By Jim Favors
Have you ever experienced an uncontrollable yearning to return to a favorite place, one that conjures up fond memories and treasured past experiences? If you know what I'm talking about, you'll also be familiar with the magnetic pull to return can be, at times, a little overwhelming. Recently we experienced a gravity-like pull, lightly calling, as a soft recurring whisper, to return to one of our favorite cruising haunts – Mackinac Island has been calling... calling us back to her.
Kismet docked at Mackinac Island with the East Bluff cottages shown towards the top of photo.
We haven't had a boat in the Great Lakes since 2007, which was also the last year we were able to cruise to our favorite little island. We had a busy summer, preparing for our son Skyler and his then fiancée Sarah’s wedding. Once the event came to a happy conclusion, our thoughts quickly turned to the water and escaping for a well-deserved vacation. It didn't take us long as we packed swiftly for a weeklong boat trip and before we knew it, we were driving north, and after a few short hours, launching the boat in Mackinaw City, Michigan. We had a clear blue sky and calm waters for the short 7-mile cruise across the Straits of Mackinac. With Mackinac Bridge to our portside, we took our time crossing the Straits. We watched intently as the grandeur of the Grand Hotel, on the west bluff side of Mackinac Island, came into focus. We were ecstatic to be going, "Somewhere In Time". Remember the movie with Christopher Reeves and Jane Seymour? It highlighted some of the island’s many period features as it wove a romantic, time-travel sci-fi plot around a 1912 period Grand Hotel.
Fort Mackinac can be seen, high on the bluff, as shown from our vantage point at the marina.
Mackinac Island has a long history, dating back to when Native Americans first inhabited the island. Then came the Europeans who explored the island in the 17th century when it became a central trading location for the growing Great Lakes fur trade. The British built Fort Mackinac on the high bluff overlooking the present day marina. The fort is still standing sentinel over the harbor and is one of the island's favorite tourist and historic learning attractions. The fort saw two strategic battles during the War of 1812. Since the late 19th century, Mackinac Island has been a major summer, warm weather, tourist destination, and a place I first visited over 40 years ago.
One of the scenic paths we enjoyed our first day on the island, not many tourists venture to the top of the island, preferring to shop down below or ride bikes around the outer rim of the island near the water.
As we approached the harbor and slowed down to a crawl we could hear the familiar sound of horse’s hoofs clip clopping on a nearby road. Motorized vehicles were outlawed on Mackinac Island more than a hundred years ago; horses do all the heavy hauling and transport work. Whether you arrive by ferry, airplane, or your own boat, you have only three options for getting yourself, and or your luggage, around the island to sightsee or arrive at your accommodations. As we approached the marina, heading towards our assigned slip, we saw all three in motion. Horse-drawn carriages and wagons vie for road space with walkers and bicyclists as they negotiate their way around the 3.8-square-mile island. If felt good to be back.
Does this look like a cottage to you? It’s one of many that are only used during the summer months.
An average summer day brings approximately 15,000 visitors to the island and even though we were visiting after the Labor Day flux of vacationers, we felt it was just as busy. After securing Kismet and arranging for a five-day stay, we ventured off on a long walk up to the island’s hilltop interior, to enjoy the peace and quite of Mother Nature. During the day, Main Street, or what I call the tourist district, (all the way up to the Grand Hotel), is bustling with tourists who enjoy the crowd filled, fudge strewn, t-shirt laden, bar and restaurant lined waterfront town. Since we like to avoid the touristy daytime busyness, we try to find alternative activities during that time of day, only visiting town at dusk or later. Eighty percent of the island is a Michigan State Park and therefore boasts countless trails for walking and biking around the island.
This work carriage is typical of how supplies are transported around the island.
We crossed the street that runs along the harbor and climbed a well-used wooden stairway up to East Bluff and Cottage Row, which overlooks the harbor from high above, providing a stunning view of Main Street, Lake Huron, and the Straits of Mackinac. The view never gets old. Walking past the "summer only," turn of the 20th century, historic cottages (which are more like large Victorian houses), Lisa and I comment on how nice it would be to return yearly and live in one of those cottages for the summer. We continued our walk back into the woods and nature trails of the State Park, seemingly getting lost, but that’s really not possible because the island is only 8 miles around and all paths eventually lead out to a main road. It rained a fine mist on and off during most of our three-hour trek, but we were mostly protected from it by the thick overhead vegetation.
Isn’t he pretty? I’m talking about the horse of course.
