Michigan’s Mackinac Island Has Carriage Rides, Boating, and Lots of Old-school Charm
On the road to the ferry, my nine-year-old daughter, Jane, realized that we had left her doll Katie, a living creature, in the luggage carrier on top of the car, and started to freak out, fearing that the doll would suffocate. Her 14-year-old sister, Maria, worked to calm her. "Don't worry!" she told her. "Katie's up there niiice and cozy in her little bed." There was silence. "Yeah," said Jane, "in her death bed." Thus began our family trip to Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw), a truly magical place in the northwest corner of Lake Huron that I have been visiting most summers since I was a kid.
When you get off the ferry from mainland Michigan, your nostrils are met with a distinctive odor, the blended smells of fudge and horses. Invariably, when it confronts me for the first time, all of my past trips to the island return in a time-lapse dissolve. The tourist shops along the main road, by the harbor, generate the chocolate scent, and the pairs of carriage horses give off their distinctive musk. Whenever one of them drops a road apple, which they are constantly doing, one of the island's broom-wielding maintenance workers, in vest and sunglasses, sweeps it into a pan.
No cars or trucks are allowed on Mackinac Island. It's bicycles and horses, or your legs. There is one truck, which is used exclusively for transporting food for the kitchen of the Grand Hotel—the white, many-columned 19th-century resort that reigns over the south side of the island. But the truck isn't permitted onto the island proper. The meats and produce are transferred at the ferry to horse-drawn delivery vehicles.
At the ferry terminal, young porters grabbed our bags and loaded them onto the back of a carriage. Our group was five in all. My wife, Mariana, and I had invited along one of Maria's friends, Isabella, who is 13. We had too many bags. Naturally Jane had insisted on bringing Katie, in a pink case. Somehow everything fit. The driver told us the price (not nothing), and the horses started off. Ahead on the road, there was a small bicycle accident. A man lay next to his bike, laughing. From the sidewalk someone shouted, "Fudgie down! Fudgie down!" (Fudgie: local slang for tourist.)
I looked at the three girls. Something was off. It hit me: they weren't looking at their phones. They were noticing the scenery and even looked the slightest bit enchanted. A nice thing about children is how in their "naiveté" they can put you in touch with not some other, fairy world but what is actually happening in this one. These kids had just taken a boat to a beautiful island, and now they were riding in a horse-drawn carriage to a fancy hotel, and it was not a tourist novelty, this horse-drawn carriage, but simply how people did things. I remember feeling this way about it when I was even younger than they are.
As we rode, the most conspicuous structure on the island, colonial Fort Mackinac, came into view at the top of a steep, grassy hill. The British built it in 1780, in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Prior to that, this had been French territory—occupied by the Jesuit mission priests, called "Black Robes" by the indigenous tribes, and the voyageurs, who were professional paddlers employed by fur companies. For hundreds of years before that, the island had been the province of the Anishinabe, a large ethnic group that includes the Odawa and the Ojibwe, among others. The island never lost its importance for Native American peoples, even after white settlers had (mostly) displaced them.
An anonymous 19th-century writer in Ohio, signing himself "Ancient Mariner," left a description of a scene he witnessed in 1828: "We always stopped at Mackinac Island on our way to the upper lakes. It was the place to which great numbers of Indians gathered once a year to receive presents from the Government. I recollect to seeing there at one time three thousand of them; their tents extended for a mile or so along the shore. The day after the distribution of money and blankets had taken place at the Mackinac, by sunrise the whole encampment had broken up, and the Indians had embarked in their canoes. There must have been over eight hundred bark canoes; and I think I never seen a more beautiful sight than they presented, the morning sun lighting up the smooth lake swarming with the fleet."
As we rode, I looked over at Mariana and noticed that she was scanning the scenery through her sunglasses, not saying anything. She grew up in the South, in North Carolina, but has visited the island a few times. She encountered the place as a person who had not grown up knowing it existed, and I wondered what she made of it. Had it seemed exotic the first time? Or did it still? "No," she said. "It seemed far-flung." I think I know what she meant. When I get there I know I have come to the North.
