Early in the spring, I decided I would make a summer venture towards the Straits of Mackinac, which is the passage of water that connects Lakes Huron and Michigan. There, I would visit the Mackinac bridge or “Mighty Mack”, Mackinaw city and Mackinac Island, allowing myself five days for travel and leisure. The main draw to the area is the Island, even if it is only 3.8 square miles. I didn’t really know much about it, except that I should bring my bike and try the fudge. What I didn’t expect was a Victorian Era vibe meshed with modern technology, sweeping panoramic views, an imposing rock formation that is truly inspiring plus a rich military and tourism history that is quite uncommon for the upper Midwest.
Usually, when I write my blog, I start with a few introductory paragraphs and then tell a tale, as if it was happening as you read. I’m getting away from that this week. I will write a few blogs, which I plan to post later this fall, on Mackinac Island and the surrounding areas in that format. For now, I’ll give you an overview of what I experienced during the twenty hours I spent on the Island, which spanned two days. Basically, if I wrote this blog the way I usually do, it would be a short novel and not a quick and simple read.
So, I’ll start with the tourism history and why it is so alluring to a man such as myself. I bet you didn’t know that Mackinac Island was once a national park. Yep, Although it’s a little less than four square miles, it became our nation’s second national park three short years after Yellowstone. Its main draw, and I haven’t read this but made a guess from the old souvenirs that are housed in the Island’s art museum, was Arch Rock.
Arch Rock is a mammoth limestone formation that, to this day, will awe anybody who cares to witness it. In the Museum, I came across a large photo of African American men, dressed to the hilt, posing on top of this rock formation. Try that today and I’ll bet you get arrested. One false step will surely result in death. There are three ways to get to this natural phenomenon, either take rifle range road, arch rock road or highway M-185 north out of town.
That’s right, their is an 8.2 mile highway, the only state highway that excludes automobiles from traveling along its pavement, circling the perimeter of the island. Bicycles and horse carriages are the two most common modes of transportation along the streets, motorized carts for the disabled are also allowed. The fact that cars are not allowed on the Island, in my opinion, is probably the biggest reason why it is so appealing. I’ll get to that in a second.
The automobile did make an appearance on the Island, however, its noise spooked horses and disrupted the peaceful atmosphere. It also threatened the very successful carriage Industry, which flourishes to this day.
One can take a forty-five minute carriage tour of the Island for $34.50 per person, or rent a carriage to drive for $70 an hour. I passed on the tour and am not about to pay $70 an hour for anything. Yet, standing outside the Grand Hotel, as I surveyed carriages gradually rolling to and from the Victorian buildings in town, I was addled by the strong notion that I was glimpsing 19th century tourism. That is truly awesome and I can’t think of another place that would provide that appeal.
The aforementioned Grand Hotel, another great piece of island tourism history, was built in 1887 and is the largest summer hotel to this day. The railroads constructed the building in the hopes of luring luxury seeking Victorian travelers. With its palatial appearance, ‘Big Porch’ and magnificent views of the town and Lake Huron, the structure did just that. Among its early guests, five American presidents, Thomas Edison and Mark Twain stayed inside rooms of the hotel. One can tour the hotel for $10 or, if your pockets are deep enough, spend a few nights and experience the epidemy of high-class boarding in the 19th century.
Not only is the Grand Hotel responsible for luring tourists to the area, it also helped birth the Island’s signature confection: Fudge! It started with a Father and Son duo known as Henry and Jerome Murdick, who were sailmakers commissioned to work on the Grand Hotel. They recognized that the travelers coming to the Island craved sweets. So, they opened a candy shop. ‘Rome’ Murdick put on a show as he created the fudge on a marble table. By the twenties, competition arose and fudge was the leading confection on the Island. Now, during peak season, Mackinac Island produces 5 tons of delicious hand crafted fudge daily. Wow!
That’s enough with the tourism history, which gives this place its own unique, ‘way back when’ allure. I’ll switch over to another compelling part of the Island: Military History. Actually, with the Island’s position on the Great lakes, this small piece of land has multiple facets in its rich history, Including the Jesuit Missions and the fur trading and fishing industries. It so happened, as we were on the Island during the Lilac festival, with the purchase of a fort Mackinac ticket at $13.50, we were allowed to see attractions such as a 1780 home, a blacksmith shop and a fur trading building for free. However, the two bits of its past that impress the most are, indeed, its Military and Tourism history.
There are two forts on the Island, one that is open for tours with young men decked out in 1880’s US Uniforms, performing Winchester Rifle and 1845 cannon firing demonstrations . Fort Mackinac, is by far the more prominent fort, situated on a bluff on the Island’s Southeastern shore. As I stood at the watch towers of this fort, crazy views of the surrounding water and town unfurled before my eyes.
This fort was built by the British in 1779 and finished in 1781. It changed hands a few times, between the US and British armies. Due to this, without going too in depth with the history, a battle took place while British forces controlled the fort. The skirmish took place in 1814 and the Americans lost the fight. The battle field is still visible and a military cemetery, which local island lore claims is the resting place of the fallen American soldiers, can be found on British Landing Road.
The other fort, Fort Holmes, was also built by the British and seldom used. The buildings and walls are not original. The cool part about the installation is that it sits at the highest point of the Island. I called the views from Fort Mackinac crazy, these, I guess, you could call completely insane.
Ok, I bored you with history long enough. After all, most don’t book a vacation for a history lesson. I might, but I’m not normal. I should mention the Starline Ferry a bit, which, if you choose the right time slot, will pass under the Mackinac bridge. There is also a Hydro-jet ferry-you’d have to check the website for the prices. Generally, the ferry ride is around a half an hour. There are two different ferry companies but Starline was our choice. The last ferry left the Island at 10:30 pm.
The Starline Ferry costs $27 per person with a $12 charge for each bike you bring with you. It’s actually a deal. On the island, single speed rentals start at $6 dollars an hour with mountain bikes being ten dollars an hour. A mountain bike is a better bet because the gears are aptly suited for the island’s hilly inland terrain. Daily rental is $62.50 for a mountain bike.
If you don’t own a bike, M-185 is relatively flat and can be pedaled in two hours. So, a single speed for two hours would cost as much as it would to take our bikes on the ferry. The pedal driven vehicles really do save on walking time from destination to destination, so bringing one to the Island Isn’t a bad Idea. The Island’s scenery, with it’s cedar forests, shoreline and limestone bluffs, make biking a treat.
There are tons of lodging options to choose from. There are plenty of hotels and bed and breakfasts on the Island, there are also a ton of hotels in Mackinaw City which is on the mainland, there is also the camping option. We chose to Camp at Mill Creek campgrounds, which was a very affordable route and provided a shuttle to the ferry.
As for the atmosphere on the Island, which is every would be vacationer’s curiosity, its very laid back with it’s own unique appeal. Basically, the Island is like a community of tourists, who are glad to be there, meandering the town in no real rush. Although, with all the carriages and bikes on the road, navigating the town on bicycle can be a bit cumbersome-watch for horse droppings! I also found Souvenir clothing and other nick-knacks to be fairly reasonable. So, with the Souvenir and fudge shops, bars and restaurants and historic buildings that are too many to mention, the town is a fun time.
Basically if your interested in a town with a unique history and appeal, would like to drink or devour some grub inside an establishment with a storied past, not break your pocket book shopping for gifts for the people waiting at home or just want a break from the norm, the town is a fantastic place. The Island’s Victorian allure is so prominent that it was used for the Hollywood love story ‘Somewhere in Time’ which starred the late Christopher Reeves.
As you can probably tell, I had a blast!