MarinaIt's chock-a-block in the marina where weary sailors park their boats to dry out after the Bayview-Mac Race.

A favourite destination for many boaters and tourists alike is the lovely Mackinaw Island. Sitting in Lake Huron on the eastern end of the Straits of Mackinac in the state of Michigan, it covers almost ten kilometres, of which 80% is park land. It was a sacred place of the Anishinaabe and home of the Gitche Manitou (Great Spirit) some 700 years prior to the arrival of the first Europeans.

According to legend, the Island was created by the Great Hare, Michabou, and was the first land to appear after the recession of the Great Flood. The natives likened the shape of the island to that of a turtle, and so they named it “Mitchimakinak” or “Big Turtle”, which became a gathering place and burial site for tribal chiefs. Later, the British shortened it to Mackinac, which has remained to this day.

Mackinaw Lighthouse

Sailors arrived after the Bayview-Mac Race passing the lighthouse which is a part of the finish.

In 1670, the Jesuits founded a mission for the Native Americans on the island and the Straits quickly became a trading location for the French. After the French and Indian War, the British took control of the Straits, which was then used by First Nations and Europeans for Great Lakes trade. The British then built Fort Mackinac during the Revolutionary War on the bluff where it was used during two battles of the War of 1812. The steep cliffs were one of the primary reasons for the British army’s choice of the island for a fort. Although the Americans did not capture the fort, the 1815 Treat of Ghent had the British return the island to the United States. The fort remained a trading centre for beaver pelts, but was also used as a prison during the Civil War. The fort has been restored and regular demonstrations and tours by costumed interpreters are scheduled throughout the day during the summer.

Fur trading ended and the whitefish industry emerged, which led to sport fishing. Not long after, the island became a very popular tourist destination, and hotels, souvenir shops, and summer ‘cottages’ began to spring up. The Federal government left the island in 1895 and the area was given to the state of Michigan to become its first state park. In 1960 all of Mackinac Island was listed as a National Historic Landmark.

Transportation by HorseTransportation is by horse, bicycle, carriage or foot.

Six hundred year-round residents live on the island and manage transportation in the off-season with snowmobiles on an ice bridge bounded by fir trees, the only exception to the gas-powered vehicle ban. There is even an elementary school used by the island’s children.

Let’s go back in time to when life was simpler, less hectic and crowded, and more elegant. You could follow Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer in the movie “Somewhere in Time”, or Esther Williams in the 1947 movie “This Time is for Keeps”, both filmed at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. However, the best and most memorable way to do it is to actually treat yourself to a visit at the Grand Hotel.

Billed as the largest summer hotel in the world, accommodating over 150,000 guests each season, the hotel has been owned for 85 years by three generations of the Musser family. Travel & Leisure magazine lists it as among the “Top 100 Hotels in the World”, and no wonder, as it has all of the modern hotel amenities but has carefully preserved the original architecture of the building, rooms, and grounds.

1886 FashionedThe rooms are elegantly decorated in teh fashion they were in 1886, although the bathrooms are totally modern.

This “Jewel of the Lakes” has been visited by five U.S. presidents. Its porch, which is visible from the lake, is the longest in the world (200 metres) and overlooks a vast tea garden and the Esther Williams 500,000 gallon swimming pool. The porch is where everyone on Mackinac Island meets, often referred to as “Flirtation Walk”. Mark Twain was invited to give his lectures there every summer and Thomas Edison gave demonstrations of his phonograph and other inventions on the very same porch. Ensure to bring your jacket and tie, gentlemen, and ladies your skirts, dresses, or slacks, because as the 6:30 dinner hour approaches it is the only dress approved on the porch and in the dining room.

The Grand HotelAccommodation for two at the Grand Hotel

The Mackinac Island Hotel Company, formed by the Michigan Central, Grand Rapids, and Indian Railroads, and the Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company, bought the land to build the Grand Hotel in 1886. Taking only 93 days to complete, the hotel opened on July 10, 1887, tempting visitors from the Detroit area and around the world to get away from the heat and enjoy this summer retreat, arriving by lake steamer. Back then you could secure a room for a grand total of $3 - $5 per night. You only have to add two or three digits to that number for today’s room rates. The 390 rooms were purposely designed so that each is different in at least one aspect, but all carry the signature pelargonium geranium somewhere in their décor. This lovely geranium graces the hotel everywhere from the 2,500 found in flower beds and planters, to the carpets, table settings, soaps, and shower curtains. The hotel continues to operate as it did in the 1800s for only six months a year, from May 1st to October 31st.

Signature GeraniumsNote the signature geraniums on the room carpet

Besides swimming, strolling the grounds, and relaxing, the hotel also offers many other pastimes. The award-winning 18-hole golf course, referred to as “The Jewel”, is the only golf course where horses and buggies transport the players from the front to the back nine. Chess can be played on the porch with life-size pieces.

There is also a self-guided tour of the main and second floors of the hotel, which include an art gallery, tea room, conference rooms, wine bar, clothing stores, newsstand, garden shop, and Sadie’s ice cream parlor.

If you would rather indulge in tea, formal afternoon tea is served from 3:30PM to 5:00PM; cocktails with light snacks are a treat in the Cupola Bar on the fourth floor, added in 1987, with a magnificent view of the straits and harbour. If you would rather not dress for dinner, the gatehouse and jockey club have more casual fare with a relaxed dress code. Any way you like it, the more than 100 kitchen staff prepare more than 4,000 outstanding meals every day. A real must-have is the breakfast buffet starting at 7:30AM every morning. After dinner, you must try the Grand Hotel signature dessert – the Grand Pecan ball served with chocolate sauce – a memorable treat!

The island is only accessible by ferry, private boat, or plane. However, this is made easy by three ferry companies (from both St. Ignace and Mackinaw City) and Great Lakes Air. The Bayview and Chicago Mackinac Races bring over 300 boats and 15,000 sailors to the island every July - by boat, of course!

American FlagsAmerican flags stretch out over each pillar and hover above immaculately-cared-for flower beds.

Once on the island, transportation is only by horse, bike, or foot to help remind you of easier, more carefree days of yore, since the ban on gas-powered vehicles was put in place in 1898. With over 500 horses on the island, you can treat yourself to the many types of carriage rides (for both transportation and tours) or rent a horse or bike for the day to explore the many pathways and trails found throughout the island. There is also a 13-kilometre road that circumnavigates the island, the only state highway without motorized vehicles. Be careful on your bike, as pedestrians and horses have the right-of-way!

Plan on a visit soon to enjoy days of long ago during the present. Be sure to order the popular whitefish, caught daily from Lake Huron along with more than a dozen fudge shops to top off your meal. Discover a “jewel” of a spot just across the border and relax in days-gone-by. Check out the websites for the Grand Hotel and the official website of Mackinac Island.