Welcome to your comprehensive guide to visiting Mackinac Island, Michigan. Take a step back in time with a vacation to Mackinac: an island with no cars, only horse drawn carriages and bicycles, Victorian hotels and cottages, old forts, history, and of course…fudge.
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Table of Contents
This small island in Lake Huron has a rich history and has played an important role in shaping the region. Native Americans call it the island of the great turtle and believe the great spirit lived on the island. They fished the waters and viewed the island as a sacred place.
In the early 17th century, French missionaries and fur traders began exploring the area. Due to its location in the Straits of Mackinac, the island was an important outpost for the fur trade. Following the French and Indian War, the British took control of the island and began building Fort Mackinac in 1780. After the American Revolution, the island was acquired by the United States and remained so until the War of 1812 when the British regained control. The American soldiers did not know the war had started when the British lay siege and thus the Americans surrendered without a shot fired.
The island returned to American hands at the end of the War of 1812. The fur trade continued for a time but by the 1880s, railroads and boats began bringing in tourists from Detroit and Chicago to the island. During this time, large hotels and summer cottages were built int he Victorian-style of the era. In 1875, the island became the nation’s second National Park but this distinction was short-lived.
In 1895, the federal government decommissioned the military outpost of Fort Mackinac and handed the island over to the State of Michigan which in turn created its first state park: Mackinac Island State Park. To this day, about 80% of the island is part of this state park. The state park commission and city of Mackinac Island have worked to preserve the island’s historical feel and Victorian charm. In 1979, the majority of the film Somewhere in Time was shot on the island, starring Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour. The island has become an increasingly popular summer tourist destination over the last decades.
When To Go
The main tourist season is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Many hotels, shops, and restaurants have extended their seasons to include early May through the end of October. Avoid visiting the island during crowded holidays such as Memorial Day weekend, Independence Day, and Labor Day weekend. Two yacht races occur in mid-July and are the busiest time of the year.
How To Get There
Being surrounded by water makes getting to the island a little difficult but that’s half the fun. Located between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, to reach the island visitors must ride a ferry across Lake Huron.
There are two passenger ferry companies that service the island, Shepler’s and Star Line. Both operate out of Mackinaw City in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and out of St. Ignace for those traveling from Michgan’s Upper Peninsula. Both ferries offer overnight parking, local shuttle services, and have comparable prices and online deals.
Be aware that the ferry schedules vary throughout the season so please consult their timetables. Also, ferry service from St. Ignace is typically more limited than from Mackinaw City; if you find that the St. Ignace ferry times don’t work for your planned itinerary, you can always drive across the Mackinac Bridge to Mackinaw City and catch the ferry there.
By car it is an easy drive to the ferry docks in either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. There is ample parking available at the ferry docks. The closest rental car agencies are located at the Pellston Reginal Airport about 20 minutes away. The airport does have a shuttle service to Mackinaw City.
Mackinac Island has its own 3,500 foot paved runway for personal aircraft. Landing fees are detailed here.
Pellston Reginal Airport is located 12 miles south of Mackinaw City and provides commercial service to Detroit, Minneapolis, and Chicago via Delta Air Lines. From Pellston you may either take a taxi shuttle to the Mackinaw City ferry docks or charter an airplane to Mackinac Island Airport.
The island has a marina downtown for personal watercraft.
Mackinac Island is famous for its ban on motorized vehicles. This ban came about in the late 19th century when automobiles brought to the island startled the horses; the ban has remained in place ever since. Notable exceptions include emergency vehicles and construction equipment in the winter months. In lieu of cars, there are three modes of transportation on the island: bicycles, horses, and your own two feet.
The best way to see the island is by bicycle. Many visitors choose to bring their own bicycles to the island. The ferry companies require a small fee (about $11) to bring your own bike to the island and the City of Mackinac Island requires that the bikes are licensed ($3.50). You can obtain a bicycle license from the police department on the island.
Don’t have a bike? There are dozens of bicycle rental shops downtown. They all offer comparable pricing, typically renting a variety of bicycle types by the hour. Most offer attachments and carts for small children as well.
Horses give the island charm and nostalgia as well as a distinct odor. But that’s part of the fun. On Mackinac, taxis are in fact horse-drawn carriages. You may call the taxi dispatcher and request a taxi come pick you up at your desired location or most hotel staff will be able to call for you. It is customary to tip your taxi driver. Carriage tours, drive-your-own carriage, and horseback riding are also options.
If bicycles and horses aren’t your thing, you can stick with your own two feet and see the island on foot. Downtown is small and very walkable. If you would like to venture farther into the island and really explore, I would recommend renting a bike or taking a carriage tour.
Where To Stay
From historic hotels to quaint bed and breakfasts, the island has a wide variety of lodgings to choose from.
When they hear Mackinac Island, many people immediately think of the Grand Hotel. This enormous Victorian-style hotel was built in 1887 and boasts the longest porch in the world. With nearly 400 rooms, it is by far the largest and dare I say grandest of lodgings on Mackinac Island. It is perhaps the most exclusive and expensive places to stay on the island and even requires a dress code in the evening.
Hotels and Bed and Breakfasts
Apart from the Grand Hotel, there are numerous hotels and bed and breakfasts on the island. Mission Point is the second largest hotel on the island and is located away from the crowds on the far side of town. In my experience, the Murray Hotel has the most economical prices on the island. Nestled deep in the woods, The Inn at Stonecliffe offers a nice getaway from the tourists downtown and is a popular wedding location. The Mackinac Tourism Bureau offers a complete list of lodgings.
