Flying into Mackinac Island, you will notice the green canopy of trees that blankets most of this 2,200-acre island. It was America’s second national park, and now it is a lushly forested Michigan State Park. Since the 1880s, the island’s primary industry has been tourism, with most attractions open May through October. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark with Victorian architecture throughout the island. In 1898, automobiles were banned here, effectively stopping the clock. A horse-drawn taxi greets you at the terminal, and couples walk hand-in-hand down shaded lanes. Catching ferries from St. Ignace and Mackinaw City, day-trippers (whom the locals refer to as “fudgies”) fill Main Street in summer. Their primary pastimes are tasting Mackinac Island’s famous fudge and browsing the souvenir shops.
The island is served by a convenient airport just a mile from town. After landing, settle in and enjoy your surroundings—all accommodations are within two miles of the airport. Rent a bicycle and circle the island on M-139, Michigan’s only state road unused by motor vehicles. Visit Fort Mackinac, with its living history garrison. Roam the back roads to discover geologic oddities like Sugar Loaf, Arch Rock, and the Crack-in-the-Island. Take a trail ride through the shady forests or wander two different butterfly conservatories. Golf on a historic course, or simply savor the vista from a rocking chair and let time slow.
Mackinac Island Airport (MCD) is at the northwest corner of Lake Huron, right between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. The easiest routes to the airport are from the south, along the Lower Peninsula, or from the west, along the Upper Peninsula. In the Mackinac Island area, you can contact Minneapolis ARTCC on 134.6 MHz. Routes from the north and east transit Ontario, Canada; click here for up-to-date Canadian flight procedures.
The Ojibwa people called this island Michilimackinac, the Great Turtle, for its prominent shape above the lake. Shaped by glaciers and ancient waves, it is one of many islands in the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet. French explorer Jean Nicolet discovered the island on his 1634 expedition, noting its strategic location and high bluffs. Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette founded a mission at St. Ignace on the mainland, three miles to the west, in 1671. Commerce through the region led Mackinac Island to become the most important French fur trading post on the frontier. As such, it was a military target, trading hands from the French to the British to the Americans. Mackinac Island was a strategic objective for the British in the War of 1812. Swarming the island from the northern bluffs, they out-manned and out-armed the Americans, who surrendered without a fight. To protect their position, the British built Fort George atop the island’s high point, using it as a garrison and stockade.
After the War of 1812 ended, Mackinac Island found itself again in American hands, and a small garrison remained on duty. Brisk commerce returned when John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Trading Company here in the late 1830s. In a nod to the island’s military history, in 1875 the U.S. Congress created Mackinac Island National Park, with troops on duty acting as park rangers. The Federal Government decommissioned the fort and transferred authority of the National Park to the state in 1895, establishing Michigan’s first state park.
Commercial shipping interests envisioned the island as a summer playground for the rich. Constructed in 93 days and opened in 1887, the Grand Hotel was planned to lose money—the payoff would be in passenger tickets on trains and steamships to Mackinac Island. After visiting the island on summer trips, wealthy industrialists built grand summer homes. A variety of hotels opened along the waterfront, and tourism blossomed. Automobiles were banned in 1898, so the island remains in its Victorian heyday.
Mackinac Island feels larger than it is, due to its limited modes of transportation: by horse and carriage, horseback, bicycle, or on foot. It’s a perfect destination for romance; in fact the Christopher Reeve-Jane Seymour movie “Somewhere in Time” was filmed here (it is shown at least one evening a week at the Grand Hotel).
A horse carriage tour offers the best overview of the island. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, the largest and oldest tour company, offers a two-hour, two-part tour that departs from their booking office on Main Street across from the docks. On the first part of your journey, your guide points out historic homes and buildings downtown. After a stop at Surrey Hill to visit the Carriage Museum and Wings of Mackinac, everyone boards a larger wagon. The journey continues down shady back roads past the island’s three cemeteries and Skull Cave, an Ojibwa burial ground, to Arch Rock, a natural arch rising 146 feet above the Lake Huron shoreline. Your journey ends at Fort Mackinac, from which you can walk down a steep staircase to downtown or take the wagon back to Surrey Hill, $11–$28, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. (early May–mid-Jun & Labor Day–late-Sep), 9 a.m.– 5 p.m. (mid-Jun–Labor Day), 9 a.m.–2 p.m. (late Sep–late Oct), 906-847-3307.
At Fort Mackinac, soldiers in period dress fire cannon and rifles, lead “soldier’s life” tours, and hold a mock court martial. Built in 1780, the fort is an integral part of the island’s history, $7–$12, open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (early May–early Jun), 9:30 a.m.–7 p.m. (early Jun–early Sep), 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. (early Sep–mid-Oct), 7127 Huron Rd. on the bluff above downtown, 906-847-3328.
