In the age of globalization, it’s increasingly difficult to find a place that feels wholly unique. But off the coast of Michigan is a secret hideaway with charms all its own.
Known as the “jewel of the Great Lakes,” Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-in-aw) has maintained its singular atmosphere by banning two things: cars and chain hotels. Everything is stuck a bit in the past. Horses and buggies clomp down the streets. A fudge shop churns out sweets with recipes from the 19th century. Hidden in a Revolutionary War-era fort is the oldest building in all of Michigan.
The island occupies approximately four square miles in Lake Huron. And within those four square miles is historic architecture, undisturbed nature, and thriving nightlife.
Related: The 15 Best Islands in the World
Buildings on Mackinac island date back to the 1700s. The entire island was named a National Historic Landmark in 1960 for its remarkable preservation of Native American buildings, Victorian homes, and Arts and Crafts cottages.
Since 1875, Mackinac Island has been protected land. As part of its early protections, cars were banned on the island. Today, visitors and residents get around via bike. It’s also possible to rent out a horse and buggy for an old-timey tour (or for a late-night crawl back to your hotel).
A visit to Mackinac Island State Park, which makes up approximately 80 percent of the island, will yield opportunities to explore historic fort buildings, follow the Native American Cultural History Trail or hike through the woods to elaborate limestone caves.
It won’t be possible to rack up loyalty hotel points on a trip to Mackinac Island; all of the hotels are independently owned and operated. An overnight stay is considered an integral part of the Mackinac experience. The Grand Hotel (from $329 per night) is the best option for those looking for historic luxury. Since 1886, the hotel has welcomed a fabulous clientele, including stars from the golden age of Hollywood to film the movie “Somewhere in Time.” For those who prefer something on the smaller side, there are plenty of bed and breakfasts throughout the island offering a firsthand look at Mackinac culture.
If possible, schedule a visit for early June when Mackinac Island hosts the 10-day Lilac Festival. The entire affair culminates in the Lilac Festival Grand Parade, an annual tradition since 1949. The horse-drawn parade is even recognized by the Library of Congress as a local legacy event.
It's also the perfect time to enjoy time out on beautiful Lake Huron.
Before leaving, scoop up a box of Mackinac Island Fudge, one of the island’s most famous exports. While the island does not claim to be the birthplace of fudge, it has decried itself as America’s Fudge Capital. Approximately 10,000 pounds of fudge leave the island every day. The recipes haven’t changed since the Antebellum period, meaning that a bite of Mackinac Island Fudge is still as decadent as it was in pre-diet times.
Many travelers extend their trip by visiting Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on the south shore of Lake Superior for even more unbelievable Michigan scenery. There, you can paddle through the Lovers Leap Arch or take a sunset cruise by the Battleship rocks.
Whenever you visit, be prepared: a trip to this part of Michigan is unlikely to feel like anywhere you’ve been before.