We pulled up to the Mission Point Resort, a relatively new hotel on a southeastern spur of the island. This was where the French Jesuits landed with their Huron guides in the first half of the 16th century. The point got its name from a Catholic mission founded there in 1780. For a short time in the 1790s, a Black couple named Bonga, brought to the island enslaved but later emancipated by their owner, ran a small inn, the island's first hotel. A second, Protestant mission opened in 1822—the Ancient Mariner, in remembering those romantic bark canoes, failed to mention that a mission school for native children was operating nearby. It housed 150 pupils. The big wooden dormitory is still there.
Mission Point Resort is in a different set of buildings, which date to the 1950s. (My uncle Greg spent a summer on the island in his youth and worked on one of the construction crews that built the place.) I liked the spare, quirky architecture. The combination of broad white planes and blue skies made me think of the Bahamas, but there is nothing tropical about Mackinac, with its cool northern air and crisp, slanting sunlight. The room was perfect for a trip with children, modest and comfortable, with a little deck out back and woods growing right to the edge of the fence.
If you do nothing else on Mackinac, take a bicycle ride. There's an eight-mile path that follows the shore all the way around the island. Jane and I rode a tandem bike—her legs were too short to really get a purchase on the pedals. She talked the entire time, narrating and asking questions. "If you were stuck at the top of a 200-foot-tall tree and had only a purse," she said, "what would you want to have in that purse?" We passed little meadows of wildflowers and the openings to paths that lead uphill to the limestone, where there are some legitimate caves (at least one of which was said to be full of bones when the French "found" it).
The water along the shoreline was fantastically clear. Gulls stood on boulders that rose sporadically above the surface of the lake. Every half-mile or so a tiny, pebbly beach would appear, with people lying in the sun. There were plenty of cyclists but not enough to make the path crowded, and this was one of the busiest days of the year. Tomorrow the boats would be coming in for the annual Port Huron–to–Mackinac Island sailboat race, which has been staged every summer for almost a century.
The next day, the family humored me by going along on a visit to two of the oldest surviving houses in Michigan—the Biddle House and the McGulpin House. They are near each other in "downtown" Mackinac Island, where the stores and restaurants are. A couple of young women in period dress, local students interested in history, offered us era-appropriate rhubarb desserts, which I recommend. We did not stay long. The kids had thought that by "visiting" these houses, I had meant merely entering and exiting them, not staying and asking questions and whatnot.
After that we visited the Original Butterfly House, an attraction more to their liking. Jane had worn a midnight-blue jumpsuit covered in bright flowers, reasoning that the butterflies would be more likely to land on her this way—and maybe they did, although they were landing on everybody. Midway along the little path through the habitat, we saw two butterflies linked at the ends, hanging in the air. They were making more butterflies, and really taking their time about it. "What are they doing?" Jane asked. "Mating," I said. "What's mating?" she asked, pretty much knowing the answer. I suddenly became distracted by something.
The island does not look noticeably different from the way it did when I was a child, and it does not look radically different from the way it did when my great-grandmother went there in the 1890s. A century and a half of preservation battles have kept it that way. The average American might know that Yellowstone was the first national park, but few can identify the second. President Ulysses S. Grant gave Mackinac that honor in 1875. (It was decommissioned in 1895, and instead became Michigan's first state park.) Three-quarters of the island remains pristine, much of it covered by forest—spruces and firs near the shore, maples and oaks in the interior.
In the afternoon, we met up with Liz Ware, who runs Mission Point with her brother. We found her on her boat, a hand-built Huckins Offshore yacht from 1970. Our group motored clear of the harbor and onto the lake until we were under the Mackinac Bridge, the third-longest suspension bridge in the country, which connects lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula. The water was dark, with small waves. When we cut the engine near one of the bridge pillars, Liz called us out onto the foredeck. The timing was perfect—the boats were all around now, sailing in under the bridge. Colored sails, white sails, black sails. It was splendid to watch them fly past. A cannon would fire in the harbor every time one crossed the finish line. Out on the lake it sounded like champagne corks. A distant cheer went up after each pop. The girls had their phones out, filming.
