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The summer resort destination of Mackinac Island, Michigan is one of the most charming, surprising places we have found in our travels! We absolutely fell in love with the atmosphere of an island that had us stepping back in time with no motorized vehicles, horse-drawn carriages, colorful Victorian homes, lots of fudge, and the stunning Grand Hotel that overlooks Lake Huron.
If you are just here for the food, you might want to check out my American Eats series where I cover some of the most popular foods and flavors of each state, one state at a time. But if you love travel, be sure to visit my Travel archives to see some of the other places we have been!
My husband, who grew up on the West Coast, had never heard of Mackinac Island, which is located in Lake Huron in Michigan. I’m not sure where I would have heard of it, but growing up in Nebraska it wasn’t nearly as far from me so I’m guessing it was at some point in my childhood that I learned about an island where no cars are allowed and everyone gets around by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. It definitely captured my imagination.
So when we made plans to drive halfway across the country to visit friends in North Dakota, it didn’t seem that much farther to keep going and fulfill one of my long-held bucket list items of staying at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. It was everything I had dreamed of and more!
It’s a delightful place where we definitely felt like we had stepped back in time. Not only was the cooler lake climate a lovely respite from the summer heat we had been experiencing in other parts of the U.S., but everything about Mackinac Island just oozes whimsy and charm.
It all starts with a ferry ride over to the island since there is no bridge connecting it to the mainland. There are a couple of different ferry companies that operate from both St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.
If you are going to be staying overnight on the island (which you really should, in our opinion), you will just park your car in one of the ferry parking lots, like long-term parking at the airport. Then you walk onto the ferry with your suitcases and enjoy the short 20-minute ride across the water.
Staying at (or visiting) the Grand Hotel
Although there are plenty of smaller boutique hotels and other accommodations available on Mackinac Island, I had my heart set on staying in the Grand Hotel. It’s a massive old wooden resort built by the railroads back in the late 1800’s as a way to entice people to travel more and it has so much character.
The Grand Hotel boasts the largest front porch in the world and it’s a great place to relax and enjoy during any time of the day. The entire hotel was built in just over 90 days in 1887 because of the tight timeframe mandated by the railroad so they could bring in summer guests from the East Coast. Because of that, there are some imperfections to the construction that just add an element of mystery to the place like the tipsy feeling stairs on some of the upper floors, where our room was.
The front entrance has red carpet, red geraniums, and a beautiful white and aquamarine blue color scheme that immediately says “summer resort” and elegance. There is even a strict dress code enforced after 6 P.M. where gentlemen guests must wear a jacket and ladies are required to wear dressy attire.
Paul wasn’t originally planning on doing this leg of the trip with us, so he hadn’t packed a suit jacket. But the concierge desk was able to procure one in his size for him to be able to abide by the dress code.
It was a truly unique experience and fun for us to explain to the girls about dressing up and manners and civility in a way that we just don’t often have occasion to talk about.
Every room is decorated different and unique in bright, summery colors that would feel old-fashioned if they weren’t so cute and cheery! Our girls felt like princesses sleeping in these beds. Everything was just so cozy and comfortable and we were very happy with our decision to stay at the Grand Hotel for our first visit to Mackinac Island.
The girls and I spent an afternoon enjoying the massive pool where Esther Williams filmed one of her famous “aquamusical” swimming films in the 1940’s.
We enjoyed our breakfasts in the main dining room, opting to eat out at other places on the island for dinners so we could see and explore more.
At night, there is live music and dancing in the lounge. Actually, there is always music playing somewhere at the Grand Hotel. We watched a really fascinating documentary that played on their hotel television channel that talked about the history of the hotel and one of the things it mentioned is that one of the early managers of the hotel realized that live music was a great way to draw in and entertain their Victorian-era guests.
We all enjoyed ice cream cones at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor, which is onsite. If you stay at the Grand Hotel, your package comes with a daily resort credit that can be used at one of I think 7 restaurants associated with the property. Obviously we were going to spend some of that on ice cream.
The grounds are just beautiful with gardens, tennis courts, etc. There is also a golf course for people who enjoy golfing. I couldn’t get over these beautiful giant purple flowers and have no idea what they are called.
Things to do around the island
There is plenty to do on Mackinac Island to keep you entertained for at least a few days. These are some of our favorites.
Admire the historic Victorian houses around town
Each and every house on the island is unique and beautiful, with bright, vibrant paint colors, covered porches that wrap around the houses, and picket fences lined with roses or other flowers. Many have the decorative gingerbread trim that is unique to the Victorian period.
The girls thought it was a fun game to find houses painted with whatever color of dress they were wearing that day so we could take pictures of them in front of the houses. Many of them, like this purple one, the “Lilac House”, are cute bed & breakfasts that would be fun to stay at on our next visit.
