While my mom was most looking forward to the Soo Locks, today’s visit to Mackinac Island was at the top of my list. The island sits in the Straits of Mackinac in Lake Huron and embraces the romantic notions of a by-gone era. While there are some motorized emergency and utility vehicles on the island, transportation is primarily by horse and buggy, cart, or bicycle. 80% of the island is a protected forest and the island boasts some of the most beautiful Victorian architecture in the United States. The fact that my favorite romantic film from 1980-Somewhere in Time-is set on the island adds to its charm. My movie tastes are a little more sophisticated now.
To reach the island you can take a ferry from Mackinac City on Michigan’s lower peninsula or St. Ignace on the state’s upper peninsula. We chose the 9:30 ferry from St. Ignace because it is one of the few that makes a loop under the Mackinac Bridge before heading over to the island. It will make the trip a little longer, 30 minutes instead of 18. Coming from Mackinac City it takes about the same amount of time, but you avoid the time and toll of the bridge if you are already on the lower peninsula.
The Shepler’s Line is the larger ferry company; the Star Line is the older one. We are taking the Star Line because of price and schedule. There are no reservations, so we arrived early. After checking in our luggage and parking the car in the overnight lot across the street, we waited for the departure. Bags and bikes were loaded first and then passengers were allowed aboard. They just looked at our tickets but didn’t scan or take them. They also serve for our return trip. There is downstairs enclosed seating and upstairs outside seating. Given I wanted to take pictures and we were passing under the bridge, we all went for the upstairs seats.
We brought jackets, but it was already so hot that I didn’t even put it on. Mom wears a hearing aid and wore her hood to protect against wind and spray. It was a clear day and we had beautiful views of the Mackinac Bridge. It was a pleasant ride to the island. The ferry company’s porter had tagged our luggage for our specific hotel. When we arrived, all the luggage was taken to the city-side end of the pier. We simply identified it there and a porter from our inn/B&B (his logo shirt identified him) loaded all our bags in the basket of his bicycle and took them to the hotel for a tip. Since we didn’t want to leave anything in the car overnight, each of us had two smaller bags. I couldn’t believe he got all 8 bags at the same time. The ferry company must have alerted the porter; we hadn’t called ahead to let them know about our morning arrival.
Heading onto the main street, we were surprised at how crowded it was given the boat was not full. We decided the day-trippers all took earlier boats to maximize their time on the island. The bike rental places were flooded with people trying on helmets, deciding if they wanted a single or tandem, adding child or luggage carriers, or negotiating a price. In spite of how many people were there, the bike businesses looked well stocked. Apparently unlike the car rental agencies on the mainland, they didn’t sell off their stock during the pandemic.
The line for the horse-drawn carriage tours was also very long (and out in the sun) and we were glad we had secured a private tour for the four of us. The group tour is considerably cheaper, $42/person for an hour and 45-minute tour plus entrance to The Wings of Mackinac where you make a stop versus $160 an hour for a private tour for up to 4 people. The price of the group tour goes down to $34 for an adult or $14 for children age 5-12 if you eliminate The Wings of Mackinac. A child under 5 who sits on a lap is not charged. Group Touring is available through Mackinac Island Carriage Tours which was established in 1948. If you take the morning tour, they pack them in. They put four adults in a row and on some of the tours we saw people who looked pretty uncomfortable. You cannot make a reservation for a public tour. The one exception is booking for the handicapped tour. However, with Mom’s limited mobility and comfort in mind, the private tour where we could structure the time ourselves made more sense. We could have arranged to have the carriage meet us at our hotel, but we had an hour and a half before it started and decided to walk around in town a bit first.
Given the number of tourists there, it was actually rather hard for Mom to maneuver down the sidewalk. If you step into the street, you took your life in your own hands. The danger wasn’t from a horse-drawn vehicle-plenty of warning on those-but from the bicycles. They are everywhere and some of the riders looked like they haven’t ridden in a while or ever. Jack said that even though it didn’t look like there were more people on the island than on our last visit, the bicycles took away from the atmosphere and really ruined the feel for him. We saw a lot of crashes.
