Become a “Fudgie” by leaving your motorhome behind as you explore the old-fashioned realm of Mackinac Island, Michigan.
By Tom and Joanne O’Toole
It might seem a little unusual that thousands of visitors a year want to spend time on an island that has approximately 500 year-round residents (not to mention 500 or so horses), and see a famous hotel that originally was slapped together and ready for occupancy in just 90 days. But that is exactly what happens at Mackinac Island, situated in the Straits of Mackinac between the shores of Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.
From May through October, crowds of visitors step off ferryboats onto this Victorian island for a day of fun or an even longer stay in a refreshing, old-fashioned world of yesteryear. Maps and atlases might vary the spelling of the island, town, bridge, and other related sites “” either “Mackinac” or “Mackinaw” “” but everything is pronounced “Mack-in-awe.”
If you didn’t know better, you might think this was a New England seacoast town, with a Yankee flavor, what with its ornate houses and steepled churches. Motorized vehicles are banned on the island, so you get around by shoe leather, bicycles, and horse-drawn carriages. But the town, the fort, and the Grand Hotel are within easy walking distance of one another.
It’s a busy, busy place no matter where you are. Vacationers “” “Fudgies,” as the locals call them “” clog the sidewalks and the main street, enjoying the scent of fresh fudge and visiting the museums and shops. Other tourists hoof it up to Fort Mackinac to see the historic site, get in on the military demonstrations, and wait for the muskets to be ceremoniously discharged. And then the elegant Grand Hotel beckons.
To really see the island, you can procure a bicycle from one of the numerous bike rental shops in and near the town. The main inner island roads are paved, and there are many hard-surfaced dirt roads, in addition to bike paths. The ride is sometimes hilly in the interior of the island, but it’s fun to make it a leisurely adventure, with frequent stops along the way.
The main road around the island is State Route M-185, and it is the only highway in North America that can boast of never having had an auto accident. The route is fairly flat and an easy round trip of about eight miles for those who decide to bike it. Today the island is 80 percent state park land, 10 percent Grand Hotel property, and 10 percent privately owned.
If bicycling is not your choice of conveyance, try an introductory carriage tour. Tours last approximately 90 minutes, and seasoned guides familiarize tourists by sharing their well-rounded knowledge of the place. Because the island is so small (3 miles long and 2 miles wide), it’s easy to retrace your steps to further explore any of the sites that have caught your interest during the carriage tour.
Bathed by the crystal-clear waters of Lake Huron, Mackinac Island is in the shadows of the famed Mackinac Bridge (called “Mighty Mac”), which spans the Straits of Mackinac, separating the state’s upper and lower peninsulas, and dividing Lake Michigan to the west from Lake Huron to the east. You have to be on the western shore of the island to see the bridge, of course. The Mighty Mac ranks as the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, and is just 28 feet short of being 5 miles long. A toll is charged to cross this span.
Long ago the Chippewa Indians called little Mackinac Island “Michilimackinac” “” a word believed to have meant “great turtle” “” which the humped area of the island represents. Actually the island is a large lump of limestone, once underwater, which acquired its craggy configurations through erosion and weathering as the lake levels receded long ago. The most dramatic leftover formation is Arch Rock, which rises 150 feet above the water on the island’s east side. It is one of the few natural bridges in the midwestern United States. The Huron and Chippewa Indians believed the arch was the gateway through which the great spirit of the lake Michoban gained entrance to the Great Wigwam, a tall, conical monolith now called Sugar Loaf. Both of these sites are included in the island tours.
Without a doubt, the most identifiable and photographed structure associated with the island is the stately Grand Hotel. This island landmark has been the center of social activities, community events, and business gatherings since its completion in 1887. The Grand Hotel offers today’s guests and visitors an interesting experience in the world of yesteryear. Off the far end of the porch is the beginning of the West Bluff, home to magnificent Victorian summer “cottages,” complete with stables, carriage houses, and apartments for the staff. Some have been winterized for year-round use, and all are meticulously maintained. Keep in mind that the curious are not permitted to look around the hotel lobby unless they pay a fee. Of course, this does not apply to registered guests or those who have a reservation to dine there.
You may decide to leave the motorhome behind for a night or two and stay in this welcoming place or at other overnight accommodations on the island. Hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns dot the town. Two blocks (Market and Main streets) made up of quaint and charming buildings comprise the harbor district, or “historic district” of this island’s downtown. On the back streets is a wide array of restored houses. It’s an easy walk from one end of town to the other. Boutiques, souvenir shops, and a museum complex that was once the headquarters for the American Fur Trading Company all will vie for your attention.
Mackinac Island was once a bustling commercial center. The town’s history is commemorated at the museum and in five other historic buildings: the Mission Church, the McGulpin House, the Dr. Beaumont House/1820 American Fur Company Store, the Biddle House, and the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop. In 2005 these buildings will be open to visitors only between June 11 and August 21. During that time, admission is included with the purchase of a ticket to see Fort Mackinac. If you choose to tour only the historic dwellings, admission is $6 for adults and $5 for children ages 6 to 17. Costumed interpreters bring history to life in these locations, carrying out chores and working as people did more than 150 years ago.
