Mackinac Island, Michigan (pronounced “mackinaw”) seems to be a common location on the bucket lists of friends I’ve talked to since my mid-summer trip there. Named one of the Top Ten Islands in the World by Conde Nast Traveler and referred to as the “all natural theme park of America” by Mackinac.com, the island covers 3.8 square miles in Lake Huron between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas. A longtime tourist destination with high season from May to October and only about 500 permanent residents, motorized vehicles have been banned since 1898, so travel is by foot, bicycle or horse and buggy, adding to the island’s Victorian image and relaxing appeal.
Not realizing all of this at the time, my husband and I spontaneously tacked it on to the end of our second annual Northern Michigan family vacation. After five days in Glen Arbor and the amazingly beautiful Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (with beach views that rival those in Hawaii) we sailed away for two more days of #PureMichigan before making the 7-hour drive home to Cleveland, Ohio.
With several hotels and bed and breakfasts booked, we managed to secure a room at Mission Point Resort, one of the premier hotels on the sunrise side of the island, and ran into a couple of island regulars with great tips and taste. I feel like we maximized our stay with two young children, so here are six steps to help make Mackinac memories and tick this desirable Great Lakes destination off your travel wish list.
- If Mackinac Island isn’t already on your bucket list, add it! Then, book a place to stay overnight. To get the full island experience, it’s best to spend the night. Visit org to find lodging, ferry information, dining options and more. There are lots of bed and breakfasts, cottages, homes and hotels from the quaint to the grandiose. If a historic green and purple B&B with a carousel horse out front sounds like your style, check out the Inn on Mackinac. If you prefer a four-star resort with the world’s longest front porch and many amenities, look into the Grand Hotel.
- Ride the ferry. Leave from Mackinaw City or, like we did, for a small fee, drive across the famous Mackinac Bridge or “Mighty Mac” (the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world) to St. Ignace. We traveled via Shepler’s Ferry, the preferred service of our resort. Get a round trip ticket, arrange for overnight parking, unload your luggage (staff tags and loads it for you) then board the ferry. If you’re a Clevelander, I liken this experience to visiting the Lake Erie Shores & Islands, only on a much grander scale and minus the cars. Many hotels take care of transporting your luggage to and from the docks, so you only have to worry about personal items like backpacks or a stroller. Catch your hotel’s shuttle, a taxi carriage or rent bikes.
- Bike around the island… the whole thing. You can rent every kind of bicycle imaginable from single to tandem and kids’ sizes to trailers. We rented ours from the hotel and brought our own helmets and bike lock. Two adult bikes with one trailer for the kiddos and our mini cooler worked well. Grab a map and a coffee at Lucky Bean then go counterclockwise around the island’s perimeter starting at Mission Point towards Arch Rock. This leisurely route avoids some of the larger hills. Main Street downtown can get congested with a touristy vibe, so go there to eat and shop then travel via adjacent and parallel streets. For kids to let off steam, stop at the lakefront school playground. Bikes offer the most mobility, but there are also self-driven horse and buggies and saddle horses for rent as well as guided tours (but they aren’t ideal for young kiddos or those of us who like to make our own schedules).
- Enjoy the natural beauty. Along the ride, stop to explore Mackinac Island State Park. Climb the steps to the Arch Rock natural limestone formation, and visit Sugar Loaf, Skull Rock, Devil’s Kitchen and various other unique geological formations, scenic bluffs and beaches. Known for its lilac trees, the island’s annual lilac festival is held in June. Kayak tours and sailing cruises are other ways to see the sights.
- Embrace history and Hollywood. The island has a rich history. Learn about Native Americans, fur traders and the island’s role in the American Revolutionary War and War of 1812. The striking white stone walls of Fort Mackinac, built by the British in 1780, surround 14 buildings and grounds with costumed guides and reenactments, including live cannon firings and interactive Victorian children’s games. Admission includes access to a blacksmith shop and other historic downtown buildings. Fort Holmes is on the island’s highest point. (Warning: There are big hills, and if you have young children like mine, they may not appreciate the significance, especially after a long day of sightseeing.) There are also historic churches, cemeteries and an art museum. Hollywood descended onto Mackinac and the Grand Hotel to film the 1947 musical comedy This Time for Keeps. Tucked away on a wooded bluff just east of Fort Mackinac, you’ll find the white gazebo from the 1980 cult classic film Somewhere in Time. Just beyond it, look for a path to amazing views from Anne’s Tablet, a secluded memorial to Constance Fenimore Woolson, a 19th century author who wrote about the island and lived for a time in Cleveland. Samuel Mather of Cleveland was her nephew who funded the sculpture.
- Wine, dine and shop. There are fine dining and casual family-friendly options ranging from an elegant dinner or white tablecloth Luncheon Buffet at the Grand Hotel to burger and pizza joints on Main Street. We opted for a carry-out picnic lunch from Doud’s Market, treats from Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor at the Grand Hotel and live music and tasty dinners at the famously fun Pink Pony at the Chippewa Hotel and Mary’s Bistro Draught House. We especially loved the mid-day panoramic views, cocktails and mocktails from Cupola Bar atop the Grand Hotel. That alone was worth the price of hotel admission, but we also enjoyed views from the famous porch and admired the décor and art. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to dine at their restaurants. However, as a guest at Mission Point Resort, for example, kids under age 12 eat free. To indulge a sweet tooth, every other shop on Main Street seems to sell the island’s iconic hand-made fudge. For more fun, take the kids to Big Turtle Toys, and find charming gifts at Little Luxuries.
The friendliness of the people here was just as memorable as the unique sights and experiences. For a family of Buckeyes, we sure enjoyed our island time in that state up north and hope to go back again somewhere in time.