“Come back to me,” beckons actress Elise McKenna (played by Jane Seymour) to Chicago playwright Richard Collier (Christopher Reeve), in the 1980 romantic film “Somewhere in Time.” The tearjerker about time travel challenged lovers was filmed largely on Mackinac Island which, with its Victorian architecture and reliance on horses, carriages and bicycles for transportation, was ready for its 1912-era movie close-ups. Most of the sentimental story takes place in and around Grand Hotel, the sparkling white summertime resort hotel that dates back to 1887 and affords sweeping views of the Straits of Mackinac from its bluff-top position above the Great Lakes waterway between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
Mackinac Island was first a sacred place for the Anishinaabe-Ojibwa people who called it Michilimackinac, Land of the Great Turtle. With the arrival of French voyageurs and explorers in the 1600s, it became a fur trading post, a strategic location fought over by the British and Americans, and finally, by the late 1800s, a destination for city dwellers seeking relief from hot air choked with foul odors and skies darkened by pollution. Steamships and trains took vacationers to scenic spots to stay for several weeks at hotels and resorts constructed by the transportation companies.
“That’s why Grand Hotel is here,” says Bob Tagatz, historian at the landmark resort. Northern Michigan was a desirable and even exotic Victorian era destination, he explains at one of the talks he conducts for hotel guests. He cites promotional materials that encouraged tourism by touting the island’s Fort Mackinac, Indian culture, clean water and clean air. “The transportation companies desperately needed the hotel, so they built it themselves.”
Today, with its pastel-colored hotels, shops, grand “cottages” and historic and scenic sites, Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-awe) Island is still a gathering place, a special destination year-round, but especially from May through October. While there are plenty of family-friendly activities, the island is, as seen in “Somewhere in Time,” a romantic retreat for couples, as well.
MAKE TIME TO UNWIND
Plan to spend at least two to three nights to give yourselves a chance to settle into the slower pace of the place where motorized vehicles are banned and tourism traffic is measured by the blasts of horns announcing the first and last ferries of the day. Most visitors arrive by passenger ferries that shuttle between St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula and Mackinaw (yes, the spelling is different) City at the tip of the Lower Peninsula, but there is air service and a modern marina for boaters.
Ferry docks lead directly to bustling Main Street of the island’s downtown area, where it’s impossible to avoid the aroma or the freely given samples of Mackinac’s signature souvenir, freshly made fudge. But who’d want to? Main Street and the parallel Market Street are home to most of the restaurants, pubs, shops, bike rentals, cozy inns and historic buildings. It’s a Disneyesque scene, with horse-drawn buggies and wagons clip-clopping past 19th century hotels and storefronts selling a mix of souvenirs, fine art, clothing, jewelry, moccasins, delicate teapots, T-shirts and—thanks to Northern Michigan’s unpredictable temperatures—sweatshirts all summer long.
Depending on whether you choose to stay at a bed and breakfast, one of the historic downtown hotels, the full-service Mission Point Resort on the “sunrise side” of the island, or Grand Hotel, you may decide to stroll to your accommodations or take a hotel-provided carriage ride or horse drawn taxi.
Horses are a constant presence on the island, whether they’re transporting visitors, conveying goods, or pulling the personal buggies of residents. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours provide a good overview and history to significant points of interest of the 3.8-square-mile island, including several sites that contribute to its designation as a National Historic Landmark. A more romantic option is a private, customized Gough Livery Carriage tour, or a drive your-own surrey with a fringe on top from Jack’s Livery Stables.
Bicycling the island is a must—where else can you pedal a car-free state highway? Bring your own wheels or rent a single speed, mountain bike or tandem bicycle built for two. Pack a picnic and follow the officially named M-185, the eight-mile paved lakeshore route around the island’s perimeter to natural formations like the limestone Arch Rock, views of the Mackinac Bridge and quiet (but stony) beaches.
The fit and adventurous will want to head to the interior of the island and over 70 miles of trails for biking, hiking and horseback riding. More than 80 percent of Mackinac’s 2,200 acres constitute a state park with a diverse ecosystem of meadows, forests, marshes, swamps, limestone caves and formations. Make your way to the highest point on the island, site of the recreated Fort Holmes, for miles-wide views of the Straits of Mackinac. You can get out on that waterway on guided or self-guided kayak tours or stand up paddleboard lessons, set sail on a charter outing, or relax on a lighthouse, sunset or fireworks cruise.
Mackinaw City, a ferry departure point to Mackinac Island, is about 415 miles northeast of Chicago. Ferries also depart from St. Ignace, at the northern end of the five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge in the Upper Peninsula.
Delta Airlines services Pellston Regional Airport in the northern Lower Peninsula. There are ground shuttle services from the airport to the Mackinaw City 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
Mackinac Island Visitor Information: mackinacisland.org, (906) 847-3783
This article originally appeared in the 2017 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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