It takes less than two hours to bicycle the island’s blissfully flat and scenic 8.2-mile circumference. This trip on Highway M-139 is one of several recommended routes offered in a booklet from Mackinac State Historic Parks. A map (free) is essential to help you find your way around (see Transportation for bicycle rentals).
Rein in some fun on a trail ride. Seventy miles of shady trails crisscross the state park, offering excellent views and bountiful wildflowers. Both Cindy’s Riding Stable, 906-847-3572, and Jack’s Livery Stable, 906-847-3391, offer guided trips; rates start at $45 per hour per person. Jack’s also rents drive-your-own carriages; rates start at $70 per hour for two passengers.
Despite the ban on automobiles, you won’t have to give up your golf cart while golfing at several unique courses. Established in 1898, Wawashkamo Golf Club is one of Michigan’s oldest and a state historic site. Just west of the airport, this public course invites you to “walk a crooked trail” (their name in Ojibwa) along nine greens laid out in a classic Scottish links style with 18 tees, British Landing Rd., greens fees $25–$75, 906-847-3871. The Grand Hotel’s course, The Jewel, includes two nine-hole courses. Adjoining the hotel, the 1901-era Grand Nine offers a panorama of the Straits. After you complete the front nine, a carriage transports you to the Woods Nine, a 1994 course designed by Jerry Matthews, greens fees $45–$125, 906-847-9218.
For a romantic outing, spend a few hours watching butterflies at either of two butterfly conservatories. At Wings of Mackinac, hundreds of butterflies glide over a garden within a sun-drenched greenhouse. Located at Surrey Hill, $2.50–$9, open 9 a.m.–5:30 p.m., (early May–early Oct), 906-847-9464. Tucked behind St. Anne’s Church, the Mackinac Island Butterfly House is the third oldest live butterfly conservatory in the U.S. They also have 16-inch walking sticks, the world’s heaviest insect, $4.50–$9, open 10 a.m.–6 p.m., until 7 p.m. during summer, 906-847-3972.
Mackinac has attracted chocoholics ever since carpenter Newton Jerome Murdick started selling his mother’s fudge to tourists in 1887. Most of the 17 fudge kitchens are family operations serving a spectrum from basic chocolate to strawberry pecan and raspberry truffle. (I suggest Joann’s for variety and Ryba’s for quality, but try them all!)
Unlike “fudgies,” private pilots can visit the island in winter. Most businesses are closed, including the fudge shops, but cross-country skiing becomes the primary activity. The local ski club maintains 70-plus miles of trails for Nordic skiing, and with no leaves in the way, you’ll take in winter vistas of the Straits and surrounding islands. Cawthorne’s Village Inn, open daily in winter at 11 a.m. for lunch, also rents cross country ski and snowshoe equipment, $25 per day, 1304 Hoban St., 906-847-3542.
For more to see and do, visit the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau on Main Street near the Arnold Docks, open daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m. (May–Oct), closed weekends in winter, 906-847-3783 or 800-454-5227, and the Mackinac State Historic Parks Visitor Center on the waterfront at Marquette Park, with interpretive displays and a gift shop, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. (May–Aug), 9 a.m.–4 p.m. through Oct 8, 906-847-3328.
All accommodations are within two miles of the airport, clustered along the southeastern shore and scattered throughout town. While many hotels date to the 1850s, some are modern—and none belong to a chain. Rental condos, B&Bs, and waterfront inns provide a variety of options; a few stay open year-round.
The Grand Hotel is a destination in its own right. A living, working museum, it is one of a dozen Gilded Age hotels still in operation, and its 660-ft. porch is considered the longest and grandest in the world. Family owned and operated, it is the granddaddy of Victorian romance. Each of its 386 rooms ranges in décor from elegant to flamboyant, including 38 named rooms and suites. The Wicker Suite, in cool blues and whites, provides a soothing retreat; the Lord Astor Suite, with its canopied bed and deep blue walls, imparts a regal feel. Elegance extends to afternoon tea in the parlor, croquet on the front lawn, and dinner—gentlemen must wear coats and ties and ladies must “dress in their finest” in the hotel after 6:30 p.m. Five classes of rooms are available, $304–$1,267 per adult per night, $59–$139 per child per night; prices include the modified American Plan, which provides breakfast and a five-course dinner daily, open May–Oct, 906-847-3331 or 800-33-GRAND.
Anchoring the north side of town, Mission Point Resort offers a casual getaway for couples and families alike. Built in the 1950s as a spiritual retreat, its massive lobby evokes the outdoors. The décor of the 242 rooms mirrors the natural beauty of northern Michigan, from nautical to lodge. There are seven styles of rooms and suites to snuggle into, some with fireplaces and Jacuzzis. For romance, try a Hot Tub suite, with your own outdoor hot tub on a private deck. Enjoy the 18-hole putting course, the eight-story Tower Museum, or just relax in an Adirondack chair on the expansive front lawn. Rooms are $109–$1,500, (call ahead for winter availability), One Lakeshore Drive, 906 847-3000 or 800-833-7711.
