As a general rule, we dislike overly touristy places. The minute we see trinket stores, souvenir stands, and fudge shops (sorry… I mean, “shoppes”), we start looking for alternatives. We’re just not into wandering around manufactured attractions designed to separate people from their money. We’d rather go to real cities and towns, talk to the local residents, and find out what makes a place special.
Of course, we still visit plenty of these touristy spots because, oftentimes, they’re popular for a reason. Additionally, more than once, we’ve been surprised to find we really love a place we thought we’d dislike.
Enter Mackinac Island.
This place, as it was described to us, was going to be everything we didn’t care for: A tiny island with a population of just 500 permanent residents that is inundated with tourists every summer; a place famous for its prohibition of modern transportation – bicycles and horses are the only ways to get around; and, a vacation destination known for its shopping-centric downtown, its carriage rides, and, naturally, its fabulous fudge.
It sounded awful.
Can you see where this is going? Of course you can.
We loved it! In fact, we enjoyed it so much, we visited twice! We almost never repeat outings, but we had such a great time on our first visit, we came back a couple days later to explore more.
Of course, it helped that the weather during our visit was pristine and the tourist masses had thinned out a bit, but still… This place was special.
First, a primer on the area.
At the very top of the Michigan mitten is Mackinaw City. Keep driving north (on I-75) and you go over the Mackinac Bridge – one of the largest suspension bridges in the world – and land on the Upper Peninsula.
To the east of the bridge is Lake Huron, to the west of the bridge is Lake Michigan. Just a couple miles northeast of the bridge, in Lake Huron, is tiny Mackinac Island.
The island itself is about four square miles, and more than 80% of it is a Michigan State Park. It was actually Michigan’s first state park.
The island can be reached by ferry services from either Mackinaw City (on the southern side of the bridge) or St. Ignace (on the northern side of the bridge.) Visitors are welcome to bring their own bikes or just rent them on the island. Other than emergency vehicles, cars are prohibited.
Finally, you’re not crazy to wonder why I keep spelling things differently – these places use alternative spellings of the same word. Mackinac is pronounced “Mackinaw,” but spelled with a “C.” Here’s a guide for when to use which spelling.
The island is so charming, it’s ridiculous. Everywhere you look, there are postcard perfect scenes:
Happily, the many horses we saw appeared healthy and well cared for. (Click on any photo for full size version)
Hundreds of bicycles line the streets, and almost no one locks them up.
And all around, there are reminders that bicycles really are the normal mode of transportation:
Beautifully landscaped B&B’s and inns cater to the summer visitors:
while larger hotels offer enormous lawns with commanding views of the lake:
Additionally, some smaller cruise ships bring visitors to the island:
All the hotels, and most of the shops, are independently owned. There are no corporate hotels, chain restaurants, or big retailers here (except a single Starbucks because even residents of Macinac Island appreciate a Pumpkin Spice Latte this time of year.)
The biggest and most famous hotel on Mackinac Island is “The Grand Hotel.” This National Historic Landmark opened in 1887, boasts the largest front porch in the world, has hosted five U.S. presidents, and was the filming location for the movie “Somewhere in Time.”
The road leading up to the hotel….
The Grand Hotel is very grand. It is so grand, in fact, visitors are required to pay a $10 fee just to see the interior.
I was not willing to do that, but I was willing to search Google images for you.
I think this style can best be described as “early century holy shit that’s tacky.”
But if you want to spend well north of $500 a night to sleep in a hotel straight outta Munchkinland, have at it…
There’s an 8 mile loop road that follows the perimeter of the island. We walked a portion of it with Thor on our first visit…
And then rented bikes to explore the rest of it upon our return….
Most of the island’s interior is heavily forested and home to numerous trails.
These biking, hiking, and carriage roads offer visitors the very best views of the magnificent lake.
We had no idea the Great Lakes were so colorful. When framed by the island’s famous sandstone arch, which stands 150 feet above the water, the views were just dazzling.
Getting up close to the pristine, clear water was even more remarkable.
The main downtown area is, as expected, touristy – full of souvenir shops and restaurants, but they are well done and the place still maintains its allure.
Of course, while we may think touristy stuff is stupid, we ourselves are not stupid and we know good fudge when we see it. And the stuff they make on Mackinac Island is most definitely the good stuff.
I mean, look at this…..
Turns out, the famous fudge shops on Mackinac Island still make fudge the exact way their predecessors made it over a hundred years ago.
What we saw on the sidewalk in front of the shop, however, was slightly less authentic….
Oh, the irony….
Other than that absurdity, we realized what we really appreciated about Mackinac Island was how authentic it actually is. It is not a manufactured place, but rather, a real place that has not changed over time. The buildings, transportation, and overall way of life have remained the same for over a century and the folks who live and work there have adapted their lives to the constraints of the island rather than the other way around. The best example of this was when we saw a horse drawn wagon piled high with Amazon boxes. With no UPS or USPS trucks on the island, the ubiquitous corrugated boxes are delivered the old fashioned way.
We also appreciated how dog friendly it was. Dogs are welcome on the ferries and at many of the restaurants. Thor got tons of attention on the boat, he got to hike, he got to cool off in the pristine water, and then he got to snooze on the patio while Kevin and I enjoyed some food and brews at Ice House BBQ (our waitress even brought him a bowl of water…)
Overall, it was a good day to be a puppy.
The Icebreaker Mackinaw Museum
While in Mackinaw City, we also visited the Icebreaker Mackinaw Museum.
Ten days after Pearl Harbor, on December 17,1941, Congress passed a bill authorizing production of a heavyweight icebreaker for the Great Lakes. The regions surrounding the lakes produce enormous quantities of iron ore and other materials that were crucial for the war effort, but the lakes freeze for several months each winter. This ship was designed to break the ice and create travel lanes for cargo ships.
After the war, the icebreaker continued its mission of ensuring the safe transportation of millions of pounds of iron ore, stone, coal, grains, and other products across the lakes. In 2006, after 62 years of service, it was retired and turned into a museum.
Visitors can now board the ship on a self guided tour to learn about its facilities, operations, and crew.
Kevin and I got a kick out of this:
This is the ship’s shore power cord…
a “just slightly larger” version of what we have for Barney:
Bet they never had to turn off the A/C before blow drying their hair.
Anyway, this museum is certainly worth a visit if you find yourself in the area. We just couldn’t help but wonder how many guys signed up for the Coast Guard assuming they’d be posted to some location in California or Florida, never even considering they might get shipped off to the frozen tundra of the Great Lakes… Brrrrrr.
Upon leaving Mackinaw City, we crossed the Mighty Mackinaw Bridge and headed directly into the heart of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan’s lightly populated and incredibly lovely crown. More on that soon.
Where we stayed:
Mackinaw City Campground, Mackinaw City, Michigan