon became a strategic position as a center of commerce of the Great Lakes fur trade.
The original Fort Michilimackinac was started by the French in Mackinaw City on the mainland. The British took control after their victory over the French in the Seven Years’ War. During the American Revolutionary War in 1780, the British moved the garrison and the fur trading community to Fort Mackinac. Fort Mackinac later became the site of two battles during the War of 1812. After the war, the British were forced to turn it over to the Americans—John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company became centered there.
Following the Civil War, the island became a popular tourist attraction and summer colony. Beginning in 1898, motorized vehicles were prohibited on the island when a car frightened several horses. This ban continues today! After the fur trade waned, Mackinac became a fishing center, and in 1875, Congress made it the second National Park. It was later turned over to the state and became Michigan’s first State Park.
To accommodate the growing number of tourists, the boat and railroad companies built hotels, including the famed Grand Hotel. Souvenir shops started to spring up along with many summer home cottages. Today, many of these structures remain, which gives the island a wonderful, historic feel and charm.
Getting to the Island
To get to the island, you have to take a ferry from either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, which is further north across the Mackinac Bridge. The ferries from Mackinaw City are more popular and, therefore, more crowded.
At the suggestion of my hotel, I chose Shepler’s Ferry from Mackinaw City to the island. Upon arrival at the dock, you can valet your car or use the self-park lot. They will then check your bag right to your hotel. This is so convenient! On the return, your hotel can check the bags with Shepler’s, and when you arrive, it is easy to pick them up and retrieve your car from the nearby lot.
Before you leave the island, if you have used the valet, they call ahead to make sure your car is there when you arrive. Just check the schedule as the frequency changes depending on the month and day of the week. They run from the end of April to the end of October. I would also book your ticket online as you can save a few dollars and wait in a shorter line upon arrival at the dock.
Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry is another ferry choice.
What to See and Do on the Island
There are many things to see and do while on the island. Make sure to visit:
Ft. Mackinac is a historic American Revolutionary War fort, built by the British to control the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The admission includes visiting 14 restored buildings, which are furnished with period settings highlighting the building’s particular function or a themed exhibit. Tours and special demonstrations are available. The Tea Room, operated by the Grand Hotel, is a perfect spot to enjoy lunch on the terrace overlooking the city and the harbor.
With a ticket to the fort, you can also get free admission to the Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum. Here you will find paintings and decorative arts inspired by the island throughout its history.
Downtown, there are a number of shops, boutiques and galleries. One of my favorites is Mackinac’s Little Gallery at 7410 Market Street. It features the works of close to 30 artists, including works by Kristin Hosbein, a friend from St. Joseph, Michigan.
Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry also offers lighthouse cruises to view the area’s 16 historic lighthouses as well as night sky cruises during the summer months.
From May to October you may enjoy Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, horse-drawn carriages that take you to all of the island’s major points of interest. I found that the carriages can be crowded, so taking a taxi say from downtown to the Grand Hotel can be a fun way to see the island as well.
Bikers will love biking on the island. You can rent a bike along with water, helmet and a basket from Mackinac Cycle located at 7271 Main Street.
Located downtown at 7447 Market Street, Cindy’s Riding Stable offers horse rentals by the hour, so you can explore the island on your own.
Across from Cindy’s Riding Stable are several historic buildings including the McGulpin House, the American Fur Company Retail Store & Dr. Beaumont Museum, the Biddle House, and the Benjamin Shop, comprising Historic Downtown Mackinac. You can tour the buildings for free with your ticket from the Fort and the Mackinac Art Museum. Similar to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, you can visit with and talk to volunteers in period dress.
Mackinac Island State Park is Michigan’s first state park that was established in 1895 and contains 70.5 miles of signed roads and trails. Some of these trails are paved, some are not, with some shared by horses, bikes, and walkers—and others for hikers only. The park includes the Historic Downtown and the Fort. You will also see many natural wonders including woods and rock formations. Arch Rock is the island’s most famous geological formation and towers 146 feet above the water and spans fifty feet at its widest point. Sugar Loaf is a dramatic rock mass rising 75 feet above the ground and is the largest of Mackinac Island’s many limestone stacks. Other interesting geological features include Robinson’s Folly, Skull Cave, Devil’s Kitchen, Crack-in-the-Island, and Cave of the Woods.
Mackinac Island is all about fudge, fudge and more fudge. There are many shops on Main Street to taste and buy the famous candy. May’s Famous Mackinac Fudge has been a five-generation family business since 1881. The owners are currently in their 80s and 90s today.
The Original Murdick’s Fudge was opened in 1887 by sailmaker Henry Murdick, who came with his wife and son to make awnings for the Grand Hotel. His wife brought her candy recipes and started the tradition of fudge-making. The original location closed and the second sold to May’s. The current location at 190 South Huron is the newest operation and makes over 20 flavors including Traverse City Cherry.
Joann’s Fudge at 7408 Main and Ryba’s Fudge Shop at 7245 Main are two other good choices. Ryba’s is under the same ownership as the Island House Hotel.
Where to Stay
There are a number of hotel options on the island, from B&Bs and inns to larger hotels and resorts. My recommendations include:
Mission Point Resort is a large resort with nice views on a quiet side of the island. They offer a full breakfast buffet in the Round Island Bar & Grill, plus Chianti for fine dining, the Bistro on the Greens, and the Boxwood Coffeehouse & Cafe. There is a gym, boutique, spa and salon, putting green, tennis courts, and bike rentals. I enjoyed my stay and the fact that I could walk into town to explore or enjoy a local restaurant and not have to rely totally on the horse-drawn taxis.
