If I had been standing in this ferry ticket queue a hundred years ago, waiting to travel to my exclusive holiday resort, I’d probably have been rather wealthy. Mackinac Island was the summer retreat for successful and powerful people from the mid-west for decades. The four square mile island, with 500 year-round residents, sits in the middle of one of the Great Lakes, Michigan’s Lake Huron, which looks more like an inland-sea. This island is so special, it’s been placed on America’s National Historic Landmark register and was designated a national park back in the 1870s.
But local tour guide Bill Chambers was keen for me to understand that Mackinac is a ‘real’ place, not a theme park. “This is not Disney World. We didn’t build this thing here for entertainment. It just evolved from the community,” said Bill. Each day during the summertime peak, up to 15,000 people will take one of the two ferry companies’ boats to the island. It’s a slick operation, with secured mainland valet parking in the massive car parks. And they can arrange to transfer your luggage to your island accommodation.
During the 25-minute ferry journey, the boat passes the mighty Mackinac Bridge. It’s the fourth longest suspension bridge in the world, stretching 8,614ft as it connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. It’s very high and if you’re too scared to drive over it yourself, stop at the tollbooth where you can arrange for someone to take you over in your car!
As you approach the island from the lake it appears heavily wooded. It’s fairly flat and the highest point is 320ft above the lake level. You dock alongside this island’s only small town. Step along the short deck and you’ll be straight onto the main street through town. It’s full of late-Victorian charm – a mix of square wooden buildings with balconies as well as grand villas, some with turrets. It’s also home to America’s oldest grocery store.
You’ll quickly recognise what makes this place special. The only horse power you’ll find is equine rather than mechanical. “We are a car free destination so the minute you park your car over in Mackinaw City on the mainland, your adventure begins. You’re greeted with the ‘clip clop’ of horses, the smell of fudge and unique boutique shops.”
Alison Abraham of Mackinac Island Tourism went on to tell me that the car ban has been in place since cars were invented. “That decision was made in the early 1890s when cars were starting to become popular, but not every household had one. Before they made it to the island, the city banned them,” said Alison. “There have been a few cars on the island over the years for promotional events and even movies. The film Somewhere in Time features Christopher Reeve driving a car up to the Grand Hotel, which is very funny to see if you are not used to that sight!”
Phil Porter, the director of Mackinac State Park, told me the car ban had helped keep Mackinac special. “There are very few places in North America where there are no automobiles. We get around by walking, biking or horses. The ban on cars happened so early that the island never changed to accommodate them. Our roads are narrow and quaint – rather like European roads. We don’t have stop signs or traffic lights. There are no petrol stations. We have barns with horses.”
Alison told me that they best way to orientate yourself is to take a carriage tour. “You can take a tour as part of a group of around twenty people. It takes a set route. There is also a private carriage that we call our limousine service, which is more intimate or romantic. For the more adventurous we have the ‘drive your own buggy.’ It’s like a hire car but with horses. Most people are a little scared of that idea but it is actually a calming experience and fun. The horses have done it so many times they know exactly where to go.”
I boarded a horse-drawn carriage. Each one is a historic piece – the newest carriage was built in 1904. There are about 500 horses on the island in the summertime. I chatted to driver Will who was steering horses Wyn and Emma as we gently rocked through the leafy streets. I guessed that Will was in his 60s. He told me that he was born on the island and traces his family back seven generations to indigenous first Americans. He’s never taken a car driving test. When he was on the mainland he relied on his family and friends to drive him around. It felt like an experience from a different era and the only nod to the 21st-century was the occasional distorted voice crackling over a walkie-talkie. Just like radio cab drivers, these carriage operators keep in touch with a dispatcher. And every few minutes Will had to holler for people to get out of the way. Without cars, pedestrians seem to drop their guard.
The island tour starts below Fort Mackinac and goes down historic Market Street. It passes the Grand Hotel, the stables and then you change into a smaller carriage for a tour of the State Park. “82% of this island is State Park. It’s undeveloped,” tour guide Bob Chambers told me. “There’s 60 miles of roads and trails. It’s amazing the amount of nature here that people can see.”
One of the most popular tour stops is Arch Rock, a natural arch formation about 150 feet wide. Water receding through the limestone during the glacial period washed a hole in this massive rock. We reached a clearing in the thick forest of birch, larch and cedar trees that blanket much of the island. To view the rock you step up to a platform around 150 feet above the lake level. You can watch the waves breaking beneath you at the base of the cliff – or bluff as they call them here. The water was so incredibly clear you could see fish and the pebbles at the bottom. The expansive lake appeared to be bright blue, punctuated by many of the small green islands which dot the waterway.
Another option is to hire a bike to tour the island. “It really helps families to enjoy the time they are together,” said Alison. “You don’t see mum or dad driving the minivan and all the kids on their cell phones. Everybody is on a bike. They have to pay attention. It’s different from everyday life.” Jim Fisher has been on the island since he was 11 years old and now operates the bike shop, which includes a range of cycles with fat tyres. They can be ridden on snow. They get a lot of snow here in the winter. The island is only 60 miles from Canada.
“The exterior loop is 8.2 miles,” Jim told me. “At eight miles per hour you could see the whole island in 45 minutes, if you don’t stop and take photographs.” I asked if there were any killer hills? “Not in the exterior but yes, there are in the interior,’ he replied, with refreshing honesty from a bike-rental salesperson! “There are hills around a hundred feet of elevation. It’s hilly rising to the highest point,” he told me. I asked where I should go? “Visit Sugarloaf, which is a huge chunk of limestone the size of a three or four-storey building in the middle of the island. There’s no rhyme or reason why it is there,” Jim told me.
