The most famous tourist destination in Michigan moves at a different pace.
No cars. No traffic. No worries. But lots of tourists.
I just got back from a trip to this iconic island and I’m here to let you know whether it’s worth the ferry ride over and back.
If you’ve read my other travel reviews, you know I prefer the unique, authentic, out-of-the-way destinations over the well-worn beaten path that leads to popular tourist hotspots.
But still, a ferry ride to Mackinac Island remains a must-do on every Proud American Traveler’s to-do list — despite the fact that tourism has been the island’s only real purpose since the fur trade fizzled out in the 1840s.
Kind of like how the Kardashians are famous only for being famous, Mackinac Island exists as nothing more than a whimsical tourist excursion.
And it is an excursion in the truest sense of the word. There is no bridge to Mackinac Island. And cars have been banned since the days of Henry Ford.
No Substitute for Horse Power
A ferry ride is the only way to get to the island. And the clip-clop of horses and pedal power are the only allowed means of transportation once you get there.
The ferry ride might as well be a time machine.
When you step onto the dock at Mackinac Island, you step into a nostalgic snapshot of America during the late 1800s. That explains what has drawn tourists here for generations.
Before this visit, the last time I was here I was only three years-old.
But I still remember riding on the back of my father’s bike past the Grand Hotel, feasting on decadent fudge and, of course, the majesty of the Mighty Mac – the five mile bridge the spans the Straights of Mackinac, connecting the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan.
The Primary Activity on Mackinac Island is Exploring Mackinac Island
There is an historic fort and some beautiful homes you can tour, but the primary attraction is the island itself.
You’ll want to stroll down Main Street and pop into the souvenir and t-shirt shops. Buy a few slabs of the island’s famous fudge. Take a horse drawn carriage ride. Bike around Lake Shore Drive which encircles the island.
And just soak in the fresh air of Lake Huron.
Are You Grand enough to Step onto the Grounds of the Grand Hotel?
The island’s most famous attraction of all actively discourages riff-raff tourists like us from visiting.
A night at the Grand Hotel will set you back $1,000 per night — minimum.
As you hike up the hill to the mammoth white structure, American flags flapping in the sea breeze off the iconic porch, signs appear telling you that non-guests will be charged $10 per person to enter the property and women may not wear pants and men must wear a coat and tie after 6pm anywhere on the hotel grounds.
Maybe because it was the off-season, but no one ran us off the property or demanded payment.
The Grand Hotel is the largest resort hotel in the world and features the largest front porch in the world – a graceful expanse of 660 feet lined with rocking chairs facing the Mackinac Bridge and the setting sun.
Once I was confident that we weren’t going to be arrested for trespassing, we loitered a bit in the lobby gawking at the elaborate architecture and furnishings before sneaking up to the Cupola Bar at very top of the grand structure.
Toast the Sunset at the Top of the Grand
We got there just in time to watch the sun set spectacularly into the Straights of Mackinac while sipping a Big Porch Ale, brewed exclusively for the Grand Hotel by Michigan brewery, Bell’s.
For dinner, we ate at The Woods, a rustic restaurant operated by the Grand Hotel.
Decked out like a large hunting lodge with wood-burning fireplaces, the ambiance was better than the food.
My wiener schnitzel (a German-breaded slab of veal) was a bit dry and bland. My wife’s lobster mac & cheese was much better with lobster abundant enough that I didn’t get stabbed with a fork when I tried to steal a few chunks.
Save Room for the Grand Hotel’s Famous Dessert
But the real highlight of the meal was the Grand Hotel’s famous “pecan ball” – vanilla ice cream encrusted in pecans, swimming in a generous pool of hot fudge. Mmmmm…well done.
The best part of dining at The Woods was getting there — a horse drawn carriage ride through the spooky, dense forest. You’ll feel like a 19th century Ichabod Crane in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow on the lookout for the headless horseman.
Enjoy Lunch with a View — and Brew
The best meal of our trip was lunch at the Pink Pony overlooking the marina. As the most famous bar on the island, it’s packed with tourists getting their vacation on until late at night.
But at 11:30am, the Pink Pony is the perfect waterfront spot for a vacation lunch of smoked whitefish dip, prime rib sandwiches with homemade chips, and Michigan craft beer on draft to wash it all down.
Of course the view makes lunch taste even better!
Like any expensive remote destination catering to tourists, the biggest challenge for Mackinac Island is finding a workforce to cater to all those tourists.
Nobody Who Lives here Works here
The only full time residents of the island are multi-millionaires from Chicago and Detroit who live in the island’s beautiful Victorian mansions. You surely will not find them changing your hotel bedsheets or shoveling the island’s ubiquitous piles of horse poop.
Mackinac Island imports most of its workers from other islands… much, much further south.
Like Jamaica…which seemed to be the most frequent home of the folks we encountered.
Teenagers are also an important part of the workforce, manning the fudge and t-shirt shops, driving the carriages and renting the bikes.
Inevitably you will encounter service glitches as a result.
Check Your Brakes
One of the bikes we rented had no brakes.
Yeah. I almost died.
And the concierge at the Grand Hotel seemed to not know how to arrange our transportation to the Grand’s own restaurant, The Woods.
And when we finally figured out how to get on the “Woods Shuttle,” which runs hourly between the Grand Hotel and the restaurant, the young carriage driver had to radio for directions on how to get there.
Yes, the driver of the restaurant shuttle didn’t know how to get to the restaurant.
But these types of issues are normal for any tourist destination. When there is no local workforce, island businesses have no choice but to import inexperienced seasonal labor.
Remember, you are in the 19th century. As long as you don’t ACTUALLY die flying down Grand Hill on an out-of-control bike into oncoming horse-drawn traffic, just roll with it.
Things are slower here. Service is spotty. Horse-drawn carriages don’t move as fast as Ubers.
And that’s all part of the charm.
Yeah, Mackinac Island is touristy. But it is a whimsical step back in time you will never forget.