Back to the Future at Mackinac Island

We’re hearing a lot about Michigan in the news these days. Auto company bailouts, high unemployment and other political and economic stories dominate the headlines. But there’s still a lot of to love about the Great Lakes State. My next few posts will cover a recent trip to Michigan during which time I visited Mackinac Island, the Henry Ford Museum, Detroit and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills.

DSC_1019Many people imagine what it would be like to travel back through time, to get rid of those pesky cars, to have a place where one can ride a bike and not be run down by those dastardly pickup truck drivers. We dream of being able to walk, ride horses, and enjoy the breeze of the simple island life.

Mackinac Island–a Native American word transliterated by the French, shortened by the English, and pronounced “mackinaw”–is near the intersection of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron between Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas. Native Americans came to the island centuries ago and referred to it as “Mitchimakinak,” meaning “big turtle.” Europeans later built a fort on the island to protect their fur trade.

I recall passing over the Western Hemisphere’s largest suspension bridge from Mackinaw City (spelled as it’s spoken) to St Ignace and looking toward the island across the bay. When we arrived in St. Ignace, we parked, bought our ferrry tickets, and enjoyed a 20 minute cruise to the island.

DSC_1052It was beautiful to see the town along the edge of the island, passing the Grand Hotel that sat on the brow of the island overlooking the bay. We made our way to our bed and breakfast and were surprised we had been beaten there by the hotel’s luggage clerk who had picked our bags up on bicycle–the airlines should look at this old-fashioned system to improve their own baggage handling processes.

You see, motor vehicles are not allowed on the island (at least, not during the non-winter months). The street is filled with bikers, walkers, horse-drawn carriages, garbage vehicles, and street cleaners. Semi-trailer trucks–brought by ferry–park at the dock and have their contents transported to their final destinations by horse-drawn wagons. A sanitation worker bikes around, cleaning road apples throughout the day. A flat bed wagon with brown horses carried packages for UPS. Wow.


Mackinac Island felt a little like Fantasy Island. We even saw “De Plane!” land at the small airport.

In winter, there’s cross country skiing, horse-pulled sleighs, and those pesky snowmobiles that provide the only way to return to the mainland via an ice bridge. Guides map the thickest section of ice and place stakes for others to follow. A couple of our waitress’s family members did not follow the ice bridge last winter and perished in the icy cold water when their snowmobiles crashed through the ice.

We made our way around on bikes, even riding on an island loop road with no beginning or end.

DSC_1081The quality of the architecture is high, and despite my previous reference to Fantasy Island, it is a real place, a mix between colonial Williamsburg and the Wild West. The styles mixed Colonial, Victorian, and Cape Cod. There was even a bit of arts and crafts. The houses, churches, and grand hotels were built because families live here all year round as people did a hundred years ago. Yes, it’s a place of fantasy, but the residents live it every day.

Perhaps the best example of Mackinac Island’s fine architecture is the Grand Hotel. We walked uphill to the hotel after 8 in the evening, and noticed signs that stated gentlemen must be wearing jackets and ties to even approach the hotel. Alas, I wasn’t dressed the part, so we had to stop in our tracks.

Mackinac Island is a fun escape from what’s become normal in our lives. It’s a place you can go for inspiration–to write, paint or design. It’s a place where you can see real, live people amongst older styles and methods. It’s a reminder that people haven’t changed and can live modern lives in different environments. Mackinac Island is an experiential environment from start to finish.

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