Mackinaw Island Michigan

Mackinaw island was first Europeanized in 1670, when a French Jesuit priest, Father Marquette, opened the first, albeit temporary mission. By 1781, the British took control and established a trading base. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Fort Mackinac, a military fort was the subject of the first land battle of the War of 1812. The island (and the fort) were temporarily taken over by the Americans in 1796, but recaptured by the Brits in the War of 1812 (during which it built another, smaller, but more secure and strategically positioned fort (Fort Holmes). The British finally ceded the island and both forts back to America in 1817. The ceding of the island also allowed American John Jacob Astor to take over the region’s fur business, which he built into an empire.

The island emerged as a tourist destination in the 1820s and 1830s as it became accessible initially by lake steamer and later by train and car (to Mackinaw City). The county created a governing presence and built its current courthouse in 1839 and its town hall shortly after. By the second half of the century, the island was a full-fledged tourist destination, with the first, large, continuously operating resort (The Island House) opening in 1854, followed by others including the Lakeview (1857) and in 1887, the Windemere and the incredible Grand Hotel.

Mackinaw Island Grand Hotel

Mackinaw Island’s Grand Hotel, is so popular with tourists today, that it charges entrance fee of $10 per visitor.  Hint: the fee is refunded against the cost of a meal in the  restaurant’s main dining room (see dining below).

grand hotel horses topiarygrand hotelgrand hotel 02

We explored the hotel’s common area and grounds.

  • Its porch is the longest in the world and which quickly became the island’s most popular meeting place and primary promenade;
  • Its two-story Cupola provides drinks plus a beautiful view of the town, the strait, bridge and nearby islands;
  • cupola
  • Its gardens, especially its lower ones, are packed with beautiful tulips, daffodils, and in the center, a pond” of short, vivid blue flowers over which a small arched bridge leads to a romantic seat for two;

grand hotel gardenDSC01907

  • Its role in hosting a series of 1895 talks by Mark Twain and as the island premier spot for listening to hit radio broadcasts in 1935, its role as a movie location in 1947 (This Time is for Keeps) and 1980 (Somewhere in Time) and in 1943, as the site at which the nation’s Republican foreign affairs leaders decided to work with Democrats in approving creation and U.S. membership in the United Nations and NATO; and
  • Its huge, pretty main dining room where we partook in the resort’s famous, bodacious lunch buffet.

Tourists, however, are looking for more than hotels. Some need provisions, such as they could buy at Dowds Market (the oldest continually operating, family grocery store in the country—1884). And what is a tourist destination without a fudge shops (Murdicks, from 1887). For those looking for religion, the forerunner of the first church (St. Anne’s) opened in 1670 and the Mission Church opened in its current location in 1830.

making fudgest. anne church

Much of the rest of the tourist town consists of relatively new buildings trying to look old, as with several faux-Victorians and false-front buildings. Its 19th-century character. One of the many well-done “faux-olds” is the reconstruction of Father Marquette’s Bark Chapel, which has been given a place of honor in Marquette Park, overlooking the harbor.

Missionary Bark Chapel

is maintained by a ban on motor vehicles (with minor exceptions, as for fire trucks and ambulances). The vast majority of transportation, therefore is by horse carts (as evidenced by horse remains sitting in the middle of the roads until the island’s army of pooper scoopers make their rounds) and bicycles. This makes for some unexpected sites, like Amazon and other packages being delivered to businesses and homes via horse carts.

Macinac, Beyond Tourist Town

The six square mile island is much more than just the tourist town located around the docks. Much of the island’s year-round inhabitants (about 500 of them) live in Harrisonville and the vast majority of the island’s land has been designated as a state park, criss-crossed with carriage roads, walking and mountain bike trials—with no fear of running into cars or trucks.

A “road, Lake Shore Boulevard, circles the island at lake level well below the hundred or two hundred foot cliffs that begin just feet from the shore—all of which can be seen on an easy, leisurely and flat eight-mile bike ride around the island. Inland, meanwhile, paved carriage roads and unpaved walking trails run in all directions through the roughly 90 percent of the island that is undeveloped state park land.

Getting from the shore inland, however, can present challenges. This entails either walking up steep roads or climbing 200+-step wooden stairways. It is, however, well worth the effort. You are rewarded with visits to the island’s two historic forts, miles and miles of isolated trails, spectacular views of the island, strait, Lakes Huron and Michigan, the mainland and boats that range from personal sailboats to massive cargo ships and tankers.