We worked our way from the east side of the island, through a forest of sorts, over to the west side and soon after, one of our favorite walking paths on the island. A walk through Hubbard’s Annex and West Bluff is like stepping back in time. Each of the privately owned, giant, and historic cottages are exceptionally maintained and neatly manicured.
Behind most cottages are large carriage houses, used to house carriages and stable horses. With all the horses on the island it is remarkable how clean the streets are kept, with a vigilant "poop patrol" in place, however the odor can get a little overwhelming at times.
The Grand Hotel has beautifully appointed carriages to transport their guests up the hill to the front porch entrance to the hotel.
From our vantage point that day on the West Bluff there was a clear view of the "Mighty Mac," as the Mackinaw Bridge is often referred to. The bridge is the third longest suspension bridge in the United States, connecting Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas by bridging the Straits of Mackinac. By the time we reached the west bluff the skies had cleared, making our view over Lake Huron, towards the bridge, as clear as could be.
This is what a 660-foot porch looks like, Grand Hotel style.
No visit to Mackinac Island would be complete without at least a walk through the Grand Hotel. Built in 1887 as a summer resort, the hotel was advertised as having the longest porch in the world, at 660 feet long, it’s a distinction it still carries today. Lisa and I make a point of visiting the hotel each time we're on the island. We’ve been fortunate to experience this historic attraction when we spent a weekend, a few years back for a work function and more recently we were more than happy to attend a wedding reception there. During this trip, we simply walked through the large-sized lobby, window shopped, and made one pass along the "world’s longest porch."
By the time we made it back to the marina the tourist activity downtown was starting to wind down. The streets became a little quieter; the pace of ferries coming and going started to tapper off, making it a good time to stroll through town. Later while sitting in the cockpit of Kismet, relaxing with a glass of wine before the evening’s activities commenced, we enjoyed an unobstructed view of Main Street and Fort Mackinac, sitting proudly up on the bluff. As we relaxed allowing the wedding stress to continue its slide off our shoulders, we listened to the familiar and very relaxing drone of clip-clopping horses hooves. Carriages quickly ferry passengers by the marina on the main road that runs along the harbor, they are delivering their passengers to weddings, dinner, their hotel, or maybe taking a group on a peaceful sightseeing ride around the island.
Here you’ll see Main Street and the busy tourist district of Mackinac Island with the fort in the upper background.
After dinner on the boat, we ventured out again, this time for a walk down Main Street and a quiet after dinner stroll. Most of the people remaining downtown were staying on the island that night. With the throngs returning by ferry to where they came from, the island took on a whole new personality. We like to browse the bookstore, pick up provisions at the grocery store or grab a cold beer at one of the many bars, however our first night out, we wanted to walk through town to see what had changed since our last visit; five years is a long time. Much to our surprise most everything was the same, with the exception of a couple new or remodeled hotels.
Fudge, ice cream, and chocolate are big draws for visitors to Mackinac Island, as shown here by these decorative chocolate high heels.
One of the ancillary benefits of being on a boat, staying at the Mackinac Island State Marina, is the close proximity for experiencing taps and reveille, which regularly emanate from the fort at dawn and dusk. We made it back to Kismet in time to hear the reflective, melodic strains of taps being played as the United States Flag was lowered by a contingent of Boy Scouts – this ceremony is performed all summer long by visiting boy and girl scout groups, rotating every so often as new scouts arrive for their scheduled stay.
After taps played the island quieted down to a much gentler, relaxing pace. We saw couples walking hand-in-hand along the waterfront, others cleaning up after a group barbeque, playing Frisbee or like we did that night, sitting in their boat’s cockpit, taking it all in. Visiting this island by boat is very rewarding; maybe it’s because of the islands rich and storied history, or because the island has no motorized vehicles; it could be the many walking, wilderness trails or the magnificent Grand Hotel or old Fort Mackinac that make it so special. I think it’s a combination of all of these things that make Mackinac Island so unique, visiting by boat just adds to its appeal. How many ports have the ability to transport a visiting boater back in time?
No billboards or motorized vehicles are allowed on the island but lots of attractive signs to get you pointed in the right direction.
The next morning greeted us with the sounds of reveille wafting out over the harbor from the walls of Fort Mackinac. Soon after, we heard a single set of horse hoofs as it made its way down the early morning, un-crowded street. We turned over in our warm, cozy berth on board to fully savor the moment, fairly pleased with ourselves that we didn’t ignore that little whisper, but instead, took notice and heeded that nagging call to return to our favorite little island.