This trip was long overdue. I grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula almost as far north as you can get and now live in the middle of the Lower Peninsula. I have crossed the Mackinac Bridge more times than I can count and always looked over the railing to the small island in the straits with the big white hotel perched on the hillside and wondered what the big deal was. This summer my wife and I found out what we had been missing for so long.
I had always pictured in my mind a place where only the very rich and well-off went for summer vacations. I pictured giant yachts moored in the harbor and well-dress ladies in feather-plumed hats parading around on the arm some penguin-suited gentleman with top had and white spats and a cane dangling off of his free arm. This is not quite the upper-crust community that I had ever considered myself a part of or desired to be a part of. I’m just a bread-and-butter, meat and potatoes Yooper, (someone from Upper Michigan), pretending to be a troll…no offense to friends and family that live ‘under the Mackinac bridge’. However, this summer for our anniversary my wife and I decided to add something new to the camping experience, so we ditched the kids at with their grandparents and set off to experience Mackinac Island for the first time.
As our ferry made its way into the harbor we could see the Grand Hotel on the hillside looking every bit as ‘grand’ as its name suggests and the main part of town strewn along the harbor. We arrived at about 9:30am and the place was already bustling. We, in our khaki shorts and tee-shirts began our ascent from the docks onto Main Street…and were immediately hit with the sweet scent of fudge and an amazing array of sights and sounds from a time long past. The clip-clop of horses’ hooves and people of every kind and class casually walking up and down the spectacular wood sided shops, hotels, and chocolatiers. I had read articles and descriptions of this place as if it were some magical world where time had stopped and visitors were merely observers of a world long past. I had always sneered a bit at these kinds of descriptions, but now, when confronted with the reality, was hard pressed to disagree. We had indeed stepped back in time; cares seemed to melt away, worries faded, and time had become something we could stand in instead of pass through.
We had tickets to Fort Mackinac so we made our way there first. While it is quite an uphill hike, it is well worth the trek. It is an amazing historical museum with uniformed soldiers parading the grounds and giving presentations and answering questions. The buildings in the fort are filled with artifacts and treasures from as far back as the Civil War and before. The self-guided tour is punctuated by periodic cannon firings and gun salutes and spectacular views from the parapets. After visiting the fort we headed back down to Main Street and continued our walk. We made our way north along the street till it became a bike trail and then turned back toward the bustle of ‘down town’. All along the way are stately mansions, many of which are now hotels or bed-n-breakfasts.
By now it was nearing 11:00am and we were both feeling a bit hungry so when we stepped into Millie’s on Main for lunch. We sat at a table right near the windows and watched the people scurrying by among the carriages with the clapboard buildings lining the avenue and beckoning visitors to come in and see their wares. We were a bit early for the lunch crowd and were the only people in the restaurant so it was a welcome respite from the business we were seeing. The sandwiches were amazing and the price tag not nearly as heavy as I was expecting. In fact, unless you plan on staying overnight on the island, it is really not very expensive. No more expensive than any other ‘tourist trap’ you might find…but I wouldn’t consider Mackinac Island a tourist trap…a lot of tourists, yes…but they are anything but trapped. There truly is something for everyone here. There is history to explore and trails to walk or bike that encircle the island. You can take a carriage tour or even head to the stables and rent your own horse and explore. There are shops for each and every taste from popcorn to pretzels to confections of every kind…did I mention the fudge? Amazing!! Some shops are more expensive but there are plenty of affordable options as well. While it will cost you to ride in a carriage or rent a bike, walking is free and fun and is a much more convenient way to go if you want to stop and stare along the way.
After our little lunch we continued on down to the other end of Main Street toward the Grand Hotel. It is indeed grand! As in big and long…and exclusive! It is really the only place on the island where walking isn’t free. They do indeed charge you $10 just to step onto the grounds. As I said, there is something for everyone here. The Grand Hotel, more than anyplace on the island, fit the upper-crust image I had of Mackinac Island. We did not pay to walk onto the grounds but it was still quite grand to see the polished carriages pulled by highly decorated black horses with suited drivers in top hats going to and fro from the famous hotel.
We made our way back down to the ferry docks. It was now almost 2:00pm and we had learned a few things. First, there is much more to Mackinac Island than either of us had known or imagined. We spent only 5 hours on the island but could have easily spent 5 days soaking all of it in and still not done or seen everything. Second, our assumption that it was for the rich and well-to-do was really unfounded. There were all kinds of people there enjoying all that the island had to offer. Our whole day trip, including the ferry was under $100. Finally, more than anything, we want to go back. There is a real feeling there that you are ‘out of time’. Not that you have run out of time, but that you have been transported to a place where time does not exist. A little piece of heaven right in my own Michigan backyard…who knew?!