On the way back to the harbor, Ware told me a story about the people who live on the island. In the winter, when the lake freezes over, the only way to get back and forth from the mainland is by snowmobile. But the distance is considerable, and in severe weather, whiteouts are a problem. A driver can easily get lost. The islanders developed a tradition to deal with this issue. Right after Christmas, each household donates its Christmas tree. The trees are taken out on the ice, spaced apart, making a line all the way from the island to Mackinaw City. People follow the Christmas trees all winter. When the ice melts the trees sink in to the lake and eventually become driftwood.
That night when everyone else was asleep I walked down to the harbor and dug the post-race scene at the docks. Boats clustered together, sails down, lanterns lit. Music and drunken laughter. It was the wildest Mackinac gets, not even that wild—more respectably raucous. When I walked by the Pink Pony, a man with a guitar was onstage trying to sing above the crowd, doing a deconstructed "Rocket Man." Over the lake, heat lightning lit up the cloud cover. I passed a crestfallen-looking guy, walking in the opposite direction. "I love my dad," he was saying to his friend, "but I hate sailing with him."
A carriage came to collect us the next morning, and we rode to our next stop, the Grand Hotel. A sunny day. The first glimpse of the place, up a long, straight, tree-lined road, is impressive whether you've been there 20 times or never. Its enormous whiteness gleams. There is the deep, shaded porch that seems a mile long, with its row of giant columns. We walked up the broad steps, 30 feet wide, that lead to the front door, which was opened by men in livery, and entered the lobby, one of the masterpieces of late-19th-century American hotel design.
Our room was in a newly renovated part of the hotel—the Cupola Suites, on the fourth floor—designed by Carleton Varney of Dorothy Draper & Co., Jimmy Carter's White House decorator. The colors were bold, deep greens and pinks, an inexplicably excellent clash of island and traditional. The view from the windows went down, down, and swept outward to the lake, which was at that moment a gunmetal blue. A boat with red sails was tearing across the water in a high wind.
I had arranged for a tour of the Grand with the hotel's official historian, an energetic, mustachioed man named Bob Tagatz. He knew the story of every board in the building, as they say. As we walked briskly, Tagatz explained that the Grand fit into a genre of American hotels built in the 1880s: large wood-frame hotels with two hundred rooms or more, built for the leisure class. The generation that followed the age of the great industrial barons inherited a lot of money (or the lucky ones did). Meanwhile, the cities, thanks again to industrialism, were growing less pleasant as places to spend the summer, at least by the bourgeois definition of pleasant. It was the age of the Pullman car and steamboats on the Great Lakes. The money for those hotels was put up largely by transportation interests. The Grand is one of the remaining jewels. Tagatz told me that, only a few hours earlier, he had met his third fifth-generation guest. I had been excited to tell him that I was a fourth-generation guest, but that suddenly seemed paltry.
He led me into the dining room. I had never seen it empty. It felt smaller without the hundreds of bodies, while still seeming vast. Tagatz drew my attention to the chandeliers, the wallpaper, all of that mid-century Dorothy Draper–school design. So many good greens. He swept me through the kitchen door, firing off information as we walked. The Austrian chef, Hans Burtscher, has been there since 1984. He has cooked for presidents. The kitchen at the Grand is unusual in that it has only electric ranges, no gas or flame. The danger of fire is too great. It is the only four-star restaurant in America to cook this way.
