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.

Geography

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.

The Mackinaw Bridge

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.

Map of Mackinac Island and surrounding area

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.

Detailed map of Mackinac Island

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.

Island Charm

The island is so charming, it’s ridiculous. Everywhere you look, there are postcard perfect scenes:

Horse drawn carriage on Mackinac Island

Horse drawn carriage in front of a historic church on Mackinac Island

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.

Bike racks on Mackinac Island

And all around, there are reminders that bicycles really are the normal mode of transportation:

Sign showing bike parking area for staff

Beautifully landscaped B&B’s and inns cater to the summer visitors:

while larger hotels offer enormous lawns with commanding views of the lake:

Large inn with lawn on Mackinac Island

Adirondack chairs on lawn facing lake on Mackinac Island

Additionally, some smaller cruise ships bring visitors to the island:

Cruise ship docked at Mackinac 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….

Tree-lined road leading to the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

The hotel….

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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…

Trails

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…

Perimeter loop on Mackinac Island

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.

Interior trails in the forest at Mackinac Island

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.

Arch Rock on Mackinac Island

Bright blue and green waters of Lake Huron
Who knew Lake Huron could look like the Caribbean??

Getting up close to the pristine, clear water was even more remarkable.

Crystal clear turquoise water surrounding Mackinac Island

Downtown

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.

Downtown Mackinac Island

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…..

Employees making fudge at Murdick's Fudge in Mackinac Island
“Hey friend, how much to shovel that whole thing toward my face??”

Turns out, the famous fudge shops on Mackinac Island still make fudge the exact way their predecessors made it over a hundred years ago.

Employees making fudge at Murdick's Fudge in Mackinac Island

What we saw on the sidewalk in front of the shop, however, was slightly less authentic….

Boxes of salt water taffy

Seriously?

Bags of salt water taffy

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.

The Mackinaw Icebreaker ship

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kevin and I got a kick out of this:

Mackinaw Icebreaker shore power cord

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.

Next up….

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

Previous articleThe Trouble With Sleeping Around
Next articleA Loop Through the Yoop

49 COMMENTS

  1. Mackinac Island is a wonderful place even though it is touristy. Keeping the auto away makes it harder for most people to get very far so most of the island tour is very pleasant. So good to see Thor having a fun trip, as well. We, too, chose to skip the $10 tour of the hotel!! Gee, it sure is tacky decorating. Glad we passed. The Great Lakes are all so beautiful. My family lives just miles from Lake Ontario and John was raised in Erie with Lake Erie. So we were excited a few years ago to visit the other lakes as we moved from east to west. Michigan is my favorite lake with Superior in second place.

    • We’ve really enjoyed our time up here as well. We didn’t know what to expect, but we’ve been super impressed by the lakes as well as the cities we’ve found throughout Michigan. The only downside has been the questionable weather patterns, which I think are just a product of being on the lakes. We seem to consistently get surprise rainstorms and the forecasts are always off. But I guess that’s to be expected with bodies of water this large.

  2. Much like you, we also prefer to avoid the overly touristy places, and then again, here we are living in one… and the interesting part is that as you say, there is a reason these places are popular. Benefits for us here are in regards to the small things.. such as six years ago, one could not get a smoothie bowl nor sushi, and now both can be had in multiple places.

    We used to live in Chicago so I know how amazing most of Michigan is. We have been as far north as Traverse City and have visited Ann Arbor and Holland and some of the places closer to Chicago. Always full of charm, wonderful fudge and or ice cream and great lake dunes or wonderful places to swim. Seems like a great visit!!

    Your pooch is gorgeous, I have to say. Glad he enjoyed so much.

    Peta

    • I think tourism in general is just a double edged sword. It’s wonderful to share these beautiful and unique places with the larger population, but, oftentimes, too many visitors take away from the experience or, worse yet, damage the sites themselves. I am sure you’re seeing plenty of that phenomena as well. Mackinac Island has done well in not letting the big companies take over or ruin the downtown area with junky stores spilling out onto the sidewalk. I’m sure it’s a battle they fight all the time.

      We just left Traverse City and really loved it! We’ll be in Ann Arbor in a bit. We have absolutely enjoyed this time in Michigan. It is a great state with plenty of variety to keep anyone occupied.

