Clip-clopping horses pull carriages, and bicyclists pedal past Victorian storefronts that line automobile-free streets. The irresistible aroma of freshly made fudge wafts from multiple candy kitchens. Boom! Cannon fire rings out from the gleaming white fort on the bluff above the village. Seagulls screech. Ferries slip into the harbor in the waterway between Michigan’s two peninsulas, and tourists, as they have for nearly 150 years, disembark for Mackinac Island. Pronounced mack-in-awe, the island packs a fascinating mix of historical, natural and novel attractions, modern amenities and old-fashioned fun into its 3.8 square miles.
The Ottawa and Chippewa Indians called this bump of land, rising as it does from the waters where the Great Lakes Huron and Michigan mingle, “Big Turtle” or “MishiMikinaak.” Interpreted as “Michilimackinac” in the 1600s by French missionaries, voyageurs, fur traders and soldiers, it was shortened to Mackinac or Mackinaw by the British, who in 1780 built the fort that still stands. America took control of the outpost in 1796, but lost it to the British in the War of 1812. The fort was returned to the U.S. after the war and in 1875 it was named a National Park. By then Mackinac Island was a popular destination for steamships of visitors from Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago. When the fort closed in 1895, most of the island became a state park, which it remains today.
Here’s a practical guide to planning a mack-in-awesome Mackinac Island family vacation.
Your adventure begins when you leave your car on the mainland, because motorized vehicles have been banned from the island since 1898. Arrivals by air and personal boats are options (see page 18) but most visitors take a passenger ferry from either Mackinaw City, at the northern tip of Michigan’s mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula, or St. Ignace, in the Upper Peninsula.
Arnold Transit, Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line Ferry service the island from both cities, and offer comparable schedules and fares. Choose a seat on the open-air deck to feel the cool breezes and freshwater spray, or take an indoor seat by a wide window for protected views of the Straits of Mackinac and the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge, which connects the upper and lower peninsulas. In less than 30 minutes you’ll step off the boat and onto the island, where getting around is on foot, two wheels or by horse-drawn taxi. If you’re staying overnight on the island you may be met dockside by a horse-powered shuttle from your hotel, but many lodgings are just a short walk from the dock.
Sure, you can make a day trip to the island, but there’s so much to see and do you’ll regret it if you don’t stay at least one, if not several, nights. You won’t find any chain properties, but there are plenty of family-friendly accommodations, from fullservice resorts to the historic Lake View Hotel with — surprise — an indoor swimming pool. Your choice of lodging may set the tone for your entire stay, since some hosts offer family packages with meals, attraction tickets, bike rentals and other niceties, such as free golf for kids who play with a parent at the historic Wawashkamo Golf Club, a perk from the waterfront Chippewa Hotel.
Tops in terms of both family-friendly reviews and physical location is the Grand Hotel, “America’s Summer Place” since 1887. From a bluff overlooking the Straits of Mackinac, Grand Hotel maintains its historic past while meeting the needs of today’s travelers, including children. Programs for kids ages five and up include outings, games and arts and crafts. Babysitters are also available.
Genteel pastimes are as old as the Grand Hotel. Play croquet on the expansive lawn, relax in a rocking chair on the 660-footlong porch, or sip afternoon tea in the parlor. Be sure to take in the entertaining lecture on the history of Grand Hotel and a screening of the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, filmed on location.
Most room rates include a full breakfast and a five-course dinner served in the Main Dining Room, where proper attire is required each evening. Kids are welcome to dress up to experience the formal dinner, but there are alternative meals as part of the children’s program.
Mission Point Resort, a sprawling, 239-room red-roofed inn on 18 lakefront acres wins rave reviews from Kirsten Borgstrom, who visited with husband Joe and children Jack (6) and Kate (10). “We stayed in one of the family suites, enjoyed the pool, the movie theatre and, of course, glow golf at the Greens of Mackinac. Also, having a very energetic son, it was a bonus to have the lawn to run around, fly a kite or play soccer.”
Borgstrom says daughter Kate’s island favorites are shopping and fudge. “We spent some time exploring the shops downtown and trying all the different fudge flavors.” Competing candy makers offer free samples and put on a show as they deftly work the soft, warm fudge into shape on cool marble slabs. About 15 shops cater to “fudgies,” the local term for visitors who each year carry away thousands of pounds of the edible souvenir.