After Tagatz hurried off, I did something that I had never done in umpteen trips to the island: I went to Fort Mackinac. It is the most important spot on the island in historical terms, for the various white armies and no doubt for the Native American occupants, too. From that high steep bluff a lookout could spot a flotilla of ships or canoes at a great distance. I walked to the fort from the hotel, through some stunningly pretty old-money neighborhoods, which had enormous lawns with old trees. Whenever one of these places is "sold out of the family," a real estate bidding war ensues.
I spent about an hour with Phil Porter, the director at the fort, who told me that it had been constructed in stages. Parts of the inner courtyard had been painted a surprising color—like Thousand Island dressing—that had been deliberately chosen by the officer who commanded the fort in the 1880s and 90s, a Civil War veteran with the whimsical name of Greenleaf Austin Goodale. His soldiers had complained that the piercing northern sunlight, bouncing off the white paint, was often blinding.
As we moved toward the front of the fort, he described Mackinac Island as having a "deceptively important place" in history, presiding as it does over an international shipping lane. The taking of Fort Mackinac—from the Americans, by the British, who fought alongside a small army of Native American allies—is considered by some historians to be the first real military engagement of the War of 1812. It took a long time for the island to pass fully back into American hands. It was actually the last piece of American property the British relinquished as they withdrew to the northern side of the Canadian border.
It is difficult to grasp the historic-geographical importance of Mackinac without visiting the fort. The 150-foot drop is startling, almost sheer. An enemy who attacked from this direction would be up against a nightmarish climb. From the top of the fort, I could see the two little ancient houses that I had visited earlier. Porter told me that the matriarch of the Biddle household, Agatha Biddle, had been chief of the Mackinac band. She married Edward Biddle, a white fur trader, around 1815. Racially she was complex. The records identify her, at different times, as Indian, white, and mixed-race. Her father was French. A picture of her survives, showing a striking middle-aged woman with a slender face. When she died in 1873, her obituary in the Detroit Advertiser reported that she "belonged to the tribe of Ottawas and was in many respects a very superior and estimable woman."
Porter made a point of mentioning that the Native American connection to Mackinac is not merely historical. The tribes associated with this place continue to revere it. Native American women come every fall, Porter said, on a kind of spiritual retreat. "They stay in the Scout's barracks. For them it's like a Catholic going to the Vatican."
The time came to board the ferry again. We had a three-day drive to North Carolina. Loading the doll's carrying case into the back of the wagon, I realized that, since reaching the island, Jane had paid no attention to—and, in fact, had not mentioned the name of—Katie. From near-suffocation she had passed to neglect. I have not seen her since.
Plan the Perfect Mackinac Island Trip
Getting There and Around
Delta flies from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to Pellston Regional Airport, a 15-mile taxi ride to Mackinaw City. Ferries to the island operate on a regular basis from Mackinaw City and also nearby St. Ignace. Cars are not allowed on the island, and your whole stay will be easier if you travel light (there are no car trunks to fling your bags into).
Where to Stay
Built in 1887, the Grand Hotel (doubles from $359) remains iconic. The resort claims that no two of its 397 rooms, designed in lush pastels by Carleton Varney, are the same. Most room rates include breakfast and dinner in the festive dining room.
Mission Point Resort (doubles from $276) has a simpler, more contemporary feel. The newly renovated rooms are bright and spacious—and some are dog-friendly. Both hotels offer bike rentals.
What to Do
Fort Mackinac, the McGulpin House, and the Biddle House—which is home to the Mackinac Island Native American Museum—are run by Mackinac State Historic Parks and provide an in-depth look into the island's multi-layered history. Follow them up with a visit to the Original Mackinac Island Butterfly House & Insect World, irresistible for kids.
It isn't hard to get away from the crowds—try to do off-the-beaten path activities, like visiting the caves and limestone formations a few miles outside of downtown, which are easily accessible by bike.
What to Watch
Filmed at the Grand Hotel as well as at buildings that later became part of the Mission Point Resort, Somewhere in Time is a romantic time-travel fantasy released in 1980, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour cast as star-crossed lovers.
A version of this story first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Time and Again.