For over 130 years, the historic Grand Hotel is a great example of old-world hospitality and charm from a bygone era. From the historic building, the traditional afternoon tea in the parlor, the tradition of dressing up for dinner in the dining room, and nightly dancing to the sounds of the Grand Hotel Orchestra to sitting on the world’s longest porch with views of the Straits of Mackinac, you must visit it when on the island. The 1980 film, Somewhere in Time was filmed at the hotel and starred Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer.
Both Mission Point and The Grand Hotel were named as two of the top 10 Midwest Resorts in 2017 by Conde Nast Traveler Magazine. The Grand was also one of the top Midwest Resorts named by Travel + Leisure Magazine in 2017.
Iroquois Hotel is an award-winning hotel located at the western end of Main Street downtown. The once-private home, built in 1900, is a charming spot with wonderful views of the water. It has 36 rooms and 9 suites along with the Carriage House Restaurant, which has both indoor and outdoor patio seating. I went for dinner and loved the experience.
For those wanting to stay in a quiet location, The Inn at Stonecliffe (8593 Cudahy Circle) is located in the woods in an historic mansion from 1904 that was renovated in 2014. It is somewhat isolated, so you will have to use bikes or take a horse-drawn taxi to and from downtown. You can eat at the hotel or walk nearby to the Woods Restaurant, the Bavarian themed restaurant, which is run by the Grand Hotel.
Other options to consider include the Harbor View Inn that was a private home from 1822 and the Island House Hotel, which is the oldest hotel on the island, dating back to 1852.
Where to Eat on the Island
There are some wonderful dining options, from casual to more formal. My recommendations include:
The Ft. Mackinac Tea Room (7127 Huron Road) is located at the edge of the fort and operated by the Grand Hotel. It is a perfect spot to enjoy lunch on the terrace overlooking the city and the harbor. This was my first stop after getting off of the ferry.
Nothing makes for a more elegant afternoon than Afternoon Tea at the Grand Hotel. From 3:30 pm to 5:00 pm, tea is served in the hotel’s glamorous Parlor, accompanied by live music. The cost includes champagne or sherry, a pot of tea of your choice, a plate of finger sandwiches, and a plate of colorful pastries. Unlike dinner, jackets and ties are not required for men. Also be aware that during the high season, there may be an admission fee added to your bill for non-residents of the hotel.
Take a horse-drawn taxi to dinner in the woods at the lovely, and appropriately-named, Woods Restaurant. The Bavarian themed atmosphere is really stunning with its woodwork, fireplaces, and red and white checked tablecloths. The food is excellent, as is the service. They offer a number of starters, soups, salads, and entrees. Entrees include a baked herb-crusted whitefish filet, salmon, a braised lamb shank, and a pork schnitzel. I thoroughly enjoyed the spiced pan-seared duck breast with shiitake mushrooms, farro verde, red cabbage, and a plum sauce. Your hotel can arrange the taxi for you to the restaurant, and the restaurant will arrange your return.
In addition to the Woods Restaurant and Afternoon Tea in the Parlor, The Grand Hotel has several other dining options. There is the Main Dining Room; Carleton’s Tea Store, which features food as well; and Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor just outside of the main entrance. The Jockey Club is located on the golf course. Just down the hill from the entrance is The Game House, a casual bar and restaurant, and Sushi Grand, the newest addition to the group and the island’s first sushi restaurant.
Just want to grab a drink? Try The Terrace Room, which offers dancing to live music; the Audubon Wine Bar, right off the lobby; the Cupola Bar, upstairs with great views; and the Geranium Bar, adjacent to the Main Dining Room. The hotel also operates Cawthorne’s Village Inn downtown at 1304 Hoban Street, which is great for cocktails and more casual dining.
I enjoyed a lovely dinner overlooking the lighthouses at Carriage House Iroquois Hotel (7485 Main Street). The service and food were excellent. I loved my pan-seared halibut entree with tomato caper relish with sautéed spinach, all made with locally-sourced ingredients. The live music really enhanced the experience.
A casual diner for over 60 years, Chuck Wagon (7400 Main) is a fun locals’ hangout for breakfast and lunch. I loved it for breakfast before my ferry back to the mainland. Don’t miss it when you are in town.
Mustang Lounge (1485 Astor Street) is a fun rustic tavern that is located in one of the oldest buildings on the island that was once the row house or warehouse of a local fur trader. The log walls probably date back all the way to the 1780s. This is one of the few places that stays open during the off-season, with a menu featuring burgers, sandwiches, pizza, and other pub food. As one of Michigan’s most historic taverns, I enjoyed sipping an Old Fashioned, watching the people, and taking in the ambiance.
Mary’s Bistro/Draught House is a popular bar and restaurant at 7463 Main Street. I enjoyed a casual lunch at Mary’s Bistro overlooking the harbor. The Draught House next door features over 50 Michigan craft beers and ciders. They have a large outdoor patio in the warmer months.
This is part of the same group that owns the Pancake House & Grille at 7245 Main Street, which is a great spot for breakfast, and the Seabiscuit Grog & Cafe at 7337 Main Street, with a horse theme. At their Island House Hotel, they also have the 1852 Grill Room and Ice House BBQ.
Since 1902, the Pink Pony (7221 Main Street) has been the colorful cafe of the Chippewa Hotel. It evolved into a cocktail lounge in the 1930s and today is a great place to stop in for a cocktail at the bar or enjoy a bite on the patio in the summer.
Lucky Bean Coffeehouse (7383 Market Street) is a small, casual coffee shop that is a great spot when you are in town for a little pick-me-up.
With a season from May to October, so many things to see and do, and a limited number of hotel rooms, now is the time to start making your summer plans to visit the island and explore all that it has to offer. You will love it.