By John Penisten
Late 19th. Century Time Warp
Stepping ashore on Mackinac Island, just off the northern tip of mainland Michigan in Lake Huron, is akin to stepping back in time. The island, a short ferry boat ride away from Mackinaw City overlooks the famed Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge connecting lower Michigan to the upper peninsula. The island has perhaps the best-preserved late 19th. century ambiance and charm of any town in Michigan.
Bright pastel colored hotels, restaurants, stores, boutiques and shops line Main Street along the waterfront. On the settlement’s backstreet lanes are several buildings that figure in Mackinac Island’s early history. Handsome Victorian-era mansions of early settlers now serve as fancy B&B’s.
And to reinforce the reality that Mackinac Island is indeed living in a time warp, horse drawn carriages are everywhere. Automobiles were banned in 1898 and this allowed the island to preserve and maintain its special late 19th. century atmosphere.
Native Americans and Europeans
Native American Indians inhabited the Great Lakes region hundreds of years ago. The first Europeans in the Straits of Mackinac area were French missionaries who established a mission in 1671. The original name of the island and Straits area was Michilimackinac. Beginning about the 1820’s it was shortened to Mackinac. But the founders of Mackinaw City opted for the phonetic “aw” ending to differentiate their town from Mackinac Island. The common pronunciation is “Mackinaw.”
Over the years, the French, British and Americans controlled Mackinac Island. After the American Revolution, the fort and island became a United States territory. During the War of 1812, the British recaptured the fort and island and defeated the Americans in the only battle fought on the island.
Furs and Fish – Mackinac Island History
The 1814 peace treaty restored the island and Fort Mackinac to the United States. It was then that John Jacob Astor set up the American Fur Company headquarters on Mackinac Island. By the 1820s, the fur trade was flourishing. The fur trade eventually declined and was replaced by commercial fishing as Mackinac Island’s primary industry.
After the Civil War, railroads expanded and improved passenger steamships in the Great Lakes area brought travelers looking for adventure. With its historic charm and scenic beauty, the island was seen as an ideal summer resort. The federal government created Mackinac National Park in 1875, the nation’s second national park, just three years after Yellowstone.
Mackinac Becomes a Resort
In 1887, the luxurious Grand Hotel opened its doors and set a new standard for Great Lakes resort accommodations. Mackinac Island became the most fashionable resort in the Great Lakes region. By the 1890s, a number of magnificent Victorian inspired mansions were built in keeping with the island’s newfound prestige.
In 1985, the federal government transferred the fort and national park to the state and it became Michigan’s first state park. The park comprises about 1,800 acres (about 80% of the island) and includes miles of trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding and many wonderful panoramic views.
Experiencing Mackinac Island
Whether you go for a day visit or an overnight or two stay, Mackinac Island is an adventure. The ferry boat ride is an easy twenty minutes or less. Three ferry boat companies provide service from either St. Ignace on the north side of the Straits of Mackinac across the bridge or from mainland Mackinaw City on the south side.
On the island, most visitors travel by foot power, either walking or by rental bicycles. Some visitors bring their own bikes. And of course, there are those nostalgic horse-drawn carriages as well. The island is made for casual exploring with numerous cross-island trails for hiking and biking. Mackinac Island is just eight miles around and the Lake Shore Boulevard is the only state highway where cars are banned. The lakeshore route passes numerous scenic and historical sites such as Arch Rock, British Landing and Brown’s Brook, and provides nice views of the Mackinac Bridge and the Straits area.
Those opting for a horse carriage ride, can enjoy a relaxing 1 ½ hours narrated island tour covering many of the natural and historic attractions. There are also drive-yourself carriages for rent and guided horseback rides and horse-drawn taxis.
Main Street features several souvenir shops, boutiques and, at last count, seventeen fudge shops. Fudge became the sweet sensation of Mackinac Island in 1887 when Henry Murdick opened the first “Candy Kitchen.” By the 1920s, fudge was the island’s sweet mainstay. Fudge is undeniably the island’s largest export product.
Lodging and Dining
The island welcomes hundreds of visitors on a daily basis during the peak summer season. Advance reservations for lodging are advised. The island boasts fourteen hotels with the Grand Hotel being the most prestigious. With its premier location atop a hill, the Grand overlooks the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge to the west. But the Grand charges $10 per non-registered guest just to enter the hotel to look around. It’s definitely not worth the price of admission. If you choose to visit the Grand, skip the entry fee and walk around the grounds and enjoy the free view.
Alternative lodging can be had in the several Victorian-era mansions that have been turned into bed and breakfast inns. They vary in number of rooms, amenities and services provided but provide more of a homey option than a hotel.
Dining on Mackinac Island is varied. Eateries range from simple cafes and coffee shops, to diners and delis, fancy restaurants, bistros and taverns. The cuisine is just as varied and wide ranging. There are burgers and sandwiches, pizza and pasta, tacos and burritos, fresh Great Lakes fish, steaks, and more.
If You Go
The island’s 500 or so residents operate the bulk of the lodgings, horse carriages, and related visitor services. Most attractions and activities are available from early May until the end of October. The island has very limited services and lodging available during the winter. Make no mistake, Mackinac Island is a popular one-of-a-kind tourist destination in the Great Lakes region.