Where To Eat
Whether it’s a fancy dinner or a pound of fudge, the island has got you covered. For waterside dining, The Pink Pony, Mary’s Bistro, Bistro on the Green are good options. Some good places to catch breakfast include the traditional Pancake House or my favorite place to get a breakfast burrito, the hole-in-the-wall Chuckwagon diner.
For fine dining, Cianti at Mission Point, the Woods restaurant, and the Jockey Club are great choices. For casual fare, popular locations include the Mustang Lounge, Yankee Rebel, and the Ice House. Several restaurants offer late-night dining options such as The Gate House, Island Slice Pizzeria, and Seabiscuit Cafe. Check out the complete listing of dining options.
Planning a picnic or just want a snack or groceries? Doud’s Market is the island’s grocery store with a large selection of wines, beers, and spirits. They also stock over-the-counter medicines. You can buy pizza by-the-slice and hot sandwiches from their deli. An ideal place for the budget-conscious.
A trip to the island isn’t complete without trying some of the famous Mackinac Island fudge. There are six different fudge shops on the island, some with multiple locations. All are great choices and feature unique flavors. Some shops even offer mail orders so your friends and relatives can share in the fun. My personal favorite is the Murray Hotel for their early-bird special and large variety of flavors. Here’s a list of all your options:
• Joann’s Fudge
• May’s Candy
• Murdick’s Fudge
• Murray Hotel Fudge Co.
• Ryba’s Fudge Shops
• Sanders Chocolate and Ice Cream Shoppe
What To Do
From biking to horseback riding to swimming, Mackinac is a summer paradise with never a dull moment.
There are over 70 miles of paths and trails on the island. From mountain biking to leisurely rides along the lake, the island has it all. Most visitors ride around the 8-mile perimeter of the island. This is an easy ride that will take you past several landmarks such as Arch Rock. However, if you really want to see the island, grab a map from the Tourist Bureau’s office and go wild. One of my favorite rides is Leslie Avenue. It’s a nice, paved path that meanders through the woods and has some nice ups and downs.
An easy way to see the island without breaking a sweat is taking a carriage tour. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours picks you up downtown and takes you on a narrated tour of the island with stops at the Arch Rock and Fort Mackinac.
Private carriage tours are also available by Gough Carriages and Mackinac Island Carriage Tours.
Built by the British in the late 18th century to control the Straits of Mackinac, this historic fort sits on the rocky bluffs watching over the harbor. Step back in history where reenactors demonstrate cannon and rifle firings and portray life at the fort as it was in the 1880s. Tickets to the fort also include admission to several historic downtown buildings.
There is no shortage of quaint gift shops and art galleries. For the kids there is Great Turtle Toys and my favorite, Caddywampus. Clothing options include Nadia’s Fashion Shop and Nephew’s of Mackinac to name a few. Poppins and Little Luxuries are perfect to find a gift to bring home. The Island Bookstore offers current bestsellers as well as a large selection of books about the island and the surrounding area. An extensive list of shops can be found here.
Get Out On the Water
• Sip N’ Sail cruises offer cocktails, music, and beautiful views of the island most nights throughout the summer.
• Sail Mackinac offers chartered tours on its 50-foot sailboat.
• Great Turtle Kayaks offers kayak rentals and tours.
• Parasail across the straits with Mackinaw Parasailing.
Horseback riding is a fun way to see the island. Experienced guides take you on trail rides through the island interior. Cindy’s Riding Stables and Jack’s Livery offer horseback riding while the latter also offers drive-your-own carriages.
The island offers several choices for the golfer:
• The Jewel at the Grand Hotel is split into nine holes downtown and another nine in the island’s interior.
• Wawashkamo Golf Club features a nine-hole Scottish links course and is the oldest continuously played golf course in Michigan.
• The Greens of Mackinac at Mission Point Resort offers an 18-hole putting course on the shores of Lake Huron.
Brave the cool waters of Lake Huron and go for a swim. Swimming is permitted on most of beaches along the island’s perimeter. British Landing is a popular spot for swimming—there is even a snack bar nearby. The Grand Hotel pool is also open to non-hotel guests for a fee.
Perfect for kids, the island has not one, but two butterfly houses: Wings of Mackinac and The Original Butterfly House and Insect World. The latter showcases butterflies as well as numerous insects, spiders, and reptiles.
Even if you aren’t staying at the hotel, visitors can take in the iconic hotel’s grandeur for a small entrance fee. Stroll along the world’s longest porch or have a cocktail at the Cupola Bar located at the hotel’s peak.
There is no shortage of entertainment at night. Live music, DJs, and dancing is offered most nights at The Pink Pony, Horn’s Gaslight Bar, Mary’s Bistro Draught House, and The Gatehouse. Karaoke, trivia, and other special events are offered throughout the summer. The Grand Hotel features a live orchestra in their ballroom each night while pianists play during dinner service at Cianti, the Carriage House, and 1852 Grill Room. Check out the calendar of events for more info.
Pronunciation and Spelling
Mackinac is pronounced MAK-in-aw. The name is derived from the language of the Native Americans of the Great Lakes region. The spelling comes from the French interpretation and is used for Mackinac Island and the Mackinac Bridge. You will notice that Mackinaw City on the mainland uses the British spelling of the word.
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