Mackinac Island, MI
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Mackinac Island, MI

Cars are a no-no on this peaceful 19th-century isle in the upper peninsula.

Sounds of Silence

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.


Ferry Dock, copyright
Terry W. Phipps/
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.

Ghosts and Gore

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.


Butterfly House, copyright
Terry W. Phipps/Mackinac
Island

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.

Low-Tech Touring

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:

  • Lakeshore Road. This eight-mile, paved trail circling the island along the shore is easy on little legs. Heading east from the dock, the first mile will bring you to Mackinac's most impressive sight, Arch Rock. The 50-foot natural limestone bridge rises 150 feet above the shore of Lake Huron.
  • Devil's Kitchen. About a mile west of downtown, you'll encounter another imposing formation -- a huge limestone ledge looming over the path.
  • Skull Cave. Pedal inland on Garrison Road, and you'll find this cave, named when a settler hiding from Indians discovered human bones there. Make sure you're on a mountain bike; the paths are all gravel and dirt.

Heavy Artillery


Fort Mackinac, copyright
Terry W. Phipps/Mackinac
Island

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.

Grande Dame

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).

Dashboard

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.

If You Go...

Ferry Lines

Skull Cave, copyright
Terry W. Phipps/
Mackinac Island

  • Arnold Transit Co.
    801 S. Huron St., Mackinaw City or 99 N. State St., St. Ignace
    Phone: 800-542-8528
  • Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry
    556 East Central Ave., Mackinaw City or 601 N. State St., St. Ignace
    Phone: 800-828-6157
  • Star Line Mackinac Ferry
    511 Huron St. Mackinaw City or 587 N. State St., St. Ignace Phone: 800-638-9892

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 Carriages

Bike Rental

  • Island Bicycle Rental
    Main St.
    Phone: 906-847-6288
  • Ryba's Bicycle Rentals
    Main St.
    Phone: 906-847-6261

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

 

Side Trips

Tahquamenon Falls State Park

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.

The Inside Scoop

Favorite local spots

  • Yankee Rebel Tavern, Astor St. Call 906-847-6249 for more information. This restaurant pays tribute to an American hero taken prisoner by the Brits during the War of 1812. Locals come here for a sizable kids menu and such comfort food as pan-fried Great Lakes walleye.
  • May's Famous Mackinac Fudge, Huron St.. Call 800-785-9277 for more information. With over a dozen shops selling homemade fudge, Mackinac Island poses a serious threat to dieters. You'll see the gooey treat being cooled on marble slabs at shops all over downtown. The granddaddy is May's; opened here in 1881, you still can't beat their classic chocolate-walnut.

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.

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