The new morning sun casts a rosy glow across the whitewashed harbor village on Mackinac Island. For centuries, this little, wave-buffeted island has been a summer way station in the Straits of Mackinac between Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas.
Ferries bringing this early June day's first visitors won't arrive for a few hours. The bustling summer vacation season doesn't begin for at least a couple of weeks. For now, you have the island and the lands along the straits mostly to yourself.
"When it's quiet like this," reflects Angie Leonard, manager at the Metivier Inn on the island, "Mackinac seems even more like a place from the past." At the heart of this region, where lakes Michigan and Huron meet, a 5-mile suspension bridge, one of the world's longest, spans the blue water between Mackinaw City at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula and St. Ignace on the southeast shore of the Upper Peninsula (UP). Both are lively visitor bases, as well as departure points for ferries to Mackinac Island.
From Drummond Island, a wildflower-studded wilderness 70 miles east of the bridge off the UP's eastern shore, 110 miles southwest to Petoskey along Little Traverse Bay, you'll find sites where the past unfolds, resort towns and wild places.
On Island Time
Mackinac long has been the main attraction. Mist veils the ivory-columned Grand Hotel and the cream-colored stone walls of the 19th-century Fort Mackinac, surveying the straits from bluffs above the harbor.
The morning's soft light lends a dreamy quality to this island, where wealthy cottages outlawed automobiles and other motor vehicles more than a century ago. You almost expect to see ladies in swishing skirts and high-button shoes sipping tea on the wide, gingerbread-trimmed porch of the Windemere Hotel, one of the elaborate Victorian summer homes converted to bed and breakfasts.
Hooves echo on narrow streets, as draft horses pull creaking delivery wagons past tree-size lilacs, dripping with blooms. French missionaries brought the first bushes here almost 3 centuries ago.
Along Main Street, aromas drift from Murdick's, one of the original makers of the island's legendary fudge. While batches simmer in giant copper kettles, an aproned cook wielding a paddle shapes a 10-pound slab of the confection on a marble table.
A thunderous boom splits the air, and a puff of smoke floats over the battlements of Fort Mackinac. American "troops" dressed in 1880s uniforms fire the cannon and drill on the parade grounds, as if British men o'war again were converging on the island, coveting its strategic location. A new exhibit in one of the fort's 14 original buildings recalls Mackinac's history, from the Ojibwas, the island's original summer visitors, to the first vacationers, who started coming from the mainland in the mid-1800s. Beyond downtown, woods cover most of the island.
You can explore on foot, rent a bike at the harbor or hail a fringe-topped, horse-drawn carriage.
Tunnels of trees bearing bright-green new leaves arch over lanes that meander through the interior. Delicate trillium, lady's slippers and other spring blooms peek from pools of shade.
"The woods change overnight at this time of year," driver Melissa McNabb advises, urging a pair of stout Belgian horses uphill. They seem to know they're in for a climb--to Fort Holmes, the island's highest point.
Along the 8-mile road circling Mackinac, Arch Rock, one of the formations that the Ojibwas revered as sacred, towers overhead. Waves break gently against a deserted beach.
Surrounded by this calm offshore, the red-and-white Round Island Lighthouse looks as pretty and frivolous as a dollhouse. Aboard sight-seeing cruises that come and go from Mackinaw City, passengers hear harrowing tales of the raging storms and the treacherous waters that spurred the building of more than a dozen beacons that guard the straits to this day.
The Lure of Summer
On the verge of the busy summer season, an air of anticipation shivers through Upper and Lower Peninsula villages along the straits and beside Little Traverse Bay. It's as if everyone hardly can wait for the summerlong party to begin.
In Petoskey, new petunias nod in pots on the steps of Stafford's Perry Hotel. The imposing daffodil-yellow landmark surveying the bay and beach is the only survivor of the grand resorts that greeted early vacationers who arrived by steamer, then by train.
The historic depot is a museum dedicated to one of the area's notable summer visitors, the famed novelist Ernest Hemingway. Summer emporiums along the 1890s midway developed into the neighboring Gaslight District. Some 100 specialty stores line streets sloping to the shore.
A winter's worth of works by artists who live throughout the area fills Perry Sherwood, The Whistling Moose and other galleries. Displays in stores showcase bright beach toys, flower-painted platters and other merchandise sure to capture your fancy. More shops stocking resort wear, nautical memorabilia and fine lines lure boaters from the marina in Harbor Springs, a smaller historic resort town (10 miles north of Petoskey.
Tall windows of 1800s cottages, painted in taffy-candy colors and festooned with quirky Victorian flourishes, watch expectantly from neighboring Bay View. Where early-bird summer residents already have arrived, curtains billow at the windows and gardens show signs of fresh digging. Some families have returned to their cottages for generations. Others rent their accommodations to visitors.
Started as a Methodist retreat, the community still hosts summer programs, from inspirational lectures to Broadway musicals. Audiences gather in the columned historic hall or simple white-steepled chapel on the shady green at the village center.
In May and early June, you can have your pick of elegantly appointed rooms adorned with chintz at century-old Stafford's Bay View Inn beside the shore. Down the street at the petal-pink Gingerbread House Bed & Breakfast, white wicker rockers line up just so on the breezy porch overlooking the bay, ready for the new season's first guests. "I can't wait!" bubbly owner Mary Gruler declares. "We so look forward to all our summer friends!"
