Visitor Information, News, Guide, Videos, Photos, History
I wrote this article for the September 2008 edition of Michiana Family Magazine
About 25 years ago, my husband and I discovered that Mackinac Island, Michigan was a wonderful place to vacation with our family. Every summer, the kids’ eyes would get bigger as we approached Mackinaw City and could see the big Mackinac Bridge looming in the distance. They could hardly contain their excitement as we pulled into the ferry’s parking lot. As soon as we had our tickets, they would run to the top deck of the ferry to get a front-row seat to watch our approach to the Island. All the way in the car, we would talk about things that are uniquely Mackinac; the sound of horses clopping down the street at night, bike riding all over and of course the smell and taste of fudge!
Now, the kids are grown with children of their own. Each summer for the last 4 years we have taken our youngest grandkids, Anthony and Ali, now ages 8 and 10, with us. We have now introduced a whole new generation of our family to the enchantment of Mackinac Island.
If you have never been to Mackinac Island, it is an actual island in Lake Huron between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, about a 6 hour drive north of Michiana. There is an airport on the island, used mostly by private planes, but there is a charter service from Detroit onto the island. For us, the drive is part of the fun. We play car games and make our plans for what to do once we get to the island.
There are 3 ferry lines that transport guests from Mackinaw City in the Lower Peninsula (or St. Ignace, if you’d like to drive across the bridge to the Upper Peninsula) to Mackinac Island. At all of the ferry docks, porters load your luggage and bikes and call head to your hotel to let them know you are on your way. Our favorite is the Star Line because their Hydro-Jet boats shoot out a “rooster tail” of water behind the boat. The kids watch anxiously as the boat gains speed and the rooster tail shoots out behind the boat.
After a 20-minute boat ride, you arrive at the dock in Mackinac Island where a porter from your hotel will greet you and take your suitcases to your hotel. Because no motor vehicles are allowed on the island, the porters use bicycles with big baskets to move luggage from the boat docks to the hotels. Sometimes it is quite a site to see when a porter has 5 or 6 (or more!) suitcases stacked on his bike and he has to look around them to see where he’s going!
As soon as you step onto Main Street from the boat, you feel as if you’ve stepped into another time. There are no car horns honking or lights or signs to direct traffic, In fact, with the exception of an ambulance and fire truck there are no motorized vehicles on the island at all. You see horses, bicycles and people walking everywhere. The rules are simple; everyone yields to the horses, and pedestrians yield to bikers and watch out for the “road apples”
One of the first things you will notice is that there are two very different and very distinct smells on Mackinac Island; one comes from the horses (hence the caution to watch for “road apples”) the other, and much more pleasing smell, comes from the fudge shops which are every few feet on Main Street. The kids always get a kick out of the fact that the local Mackinac Island residents (about 200 people live on the island all year) call us tourists “fudgies”!
Mackinac Island has tons of family friendly activities. You can rent bikes and ride around the island. It is 8 miles all the way around, and the ground is mostly flat, so you can ride completely around the island in about an hour and a half The scenery is gorgeous and there are plenty of spots to stop for photos or just to rest your legs. There are lots of bike rental companies on the island and they all have tandems, bike seats, helmets and buggies, so every family member can ride.
One of the most popular attractions on the Island is the Butterfly House. Thousands and thousands of colorful butterflies are everywhere, often landing on your head or arm. The kids always get a kick out of making sure we don’t have any “hitchhikers” when we leave the Butterfly House.
Another kid friendly and very educational attraction is Fort Mackinac. At the top of a LONG flight of stairs is a Fort that was built by the British in 1790 and last used by the U.S. Army in 1885. Every two or so hours a canon is fired from the Fort and one lucky child is chosen to help clean the canon before the firing. There is a children’s program where the kids and their parents (or grandparents!) learn about what life was like as a child on Mackinac Island in the 1880’s. They learn games like “Jacobs Ladder”, “Grace” & “Ball and Cup”. Conveniently, these games are available for purchase in the gift store, so the kids can bring a bit of history home with their fudge!
No trip to Mackinac Island would be complete without a horse ride. You can ride saddle horses, rent your own carriage to drive, hire a private carriage tour or go on a group tour. We always opt for the private carriage. It costs about $60 for the hour for all four of us, but we get one-on-one attention and generally the carriages are driven by long-time Island residents, so you get an insider’s perspective of the island. This year, our driver was Greg and our horses were Daisy and Donna. Greg even let Ali and Anthony sit up front and help drive the horses!
With all the walking, biking and sightseeing, you and the kids will no doubt get hungry. No worries! Mackinac Island has something for every appetite and every budget. While on your bike ride, you can stop at The Cannonball (about halfway around the island) for a cold drink, or sandwiches or, Ali’s favorite, the giant pickle on a stick!
In town there is the Mustang, the only restaurant open all year and home to one of the best burgers on the Island. If you’re looking for something more than burgers, the restaurant at the Hotel Iroquois is exceptional and they have outdoor dining by the water! All of the restaurants we visited had great kid’s menus which pleased our grandkids very much; nothing makes them happier than mini corn dogs, chicken tenders and pizza.
We also learned that the Mustang is pet friendly on the outside porch!
Mackinac Island has something for everyone in the family and as we enter fall, it can be a wonderful destination after a few hours of driving north looking at the gorgeous colors. Fall on Mackinac Island is not as crowded as the summer, but you can still enjoy all of the magic. How PERFECT is that?