      Finally – thank you for the complements on Thor. I would tell him when you said, but I’m afraid he’s gonna get a big ego, so I’ll keep it to myself. 🙂

  3. I wish we had time when we left Wisconsin to head north. to Michigan. Ah…next time. The island looks wonderful. The color of the lake is stunning!!! Kudos to them for keeping it from becoming just another place we’d rather skip! Great post!

    • I know the feeling. We wish we had time to visit Wisconsin while we were in the area, but alas, we are getting way out of dodge before the deep freeze. I have seen enough “snowmobile route” signs to make clear that winter is no joke around these parts… Hopefully we can all get back to explore what we haven’t seen some other summer!

  4. Wow! That place looks incredible! You said we’d love it and I think you are right. I never think of the Great Lakes being that color – I bet it is deceiving though, no where near as warm as the Caribbean ????. Super pretty! Glad you had fun!

    • Ha! Yeah… good point. We saw plenty of people swimming in various places, but these folks are hardy Michiganders!! Their version of cold and our version of cold are probably quite different. 🙂 I hope you guys do visit at some point. It really is a fun and beautiful place that I think you’d appreciate.

  5. After reading this, my places to go list just increased by 1, again. Very beautiful. Wow, it is really difficult being a part time RV’er. I need to get out more.

    • Haha… Well, there are upsides and downsides to both versions, I can tell you that. Recently, we’ve been appreciating the idea of having a home base of some sort because the fulltime travel thing can really wear you down after a bit. I guess the grass really is always greener, no matter what you’re talking about. All that being said, this particular location is definitely worth making an effort for, so yes, add it to your list!

  6. We’ve always skipped the island for the same reasons you gave in your first paragraphs. If I want Disneyland, I’ll go to Disneyland (world). After reading your post, it looks like we’d enjoy it as much as you three did. I can’t believe the color of the water! Speaking of color…..the Grand Hotel certainly is “colorful”! I’d never be able to sleep in a room with that much going on!

    Nice to see that you let poor, neglected Thor get into the water for a bit of fun. I know he appreciated it.

    • It’s funny…. while looking for photos of the interior of the hotel, I found a review on Tripadvisort where the woman complained that the colors were so bright and overwhelming, she was sure she’d never be able to fall asleep. She actually went and asked for a different room and ended up with something even worse. It was apparently, quite a traumatic weekend getaway.

      Anyway, all that aside, as long as you’re willing to get away from the downtown area, it’s a whole different world. Thank heavens the majority of the island is a state park. If not, I am sure it would truly be a Disney-esque experience.

  7. The flowerbeds! You just don’t get those in the southwest much, and I miss seeing them.
    I don’t care for the -aw/c business, and I think they should pick one and be done with it.
    I adore the gaudy decor inside the hotel! Not enough to pony up the dough to stay there, but I think it’s fabulous. No one decorates with Kelly Green anymore, and that’s just a shame.
    The origins of the saltwater taffy aside, do visitors really buy that much of it? I always wondered that at fairs and such, too. Who is buying that much?!
    Do you still have any fudge left?

    • Dude, are you kidding me? That fudge didn’t last 24 hours. We almost bought more at a related store in Traverse City, but luckily, we exercised what tiny bit of self control we have and skipped it. As for the taffy, I have no idea why anyone would ever eat that stuff at all because its terrible. And if anyone ate an entire bag of it, I’ve got to believe they’d end up with an intestinal blockage, so, I hope they aren’t doing that. Finally, I am with you on the spelling issue. The whole problem is with the French. They just don’t like to make pronunciation easy and that means we all have to pay the price…. Damned French!

  8. I am so glad you found the Island (as we call it) to be as pleasant a place as you have written it was for you. In fact it is all that you found and more. Many groups, Michigander and other, come there for multi-day conferences in a couple of the larger hotels. For us we call it “Michigan’s Retreat House”. Getting on the ferry either in Mackinaw City or St. Ignace, and taking the 25 minute ride across the Straits begins a mystical shedding of your tensions. When you arrive at your conference venue and see the other people you haven’t seen for a year or those you work with every day, a certain peace settles over your relationship there.

    I have been there for professional, legal and political gatherings since 1972. Scores of times. It never fails to be the place where people of all stripes can meet and discuss and settle serious issues, but with a sense of calm.

    The trip back to reality is, each time, tinged with a feeling of sadness at leaving that special place, knowing that it will be too long before you will be returning.