Then there are the homes and the gardens of the early “rusticators” who build grand summer “cottages” along the most dramatic bluffs, especially along West Bluff, Pontiac and Lake View Trails and Grand Avenue and Hubbard Street, into the 1880-1890-era Hubbard’s Annex planned community. Although most of these cottages are fully visible, some are hidden behind dense, 10-15-foot shrubs whose only opening is an archway that leads through a gate to the front door. Then there is the huge, lovely Michigan Governor’s summer mansion that puts even the largest of these cottages to shame.

DSC01919DSC01918Hubbards Annexgovernors summer mansion

The island also has a few, dramatic natural landmarks, including:

  • Sugar Loaf Rock, a 75-foot monolith that remained when part of the now neighboring cliffside was eroded away;

sugar loaf rock

  • Arch Rock, a large arch that formed from the rock cliffs that surround much of the island (and helped make it so suitable for use as a site for a fort blocking passage between lakes Michigan and Huron; and

arch rock

  • Devil’s Kitchen, a sandstone rock that reaches from about five feet to roughly 25 feet above current lake level, that is pocked with caves from hundreds of thousands of years ago, when the lakes were much higher than even their current, recent record levels.

devils kitchen

Although the stars of the island’s annual Lilac Festival were, unfortunately, delayed by the chilly weather, we have little to complain about. This is especially true since this year’s virtually perpetual Midwest rain fell only at night during our island stay.

Mackinac Island Restaurants

The vast majority of the island’s restaurants, located around the harbor, appear to cater with day-trippers with hamburger, pizza, fried fish and other stables of American cuisine. Most of the handful of more upscale restaurants are located in resorts, such as the Grand Hotel, Island House and Hotel Iroquois. Among those resort and casual restaurants at which we ate are:

  • Carriage House, at the Hotel Iroquois, where we enjoyed the atmosphere, the view and the background piano. We were very impressed by our server and by the food–at least by the recooked version of Joyce’s salmon. Tom had a slightly overcooked, although acceptable veal piccata with olive sauce and a nice, light, al dente fettucine Alfredo, Joyce’s replacement Faroe Island salmon with a nice light saffron sauce (with fingerling potatoes) carried the meal. We finished off on another high note, with a light, creamy butterscotch pie with hot fudge. While the wine list was on the pricy side, the Daffodil’s 2015 Eola-Amity Hills Daffodil Vineyard pinot turned out to be quite a good price-value.
  • 1854 Grill Room at the Island House, where, after having to send both of our overcooked dishes back to the kitchen, we fully enjoyed the grilled Faroe Island Scottish salmon with lemon-caper beurre blanc, grilled asparagus and fingerling potatoes, and pan-roasted duck breast and duck confit with cheery-port demi-glace, sweet potato mash and brocollini. We had less success with the very limited, very pedestrian wine list from which we had a bottle of decent Mezzacorona pinot grigio and an acceptable glass of Mondavi cabernet.
  • Grand Hotel Dining Room, for its huge (albeit expensive) lunch buffet which includes oysters, shrimp, smoked fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, a range of salads, cold cuts, cheese, various casseroles, server-sliced pork loin, a large selection of desserts (especially tarts) and much more. Quite nice, at a cost of $50 (less the $10 hotel admission charge).


  • Winchester, where lunch consisted of a relatively tasty shared Black Mission fig and prosciutto flatbread topped with brie cheese, caramelized onions, arugula and balsamic drizzle;
  • Mission Point Round Island Bar and Grill where we celebrated Happy Hour with a Mission Pointe IPA, pinot noir and an experiment with a cup of maple chili (interesting, but too sweet for our tastes).

Not quite food, but Horn’s Bar does offer a pleasant space, a nice drink selection and a solo guitar-playing singer most nights of the week.

Mackinac Island Hotel

Lilac Tree Hotel & Spa . Great location right by the ferry. The town is so small, however, that nothing is far from the ferry!. A bedroom was by the hallway and a front living room facing out onto the street with a balcony. Everyone working on the island seemed to have just arrived to start the season. While pleasant, the newbies didn’t know much about the town at this point. So too at the hotel where most questions could not be answered. Yet the room was comfortable and had bathrobes and a refrigerator.

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