Content Produced in Partnership with Mackinac Island Tourism Board
Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw) Island is a place unlike anywhere else on Earth, and somewhere you’d never expect to find in this day and age in America. An island trapped in time between the Upper and Lower Peninsula in Michigan, the tiny landmass is only reachable by ferry from either side of the mainland. Known as the jewel of the Great Lakes, what really makes Mackinac Island special is it’s a completely car-free experience. That’s right, there are only three ways to explore Mackinac – on foot, pedal power, or by horse and buggy.
A place my parents used to fondly reminisce about, I’d heard whispers of this magical place, but until I experienced it myself just didn’t understand the hold it has on people. In short? It doesn’t take long for the island’s charm to win you over. When you’re ready to trade cars for coaches, here’s what to expect.
What is Mackinac Island Like?
Upper Michigan is everything you want from a summer lake getaway where which board game to play and which flavor ice cream to devour are your toughest decisions of the day. Stress melts away as the real world feels miles away…because actually, it is. Jokingly referred to as the place where history repeats itself every day, everyone who’s been to Mackinac has had a Mackinac moment at one time or another. All the families and couples we met were festively celebrating something or another and most have returned year after year to relive the memories (we repeatedly heard 30th anniversaries).
500 people live on the island, which is less than the 600 horses they seasonally employ. As such, there are more vets than doctors present. They host over 200 weddings a year, which should come as no surprise once you see the elaborate flower gardens with 18 types of lilac trees. The island is home to the governor’s summer mansion and dozens of dignitaries and A-listers have graced its soil at one time or another so you know you’re truly somewhere special.
What Should You Do There?
Get active, explore and treat yourself. It is a vacation, after all.
A Horse, Of Course
Horses are a way of life on Mackinac and a carriage ride should be your first to-do. It’s the best way to get a lay of the land and a spot of history. The first half of the excursion, a two-horse team pulls you up to Surrey Hill, where you can peruse the butterfly garden, blacksmith shop, and the most bougie barn you’ll ever lay eyes on (nearly Tiffany Blue with bedazzled chandeliers). You’ll pass the post office that’s never delivered a letter, the home of America’s first self-made millionaire (in the fur trade business), and the Grand’s ginormous wrap-around porch. When you’re ready to continue on, a three-horse carriage will take you through the state park and up the hill to Fort Mackinac. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, you can actually drive your own horse and buggy (no experience necessary) at Jack’s Livery Stables (but make sure they instruct you on how to park lol). Or just take a steed out to hit the trails for a ride.
And despite a hilarious article I just read about an “Amish Uber,” the island has the only 24/7/365 carriage taxi dispatch in the world (but it is important to note they must be called well in advance and can’t just be hailed on the street).
Explore on Two Feet (or Two Wheels)
Posting up on a porch to waste away the day is a totally acceptable pastime on the island, but despite the 17 fudge shops within a few blocks radius, many people come to Mackinac to stretch their legs and disregard their devices. And despite being Michigan’s first state park and the second state park in the entire country, of the 15,000-20,000 travelers that visit the island every day, less than 20% make it off Main Street. 80% of the island is protected state parkland, making it that much more of a well-kept secret for those in the know. Zigzagging the well-marked trails, you could explore for days and still not scratch the surface.
Mackinac Island is BYOB (bring your own bike, which you can transport on the ferry for a minimal charge) or you can rent one by the hour or day. There are plenty of wheels to choose from street bikes to multi-speed cruisers, fat tires, mountain bikes, tandems, trailers, and strollers, and you’ll notice a surprisingly low number of locks (people are just more trusting here). To get your bearings, bike the island’s 8.2-mile perimeter (so you can say you’ve ridden the only state highway in the country that bans cars), or hike the Tranquil Bluff trail. Starting from the iconic Arch Rock, the route circumvents the island while offering breathtaking views of the craggy coast. To get the same view on two wheels, North Bicycle Trail to Leslie Avenue is a popular route.
Michigan’s water is arguably its greatest resource, and there are plenty of ways to get wet and wild on Mackinac Island. You can set sail on a sunset Sip n’ Sail harbor cruise, which used to be the longest ferry boat ride in the world. They have varying live entertainment depending on the night and a choice of routes. Views of the lighthouses and the longest suspension bridge in the Western Hemisphere will have you wondering how anyone could ever overlook America’s third coast. Or give parasailing or fishing a try.
If you’d prefer to paddle, Great Turtle Kayak Tours has sunrise and sunset paddleboard and kayak trips (single or tandem). Be sure to opt for the three-hour tour if you want to make it to Round Island Lighthouse or explore the Rock Maze and underwater caves. They’ll show you where the water used to be beach and how the island has physically changed over the years, despite looking like no time has passed on the surface. We floated by otters playfully splashing about and saw a beaver dam. I also learned you can camp on the tiny strip of sand where the lighthouse is so that’s definitely an adventure for next time.
Have a Grand ‘Ole Time
You can’t visit Mackinac without paying a visit to the island’s most notable landmark. The Grand Hotel is the island’s largest employer and literally stops people in its tracks with its size and grandeur. Once a remote 6.3-acre retreat, the property has gone through 34 major expansions and is now over 150 sprawling acres. Boasting the largest front porch in the world, there are dozens of Adirondack chairs and lawn games set up on the meticulously manicured greenery (their private coach carriages are even fancier).
The Grand’s designer actually worked in the White House studying their style so each room is completely unique some inspired by the First Ladies themselves. The interior is outfitted with over 160 patterns of wallpaper and 17 trademarked paint colors. If you can’t afford to stay there at least treat yourself to a splurge meal whether that be their decadent lunch buffet or the afternoon tea. (But take note there is a $10 admission fee just to poke around in order to protect the privacy of the guests).
Get a History Lesson
Even if you’re not a history buff (I generally find museums to be zzz), Fort Mackinac is the best lookout point in town and highly worth a visit. You can wander the military bunkers and officer’s quarters for a fascinating glimpse of life back in the early 19th century. There are interactive elements throughout the compound where you can learn to handle a rifle, send Morse code, and play dress up before experiencing reenactments and canon demos. For a unique souvenir, pay a visit to “Forge a Memory,” the blacksmith shop where you can actually wield your own knives and sheaths.
Eat, Drink & Be Merry
There’s no Grubhub here so every meal is a night out on the town. Chuckwagon is the greasy spoon where they have breakfast down to an art (Cheesecake French Toast anyone?). The best happy hour can be found overlooking the water at the Pink Pony with pink drinks to match. Almost all the bars have nightly live music, with both Draught House and Horn’s Gaslight Bar crooning a catalog of hits from my childhood (who would’ve guessed they like throwback tunes here?). For a memorable dinner, make sure to make a reservation at the Woods deep in the woods or indulge in a seafood tower from Goodfellows.
Embrace Your Inner Kid
Fore! Mackinac Island has the only golf course in the world you have to take a horse and carriage from the front 9 to the back 9. But for a more family friendly round, glow putt-putt is always a hit. The Woods is home to America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley. Or get lost in the Maze of Mirrors or the Haunted Theatre. For the sweet tooth’s out there, you can throw yourself a fudge crawl or try your hand at being a chocolate maker for the day at May’s.
The island is said to resemble a turtle so it’s fitting that nothing happens fast here. You can book a few of the B&Bs online, but many you have to call to check availability the old fashioned way — in their hand ledger. Is it efficient? Hardly. But it adds to the nostalgia. With pastel exteriors and paisley wallpaper, each hotel looks a postcard. (We stayed at the Windermere, which is managed by the Mayor). After a while, you’ll forget all about cars. And the real world.
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