On Mackinac Island, residents still travel by horse, carriage or on foot. Dotted with graceful Victorian mansions, a famous hotel, a popular yachting harbor and historic fort, Mackinac (pronounced MACK-uh-naw) lies on Lake Huron in the straits of Mackinac, between Michican’s upper and lower peninsulas. You can make the drive to Mackinaw City, on the mainland, in 60 minutes or less. Here you’ll catch a Mackinac Island ferry for the short trip to the island, to begin a fun and unique day of discovery.
Prepare to step back in time when your ferry enters the village harbor. No cars are allowed on the island, and horses are widely used for day-to-day travel. Charming horse-drawn carriages also make regular trips across and all around the island, which is only about 3 miles long and 2 miles wide. Only M-185 (the nation’s only state highway that does not allow cars) that circles Mackinac Island is paved; all interior roads are sand.
The village itself runs alongside a natural harbor, and up above it sits a historically significant fortress, which at various times has been under French, British and American rule. It is one of the must-sees on Mackinac Island, and history buffs might already know of its role in the War of 1812. The fort’s setting affords an absolutely spectacular view—the prettiest on the island—and a terrace out front where you can have lunch. There’s also a museum, and camera-worthy guards wearing War of 1812 uniforms. Cannons have been known to fire at morning and sunset.
Near the fort is the Governor’s Mansion, which is exactly what it sounds like: a summer home for whoever is currently the state’s elected leader.
The yacht harbor below the ridge that holds both fort and mansion is usually filled with vessels of all sizes during the summer, including some high-end yachts. From June into September, it’s not uncommon to run into “yachties,” particularly in their favorite hangout, the Pink Pony Bar and Grill at the Chippewa Hotel.
The three-block stretch of downtown that fronts the harbor holds great appeal to all who visit. The big thing is the fudge. Mackinac is all about fudge, so much so that visitors are called Fudgies. But don’t be fooled. Locals also patronize the family-owned shops like Ryba’s® Fudge Shops, brimming with gourmet fudge.
When downtown, one can’t help but notice the abundance of places where a horse can be tied. Mackinac is not your average, modern-day American experience. It’s humorously eye-opening, in fact, to see the amount of work involved in keeping her streets clean of horsey “mementos,” and one soon realizes the dilemma from which the combustion engine has spared us all. How fitting that the reminder lies just north of Detroit.
Follow the main road east along the waterfront, and discover bed and breakfasts, a yacht club, hotels and some homes. Head west and you’ll arrive at iconic Mackinac. The last bldg on the shore is the Hotel Iroquois, a wonderful hotel which looks at the lighthouse, the bay, the harbor entrance, and the Mackinac Bridge over the Straits of Mackinac. Sit on the terrace, have a drink, or have lunch if you like.
From there, the road winds up to a cliff, to the famous Grand Hotel and its lovely grounds, which include a little stone church and a 9-hole golf course. The Grand is known for having the “longest porch in the world,” a 660-foot destination which offers plenty of spots in which to relax, take photos and enjoy the views of Lake Huron and a beautiful garden area.
Up on the same ridge as the Grand are the most spectacular mansions on the island, stunning Victorians, exquisitely maintained and overlooking the straits. The town’s architecture is decidedly late 19th century, early 20th century and quietly reminds that the island was settled in an earlier time.
The road winds on, all the way around the island. Sandy interior spokes invite exploration by horse or bicycle. For a treat, take a carriage to the next spot along the outer route, called British Landing. An excellent picnic spot with a rock beach, British Landing is far less visited than other island spots yet is extraordinarily beautiful. The water is clear, deep and icy cold all year ‘round. Michigan travel rarely excludes the shore, and this memorable spot underscores why.
As the circle tour winds back toward town, it passes the ruins of another fort. To learn more about the island history, visit the museum one street off the harbor-front. Or just relax, have some fudge, and soak in the slow pace of life without cars. The increased level of social interaction among pedestrians is part of Mackinac’s magic. Hop aboard a Michigan ferry and let her cast her spell. Mackinac Island is a captivating destination.