MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — It's 6 a.m. on a Friday morning, and the streets are eerily quiet as I jog along Main Street — Lake Huron to my left and the charming homes of this old island retreat to my right. I don't have to worry about running in the middle of the street. There are no cars, nor will there ever be.
In the distance, there's a young man with a pushcart making his way down the street on his way for an early delivery at a nearby shop. Then I hear the echo of horse hooves striking the pavement on an adjacent street.
Have I run through a portal, landing in a time far in the past? My imagination is suddenly checked as the sound of a foghorn echoes across the lake, and I watch as the island yawns and stretches, coming to life. Bicycles are released from their nightly moorings, and riders, eager to experience the sights around Mackinac, begin pedaling through town.
This must be what it's like for most people visiting historic Mackinac Island for the first time. The island, on the southeastern tip of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offers a wonderment of experiences — horseback riding, golf, kayaking, hiking and more — all within the 4-mile coastline that wraps around this island.
Dominick Miller, marketing manager for Mackinac State Historic Parks, says the island's no-motorized-vehicles law dates to 1898 when a car spooked the horses, "upsetting a lot of carriages."
Modern residents seem happy to trade the added charm for any inconvenience. In 2012, island resident Liz Ware, who owns the award-winning Mission Point Resort with her parents, bought a house on the island. Built in 1906, Silver Birches was near the point of no return, Ware admits, but she saw its potential and has spent the last few years putting her heart and soul into refurbishing the property. It hasn't been easy, but it's a statement of her commitment to keeping the island the way it's been for generations.
"In order to repair the foundations, we could not use a cement truck. We had to get 80-pound bags of cement — hundreds of them — over to the island," she says. Horse-drawn wagons finished the journey, and the cement bags were unloaded by hand.
There were hundreds of similar challenges, Ware says.
"Were they worth it? Without a doubt," she says. "This is where my heart is and where I find strength, peace, beauty and overwhelming joy."
That's just the way it is on Mackinac.
A look back
The first people to settle on Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw) were bands of the Chippewa and Ottawa Indians, descendents of the ancient Anishinaabe people who migrated to the Great Lakes area around A.D. 1200. By the 1700s, Europeans had arrived, making the island a center of activity during the Great Lakes fur trade, leading to the building of Fort Mackinac, a British-held fort during the Revolutionary War. It was also used as a prison during the Civil War. In the late 1860s, the fort was closed, becoming the nation's second national park — Yellowstone is the first — in the 1870s. Mackinac Island State Park now encompasses 80 percent of the island.
Today, the fort is a place where tourists come to see reenactments of daily life around the fort and hear cannon fire on the hour. The fort is also one of the highest points on the island, offering majestic views of the lake, harbor and town below.
By the late 1800s, the island took on the look it has today — a tourist destination and place for people to build their summer homes.
Where to stay
The Grand Hotel opened in 1887 with rates from $3 to $5 per night. Rates now start at $329 per night for adults, but that includes three meals in the magnificent dining room. The hotel, which boasts the largest porch of any hotel in the world, commands a breathtaking view of Lake Huron and is a beautiful setting for afternoon tea. The hotel, recognized as one of Travel + Leisure's 500 World's Best Hotels, was a setting in the 1980 movie "Somewhere in Time" starring Christopher Reeve. So to know Mackinac is to know the Grand Hotel. It's one of those resorts on many people's lists of "places to go before I die." But there are so many more places to stay on Mackinac Island. From B&Bs to quaint inns and other resorts. What you won't find are any chain hotels.
* Mission Point Resort is the only place on the island where you can play miniature golf. It also boasts a beautiful spa, bike rentals to roam the island, bocce ball and croquet on the expansive front lawn. The hotel's decor, with a log ceiling in the lobby that soars to a point overhead, is best described as contemporary Adirondack. It has a casual, understated elegance that calls for shorts and jeans by day and something a little nicer — but not too fancy — in Chianti, the hotel's dining room, at night. Mission Point received a Reader's Choice Award from Conde Nast in 2017.
* Island House Hotel is within walking distance of the downtown area, which can become quite busy at the height of tourist season, July through October. The hotel has a nice front lawn with a beautiful view of the harbor and nightly marshmallow roasts with fixings for s'mores. It is Mackinac's oldest hotel, a member of Historic Hotels of America and is listed, like many structures on the island, on the National Register of Historic Places.
* Pine Cottage is a quaint B&B just a few steps off Main Street. The rooms are reminiscent of a bygone era. Breakfast is served in a dining room with linen-dressed tables. The inn is across the street from the park and a stone's throw from the entrance to Fort Mackinac.
For more information or lodging suggestions, visit www.mackinacisland.org.
Dining with a view
By horse-drawn taxi, bicycle or on foot, there are many delicious places to get your fill on Mackinac. Stop in Doud's Grocery, the oldest continuously running grocery store in America, and get the foods you'll need for a picnic on the island. Don't forget to get some fudge for dessert at one of the nearby fudge houses. There are several — many consider Ryba's to be the best. There are lots of good spots to picnic on the island, such as the park in front of Fort Mackinac right down the street from the market. There's only a road filled with bicyclists and horses between you and the Great Lake.
If you'd rather have a table at which to dine, there are many places from which to choose. Here are some choice suggestions:
* Chianti at Mission Point. You'll step into elegance at this large restaurant with a view of the grand front lawn and Lake Huron. Dinner is an experience here. The menu has a nice mix of steaks, veal, lamb, seafood and house-made pastas. Dine inside or on a large deck overlooking the lake. The menu is seasonal and reservations, available through Open Table, are suggested.
* The Tea Room at Fort Mackinac. If you can't make it to The Grand Hotel for one of its elegant meals, the Tea Room is the next best thing. It's operated by The Grand Hotel and has the best view of any restaurant on the island. It's a lunch-only establishment, and you have to buy a ticket to Fort Mackinac to get in ($13 adults, $7.50 children). The tuna sandwich is a good bet.
* The Pink Pony. Morning through early evening, this is a great place for casual fare, such as the Smoked Whitefish Benedict for breakfast — a local favorite; whitefish tacos for lunch; and Michigan Maple Bourbon Strip Steak for dinner. Late night, the party animals appear for cold beer, mixed drinks, live music and dancing. The Daily Meal chose Pink Pony, located inside the Chippewa Hotel, as one of America's Top 10 restaurants for outdoor dining — its patio hangs out over Lake Huron.
When to go and how to get there
While Mackinac Island is open year-round, activities are dramatically scaled back. The Great Lakes freeze, making ferry rides across Lake Huron impossible from January through April, so most businesses are closed, save a couple of hotels and restaurants.
There are no direct commercial flights that will get you to Mackinac, but you can get pretty close. From Chattanooga, Delta has direct flights to Detroit that take about 90 minutes. From there, hop on one of Delta's puddle jumpers to Traverse City, Michigan, rent a car and make the two-hour drive to the ferry. Or fly into Pellston, Michigan, and take a shuttle to the ferry. It's about a 20-minute drive.
Of the multiple ferries, Shepler's claims to get you there the fastest, and sure enough, took us only about 15 minutes. Round-trip tickets are $24 for adults.