One of Michigan's jewels: Mackinac Island

Dec 3, 2011 (Updated Dec 5, 2011)

The Bottom Line Here is a sample of what you will find on Mackinac Island.

Many people know that Michigan has two main peninsulas, but not as many know that the Great Lakes surrounding Michigan’s peninsulas hold some interesting is lands. There is Beaver Island off the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula, Drummond Island between the two peninsulas, and Isle Royale, a National Park on an island far out in Lake Superior, accessible from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Minnesota. There are other, less picturesque islands, too. And then there is Mackinac Island.

How do you get to Mackinac Island? Easy, as there is competition between three major companies: Arnold Transit, Shepler’s, and Star Line. You can get a ferry from Mackninaw City (Lower Peninsula) or Saint Ignace (Upper Peninsula). There are big, old-fashioned ferries that are slower but more spacious, or the faster but smaller catamarans. There is rate competition between the three, so check them all. For a planned trip, you can buy tickets online, with some discounts.

What makes Mackinac Island a good place to visit is the atmosphere or feel of the place. It is big enough to handle cars, but there are no cars, only pedestrians, bicycles, horses, and horse-drawn carriages. There are good paths for walking and biking eve4rywhere, including one that circles the island. The houses are typically Victorian, with lots of scrollwork and wraparound porches. And gardens! You will see gorgeous flowers everywhere and especially roses. I think the residents must compete for most beautiful gardens and yards.

How do you get around, with no cars? There are walking paths everywhere, and the scenery invites a nice walk. You can also rent a bicycle, and there are bikes all over. You can rent a horse, but the stable-master will make sure you know how to ride before letting you rent one. You can also rent a horse-drawn carriage, but those are costly. There are carriages on regular runs between popular locations, like the docks and the fort.

The island is just under four square miles, and was inhabited by Native Americans before the Europeans explored it in the 17thCentury. A fort, Fort Mackinac was soon built by the Europeans to help police the fur trade. A restored Fort Mackinac is there and open to visitors as a historical site and museum. There is a very long hill to get to the fort, and you will need to be ready for a good walk to visit it. The visit is worth it, though.

What else will you find on the island? A plethora of hotels, ranging from modest to grand and stately. The top of the pyramid is the Grand Hotel, one of the largest summer hotels in the world. It features one of the largest porches in the world as well. All the hotels on the island are high in price, which is why I have always stayed in Mackinaw City, on the mainland. I still dream of spending one night at the Grand Hotel, though, cost be damned. Prices range from $254 per person for a small, interior room with no view, to $369 per person for a deluxe room with a view of the lake (Lake Huron).

There are quite a few restaurants on the island but, as many people would guess, many of the restaurants are “tourist traps,” with high prices for mediocre food. A good rule of them is that the closer a restaurant is to Mackinac Island’s main street, where the ferries dock, the higher the prices and the more mediocre is the food. Walk a few blocks in, and the quality rises without the price doing the same. Probably the best food on the island, for walk-ins, is at the Grand Hotel, but be prepared to pay for the privilege of eating there.

As with many destinations that draw a large number of tourists, souvenir shops abound. Some sell routine items, like postcards, jackelope heads, wooden plaques with pithy sayings, and T-shirts. However, a few also sell crafts that are either made on the island or are products of Michigan. Some of these are pricier, but you are getting items that are less mundane and higher in quality.

Mackinac Island is known for its fudge. Their reputation for making great fudge in a variety of flavors is earned. On the island, you will find a number of fudge shops that compete with each other to make the best fudge in the world. As I have not had fudge from a variety of places in the world, I cannot judge these claims. However, Mackinac Island fudge is extremely good, and there is a wide choice of flavors. Of course, there are the standards: chocolate, vanilla, cherry, and strawberry, plus maple and an assortment of nut flavors. Back when I could eat nuts, my favorite was black walnut fudge. Now, I would go with chocolate-cherry. As for brands, I would go with Ryba’s, but part of the fun is going from shop to shop, while they ply you with samples.

When you go to a fudge shop, it is not just a place to buy fudge. You can watch them make the fudge on big marble tables, and they run a constant patter, explaining the process. Of course, they throw in reasons why their fudge is the best fudge, bragging about the quality of the ingredients, how they have tweaked the process, etc., to produce the world’s best.

We have been to the island with several relatives from Europe, and they all comment on two things: how clean and clear the air is there, and how blue the water of Lake Huron is, on a clear, sunny day.

Mackinac Island was the setting for at least two movies.  In 1947, swimmer-actress Esther Williams starred in This Time For Keeps, featuring The Grand Hotel and its swimming pool.  In 1980, the island was the setting for Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour in the romance-fantasy, Somewhere In Time.

This is part of the Geography Write-Off, albeit a tardy entry.

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