This charming town offers abundant history and beauty.
An island vacation doesn't always mean bathing suits, flip-flops and endless hours at the beach—especially if the island is 475 miles north of Columbus.
Mackinac Island, Michigan, near the northern tip of Lake Huron, offers history, horses and hands-on experiences for families. The lake views, lush forests and historic buildings create a unique sense of place. The area also enjoys a slightly cooler climate, with average summer temperatures 7 to 10 degrees lower than Central Ohio.
The island—which today is primarily made up of parkland—has been home to Native Americans, fur traders, early European settlers, soldiers and Victorian-era vacationers. Visitors—especially children—will discover Mackinac's rich history without even realizing it, since it's so intertwined with present-day attractions. Today, about 500 people live here year-round.
Guests should make it a point to sample some fudge—the iconic treat offered at many downtown businesses—and ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Mackinac is one of a handful of towns in the world that prohibits cars. Locals and visitors use carriages and bicycles to get around the 3.8-square-mile island. Getting there requires a ferry ride from either Mackinaw City or St. Ignace on the mainland. Be aware that many activities are seasonal and operate May through October only.
Mackinac also offers views of the majestic 5-mile suspension bridge connecting lower Michigan to the untamed wilds of its Upper Peninsula, as well as numerous opportunities to enjoy an abundance of stars that makes it clear why our galaxy is called the Milky Way. The clip-clop of horse hooves, the whistle of the ferry and the boom of the Fort Mackinac cannon create a one-of-a-kind soundtrack for visitors seeking an active vacation with plenty of learning opportunities.
Birth of an Island
According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the native people who visited the area thousands of years ago were struck by the shape of the island, which they thought resembled a turtle rising out of the water. They called it “Michilimackinac,” an Ottawa word meaning “great turtle.” They also were intrigued by the island's interesting rock formations—which still awe visitors today—and developed stories to explain them. Some tribes believed that Sugar Loaf, a dramatic rock formation near the south end of the island, was the dwelling of the Great Creator and that nearby Arch Rock served as a bridge to the afterlife—a theory that seems plausible if you visit at sunrise.
Hiking around the island to see these limestone creations formed by glaciers and changing lake levels is a must. Find trail information from Mackinac State Historic Parks at mackinacparks.com/more-info/mackinac-island-state-park-roads-and-trails.
7127 Huron Road, Mackinac Island
Allow plenty of time to explore Fort Mackinac. Originally constructed by the British at what is now Mackinaw City (on the mainland), the fort was moved to Mackinac Island in 1780.
American soldiers took control of the fort in 1796 and kept it until early in the War of 1812 when the British launched a sneak attack. The fort was returned to the United States after the war and remained an active military site until 1895.
Throughout the day, the fort bustles with sights and sounds that reflect its early history. Costumed interpreters fire the cannon, give rifle demonstrations, re-enact court martial proceedings and more to show what life was like for those stationed on the island.
In addition to the engaging re-enactments, the fort also offers numerous exhibits that tell the story of some of its more famous inhabitants, including Dr. William Beaumont, who served at the fort in the 1820s. His pioneering discovery of the digestive process was widely lauded in the medical community.
Cost: $13 adults, $7.50 children ages 5-12, free for ages 4 and younger; online tickets are $1 cheaper for adults and 50 cents for children
Tea at the Grand Hotel
286 Grand Ave., Mackinac Island
After learning about life in an 18th-century fort, consider a visit to the Grand Hotel. Built as a summer retreat for the wealthy and known worldwide for its opulent décor, the white-pillared, Queen Anne-style hotel has 393 guest rooms—no two of whichare decorated the same.
The National Historic Landmark, which opened in 1887, serves tea every afternoon. Attentive servers bring trays of beautiful tea sandwiches and fancy sweets while guests sip tea or champagne in the parlor, decorated in botanical splendor. It's a great way to unwind in the afternoon and a less expensive way to sample the hotel's cuisine.
Cost: Tea is $50 per person for those not staying at the hotel, which is $30 less than dinner in the main dining room.
6750 McGulpin St., Mackinac Island
Another spot for educational fun is the Original Butterfly House and Insect World. Owner and former teacher Bob Gale developed a butterfly chart that helps children identify the various species fluttering around the garden. The attraction, which usually has about 800 butterflies at any given time, also has a chrysalis viewing area so visitors can learn about life cycles. Insect World, meanwhile, has a collection of beetles, scorpions and reptiles.
Cost: $9 adults, $4.50 children ages 4-11, free for ages 3 and younger. A ticket allows unlimited visits during your stay.
While you may need to rely on a horse-drawn carriage to get to or from a hotel or restaurant, it's also possible to tour the island via buggy. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours offers guided trips, lasting about an hour and 45 minutes, that provide a bit of history and an overview of the island and its attractions.
Cost: $29 adults, $11 children ages 5-12, free for lap-held children ages 4 and younger
More information: mict.com/carriage-tours.html
Mackinac by Sea
While visiting Mackinac Island, you are more likely to get on the water than in it. The rocky coastline is not ideal for swimming, especially for kids, and Lake Huron is chilly. But if you're willing to paddle, you can enjoy spectacular views of the island—or the mainland—from a kayak.
Great Turtle Kayak Tours offers guided trips at sunrise, sunset and throughout the day. Routes travel past Arch Rock, Devil's Kitchen, a marina, lighthouse and other attractions.
Cost: $40 per person for a one-hour excursion and $80 for a two-hour trip
More information: mackinackayak.com
102 W. Straits Ave., Mackinac City
Be sure to visit Fort Mackinac's mainland counterpart, Colonial Michilimackinac, before leaving the region. The reconstructed 18th-century fort and fur trading village uses re-enactors and exhibits to bring history to life. British soldiers, colonial women, Native Americans and French fur traders interact with visitors and share details about their daily lives.
The attraction also is home to an ongoing archeological project. Each summer, a portion of the land is excavated, yielding buttons, pottery and other items associated with the area's early settlers.
Cost: $12 adults, $7 children ages 5-12, free for ages 4 and younger; online tickets are 75 cents cheaper for adults and 25 cents for children