As a boy growing up in Traverse City, my family would usually venture to the magical island between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan that we affectionately call Mackinac (or Mackinaw if you prefer). We never stayed overnight on the Island, just day trips. These trips were a combination of bike riding around the Island, many hours spent rummaging through the “gift” shops, a trip to the fort, and invariably fudge. I don’t believe that I am alone in thinking that my childhood memories may be very similar to many other people’s view of the island. I hope to encourage you to reconsider that view and re-explore this gem of the Straits of Mackinac.
As Joan and I have had the privilege to spend weeks at a time on the Island with our own children, we can see things differently. The Island seems to transform once the last boat leaves returning to the mainland. The vibe is different. The harried streets are once again calm. The horses, for the most part, have returned to the stables, and suddenly walking seems appealing. Back home, the idea of walking a mile to pick up some groceries or get a bite to eat is almost unheard of. On the Island it just makes sense. What’s your hurry anyway?
Let me highlight for you a couple of my favorite spots on Mackinac Island that may have slipped your previous visits. These are spots that if you are like every other “day tripper” you would likely miss because – it isn’t related to fudge, it doesn’t cost money and not everyone is doing it.
One of my all time favorite spots is the public library, which is open year round; air conditioned in the summer and a lovely real fire burning in the fireplace in the winter. In the summer you may find me reading a book on the back deck facing Round Island Lighthouse and listening to the waves lap the shore. Even in the midst of the summer craziness this location is an oasis on an oasis. Another great spot to get away from it all is on the lawn of the Mission Point Resort in one of their dozens of Adirondack chairs facing the water. This spot is perfect for both sunrises and sunsets as the lawn juts out into Lake Huron. During midday, there is plenty of wind so it is a perfect spot to fly a kite or watch someone else enjoy flying one.
I would encourage you to check out St Anne’s Catholic Church. Its steeple can be seen to the east as your ferry enters the harbor. The parish records date back to the 1600’s and many of the artifacts are available for viewing in the museum below the church. Once you have seen the church you can venture directly up the hill behind it to the staircase that takes you to the East Bluff, which is the complementary bluff to the West Bluff on which the Grand Hotel resides. At the top of the stairs, if you go left it will take you to the backside of the fort. If you turn right, you will head towards Arch Rock. Either way, you will enjoy the view of the harbor and the amazing summer homes which are nestled perfectly on the bluff. If you head to Arch Rock you can take the paved trail where East Bluff (Huron Road) ends or the unpaved walking (Manitou) trail. Taking this trail through the woods overlooking Lake Huron will cause you to feel like the first of the native people through here, a soldier on patrol, or one of the many fur trappers checking his/her traps. All illusions come to an end as you emerge from the forest to the large parking area at arch rock. This place is bustling with carriages, bicycles, and other hikers waiting their turn to step out on the overlook observation platform. Here’s another tip- instead of waiting in line, take the lesser known trail to the left of arch rock to an even higher observation platform. No waiting, better views.
I also have a couple of ideas that may cost a small amount, but in my estimation well worth it. Another one of my favorite places that is off the beaten path but worth the effort is the Inn at Stonecliffe and the Woods Restaurant. Both are a relaxing 20 minute taxi ride up to the center of the Island. On the rear patio of the Inn you can enjoy a beverage while taking in the unobstructed view of the Straits and the Bridge. It is hard to take a bad photo from here. Right next door is the Grand Hotel’s Woods Restaurant which has a Bavarian theme, delicious food and charming atmosphere. What you may not know is that just off the bar area is a duckpin bowling alley where you set your own pins and bowl as you like. There is no charge for bowling so long as you are enjoying their food or beverage. Our family likes to go up for a game or two while enjoying dessert.
On your taxi ride back to town I would recommend a right turn on Park Avenue into Hubbard’s Annex. This gravel trail will take you past some of the most spectacular summer homes on the Island. Landscaping is definitely not an afterthought in the Annex; it is both beautiful and functional. This trail will eventually spit you out on the westernmost part of the West Bluff and on to the Grand Hotel and its phenomenal porch. If you get the chance, stop in at the Grand and take the elevator to the fourth floor and hike up two flights of stairs to the Cupola Bar for a refreshment and view from high atop this historic hotel. Here you will see the Straits, the harbor, Round Island, and the Bridge.
Some closing tips. If you feel the need to ride all the way around the island, I would recommend going early in the morning or in the evening; and choose to head out against the wind (you will thank me when you get half way around). Also, just because there are no cars doesn’t mean there is no traffic. So be careful. People will invariably dart out right in front of you without looking. For Christmas two years ago I got a bell for my bike; I use it often.
If you would care for recommendations on accommodations, restaurants or anything else about the Island please contact me and I would be happy to help. I hope you do take the time to rediscover this gem, and if you do, and you see me there, remind me to buy you a slab of fudge, it’s the least I can do.