Mackinac Island: A Weekend Itinerary

STILL LIFE: Get beyond the usual tourist traps and explore the other side with this nature-lovers’ guide

A view of Lake Huron beyond Arch Rock
A view of Lake Huron beyond Arch Rock
 

DESTINATION Mackinac Island, Michigan
DISTANCE FROM CHICAGO 300 miles

You could go the Somewhere in Time route on Michigan’s Mackinac Island. Heaven knows, so many do. Every October, hundreds of superfans of the 1980 movie convene at the Grand Hotel, where most of it was filmed, to watch Christopher Reeve time-travel for a metaphysical hookup with Jane Seymour. But there’s much more to the tiny island that sits like a sentry between Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas, where roughly 500 people live year-round. More than 80 percent of Mackinac is public parkland, preserved as it was when Michigan established its first state park there in 1895. Three years later, cars were outlawed, making Route 185 the only state highway in the country where motor traffic is forbidden. Today, clip-clopping Clydesdales haul taxi buggies loaded with visitors, luggage, and store merchandise up and down the narrow streets.

Get beyond the usual tourist traps, and you’ll see that most of Mackinac hasn’t changed much since the Victorian era so many of its hotels and inns strive to replicate. Follow Route 185 away from town, and soon all you’ll hear is wind and water and occasional cannon fire from the hilltop fort where historical reenactments take place daily. This is the part of the island that wasn’t in the movie. It’s the part worth exploring.

Fort Mackinac
Fort Mackinac

SATURDAY MORNING
Rent a bike and pedal east on Route 185. You’ll quickly leave all those souvenir shops behind and enter the green wilds of Mackinac Island State Park (906-847-3328). Take a map for inland hiking, but you won’t have to worry about getting lost on the main road: Route 185 makes an eight-mile loop around the island.

Less than two level miles in, you’ll come to a steep wooden staircase, which ascends 146 feet to Arch Rock, a massive, ancient stone crescent that forms a 50-foot arc over the Straits of Mackinac. Time was when gentlemen hikers posed with their walking sticks and rifles on the rounded breccia outcropping; these days, visitors are confined to the metal lookout platforms, one of which leads to the Nicolet Watchtower. There, on the spot commemorating the first white man to navigate the straits, Lake Huron spreads out like an ocean. Nearby, follow the aptly named Tranquil Bluff Trail for a mile or so, walking a path lined with clusters of trilliums, bishop’s caps, and lady’s slippers. LUNCH: A few miles past Arch Rock, a small roadside store sells hot dogs, snacks, and cold drinks. If you don’t mind doubling back to town, the Seabiscuit Café (7337 Main St.; 906-847-3611, seabiscuitcafe.com) offers a great cobb salad and a nice selection of sandwiches.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON
As you finish biking the perimeter of the island, you’ll want to stop at the many well-marked points of scenic and historical interest. Among them: Skull Cave, where, legend has it, an early settler found a Native American burial ground; British Landing, site of the first land battle in the War of 1812 and today a place to take in a stunning view of the Mackinac Bridge; and Post Cemetery (on Garrison Road), where the headstones date from the 1820s. As you loop back to town, beware the steep downhill slope near the governor’s summer residence (tours on Wednesdays through August 24; 906-847-3328), which is perched on a bluff near Fort Street and Huron Road. Unless you are a professional stunt person, you’ll want to walk your bike to the bottom. dinner: The 1852 Grill Room in the Island House Hotel (6966 Main St.; 906-847-3347, theislandhouse.com) over-looks the marina from its spot next door to the Mackinac Yacht Club. Request a table by a window and order a steak.

 

Photography: (Arch Rock) Richard Nowitz/National Geographic stock; (Fort Mackinac) courtesy of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission

 

The porch of Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel’s famous porch
 

SUNDAY MORNING
There are no clocks in downtown Mackinac, but it’s fairly easy to gauge the time thanks to the cannons that blast every hour from Fort Mackinac (7029 Huron Rd.; 906-847-3328, mackinacparks.com), which has a view of the town from a southern bluff. For $10.50 a person, you can go inside the garrison walls to experience a meticulous reenactment of life as a 19th-century lady or American soldier, including court-martials several times a day. On the walk down from the fort, stop at the American Fur Company Store, a replica of an 1820s fur trading outpost, and the Dr. Beaumont Museum (906-847-6330; admission included with a ticket to the fort through August 20). The museum is a fascinating if gory tribute to the physician who unlocked the secrets of the digestive process. LUNCH: Mary’s Bistro (7463 Main St.; 906-847-0354, mackinacmarysbistro.com) offers alfresco waterside dining, an extensive lunch menu, and sweet potato fries to die for.

SUNDAY AFTERNOON
Spend at least an hour at the Mackinac Art Museum (7070 Main St.; 906-847-3328, mackinacparks.com), where exhibits range from shards of Native American pottery, excavated from the spot where the museum sits, to contemporary paintings of island views. On the second floor, there’s a wealth of photographs of tourists from the Victorian era picnicking at Arch Rock and other spots. The ladies’ elaborate attire—bustles, buttoned shoes, long skirts and sleeves, high collars—will instill a new appreciation for the 21st-century convenience of shorts and T-shirts. DINNER: Dining at the Grand Hotel is as much about Old World formality as it is the food: In the main dining room, men must wear jackets and ties. If you are staying at the hotel, dinner is included. If not, the five-course meal is $75.

Getting There

From the Loop, the drive to Mackinaw City takes roughly seven hours. There, you’ll catch a ferry to Mackinac Island. Among the ferry services, Shepler’s (556 E. Central Ave., Mackinaw City; 800-828-6157, sheplersferry.com) offers inexpensive parking for your car ($10 a day for a covered lot, $5 in a fenced lot, and free in an unsecured open lot); $19–$22 roundtrip for adults, $10–$11 for kids.

WHERE TO STAY Spend one night at the Grand Hotel (286 Grand Ave.; 800-334-7263, grandhotel.com) simply to soak up the opulence and history of what was once the world’s largest summer resort hotel. The Grand remains larger than life, with what is billed as the world’s longest wraparound porch, croquet courts, and landscaping that evokes either Versailles or The Shining, depending on your point of view. Breakfast and a nightly five-course dinner are included in room rates, which range from $250 to $800 a night, plus $130 per extra person. The Grand sits on a hill about half a mile from downtown, so you’ll have to walk or pay $4.75 each way for a horse-drawn taxi. Closer to the action, the waterside Hotel Iroquois (7485 Main St.; 906-847-3321, iroquoishotel.com) has similar charm on a more intimate scale. The Tower Suite offers a 14-window view of the Mackinac Bridge; rates range from $215 to $840 after September 12.

 

Photograph: mgsmith/istockphoto

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