SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
Coming here on vacation? No need to worry about late-night drag races and car alarms keeping you awake. Cars are taboo on historic Mackinac Island.
In the late 1800s, wealthy locals wanted to preserve the isle's peaceful mood, not to mention discourage visiting riffraff. Their strategy worked. Today, this six-square-mile haven in the Straits of Mackinac is happily stuck in the past. Horses pull carriages past Victorian cottages, while cannons boom out over the bluffs from a Revolutionary-era fort.
Upon arriving on Mackinac (pronounced MACK-i-naw) Island, the first thing you'll notice is the noise, or lack of it. No revving car motors or belching motorcyles. Just the sound of horses clomping and kids playing -- a pretty amazing feat considering that the island is just a 15-minute boat ride from mainland Michigan.
Getting to the island is simple. You can catch a ferry from either Mackinaw City, on the Lower Peninsula, or St. Ignace, on the Upper. Three boat lines make frequent runs to the island, and there's plenty of dockside parking.
Once there, start out with a historic tour of the four-block downtown district, where costumed interpreters at a handful of historic sites bring island history to life. At the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop on Market Street, watch horseshoes and candlesticks get hammered over an authentic 19th-Century forge.
The William Beaumont Memorial Museum, at Fort and Market Streets, is the oddest attraction you'll find on the island. Beaumont was the fort surgeon, and in 1822 he removed a bullet from the abdomen of a French trapper. The wound never closed, and Beaumont used the opening, so to speak, to revolutionize knowledge of the digestive system. Young would-be medics can check out a hands-on model of the hapless Frenchman's mid-section.
More ghastly thrills lie in wait at the Haunted Theatre on Huron Street. This is the most "touristy" attraction in town, but perfect for restless tykes who need a dose of ghouls and goblins.
For a less grisly diversion, wander over to the Butterfly House, a greenhouse on McGulpin Street, where you can sniff the flowers surrounded by as many as 700 butterflies.
To see the rest of the island, book a horse-and-buggy ride. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours operates an hour-and-45-minute, narrated tour of 20 island highlights in a shaded, fringe-topped surrey. In keeping with the laid-back attitude, there are no scheduled departures; the whip snaps once there's a full carriage.
Even better, clip-clop along at your own pace by renting a horse and buggy at Jack's Livery Stables. The horses are easy-going and experienced, and you can be sure everyone in your gang will get a chance at the reins.
After giving the island the once-over, hop on a bike for more serious exploring. You'll save money by bringing your own bikes along, but rentals are plentiful at the dock.
Pick up the free Mackinac Island Map at the Chamber of Commerce, or most any shop downtown. It'll come in handy when navigating the island's 100 miles of hiking trails and bike paths. Here are some of our family favorites:
You will encounter some noise at one must-see spot. Cannon fire rings out every half-hour from the ramparts of Fort Mackinac, which stands guard on a bluff overlooking downtown. The British built this island stronghold to defend the straits against those uppity colonists during the Revolutionary War.
Now, guides in 18th-century uniform reenact colonial military life, with real musket firings, fife-and-drum displays, and a court-martial that occurred when the Americans took control of the fort. Allow two hours to wander the fully-restored fortress while the kids try on helmets, get drill instruction, or play tunes on a giant fife in the brand-new Kid's Quarters interactive area.
Don't leave Mackinac Island without getting a look at the spectacular Grand Hotel, built by railway and steamship tycoons in 1887. Sitting on 500 manicured acres just west of downtown, it's billed as the largest summer hotel in the world. And there's nothing quite like the view from the 660-foot, pillared front porch, where hundreds of red geraniums and white wicker rockers sit beneath rippling yellow awnings. It was here that Christopher Reeve found Jane Seymour in the movie Somewhere in Time.
With rates that match the regal atmosphere, this may not be the place you sleep for the night; but get a taste of the high life at the 100-foot lunch buffet. Before 6:00 p.m., the hotel keeps up its high-toned ambience with an admission fee for non-guests (the cost is deducted from your bill if you come for the buffet).
Type of trip: Biking, sightseeing, historic Best for ages: 6 and up Ideal trip length: 1-3 days Distance: Flint, MI (225 miles); Detroit (280 miles); Chicago (390 miles) Best time to go: Late spring to early fall. June and September have great weather and lighter crowds. Most attractions are open mid-May to mid-October. Weather: 75/59 degrees in July and August, 68/53 in September; frigid in winter Lodging: Most B&Bs require a two-night minimum on weekends. Save 15-20 percent by staying mid-week in May, June, September, and October. Mainland hotels are less expensive, but it's worth paying extra to spend at least one night on the island. There is no camping on Mackinac Island. Squirm Factor: Some. The laid-back pace and lack of nightlife may be boring for kids.
Benjamin Blacksmith Shop Market St. Phone: 906-847-3328 Note: Open mid-June through August
Beaumont Memorial Fort St. Phone: 906-847-3328 Note: Open mid-June through August
Mackinac Island Butterfly House 1308 McGulpin St. Phone: 906-847-3972
Mackinac Island Carriage Tours Main St. Phone: 906-847-3307
Jack's Livery Stables Mahoney Ave. Phone: 906-847-3391 Note: Drive-Yourself CarriagesBike Rental
Fort Mackinac Fort St. Phone: 906-847-3328 Note: Open mid-May to mid-October
Grand Hotel West Bluff Rd. Phone: 800-33-GRAND
Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce Phone: 800-4LILACS
About 45 miles north of the Mackinac Bridge on the Upper Peninsula, this 40,000-acre park makes a great day trip from the Straits. The park has camping, hiking, canoeing, and fishing, but it's best known for spectacular, copper-colored Falls.
From an observation deck, you can feel the spray from the 50-foot Upper Falls, which gets its unique color from cedar, hemlock, and spruce trees in the swamps at the river's mouth. In the lower falls area, two modern campgrounds with flush toilets and hot showers make roughing it a bit easier.
Boat rentals are available. And the family-friendly Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub offers a good alternative to rubbing sticks together for a campfire. Hwy M-123, Paradise. Call 906-492-3415 for more information.
Best souvenir: Miniature hand-made birch bark canoes. reminding kids how the first visitors came to the island. Available at Sutler's Store, Fort Mackinac.
Annual event: The Lilac Festival, early June, various locations downtown. Call 800-4LILACS for more information. A weeklong festival celebrating the arrival of these fragrant flowers with sunset cruises, concerts and a "Taste of Mackinaw" food fair.
What to pack: Dress in layers whenever you come. Hot summer days can turn chilly by evening. Bring the bug spray.
Travel alert: Don't look for street numbers. They were forgotten years ago.
Reviewed May 2004.