I had been assigned the task of securing us a place to stay. We had ruled out the Grand Hotel, which is fabulous but considerably more expensive (and the rooms throughout the island are already pretty expensive). To really enjoy the full Grand Hotel experience, you also want to book one of more of their special dining venues and that means dressing up. Jack said early, “no coat and tie”. In fact, after 6 pm, even hotel guests not in evening wear are directed to side entrances when they return to the hotel.
We decided we were all going to stay in a single room like we did as kids, so that further limited options to places that could provide two queen beds. However, even with our limitations, we still had plenty of choices. Ultimately I selected the Metivier Inn on Market Street, one block behind Main Street, quieter, but still very close to all the main attractions. The Metivier hosts serve a hot breakfast, rather than just a continental one, and the inn is known for its beautiful gardens. It also has wonderful front and side porches that I knew Mom would love.
Walking down Main Street I was really glad I didn’t chose one of the hotels along this street. There was just a little too much chaos and I suspect the noice starts early in the morning. If you like to sit on your balcony and look down at crowds or just love the smell of fudge, you might prefer one of these rooms.
Even with Mom taking breaks on strategically placed benches and her morning ice cream indulgence break, we still made it to the Tourist Office across from Marquette Park, our meeting point, with 45 minutes to spare. It was pretty hot if you were in the sun. Mom found a shaded bench and we took turns sitting with her. Jack and I walked down past the marina toward the Mission District where the crowds thinned out, but the beautiful lake view homes were still plentiful. We also passed St. Ann’s church. Morning mass is at 11 am and was currently ongoing, so we were unable to go inside.
We passed one home with a burned-out copula and I made a note to ask our tour driver about it. Marquette Park sits between Fort Mackinac and Main Street. Jack and I returned to the park to meet Mom and Emma for our private tour. We booked our private tour through Gough Livery Carriage Inc. which takes early reservations. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours also offers private tours for the same price, but you can only call two hours prior to when you want to start and see if they have availability. Our noon tour set out right on time. We had settled on an hour and a half timeline. Courtney took us down Market Street where many of the historic buildings are situated-the courthouse, the post office, the art museum, the Biddle House (the oldest house on the island), and the city hall. We also passed our hotel so we got our first look at where we would be staying. This was a great orientation to the city and now I know that I can just walk down the street and get some pictures when I am ready.
As we rounded the corner and turned onto the street leading up to the Grand Hotel, Courtney pointed out the Mayor’s house. The family has had a home on the island for many generations. We passed the vicarage for the Stone Church and the thought of an on-line clergy license occurred to me as a way to have a summer stay on the island. The Stone Church is itself was on the right further up the road, while the Grand Hotel and its grounds were to the left.
Though hilly, you could walk to most of the main attractions if it weren’t so hot. I think a fall visit might be perfect, although I would miss all the beautiful flowers. We drove right by the front doors to the Grand Hotel and then made our way up a steep street with more beautiful homes in the $2 million+ range. One was for sale and Mom quickly revised her housing choice. Not so sure she would like it much in the winter months though. Regular ferry service stops and becomes more sporadic and many things close at the end of the season in late October.
With spectacular views, Courtney rested the horses at the top of the ridge after their long climb. When we went forward, we were venturing off into areas where you need a ride of some sort. In fact, it would have been pretty tough to reach with a bicycle. Our next stop was one of the carriage yards so our horses could get a drink.
This is the part of the wooded area of the Island. Forest covers about 80% of Mackinac. The homes here (without a water view) are more modest. Courtney told us that if we saw a house with lots of bicycles it was probably staff housing. Because of the time many of these homes were built, along with the fact that most motorized vehicles are prohibited, most of the homes have a stable and grassy yard for the horses. Many have been renovated for other purposes, but some retain their original function.