    This may sound a tad esoteric. So be it. But it is our (Michiganders lucky enough to go there occasionally) briar patch, reference to Brer Rabbit. One does not have to stay at the Grand. I prefer the less expensive and cozier B&Bs. Whatever.

    I hope on your UP trip you saw the Michigan Shipwreck Museum up by Whitefish Bay. At the end of a longish drive. Very evocative of the lives and dangers of sailing on the Great Lakes, which our distant cousin, who captained ships on both the Murmansk Run (WWII) and the Great Lakes, called the most difficult waters to navigate.

    John

    • Oh man! You’re killing me! You’re honestly the third person who’s told us we should have gone to the shipwreck museum. We only had one full day to work with in that area and we had to decide between Tahquamenon Falls or the museum and we decided to go to the falls. It was a beautiful, sunny day and it just seemed like we should take advantage. But that means we skipped the museum and ever since that fateful decision, we keep hearing about how fantastic it is. Well, given how much fun we’ve been having in this lovely state of yours, I am sure we’ll be back at some point and we won’t skip the museum next time!

      I can absolutely imagine what a wonderful place Mackinac would be for professional retreats. It is certainly a beautiful and relaxing place and they obviously have the facilities to handle any such event. And after having experienced all of it for ourselves, I can see why the island holds such a special place in so many Michiganders’ hearts.

    • We got the impression that lots of Michiganders grow up visiting the island as kids and then take their own kids there eventually. Definitely sounds like a return trip is in order!

  9. “Bet they never had to turn off the A/C before blow drying their hair,” LOL!! I need one of those superduper power cords!

    Mackinac Island has been on our list for years. Like you, we’re allergic to places that are overly touristy but it looks like the natural beauty and the bike trails win out over the ‘shoppes.’ And biking around the entire island sounds exactly like our idea of a good time. The color of the water is surreal—it really does look like the Caribbean! Love the photos of you guys with Thor. All three of you look relaxed and happy.

    Oh my, the interior of the Grand Hotel! I do believe whoever decorated that moved to southern Oregon at some point and decorated the little 50s cottage we bought and renovated. As soon as that sucker closed we rented a giant dumpster and started ripping up carpet and steaming off wallpaper…

    • I think the true gift of Mackinac Island is the state park. The fact that so much of it has been preserved as a natural area for everyone’s enjoyment has made all the difference. You would absolutely love biking it. And once you complete the 8 mile perimeter trail, there are tons of hills to conquer in the interior. They were some buttkickers for sure. (Not that I biked them… Oh, hell no…. They just looked difficult from afar…) 🙂

      The three of us have definitely been relaxed and happy. Michigan has been a great stop. It’s been a wonderful mix of natural beauty and fun cities… Oh, and beer. So much good beer!!

  10. I love the horsedrawn carriage delivery mechanism for Amazon. I assume the Prime 2-day guarantee applies, but I am guessing they probably don’t have same-day delivery. In many Florida planned communities UPS uses golf carts with little trailers to deliver Amazon packages. In a prior home in Palm Beach Gardens a big UPS truck would drop off a “PODS” type container every morning at the clubhouse and the local delivery guy spent the day zooming around on the golf cart delivering packages to homes. Horse-drawn carriage would be way cooler.

    Glad you were pleasantly surprised by the island! After taking the time to get over there it would be disappointing if it turned out to be totally annoying. But between this and your enjoyment of Niagara Falls you may need to reevaluate your supposed disdain for touristy places!

    • LOL. Dammit. I think you may have a point. What the hell is happening to me? Next thing you know, I’m gonna be all fanny packs and sun visors! Ugh!

      I have seen those Amazon pod delivery systems! It is truly crazy how much that one company has changed the way we all do things. It would be interesting to know if the challenges at Mackinac Island change their delivery schedule at all or if they are able to keep the 2 day promise. If so, it’s even more impressive!

    • Anytime! Sometimes I just like to rage against the injustice of asking people to pay for nonsense that should be free. Fortunately (most of the time), it’s hard to get away with stuff like that in the internet age. Yay technology!

    • I think we may have gotten a bit lucky with our timing because we were at the end of the tourist season and the island wasn’t quite as crazy as it can sometimes be. In fact, we just grabbed our ferry tickets and walked right on. I know sometimes people have to buy their tickets ahead of time or wait for the next boat. Had we been there during the true height of the season, it might have been more annoying, but still, if you have the opportunity to go visit, it’s worth it.

