Imagine the only way to get around is by horses and bicycles. That’s right. No cars, no horns, no sirens and no motorcycles. Of course, getting around on foot is always allowed. Does this sound like a step back in time? It is, and has been this way of life on Michigan’s Mackinac Island since the late 1800s.
Motorized vehicles have been prohibited on Mackinac Island since 1896 because the horses were disturbed by the noisy engines of some of the island’s first cars. Furthermore, carriage drivers formed an association, convincing islanders to ban automobiles.
Horses pulling carriage past house, view of Lake Huron, Mackinc Island, Michigan; Photo by Michael/stock.adobe.com
Today, nobody seems to mind. Everyone on the island gets around by walking, bicycling (there are many bikes to rent) or hailing a horse-drawn carriage pulled by three horses that usually seats about 35 people. During the winter, natives are allowed to use snowmobiles on trails groomed by volunteers, but they also love to cross-country ski or snowshoe.
The visitor experience hasn’t changed much since the island became a popular resort destination at the end of the Civil War. Prior to that, Mackinac Island was home to the Great Spirit Gitchie Manitou. Native Americans traveling the Straits region in addition to French traders and Jesuit missionaries settled on the island due to the bountiful fish population. They called Mackinac ‘Island of the Great Turtle’ because its profile looks like a turtle.
Main Street, Mackinac Island, Michigan; Photo by Craig Zerbe/stock.adobe.com
Though there are barely 500 year-round residents living on the island, it’s not unusual for 15,000 people daily to visit during the peak season, late April through Halloween. Visitors to Mackinac Island, in the center of the Great Lakes waterway between the Upper and Lower peninsulas, continue to embrace the Old World charm that permeates one of the state’s iconic and most prized tourist destinations.
Mackinac Island remains undeveloped. Main Street along the waterfront and Market Street behind it are the island’s principal streets with hotels, shops and restaurants. There are no stop signs, no gas stations, no garages, no mail trucks and no pollution. Residents pick up their mail in the post office. There are two supermarkets, two banks, about 40 restaurants and one public school for all grades. Mackinac Island’s fudge is an institution worldwide and has become the most popular fudge in America made daily. Be sure to try all varieties.
Average street scene on Mackinac Island, Michigan; Photo by corfoto/iStock.com
Mackinac Island Carriage Tours offer taxi service in addition to guided historical sightseeing tours of Grand Hotel, Fort Mackinac and many other points of interest. See where John Jacob Astor operated a fur warehouse. Pass several Victorian homes. The tour stops at Surrey Hills Carriage Museum which is full of antique carriages. Next door is Wings of Mackinac, a butterfly conservancy. Its garden facility is a popular wedding spot. Private carriage tours can be arranged through Mackinac Island Carriage Tours and Gough’s Livery. Jack’s Livery provides drive-your-self buggy carriage tours.
Enjoy a relaxing and educational sail on Lake Huron and pass Round Island and Bois Blanc Island aboard Capt. Bruce Fink’s 40-foot catamaran, Mackinaw Breeze. Shepler’s Lighthouse Cruises offer historic lighthouse cruises. Lighthouses were built to warn ships of dangerous shoals and reefs in the Straits, connecting Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Take a fishing lesson on Lake Huron with E.U.P. Fishing Charters. Or, kayak in Les Cheneaux Islands in Lake Huron. To get an overview of the island, let Mackinac Island Bicycle Shop show you the island’s top points of interest on a guided bike tour.
Fort Mackinac Canon; Photo by Syd/stock.adobe.com
Standing high on a steep bluff overlooking the village and the harbor is Fort Mackinac, a great place to snap a picture of the Straits of Mackinac. The British began construction of the fort in 1779, but it was not completed until the Americans took it over in 1796. American troops were forced to surrender the fort to the British at the beginning of the War of 1812, but reclaimed it at the conclusion of the War in 1815. The stone ramparts are part of the original fort. Other buildings have been restored. The Tea Room Restaurant, which occupies the south part of the Officers’ Stone Quarters at the fort, is a quaint restaurant with outdoor seating. Formed in 1895, Mackinac Island State Park is America’s second national park and Michigan’s first state park. The park includes a visitor center that highlights the island’s natural history, Arch Rock (a rock formation that spans 50 feet at its widest point), the island’s largest limestone stacks, historical cemeteries, bicycle trails and footpaths and the Governor’s Summer Residence (open for public tours).
The Grand Hotel on Macknic Island, Michigan; Photo by ehrlif/stock.adobe.com
About 40 unique hotels, inns and bed and breakfasts are open during the peak season. The Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort (situated on an 18-acre estate overlooking Lake Huron and offering a variety of lodging and dining options) are the most popular hotels.
Located on a hill, Grand Hotel is visible from the water and many points on the island. The 1887 Grand Hotel is adorned with a 660-foot Greek revival portico (front porch), the world’s largest, with endless columns and dozens of rocking chairs. Thousands of flowers, including 1,800 geraniums on the porch, are planted on the property.
No two of the Grand Hotel’s 385 rooms are alike. In fact, they change often with the purchase of new antiques. The hotel pays tribute to the nation’s presidents and first ladies, naming rooms after many of them. A multimillion dollar art collection is on view in the hotel.
Part of the Grand Hotel experience requires dressing up in each area of the hotel and for dinner each evening: a suit and tie are required for men, and a dress or pantsuit must be worn by women, no exceptions! Ballroom dancing in the Terrace Room is available after dinner. A Grand Hotel tradition, Afternoon Tea, is served daily in the parlor. A fee is charged.
A National Historic Landmark and one of the country’s most famous resorts, Grand Hotel was the setting for the 1980 movie “Somewhere in Time,” starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve. Each October, a fan club of the movie gathers at the hotel. The Jewel is Grand Hotel’s 18-hole golf course comprised of the Grand nine and the Woods nine. Specially designed horse-drawn carriages provide transportation between both courses.
Horses pulling carriage past house Mackinc Island, Michigan; Photo by Focused Adventures/stock.adobe.com
MACKINAC ISLAND’S HORSES
During the summer, more than 600 horses, including Belgian, Clydesdale, Irish Hackney, Percheron and Standard-Bred breeds, are stabled on the island. See the horses at Grand Hotel, where the stables are open to the public for complimentary viewing, or Surrey Hills, the time-off play and rest area for the horses. Smaller breeds are used for horseback riding on the 83 miles of roads and trails Mackinac Island State Park.
Most people take the 20-minute ride ferry ride to Mackinac Island from Mackinaw City. Airports that visitors to Mackinaw City use are Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa County Airport in the Upper Peninsula, the Pellston Regional Airport in the northern Lower Peninsula and Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City. The Mackinac Island Airport is open for private jet charters and air charter service.