We passed the Skull Cave-nothing much to see now. It has caved in. We also passed an area I don’t remember from our last visit with three beautiful cemeteries. The largest is St. Ann’s; it is the Catholic cemetery and is affiliated with the church I walked by earlier before the carriage tour. We saw a sign that I have never seen at a cemetery before-NO SADDLE HORSES. Apparently it is a problem. St. Ann’s Cemetery has charming metal gates at its various entrances along with beautiful stone arches and stone fencing. Very picturesque.
There is also an “everyone else” cemetery for the non-Catholics. The third and smallest cemetery is a military one with neat rows and uniform white markers. As a lover of history, I enjoy going to cemeteries and reading the inscriptions; they can also be wonderful places to take pictures. Mom can’t walk easily on the uneven ground and it is hot, so we told Courtney that we wanted our tour to be more riding than stops with walking. Otherwise, I would probably have spent more time in this area.
There is a small fort in the main part of town to mirror its counterpart in Mackinac City. A steep ramp from Marquette Park takes you to Fort Mackinac. For a great visiting experience, I recommend the one in Mackinac City, Fort Michilimackinac. It is part of the Colonial Michilimackinac Complex They do reenactments there; I still remember the experience from my childhood. We won’t be visiting this time, but I do recommend looking into it.
Established in 1715, this 18th-century fort and fur trading village has been “reconstructed based on historic maps and more than 60 years of archaeological excavations. As you walk through the site, you are stepping back in time to 1778, when rumors of war and peace swirled around Michilimackinac…you will see and hear how soldiers, civilians, and Native people responded to threats real and imagined as they attempted to maintain their livelihood, the fur trade. Historical interpreters representing voyageurs, British soldiers, and French-Canadian merchant families are stationed throughout the fort to answer your questions and perform demonstrations.” State Historic Parks: Mackinac I highly recommend the experience if you are traveling with children or history lovers.
When I was looking for things to visit on Mackinac Island, I also noticed that there was a Fort Holmes. On our carriage tour I saw a sign and wooden staircase and asked Courtney about it wondering if it was worth returning to later. She said there was little there now and it is more visited for the views. There is some suggestion that the fort may be rebuilt at a later date. “Fort Holmes is a small, wood and earthen fort on the southern end of the highest ridge on Mackinac Island. The fort was constructed by British soldiers in 1814 during the War of 1812…When United States soldiers peacefully reoccupied the island after the War of 1812 the fort was renamed Fort Holmes in honor of American Major Andrew Hunter Holmes who was killed in the 1814 battle of Mackinac Island.” State Historic Parks: Mackinac
We also passed by the military practice range on the island. You could still see the deep ruts. We were en route to one of the most viewed sites on the island, the Arch Rock. Courtney rested the horses just by the entrance while we went for a look. She warned us to look down at the ground and reminded us that the trails of liquid were probably not water. Fortunately for Mom, you could walk right up to Arch Rock. You just needed to wait your turn for a photo. You can also go up a few stairs and enjoy the view out across the lake.
The Arch sits 146 feet above the water level and is more than 50 feet wide. The naturally occurring arch is formed of limestone. The Native Americans had many legends regarding the Rock; Courtney shared one about a maiden in love with a mythical creature her father forbid her to wed on the ride back into town.
Just before we headed back down the hill, Courtney rested the horses at another beautiful spot overlooking the water. A few houses away, the children had set up a lemonade stand to capture the tourists-very smart. As we went down, I saw the staircase the locals use when they don’t want to have to go around the curving road. I imagine you would be in pretty good shape after a summer season here.
We had seen groups of horses out and about and one of the stable offices is just across the street from our B & B. On the way down the hill, we passed a children’s riding school. As we came around we were on the straightaway back to Marquette Park. I think the horses could sense it was almost time for a break. We passed the large white Island House Hotel and Courtney shared that it was established in 1852 and is the oldest hotel on the island. It is family-operated and the only hotel located within the boundaries of the Mackinac Island State Park. The simple center section had been added to several times and the hotel is now rather large and has perhaps one of the best flower displays on the island.