  11. Great post! I’m so glad Thor enjoyed the trip too????. That power cord was amazing. I have heard
    people say that big bridge is scary to drive in a motorhome— what did you think?

    • Honestly, I find all of those big suspension bridges a bit scary in the motorhome – just because you’re so high up and you tower over the puny guardrails. I didn’t find the Mackinac Bridge to be any better or worse than any other. I usually just try to focus out the front window and not pay attention to sides. It helped that we also didn’t run into any traffic, so we weren’t on there any longer than we needed to be.

  12. Thank you for the McTour. Beautiful photos and great storytelling. We must go there someday. The water is gorgeous. Thor looks happy. Life looks very, very good for you three. Can’t wait for the next post!

  13. Great post on Mackinac Island! I’m originally from Michigan and have visited the island many times. You covered it very well. Thanks for posting!

  14. We’ve spent a day there years ago, but never got to hike as we spent all our time downtown and on a horse and buggy tour. Next time I’ll be sure to use this blog post for a refernce.

    • I think we would probably feel very different about the experience had we not gotten away from the downtown area. The real magic was on the bike paths and hiking trails. And while people seemed to be enjoying the carriage rides, it was nice for us to be able to meander at our own pace and not feel rushed.

  15. I think by going there twice you got more of your visit and you did it justice, now more tourist will visit it :). We too enjoyed our day there too on our bikes and were really amazed at the hundreds of bicycle all over the island. I know the aroma from that fudge place is so tempting! And no we too did not fall into the $10 trap. I was just happy to see where Somewhere in time (one of my all-time fave) was filmed.

    • I definitely think going twice was the best answer for us. While it was awesome being able to bring Thor, and he is VERY smart, he just cannot ride a bike… 🙂 We would have missed a lot of the island – many of the best parts – had we not gone back. This way, we got a bit of everything and truly felt like we got the whole experience.

      To be honest, I have never actually seen that movie. Looks like I probably HAVE to watch it now, huh? 🙂

  16. WOW! We are missing out…we have never been to Michigan or anywhere close and it looks like we need to remedy that! Can’t wait to see what is next, you might just be planning our next adventure! ???????? Gorgeous photos of the island…especially colors of the lake! And fudge is a definite draw! Gay

    • I think you would really enjoy a summer trip to Michigan! We are spending a total of about six weeks here, but you could easily spend an entire summer. There’s a lot to see, and, most importantly, a great variety of attractions. I’ve also been following several bloggers who’ve been traveling around Wisconsin and it, too, looks like a wonderful place to explore during the warmer months!

    • Aw thanks, TBG! I appreciate it! And I appreciate the word ‘cornucopia.’ That is a word I think we should all endeavor to use more often!

    • Unfortunately, the state park does not have a campground. If you want to stay over, you’d have to get a hotel room – of which there are plenty. Alternatively, you can camp over in Mackinaw City and take the ferry over for the day. That’s what we did. We stayed at Mackinaw City Campground which is really close to the ferry pickup. There was also a KOA nearby and I think there are a couple other commercial campgrounds as well.

      As for scooters, they are definitely permitted and you could easily get around the downtown area and the the perimeter trail. Some of the interior areas might be a bit more difficult to navigate (there are some pretty significant hills, etc), but I think most of it could be done. I would check in with the island’s visitor’s bureau for specific suggestions and assistance, but overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to go check it out.

  17. What a great post…loved your pics. I especially like the one of the ginormous power cord! lol! I really want to get to Michigan….we can only go to so many places each year and that is not in the lineup for a while. Some day….Until then we will just continue to putter along.

    • I think Michigan is one of those places that’s worth spending several weeks to explore, and you really don’t want to be trying to camp here when it’s cold, so I wouldn’t rush it. This is our first visit and I’m glad we waited and came at the right time. Better to take your time and enjoy things, rather than just checking them off the list.Happy trails!

  18. Okay…you are making me want to go back to the Mac!!! Hoping to revisit the fudge “shoppes” when we do the great loop in our boat. Glad you are having such good weather to explore.

    Looks like Thor gave it two paws up as well!!! He is such a handsome boy.

    • Aw, thank you! He is a looker, no doubt!

      I think visiting places like these via boat would be so much fun! A whole different perspective, and you wouldn’t have to pay $27 per person for the ferry. Win win!! ????

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here