While you’re downtown, you’ll quickly learn why Mackinac is called the fudge capital of the world. Tourists love to watch as the hot liquid confection is cooked in copper kettles, poured onto marble-topped tables to cool, and worked into shape, first with long-handled paddles, then with smaller ones. As each long section of fudge is finished, it is cut into precise pieces and then sold to drooling onlookers. Fudge is part of the fun here, and the favorite mixes seem to be chocolate with walnuts and regular chocolate. Few seem to be able to resist the tasty confection, especially with the delicious aroma constantly wafting through the air, tantalizing even the most rigid of carb or calorie counters. Oh, go on, maybe just one little sample!
Another less appealing scent may sometimes be detected, thanks to the more than 500 horses that reside on the island. It’s difficult to totally escape this odor during the tourist season. Workers do constantly sweep the streets, but it’s wise for pedestrians and bicyclists to watch their path carefully.
To see what clean is, look into the unpolluted lake waters around the island. Then you’ll wonder why it can’t be like this everywhere.
Most of the seasonal workers on the island are bright-eyed, smiling college students. They find it a fun place to earn a little money and to have a good time in their off-hours.
Although the island is imbued with historical features, perhaps the most dominating is Fort Mackinac, situated high on a bluff overlooking the straits. It was built by the British in 1780 and served as an outpost and bastion until 1894. Visitors can climb the long steps to the fort, or circle up around the back and come in the rear entrance. All of the outpost’s original buildings have been faithfully restored and are maintained with loving care. The guides and the displays play out the history of this National Historic Landmark.
For the 2005 season, the fort will be open from May 6 to October 9. Each day, regularly scheduled walking tours and rifle and cannon firing performances will be offered on the half-hour. The gun firings always draw large crowds, as do special events. Observances are scheduled for Memorial Day (May 30 this year) and the Fourth of July, among other days. A list of each day’s activities is provided throughout the season so visitors can plan their schedules accordingly.
The fort’s activities become more numerous between June 11 and August 21 to include military music concerts, children’s programs, guided tours, and the re-enactment of a court martial “” in addition to the regular rifle and cannon firings. Also between those dates, the fort is open until 7:30 p.m., with full dinner service offered at the Fort Mackinac Tea Room restaurant.
Admission to the fort, which includes the downtown historic area, is $9.50 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 17.
In the middle of the hill that flows down from the fort to the harbor is a lone statue of Jesuit missionary Father Jacques Marquette. A renowned explorer who joined Louis Joliet in finding the upper Mississippi River in 1675, Marquette established a mission for the local Chippewa Indians across the straits in what is now St. Ignace, Michigan.
A short walk from the back entrance to the fort is the summer mansion of the governor of Michigan. Although it is generally closed to the public, you can get within picket-fence distance of the place for a closer look.
Even during the busy tourist months, there is a certain serenity on the island. A peace and tranquility seems to permeate the setting. Maybe it’s the rhythmic clip-clop of the horses, the slow-moving carriages, or the tinkle of bicycle bells. It all seems to work together to create a magical signal that things are supposed to happen more slowly.
Mackinac Island is the kind of place where people often come all wound up, and frequently leave relaxed.
Three ferryboat companies take visitors to and from the island on a regular basis from May through October. Each has a dock at Mackinaw City (Lower Peninsula) and St. Ignace (Upper Peninsula). Depending upon which direction you’re headed, you can avoid paying the toll on the Mighty Mac bridge by using Mackinaw City or St. Ignace as your departure point. Bridge tolls are determined by the number of axles. Passenger cars are charged $1.25 per axle; motorhomes are charged $2 per axle. Vehicles being towed behind a motorhome are charged the $2-per-axle rate. Cash or tokens only are accepted.
Ample free parking is provided for day-trippers. Longer-term secured and unsecured parking for those staying overnight on the island is available. Ferries take passengers only “” no vehicles. However, medically necessary electric wheelchairs; strollers; and bicycles are permitted on the ferry and on the island. Contact the ferry line or the island tourism bureau if you have questions about whether your vehicle is permitted.
Ferry prices are the same, regardless of which line you choose. For 2005 the round-trip ferry cost is $17.50 for adults and $8.50 for children (ages 5 to 12). Check the ferry companies’ Web sites for discount coupon information.
Arnold Transit Co.
P.O. Box 220
Mackinac Island, MI 49757
556 E. Central
Mackinaw City, MI 49701
(800) 828-6157 (U.S. only)
587 N. State St.
St. Ignace, MI 49781
Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau
P.O. Box 451
Mackinac Island, MI 49757
(906) 847-6418 (from island)
Mackinac State Historic Parks
P.O. Box 873
Mackinaw City, MI 49701