I hired a bike. It was a Dutch-style cycle with no gears. To brake I had to pedal backwards. It took some getting used to but it was fun and, without cars, it was a great way to explore the island’s interior. Jim recommended a trip to Fort Holmes, the highest place on the island. “They did a full restoration there recently and it looks really nice,” he advised. Fort Holmes is a wooden structure built on raised earthworks.
Fort Mackinac stands on a hill overlooking the waterway and the town. There you can see thirteen original buildings, enclosed by a white-painted wall. They date from the American Revolution. I met Phil Porter on the ramparts where he explained that Mackinac Island was an important strategic stronghold. “The waterways were the highways. Mackinac is 50 miles south of Lake Superior and is in the middle of the water highway system. All traffic came through here and that led to the beginning of the main industry, the fur trade. It was the business of northern Michigan. The country that had military control also had control of that lucrative trade,” Phil explained.
The French, British and Americans all had interests in the waterway. In 1812, war broke out between the USA, Britain and what is now Canada. Britain was at war with France so we conscripted 10,000 American merchant sailors to the Royal Navy. That angered the American President and he wasn’t happy when we tried to limit America’s trade with France. The conflict ended when Britain beat France by defeating Napoleon. Britain pulled out of Mackinac Island and the fort reverted to US control. You can watch the firing of the canon from the fort ramparts at various times during the day.
I’d worked up a hunger cycling across the island. I asked Alison for local food suggestions. “We are well known for our whitefish from the Great Lakes. You can go to one of our many restaurants and eat whitefish that was caught just that morning,” she said.
But most visitors have a sweeter treat in their sights. You’ll notice visitors carrying boxes of fudge down to the ferry as they leave the island. The sweet treat is available everywhere. “The first year that the Grand Hotel opened, they hired somebody to make their awnings – a sailmaker. His wife had a sweet shop on the mainland. She opened the first fudge shop on Mackinac Island in 1887, called Murdoch’s Fudge,” Alison explained. “There are seven different fudge shops today. It’s made on a marble slab. The shops have become famous for local ingredients like Traverse City cherries or Michigan maple syrup.” American fudge is different to the British variety, which is hard and crumbles like cheese. American fudge is soft and squidgy.
It was time to head to the attraction that put this island on the map, the Grand Hotel, which opened in 1887. The 390-room hotel is an impressive, imposing, green-roofed, long white block of a building. It sits on top of a hill, sloping down towards the lake and overlooking manicured gardens with a 220ft swimming pool. You reach it by walking or riding a carriage up a stately drive, which cuts across a large park.
The hotel features a 660ft long front porch, the largest of any hotel in the world. It’s a promenade, providing shelter from the weather. You can stroll along its length, under the protruding balcony of the hotel’s fifth floor rooms. The 30 or so white wooden pillars holding up the balcony make an imposing impression. It’s like a huge, wooden White House. Fittingly, presidents have holidayed here, including JFK, George Bush senior, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford and Harry Truman.
The interior is just as extravagant, decorated like a palace by one of America’s best-known interior designers, who also worked in the White House. “Carleton Varney is our designer,” explained Bob Tagartz, who added, “Every single room is different. They are elegant but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have bright, fun, splashy colours – 164 wallpapers and 16 colours designed specifically for us. You can come 390 times and get a different experience on every visit,” smiled Bob.
He holds a unique position. The Grand is so historically significant that he is employed as a resident historian. Bob told me that the hotel wanted to encourage rich and powerful guests. “There was great competition amongst the resorts to get the named people to stay,” he offered. “The DuPont’s, the Vanderbilt’s. Our area was Chicago and Bertha Potter Palmer was the Queen of Chicago society. When she stayed in our hotel, everybody wanted to stay,” he said. So what did the hotel do to try and encourage them? “We had some amazing things,” said Bob. “We were piped for gas lighting but we had an experimental electric generator. We could electrify the front of the hotel and there were three chandeliers inside. It sounds like nothing today, but ships literally stopped outside to see it.”
Later, The Grand also hosted Edison’s first public demonstration of a record player or phonograph. And the hotel gave powerful people whatever they wanted, even if it meant breaking the law. “During prohibition in the United States we didn’t have a dry day in this hotel. We brought liquor down from Canada on a regular basis. We also had a speakeasy during the gambling period. We had a room with a revolving wall with roulette wheels on it. We also had fake radios throughout the hotel which were really nickel slot machines.”
After a refined afternoon enjoying coffee and cake at The Grand, I headed to Mackinac’s popular Butterfly House attraction. Over 200,000 people visit each year and, at times, there are up to 1,000 butterflies flying between the lush tropical plants in the garden. The butterfly room was incredibly humid but it was enchanting, seeing the bright colours of the beautiful blue, turquoise, yellow and orange insects. “Our most popular butterfly is the Blue Morpho – it’s an iridescent, shimmering blue and is native to Costa Rica,” explained manager Ruth Adamis.
As I was leaving the worst thing imaginable happened. One of the attendants pointed towards the sole of my shoe. I lifted up my foot and to my horror realise that I’d stood on a beautiful butterfly. Whoops. I would like to go back to Mackinac Island. I don’t think I’m banned!
Just before I left, I asked Alison for her best island tip. “Bring really good walking shoes. You have to dress practically here,” she said. “In my first week I had lots of white shorts and high heels and it doesn’t fly here. You want to relax and have fun.”
Mackinac Island is reached by a short ferry ride from Mackinaw City, around a four-hour drive from Chicago.