There’s more than fudge to remember your Mackinac Island trip by. As young Kate indicates, shopping is a favorite activity for all ages. Sprinkled among the T-shirt and souvenir stores you’ll find art galleries and shops that sell locally and regionally crafted gifts, foods and artwork, and books by area authors at the fine Island Bookstore.
Great Turtle Toys is a must stop for puzzles, kites and other diversions that “get your kids unplugged and moving.”
At the Art Studio on the ground floor of the Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum you can create a masterpiece as a reminder of your visit. Housed in the three-story 1838 Indian Dormitory, the museum’s collection features artwork and artifacts related to Mackinac Island, such as Native American and Victorian era decorative art pieces, historic photos, and 17th and 18th century maps.
THE WHEEL DEAL
You’ll want to rent (or bring) bicycles for exploring, especially the fairly flat and easy, eight-mile highway that circles the perimeter of the island. More strenuous but rewarding are the trails that crisscross the interior state park land.
Rentals are plentiful and include options like tandems, trailers and tag-alongs; no reservations are required. Pack a picnic lunch from Doud’s Market on Main Street, and make your way to the site of Fort Holmes, the highest point on the island for lunch with an unparalleled view.
Or, hop on a narrated Mackinac Island Carriage Tour. Lasting about two hours, it’s an easy way to take in some of the scenic sights and attractions while learning about the history of the island.
Although surrounded by sparkling clear and inviting freshwater, there are no sandy beaches on the island. Bring water shoes for wading, rock hounding and exploring the stony shoreline.
You can get out on the water on guided or self-guided kayak tours or stand up paddleboard lessons with the experienced crew at Great Turtle Kayak Tours. Excursions suitable for beginners or families last from 30 minutes to two hours.
Even if you’re not a Grand Hotel guest you can take a dip in the serpentine shaped outdoor swimming pool — for a fee. The 220-footlong pool is named for Esther Williams, a competitive swimmer and actress who started in the 1947 movie “This Time for Keeps,” which was filmed at the Grand Hotel.
The climb up the hill to Fort Mackinac can be daunting, but the activities and view of the island and straits make it well worth the effort. Costumed interpreters demonstrate life at the fort during the 1880s, with plenty of hands-on experiences for the kids throughout the stone structure, the oldest building in Michigan, and the 13 additional historic buildings that make up the compound.
In addition to the fort, Mackinac Historic State Parks operates five buildings in the downtown area, including the Dr. Beaumont Museum. Kids are fascinated by the experiments done on the digestive system of a French voyageur who survived a shooting and, through a hole in the stomach that would not heal, was studied at the site. Of all they see and experience, this may be their most lasting Mackinac Island memory.
IF YOU GO
The Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau website is the source for detailed information on how to get to the island and where to stay, dine and play. Stop by the Main Street visitor booth on the island for brochures, maps and information, and ask about coupons for island specials. (855) 560-8005; mackinacisland.org
Mackinac State Historic Parks: (906) 8473328 or (231) 436-1000; mackinacparks.com
Three companies operate passenger ferries from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Schedules vary depending on the season. Look for discounted fare coupons online and check with hotels that offer ferry tickets with their overnight packages.
Delta Airlines services Pellston Regional Airport in the northern Lower Peninsula. There are ground shuttle services to the ferry docks, about 15 miles away: pellstonairport.com.
It’s a seven-minute flight on Great Lakes Air from St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula to the airstrip on Mackinac Island: greatlakesair.net.
The 80-slip Mackinac Island State Harbor is open from mid-May to mid-October. For information and reservations go to: midnrreservations.com.
In addition to bicycles, you can also rent a self-drive horse and buggy or saddle horses for trail rides. Electric scooters and adult strollers are also available for rent. See the information at mackinacisland.org.
Check the Mackinac Island tourism website and click “Concierge” at mackinacisland.org.
Chippewa Hotel: chippewahotel.com
Grand Hotel: grandhotel.com
Lake View Hotel: lake-view-hotel.com
Mission Point Resort: missionpoint.com
This article originally appeared in the 2015 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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