The biggest draw of Northern Michigan is Mackinac Island. Home to only 450 permanent residents, the island hosts over 1,000,000 visitors each season.
Besides its natural beauty and history, Mackinac Island is well known for exactly the opposite reason as the rest of industrialized Michigan. No motorized vehicles are allowed on the island – a century-old tradition. Even the golf course does not have golf carts.
The former 18th-century military outpost was once occupied by the armies of three countries: the French, British, and – after being kicked out several times – the Americans, who came back permanently in 1780.
In the late 1800s the military’s need for the island dwindled, and the rich and famous in Detroit, Chicago and Toronto discovered her and built their summer mansions here.
We took the Shepler Ferry, one of three passenger ferries operating out of Mackinaw City (more on the “c” vs. “w” spellings later) with Catalina-style boats departing roughly every 30 minutes. It took us only 15 minutes to reach the island, three miles offshore.
The site of the massive Grand Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, highlighted our approach to the island. Built in 1887, the hotel, home to the world’s longest outdoor wooden porch, was used as the romantic setting in the Jane Seymour/Christopher Reeves film Somewhere in Time. A long row of turn-of-the-century Victorian homes is perched up on a bluff, leading up from the waterfront town and overlooking the harbor.
A huge rock wall outlines the limestone hilltop compound of Ft. Mackinac. Standing for over two centuries, the fort once guarded The Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan converge. The fort was also a haven for trappers and Indians, depending which country’s allegiance you pledged.
Docents dressed in period costumes demonstrate historical activities like soap making and leather tanning. And every half hour, soldiers fire off the large cannon – once capable of sinking the mightiest of enemy ships going through The Straits.
Walking off the wharf onto Main Street is like entering a new land at Disneyland. But the restored 19th-century village is all original, complete with wooden boardwalks and horse-drawn carriages waiting to deliver baggage and passengers to their accommodations.
All of the island’s supplies are delivered by boat, and then distributed by horse and carriage. Horses always have the right of way over bicycles and pedestrians. The timeless village’s season is from late spring to early fall, as Lake Huron freezes over in the winter, when residents can only access it by snowmobile.
We went only for the day. Lodging is usually booked weeks in advance, and it's generally above the average family’s price range.
The Grand is a very private hotel. You can’t just walk around unless you're a registered guest or pay a non-guest admission of $10.00. The hotel’s rooms start at $450 per night. Lakeview rooms fetch up to $1,500 per night. A five-course meal and breakfast is always included.
The hotel’s 400 rooms each have a different individual design. Numerous Presidents have stayed at The Grand, and a wing of rooms is named after First Ladies, designed in cooperation with the Presidents' wives and their tastes. Other island accommodations – hotels or B&Bs – range from $85 to $700 per night.
We rented several bikes with helmets provided and took a leisurely, flat ride along the seven-mile shoreline, completely around the island. We stopped at the forest groves, giant arched rock formations and 100-year-old churches.
The unpopulated north side of the island was the most surprising, with its crystal-clear, warm, Caribbean-like water. I could have stayed for days. The shallow water made it picture-perfect with sailboats anchored not too far from shore.
The four block-long Main Street is filled with souvenir shops and restaurants, and every other business is making and selling “World Famous Mackinac Island Fudge.” (Side note: The two stands at the San Diego County Fair that sell “Mackinac Island Fudge” are not from Mackinac Island. There is no trademark on the term Mackinac Island Fudge, but there is on pictures of the Grand Hotel, which were removed from the stands a few years ago.)
Looking in the big front windows, we gawked at the huge mixtures of sugar, milk and chocolate being poured over the large marble cooling tables, continuously folded until cooled, and then cut into take-home, one-pound slices. We bought several gift boxes of fudge to take home, which of course were gone before we got home.
Finally, the spelling and geography lesson. Over a century ago, the U.P.'ers choose the French spelling of Mackinac, and claimed the island, the fort and the watery Straights. The down-staters claimed the British/Indian spelling of Mackinaw for its northernmost town, Mackinaw City. (In actuality, a postmaster made the final choice to avoid delivery confusion.)
Michigan is divided into two landmasses, Lower and Upper Peninsula, both surrounded by the Great Lakes. Connecting the two is the dividing line – the massive five-mile span of “Mighty Mac”, the I-75 Mackinac Bridge. The roadway’s surface is open corrugated steel; you can see through the road’s surface 200 feet down to the water below. This avoids the road icing over in the harsh winters.
The Lower Michigan peninsula residents are known as “down-staters.” Their part of the state looks like a mitt or glove. Thus the name “Mitt” Romney, who was born in Michigan and whose dad was governor.
The Upper Peninsula is called the “U.P.” and its residents are called “U.P'ers.” The first town in the U.P., coming off the bridge, is St. Ignace, only 45 minutes from the Canadian border. Most down-staters think that U.P.'ers should be part of Canada anyway. They say “eh” a lot, donch-ya-know.
And we visitors are never impolitely referred to as tourists, but rather “resorters.” Or if a local gets a little nasty, “fudgies,” as in we only came for the fudge.
Getting there. The recreation areas of Northern Michigan are a leisurely five-hour drive north of Detroit on Interstate 75. Flights and rental cars are cheaper and more abundant in Detroit. Only Delta flies daily to Pellston, MI, about a ½ hour south of Mackinac with connections through Detroit.
Where to stay. The nearby town of Petoskey, MI, on the shores of Lake Michigan, has all the comforts of home: budget motels, fast food restaurants and a Walmart.
Contact. Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau, Mackinacisland.org, 800-454-5227. The island’s season is from May 1st to October 31st. Northern Michigan golf, boating, and visitor information: northernmichigan.com.