I also asked her about the burned out copula and she said the fire had happened a few months ago and started in one of the old chimneys. The fire had taken out the entire third floor of the house. The home immediately had to be protected from further damage to the lower floors and they were taking advantage of the warm weather to get as much of the repair work done as possible before the end of the season.
We said goodbye to Courtney at Marquette Park and went in search of lunch; we debated whether we wanted waterside dining or a recommended place near our hotel. The thought of a quick walk to check in after lunch meant the Yankee Rebel Tavern won out. We all enjoyed more comfort food for lunch today. I think I out-ordered everyone with the roast beef sliders.
After lunch, we had a short walk to Market Street and our hotel. We received a warm welcome at the hotel. They have done an excellent job of keeping the original charm of the house while adding on additional spacious accommodations. Our room with two queens was around the corner and looked out over the beautiful sloping backyard. Our bags had been taken directly to our room by the dockside porter. There was also a lovely side porch just outside our room.
We arrived just before 3 pm which is cookie time at the inn. It was clear that the regulars or those staying a few days knew the drill and people were there right at 3 to grab the warm delights. They are out until they are gone. I recommend the molasses cookies. They must be the favorite; they were gone first.
Jack stayed with mom on the porch and Emma and I went and checked out the dining options for the evening. We wanted a relatively nice dinner. We narrowed it down to two options, The 1852 Grill Room at the Island House Hotel or waterside dining at the Carriage House at the Iroquois Hotel on the beach. We had seen both spots having passed the Grill Room on the carriage tour and having seen the Carriage House from the ferry. The Carriage House is also where mom had sat in the pretty arbor seat.
The available time at the Carriage House was better and we would be right on the water so that ended up being our choice. Both restaurants had wonderful menus. We spoke with an couple staying at the inn after dinner that had gone to the 1852 Grill Room. They said the food and service was excellent but you were removed from the water and there isn’t much of a view after dark anyway. I would still like to try it on another visit.
Having had the chance to walk around on my own and take pictures before lunch, I stayed in the room with mom and cooled off while Emma went shopping and Jack took a walk and enjoyed the inn’s front porch. That evening we dressed up a bit for dinner and headed down early to give mom plenty of time and to perhaps have a drink before dinner.
While we waited for a table, we enjoyed cocktails (I went with the French 75) on the outdoor patio right at the water’s edge. We had a wonderful view of the lighthouse from this vantage point. When our table was ready, we transferred over to a side patio for dinner. The sun had gone down just enough that it was comfortable to be outside. From the side patio, we had a better view of the rock beach and the sunset opposite the water.
It was a fabulous menu. I started with the crab meat “tower”, followed by the scallops, rounding out with a daily special-a caramel sundae with caramel made homemade in their kitchen. Given the good fudge makers on the island, I just knew the caramel would not disappoint. It was fabulous. In fact, all the food was excellent and we enjoyed wonderful service.
The only down spot was when a engaged couple and their parents who were on the island for the wedding spotted some of their wedding guests on our small patio of just six tables. They were all loud and obnoxious and acted like they were the only ones there. Fortunately, they eventually left and the volume subsided. People can be so thoughtless.
It was dark by the time we left the restaurant, but we had a very short walk back to the Metivier Inn. The main street was almost deserted. We walked down French Lane and Jack spotted a “hidden Mickey” on a fence post. When we arrived back at the inn, we sat on the front porch for a while. A large portion of the porch was roped off. We found out later that that section was closed at 9 pm, respecting the guests whose rooms faced onto the porch.
What a fabulous day on the island! More to enjoy on Mackinac Island tomorrow before our midday departure. One of the things that happens when you are the photographer is that there are not many pictures of you. Just so you know I was really there, I am sharing a selfie I took at Arch Rock. Until tomorrow…
Fabulous commentary and pictures. Thank you so much. I’ve been to The island but definitely want to return!