Go for a bike ride around the island
Whenever we are traveling, we think bicycling is one of the best ways to get to know a new place. It lets you cover more ground than just walking, but it’s easy to stop and explore along the way.
Since no cars are allowed on Mackinac Island, bicycles are the easiest and fastest way to get around. Plus, it’s only 8 miles of flat terrain around the circumference of the whole island so it’s easily bikeable in just an hour or two!
We opted to rent bikes in town rather than deal with bringing our bikes over on the ferry to the island and transporting them with our luggage to the hotel. There are multiple bike rental stores on the main street with plenty of bikes to rent and reasonable fares. Plus, I loved having the wire basket on the front of my bike so much that I asked for one for my birthday!
I wish the public library would have been open so we could have gone in to check it out!
The girls did great on the ride until we decided to head into the center of the island and had a bit of uphill. It’s not super steep anywhere, but we had to get off and push a couple of times.
But they loved stopped along the shore to throw rocks or check out this old canon.
Find your favorite fudge shop!
Mackinac Island is known for its fudge shops! I don’t even remember how many there are on the main street but maybe 8 or 9 of them? And each one is delicious!
They all seemed to have really similar flavors to choose from, but we thought some of the fudge displayed was prettier at some shops than at others, and there was usually a flavor or two that we hadn’t seen yet somewhere else. We definitely sampled fudge from every shop and found our favorites.
Some of our favorites were dark chocolate fudge, caramel pecan turtle fudge, and toffee fudge.
My personal choice would be the toffee fudge from Joann’s Fudge Shop. It was divine with a wonderful toffee crunch. Although my tip is to eat it all the first day because the toffee softens eventually and then it’s not nearly as delicious.
I could stand and watch them make fudge all day long. The whole process is fascinating to me and it’s so fun to see them go from adding sugar, butter and chocolate to large copper kettles, heating it to just the right temperature, then pouring it out onto large marble slabs.
The fudge then gets scraped toward the center over and over to gently cool and temper it until it is just the right consistency. It’s quite mesmerizing to see.
Hike or Bike to Arch Rock
You can burn off some of those fudge calories by hiking or biking up to Arch Rock. It’s a very pretty spot with a really interesting natural arch that makes for cool pictures.
It really isn’t a terrible walk or hike up to the arch since the island isn’t really big enough to have serious elevation gain. You can just barely see in the picture below the road that runs around the edge of the island that is used for biking and walking.
Visit Fort Mackinac
We actually skipped visiting the old fort on the island because of time, but it sounds pretty fascinating and I believe it’s one of those places where they do historical demonstrations, reenactments, and such. But it’s an easy 5 or 10 minute walk from Main Street in town to get up to the fort. On such a small island, everything is conveniently located.
Stroll down Main Street
Definitely spend some time window shopping and souvenir shopping along Main Street. The whole place is super pedestrian friendly, but be sure to watch out for cyclists and horse drawn carriages. Main Street is a happening place, especially around dinner time, but it is still big enough that it never felt super crowded.
I recommend stopping in Doud’s Market, which claims to be the oldest family-owned grocery store in America. It opened in 1884 and sits on a corner at the end of Main Street. This is a great place to pick up deli sandwiches or some baked goods and snacks to stash in your bike basket for a ride around the island so you can stop and picnic when you feel like it.
Eat at the Woods Restaurant
Eating dinner at the Woods Restaurant was easily our favorite dining experience of the trip. This place is set in the interior woods of the island and it’s not someplace that you will just stumble upon in your explorations unless you know about it. You will definitely want to talk a horse-drawn taxi or carriage, and be sure to make reservations in advance.
The restaurant is an old Tudor-style mansion decorated like a German hunting lodge and it feels like a place straight out of a fairy tale. There is even a duckpin bowling alley inside for entertainment, although that was unfortunately closed while we were there.
The inside is dark and richly appointed with deep reds, dark hardwood, and chandeliers made from antlers. But the atmosphere is also relaxed with red gingham napkins and seat covers, with small lamps placed around the room for wonderful ambiance. Everything is so cozy, and the food was absolutely incredible with a Bavarian flair.
We are big fans of German food, and the Smoked Berkshire Pork Loin with Braised Red Cabbage, Brown Butter Spaetzle, and Vidalia Onion Jam that I had was absolutely divine, even if it’s not my best food photography ever.
It was an absolutely wonderful stay and we enjoyed every moment. I can’t recommend enough staying overnight on the island rather than just taking the ferry over for the day.
We all hope to make it back to this part of the country again sometime!
More of our family travel posts
- Best Things to See, Eat, and Do in Door County, Wisconsin
- Best Things to See, Eat, and Do in Savannah, Georgia
- Best Things to See, Eat, and Do in Charleston, South Carolina
- Best Things to See, Eat, and Do in Kauai