It takes less than half an hour by ferry to get from upper Michigan to Mackinac Island, where you can go back in time over a century and a quarter to a quieter and more gentle era.
The first sight of this enchanted island in Lake Huron is of a gently rounded shape covered with foliage, wonderfully verdant in the warmer months, and blazing with a multitude of colors in the fall.
Dominating the island on your first sighting is the magnificent white Grand Hotel, standing high on the island, looking much like a decoration on a wedding cake.
When the ferry rounds the curve of the island, the fully restored Fort Mackinac, perched on a hill, comes into view, along with the picturesque pastel one- to four-story buildings of the town itself.
You’ll be struck immediately by the total absence of the noise of motorized vehicular traffic. Instead, as you disembark at the wharf, you’ll be met by the clip-clopping of horse-drawn vehicles and the soft whir of a multitude of bicycles. Your lungs will love it here.
Mackinac is one of the most unusual places in the United States. Motor vehicles have been forbidden here since the end of the nineteenth century! The 8.2 mile highway encircling the island is the only U.S. highway where motor vehicles are banned. It’s an equestrian’s paradise. Visitors to the island can rent drive-it-yourself buggies and horses to ride. Taxis (which are available 24 hours a day) are all via horse-drawn conveyances.
If horses aren’t your thing, you can either bring your own bicycles on the ferry or rent them, and a multitude of different kinds are available. Of course there are your feet as well, and walking around the island is a popular tourist pastime.
The island, though not large, is full of history. Mackinac was a sacred island for the Algonquian Indians. It was also our second national park. Over eighty percent of the island is now state park land and the entire island is on the national historic register.
There are two parallel main streets, Main and Market. Market Street is fronted by historic homes and buildings, including the former headquarters of John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Trading Company. The oldest building on the island is the Biddle House, built in the late 1700s. Some of these historic houses can be toured during the summer.
The public horse-drawn tour offers an excellent overview of the island’s history, as well as such unusual geographical features as Arch Rock, an elegant elongated, natural limestone formation that stands 146 feet high.
Mackinac is also famous for its fudge and sampling of its many varieties is encouraged in the many shops on Main Street.
Among the many in-season happenings is the Lilac Festival (June 5th – 14th) with its five to fifteen daily events. The blooms of hundreds of lilac trees scent the air.
Fort Mackinac, fought over in the War of 1812 (alternating between British and American hands), was built in 1780 and both the grounds and buildings can be toured. Reenactments of soldiers in battle dress firing rifles and cannons are offered and an excellent holographic display comparing and contrasting the diagnosis and treatment of ailments in the 19th century and today can be seen in the infirmary.
The fort affords a spectacular panorama of virtually the entire town and harbor. You can relax and enjoy the view while dining al fresco at the Grand Hotel’s Terrace Tea Room at the fort.
There are many historic places to stay on the island, including the oldest hotel, the Island House, circa 1812, whose interior has been beautifully updated, and the Mission Point Hotel, spread on the eastern portion of the island.
But for historic ambiance, the queen of the island, the Grand Hotel, is a unique institution which evokes the elegance of a bygone, yet nostalgic time. Established in 1887, the Grand is one of only a handful of white pine hotels still standing in the country. It is the largest summer hotel in the world, open from April through October. Its famous porch, at 660 feet, is the world’s longest. You can relax on one of its white, wooden Adirondack rockers and watch the sway of the almost five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere. It’s also a great place to catch the island’s sunset.
In the spring, thousands of tulips bloom around the hotel and during the summer the special Grand geraniums, take their place.
The American flag flies proudly from the porch’s pillars and it’s a delight to watch the flag-folding ceremonies at sunset, done with proper respect to each flag.
Each of the Grand’s rooms is uniquely and individually decorated. Some of the ceilings, as well as the walls, are papered and special geranium soaps and toiletries are found in every bathroom.
One of the last bastions of formality, the Grand is one of the few hotels in the country which still has a dress code for dinner. After six o’clock, on the parlor floor and for dinner, all males over the age of eleven must wear a jacket and tie, and women must be suitably dressed as well.
Stays include breakfast and dinner, and they are delicious multi-course affairs. The Grand also has a restaurant in a forested glen and another on the golf course if the formal dining room doesn’t suit you. Both places offer indoor and outdoor dining (the outdoor dining areas of both restaurants are heated with outdoor heaters).
Music is an integral part of the Grand Hotel stay. An excellent group plays jazz standards during dinner itself, and there is a small dance floor in front of the group for those so inclined. After dinner, in the parlor with its many antiques, a harpist or pianist plays while fruit and demitasse coffees are offered to the guests. After that, a big band plays dance music in the ballroom, or you can ascend to the Cupola Bar for another spectacular view of the lake and the bridge, also with musical accompaniment. All of the musicians are top-notch professionals and the Grand also sponsors a jazz festival on Labor Day weekend that is so popular it usually sells out.
Swimmers will be delighted here. The Grand’s 220-foot long pool was built expressly for Esther Williams’ use in one of the two movies made on the island (though she never actually swam in it, insisting the water was too cold). On the grounds are several old-fashioned games, like bocce ball.
The pièce de resistance of the Grand is its “Somewhere in Time” Weekend, in honor of the other movie shot on the island, the 1980 Christopher Reeves-Jane Seymour epic, where guests dress up in circa 1912 clothing, the year in which the movie is set. Women wear long dresses and huge feathered hats and men dress up in three piece suits, spats, and derby hats. Several members of the movie come for the weekend, and the movie’s fans flock to the event from all over, including England and continental Europe.
So if you’ve ever had the desire to go back to a gentler, slower era, even for a short time, take the ferry to Mackinac and the Grand.