This is your last chance for the perfect Mackinac Island weekend
Surrounded by the clear waters of Lake Huron, Mackinac Island is a step back in time. The island is lined with 19th century cottages and storefronts and is free of all cars and motorized vehicles. Residents and tourists travel on foot, by bicycle or by horse-drawn carriage. Stepping off the ferry, travelers find themselves right in the heart of historic downtown, bustling with pedestrians and equines, and many bikes parked along the sidewalk.
The indigenous Anishinaabek people have long considered the island a sacred place, and the name Mackinac comes from the Ojibway word “Mishimikinaak” which means “big turtle”, a reference to the shape of the island. In the 1720s, the Straits of Mackinac was integral to the fur trade; Fort Mackinac, built by the British atop the cliffs of Mackinac Island, provided the king’s army with an exceptional view of what was happening on the water. The fort was returned to the United States after the War of 1812, and over the next century Mackinac Island became less and less a military outpost and gradually more of a vacation destination.
Mackinac Island’s tourist season extends through the end of October, and fall is a great time to visit with cooler weather for outdoor activities and fall colors in their peak. It also hosts the annual Great Turtle Trail Run Half Marathon at the end of October (this year it’s October 22), which always goes hand in hand with an extravagant Halloween weekend with sleight of hand in town and haunted trails. and costume parties that last late into the night.
How to get to Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is primarily accessible by ferry, which you can take from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. There are two passenger ferry lines to the island: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line. Shepler’s Ferry offers the fastest service to Mackinac Island and departures every 30 minutes; although for those not in a hurry they also offer a longer, narrated journey that takes passengers under the Mackinac Bridge, the fifth longest suspension bridge in the world. Both ferry lines offer day or overnight parking. Don’t worry about arriving on a car-free island with luggage: all overnight guests check in with the ferry line with their hotel information, and Mackinac Island dockporters will transport all luggage to their respective hotels by bicycle or horse-drawn cart.
Where to stay on Mackinac Island
There are no chain hotels on Mackinac Island – a point of pride for islanders – but there is a range of accommodation options from the luxurious and historic Grand Hotel to cozy bed and breakfasts. Mission Point Resort offers a quieter stay just steps from bustling downtown, as it sits on 18 acres of waterfront property. Nestled on the east end of the island, the area is known as Mission Point since it was home to the Mission Church in the 1820s, but most of the building work was done when the Moral Re- Armament built a conference center here in the 1950s. The property then spent four years as a college and finally became a resort hotel in 1987.
Mission Point Resort’s most famous feature is the Great Lawn, an expansive lawn with white Adirondack chairs overlooking the Strait of Mackinac; other amenities at this family-friendly resort include heated pools, tennis courts, and an antique movie theater.
What to do on Mackinac Island
Cooler fall weather means it’s more comfortable for longer hikes and bike rides. The best way to see the perimeter of the island is to rent a bike from the hotel or a rental point in town and take a ride, enjoying the fall colors on one side and the clear blue waters of Lake Huron on the other. Bring a picnic to enjoy on the many pebble beaches along the 8.2 mile route.
The interior of the island requires more commitment to explore by bike, and the easiest way is to let locals navigate and take a horse-drawn carriage ride instead, which takes guests to some of the historical sites like Fort Mackinac. The majority of the island is actually preserved as a state park, with over 70 miles of hiking and biking trails. The Tranquil Bluff Trail is a 6.1 mile ride that winds through the forest and offers beautiful views of the lake.
An island getaway isn’t complete without getting out on the water. There are two very different ways to do it: Great Turtle Kayak Tours offers kayak or stand-up paddleboard tours. Alternatively, sit back and enjoy a ride aboard a 1960s Sip n’ Sail ferry, complete with a full bar and live music.
Whether on foot, bike or kayak, be sure to see some of the island’s many rock formations, the most famous of which is Arch Rock, a natural limestone arch over 50 feet wide.
Where to eat and drink on Mackinac Island
Whitefish is the staple food of the island and it comes in all forms. Pink Pony is one of the most popular spots, both for alfresco lunch on the harbor deck (with a 25-person hot tub) and for drinks in the evening (or daytime – it’s a holiday, after all). They are known for a smoked whitefish dip served with pita, as well as the Rum Runner with an extra float of rum, served pink and frozen and strong.
Chianti at Mission Point Resort recently hired a new executive chef, and the seasonal five-course prix fixe menu is now perhaps the best dining experience on the island — it features plenty of local Michigan ingredients for what they call ‘farm to ferry kitchen. The prix fixe options also include plenty of vegetarian options, and the wine pairing is well thought out.
For a different experience, head to the Bavarian-style restaurant Woods, in a Tudor mansion within the wooded interior of the island. A dining experience here begins with transportation: a horse-drawn carriage that takes guests for a short scenic ride to the restaurant. Find hearty dishes with a Bavarian twist on the menu, from elk chops to dry-aged steak, and of course, whitefish. As a bonus, the restaurant is also home to America’s oldest duckpin bowling alley.
This article was published in the Inside Hook Chicago newsletter. Join now to learn more about Windy City.