Except the first thing you should know is that it’s pronounced like Mackinaw. So if you learned the pronunciation from Merriam-Webster, it’s time for re-education.
Anyway, the bf and I just got back from three days on Mackinac Island. Let me tell you, it’s hard on your nose to get back to the real world. What’s that, exhaust? Roadkill? What happened to the lilac, fudge, and horse manure?
That’s all you smell on Mackinac, because cars were banned from the island almost as soon as they were introduced. The teamsters were concerned that automobiles would scare their horses, so the residents banned cars from the town. Later, when some guy ignored the ban and smashed into several carriages, they doubled down on the law and banned cars from Mackinac State Park, as well.
The result is that horses, bicycles, and pedestrians rule the streets. Fudge makers beat fudge on marble counters inside candy shops. Hotel porters drive tourists and their luggage back and forth between the docks and hotels in horse-drawn carriages. Lilac trees abound – there’s even a Lilac Festival each year in early June.
In addition to the fresh air and relaxing atmosphere, Mackinac Island offers historical exhibits, art, shopping, dining, carriage tours, and outdoor activities. It’s as great a place for a summer getaway now as it was back in the 19th century.
When We Went
The perfect time, basically. A Thursday through Saturday in mid-June, when the weather is perfect and the crowds aren’t overwhelming. Everyone was boarding the ferry to leave when we arrived and arriving as we left, so we had our choice of seats and were able to get tons of pictures from the boat without bothering anyone.
If you want your trip to coincide with a certain boat race, tour, or music showcase, check out the official calendar of events on the island website. Some of the hotels, like the Bicycle Street Inn, have color-coded price charts that can help you plan your stay around a budget instead.
How We Got There
There are several ferry lines running between Mackinac Island and the mainland. Star Line likes to advertise its hydro-jet ferries and 18-minute ride to the island, but we took the Arnold Ferry Line. It’s the oldest of the three ferry lines as well as the cheapest: a round-trip adult ticket is only $18 and is good for any time and date through tourist season.
The ride takes longer – Arnold uses traditional ferries, so the ride is 40 minutes to Star Line’s 18 – but why not enjoy a leisurely trip across Lake Huron to kick off your vacation?
Where We Stayed
Mackinac Island abounds with hotels and b&bs, each with its own history and charm. The most famous is the Grand Hotel, easily the most recognizable building on the island.
The Grand Hotel’s architecture inspired wealthy visitors in the 1880s to tear down summer cottages they’d built only a few years before and erect the fantastic houses seen on the island today.
But that’s not where we stayed. Instead we chose the Chippewa, for its rooms that start at just above $100/night. It’s right up the street from the Arnold docks. Many of the hotels provide tram service from the docks anyway, but it was nice to be so close. Plus we had great views of the harbor from the patio of the Pink Pony, the hotel restaurant.
The cheapest rooms are snug – with just enough room for a bed, a coffeemaker, and a sink – but comfortable and bright. If you plan to spend a lot of time in your hotel room, you might want to splurge on a deluxe room or suite. Some suites come with a private balcony or in-room Jacuzzi, but don’t feel like you need to spend the extra money! The hotel has a comfortable lobby, a patio, and a massive Jacuzzi that made me feel like we were in a commercial for a tropical vacation. Every time I looked out over the side, I saw colorful flowers and leaves with the lake behind them. It was ridiculous.
But here’s a complete list of island lodgings to suit any budget or tastes.
Mackinac Island has such a great downtown. Look at this.
All downtowns should look this way. That includes having ponies.
We started our stay off with exploring the island shops. Some of my favorites were Caddywampus, Little Luxuries, the Island Bookstore, and Joann’s Fudge.
(There are several fudge shops on the island, but the Chippewa gives you a 15% off coupon to Joann’s with your room key.)
For dinner, we headed to Horn’s Gaslight Bar for crab & spinach quesadillas. They were delicioso, but if seafood or Mexican aren’t your thing, you’ll find a guide to Mackinac restaurants (and other businesses) in your hotel room.
