After visiting my cousin in Ann Arbor, I had two free days in Michigan to explore. Mackinac Island, located at the very top of the Lower Peninsula, is a major Michigan landmark and has a short season for visiting. Traverse City/Sleeping Bear Dunes also fits this category, but it has an airport and is therefore much easier to reach should I want to visit again. The closest airport to Mackinac only has flights to Detroit, a 4-hour drive. So, Mackinac it would be!
Due to cost, I booked a hotel in Mackinac City instead of on the island.
September 17, 2023: One Interesting Island
Despite getting back to my Ann Arbor Airbnb at 23:30, I managed to rally and get on the road at 7:00. The drive took 4 hours and had very few reasons to stop.
I reached Mackinac City at 11:05 and was on the 11:30 Shepler´s Ferry to the island. The majority of the other passengers were retired South Carolinians on a group tour. The 16-minute ride to the island had spectacular views of the famed Mackinac Bridge which connects the Upper and Lower Peninsulas.
At 11:46, I was on the island.
Strategically located at the meeting places between Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron as well as the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, Mackinac Island has historically been a place where natives would trade in the summer for hundreds of years.
When the French moved into the area, the island became the center of the beaver fur trade. Trading hands a few times between French, British and Americans, it permanently ended up in American control after the War of 1812. By then the fur trade had ceased and the island transitioned to becoming a military base and then a vacation destination for Midwesterners.
Not knowing what to do with the army presence on the island, President Ulysses S. Grant turned Mackinac into America´s 2nd national park. However, in 1895 the park decommissioned, and the land was transferred to the State of Michigan to become Michigan´s first state park.
Mackinac Island is a unique destination in the United States because it is car-free. This dates to 1898 when the first car appeared on the island. The car apparently scared the horses so much that the carriage union filed a petition with the town council to ban “horseless carriages” and it was quickly passed. In 1901, the ban was extended to the entire island. Every year, the island has a ceremony where they re-ban cars.
The ban covers not only cars but also motorcycles, and even e-bikes and electric scooters. The only motorized vehicles allowed are the fire department´s trucks and seated scooters for disabled people.
Due to the ban, carriages with horses and bicycles are the main modes of transportation. All services typically done with cars are done motor-free including taxis, trash pickup, and transportation of construction materials.
Mackinac Island has paved roads, including Michigan State Highway 185 – the only such state or federal highway that does not allow cars. Police on bicycles ensure that the streets are only for bicycles and carriages.
Due to the preservation rules, the island is a time capsule from 1898 with nearly every building being historic.
After stopping briefly for lunch and a quick visit to America´s oldest grocery store, I started my day at Fort Mackinac. This is the American military fort originally built during the American Revolutionary War and since expanded. The 1780 stone barracks are the oldest public building in Michigan.
In addition to the interesting history, the fort provides spectacular views of the town.
Walking past the official summer residence of the governor of Michigan (a giant Victorian mansion), I reached the island´s most famous attraction: the iconic Grand Hotel.
The hotel was constructed during the Gilded Age in the late 1800´s. It is known for many things including having the world´s longest porch and its strict dress code. 5 US Presidents and countless other important people have stayed here.
The Grand Hotel is an exceedingly expensive place – Mackinac as a whole has inflated prices but the Grand Hotel takes this to a new level. The Grand Luncheon Experience in the dining room is $75 (dinner is $121). The bar on the top floor has a $250 cocktail (although most are around $30). It even costs $10 just to enter. Despite the prices, the hotel is an icon of 19th century hospitality, which reminded me a lot of West Virginia´s The Greenbrier.
I wandered through a residential neighborhood mostly inhabited by seasonal workers before heading into the forests that make up Mackinac Island State Park. 80% of the island is untouched. The hike took me to a few landmarks including the wildly overrated Arch Rock.
Back in town, I visited some more of the insane houses and historic buildings before getting a well-deserved cocktail at the Pink Pony, an old sailor´s bar that unknowingly perfectly positioned itself for a millennial crowd.
I couldn´t leave Mackinac without getting some of its famous fudge, so I stopped at Murdick´s the original fudgery on the island, founded in 1887. Now there are 13 fudge shops in the tiny town.
Because it was so good, I had to get a second piece of fudge. Based on this blog, I opted to get my second piece at Murray´s hotel. The blog said the fudge was too rich to transport so I went back to Murdick´s (the 2ndplace fudgery on the blog) to get some to take back to Maisie.
With that, I headed back to the ferry. While I could have spent much more time, there were limited ferries back to the mainland post-Labor Day.
Mackinac is the ultimate “summer as a verb” destination in the US. The town is unmatched with the architecture and the lack of cars. The horse carriages and bicycles create a unique vibe that makes you wonder how America could have been had it built more pedestrian friendly cities.
The island also has enough other oddities: the Grand Hotel, the crazy houses, the fudge, the fort to continuously keep you on your toes and to keep reminding you that you are somewhere special.
Finally, everybody on the island is Midwest nice.
Mackinac stands head and shoulders above Nantucket, Cape Cod, and Montauk and should be on your bucket list if you like these kinds of places. The only downsides are the difficulty of reaching the island, the short season, and the cost, which luckily can be somewhat mitigated by cheap hotels on the mainland.