Open year-round, the Pontiac Lodge is a modern hotel with a historic façade, and has views overlooking the harbor and Main Street. Each of its ten rooms and one suite offers a private bath, cable TV, phone, and refrigerator. For romance, select a Jacuzzi suite, rooms $90–$425, corner of Main and Hoban streets, 906-847-3364.
After the “fudgies” go home, make downtown your own. A selection of eateries line Main Street and its side streets, and the resorts offer fine and casual dining.
When Prohibition ended, the good times began at Horn’s Gaslight Bar & Restaurant, near the Arnold Docks downtown. Treat yourself to their Southwestern fare: fajitas, enchiladas, or the Top Sirloin Filet, eight ounces of Angus beef served up with red skinned mashed potatoes. To hold a conversation with your dining partner, stop in for lunch; for a rowdy good time, show up late for dinner (served until 11 p.m., sub sandwiches until 1 a.m.) and enjoy the nightly live band and drink specials. Check out the historic photos on the walls—if the evening crowd doesn’t give you a clue, this has been the islander’s gathering place since 1933, entrées $10–$23, open daily for lunch 10:30 a.m.–4 p.m., dinner 5–11 p.m. (May–Oct), 7300 Main St., 906-847-6154.
At Cawthorne’s Village Inn, open year-round, local fishermen deliver fresh whitefish daily for the restaurant’s signature dish, Planked Whitefish, flanked with duchess potatoes and a broiled Parmesan crown tomato, entrées $9–$23, open daily 11 a.m.–2 a.m., 1304 Hoban St., 906-847-3542.
For lunch or an afternoon snack, dine al fresco overlooking the harbor atop the ramparts of Fort Mackinac at the Fort Mackinac Tea Room, warming up with Broccoli-cheese Soup, $7, as the breeze keeps you cool. You’ll enjoy exceptional views of the harbor and downtown, along with a selection of salads and sandwiches, including sloppy joes, turkey wraps, and shaved roast beef. As the bang of the cannon salutes the end of the day, hoist your drink in approval. Admission to Fort required, entrées $10–$14, open 11 a.m.–3 p.m. (May–Oct), 906-847-6327.
For an intimate getaway, take a horse-drawn carriage to the Woods, a 1905 Tudor mansion in a Black Forest setting. Under the auspices of the Grand Hotel, the menu includes Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, and entrées include items such as Kobe Beef Brisket and Pecan-encrusted Mackinac Island Whitefish. Don’t miss their signature dessert, the Grand Pecan Ball topped with fudge sauce, $11. Stop in for drinks at Bobby’s Bar, entrées $21–$38, open daily 11 a.m.–10 p.m. (late May–Oct), 8655 Cudahy Circle, 906-847-3699.
At Chianti, inside Mission Point Resort, you can dine inside or out on the terrace to enjoy the view of the Straits while a pianist tinkles the ivories of a Steinway. The menu changes often but might include a starter such as steamed mussels with white wine and leeks, $13. Pan-roasted lamb chops or walleye, cast iron-seared filet mignon, and a pork tenderloin with Marsala are a few sample items, along with an array of pasta dishes, entrées $17–$85, open daily 5–10 p.m. (early May–mid-Oct), One Lakeshore Drive, 906 847-3000 or 800-833-7711.
Radio in a half hour beforehand and the FBO staff will call you a taxi—horse-drawn, of course. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours provides the only radio-dispatched horse-drawn carriage service in the U.S., and has the country’s largest livery, with more than 500 horses. Service is available 24 hours May through October. From November to April, reserve a day in advance before 3 p.m., service 8 a.m.–5 p.m. Fares run $5–$7.50 per person, cash only, 906-847-3323.
For a romantic spin around the island, rent a bicycle built for two. Rentals (or freebies) may be available at your resort, but you can also rent downtown. At Mackinac Island Bike Shop next to Shepler’s Ferry Service, hourly rates run $5–$12, with tandems in stock, 906-847-6288. Also along the waterfront, Ryba’s Bicycle Rentals has two locations: next to the Star Line Dock and next to the Arnold Dock. They rent mountain bikes as well as single- and three-speed cruisers and tandem bikes, $5–$10/hour, $30–$57/day. They also carry tagalongs, baby carts, and strollers, 906-847-3208.
Three ferry services connect Mackinac Island to St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. However, in winter the island is accessible only by snowmobile and private plane, and ground services are extremely limited.
Whether for summer fudge, fall colors, or the appeal of skiing quiet trails in the winter, Mackinac Island is a destination for the romantic in us all. You can’t help but relax here—be it on the golf course, on a walk in the woods, or in a rocking chair on the longest front porch in the world. When you hear those horses’ hooves clip-clopping up to the terminal, you’ll know it’s your cue to step back in time.