Breakfast the next morning was at the Pancake House, which is adjacent to the Ryba’s nearest our hotel. (Ryba’s Fudge Shop has at least two different sites down Mackinac’s main road.) They serve a cinnamon pancake with cream cheese drizzle that will forever ruin all other pancakes for you. Also: if there’s a long line for ice cream at Ryba’s, you can sneak into the Pancake House to get the same ice cream without the line.
Ryba’s also boasts the cheapest bikes on the island. It’s $5/hr for a single bike or $10/hr for a tandem, the deposit is a penny, and they prorate your rental. So we nabbed a tandem bike and cycled the 8 miles around the perimeter of the island, which was exhilarating but terrifying because I haven’t been on a bicycle in years and had never been on a tandem bike before.
Since most of the island is state park, it’s a good idea to take bikes through the forest to see all the cool natural formations, like Sugarloaf or Arch Rock. You can also walk or rent a saddle horse or carriage. Just be prepared for lots of stairs.
Lots and lots of stairs.
Lots and lots and lots of stairs.
Luckily, the sites are worth it.
There’s a sign by Dwightwood Spring that says both that Victorian visitors enjoyed drinking from it and that, in grumpier lettering, THIS WATER IS NOT SAFE FOR DRINKING. My bf drank some anyway. Guess I’ll just have to keep a journal. For science.
Day 12: Still no sign of ill effects. Will continue observations.
Back in town, you can check out the cool architecture or go boat-watching. You’d think at some point I’d’ve gotten tired of taking photos of boats and lighthouses, but evidently not.
You can also head up to Fort Mackinac for a bit of history. It’s $12/person to get in, but it’s totally worth it. There are fourteen different buildings to explore (including one with interactive exhibits for kids), live demonstrations, a video exhibit, and museum exhibitions. You can grab lunch at the Tea Room, although that costs extra. But you know what doesn’t cost extra? The historical buildings downtown! Just bring your fort ticket along to get into these other buildings free.
(This is where photos of the Biddle House and the blacksmith’s shop would go if I’d remembered to take any.)
For other outdoor activities, try parasailing, hiking, kayaking, fishing, cruises, carriage tours, golfing, or swimming at the Grand Hotel.
Speaking of the Grand Hotel: even if you can’t afford it, you can have fun visiting. It’s $10/person to run around the hotel and grounds and $15/person to swim in the hotel pool…but if you go after 6p.m., it’s free.
Well, the pool probably isn’t. But running around is. Only if you actually run, I imagine they’ll reprimand you. And then kick you out if you keep running.
There’s also an ice cream shop in the front of the hotel and dancing in the grand ballroom from 9p.m. to 11p.m.
Unfortunately, this particular Friday night, there was no dancing. Instead, a women’s choir sang popular songs in the lounge. Since we were all dressed up anyway (me with my thrift shop earring hairpins in), we stayed to watch for a bit and then adjourned to the grounds to explore.
Afterward, we walked around downtown in our fancy clothes. Which is actually not a weird thing to do on Mackinac Island, given the number of other people we saw also walking around in fancy clothes.
Dinner was babybacks and island pasta on the upper deck of the Pink Pony, and dessert was cheesecake on a stick from Sanders.
The view from the upper deck.
Last Day of Vacay
We took the noon ferry back to the mainland the next day, so we spent our limited time actually buying cool stuff we’d seen in the shops on our first day and enjoying the beautiful weather. Checkout at the Chippewa is 11a.m., but they’ll hold your bags by the front desk until you’re ready to leave the island.
(They’ll also tag your luggage for the ferry, although it didn’t matter much since we did ours as carryons again.)
No overview of Mackinac Island is complete without some mention of the lilacs.
Of course, you’re never actually ready to leave the island. Who wants to go back to work or remember to check for cars before crossing the street? Ah, well. Maybe a lilac-scented wax melt will keep me satisfied until we go back.
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