A World Away
New motels and shopping areas almost have taken over Mackinaw City. But beyond the main streets, you can step into scenes from the region's past.
"Redcoats" muster at Colonial Michilimackinac, a re-created 1700s fort, while a settlement modeled after the area's earliest thrives at nearby Historic Mill Creek. Brigadoon Bed and Breakfast, an Easter-bonnet-pretty Queen Anne, hides along a shady residential street a short stroll from busy downtown.
Lodgings and ferry docks also have sprouted across the straits in St. Ignace, around where Father Jacques Marquette established a mission more than 3 centuries ago. But traveling east along the north shore of Lake Huron, you leave behind most hints of civilization.
Waves lap at largely empty slips in the wide marinas at Hessel and Cedarville (30 miles east). Boaters soon will arrive to explore the protected channels of the Les Cheneaux Islands offshore. A family of ducks claims a solitary stretch of sand down the road, quacking and flapping at intruders. You decide to backtrack to an even more appealing beach, perfect for a quiet picnic.
Tiny De Tour Village hardly begins before it ends at a dock for the ferry that chugs to Drummond Island, the largest of hundreds of islands that dot these waters. Adventurers and explorers have stopped here, but large-scale development never followed.
After a 10-minute ferry trip, you drive through north woods to the island's only village, also called Drummond. Home to many of the 1,000-plus permanent residents, the town has dwindled to a store, church and a few homes.
Chef John Deloia intended to spend a single summer cooking at Drummond Island Resort's Bayside Restaurant, the only accommodations besides fishing camps and rustic cottages. "I fell in love with the place," he says, with a shrug.
The 25-mile-long island remains mostly wilderness beyond the resort's 2,000 acres, which include the renowned golf course, The Rock, plus new log vacation homes and a log lodge.
Roads turn to gravel as they fan out into Drummond's interior. On the Maxson Plains in the island's northwest corner, a spring sea of devil's paintbrush and sky-blue coneflowers ripples amid glacier-strewn stones. Rock hounds pile up impromptu sculptures.
The road leads to a rocky beach, edging an expanse of deep-blue water that rolls into foamy waves. Small islands, some little more than patches of rocks and trees, scatter in the distance.
The scene hasn't changed much since Ojibwa hunters paddled these waters in wide-bellied birchbark canoes and tall-masted schooners navigated toward the treacherous straits. You can't help being thrilled that, even after 3 centuries, this wild place endures--just one of the Mackinac region's many worlds.
Reviewed May 2004.
Commuter planes fly into Pellston (15 miles south of Mackinaw City) or Sault Ste. Marie on the Upper Peninsula (50 miles north of St. Ignace). Major airlines fly into Traverse City (about 100 miles southwest of Mackinaw City). For local information, contact: Drummond Island Tourism (800/737-8666); Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce (800/454-5227); Mackinaw City Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/666-0160); Petoskey/Harbor Springs/Boyne Country Visitors Bureau (800/845-2828); St. Ignace Chamber of Commerce and Visitor's Bureau (800/338-6660).
Three companies operate ferries to Mackinac Island from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, as often as every 15 minutes mid-June through August. Round-trip tickets cost about $15 per person. For additional information, contact: Arnold Transit Company (906/847-3351), Shepler's (231/436-5023) and Star Line (800/638-9892).
Sight-seeing cruises departing Mackinaw City past historic Great Lakes lighthouses. Tickets $45.50 per person. Call for schedule: 800/828-6157.
Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island (906/847-3328) and Colonial Michilimackinac in Mackinaw City (231/436-4100). Hands-on exhibits for children to slip on soldiers' uniforms, try out bunks and experience life at the forts. Admission to each: adults $8, $5 for children 6-17, free for children 5 and younger. Combined family tickets, including both forts and Historic Mill Creek, $49 (see below). Carriage Tours Group and individual excursions in horse-drawn carriages to Mackinac Island's landmarks (906/847-3307).
Center Stage Theater In Mackinaw City, a new facility at Mackinaw Crossings (see Shopping Finds) for performances of Lost in the 50s, featuring rock 'n' roll favorites (231/436-2200).
Historic Mill Creek Just southeast of Mackinaw City, a re-created early- 1800s town, with a working sawmill, as well as a naturalist program. Adults $6.75, $4 for children 6-17, free for chil-dren 5 and younger (231/436-4100).
Lilac Festival A week of events on Mackinac Island, including a parade, tours and Tastes of Mackinac. (800/454-5227).
Perry Sherwood Gallery, Petoskey (231/348-5079).
The Whistling Moose Gallery, Petoskey (231/347-5281).
By the Bay A gallery in Harbor Springs specializing in nautical scenes and memorabilia, which includes some antiques (231/526-3964).
Cutler's A Petoskey institution stocking imported china, glassware and other uncommon tablewear and gifts (231/347-0341).
Grandpa Shorter's Gifts and a variety of home accessories in a historic Petoskey building (231/347-2603).
Mackinaw Crossings In Mackinaw City, a Victorian-design outdoor mall, with splashing fountains, restaurants and more than 50 gift and specialty shops (231/436-5030).
Quarters A Harbor Springs gallery for local and area artists' works, from watercolors to jewelry (231/526-1122).
Stafford's Bay View Inn, Bay View (800/258-1886).
Bayside Restaurant, Drummond Island Resort & Conference Center, Drummond Island (800/ 999-6343).
Murdick's, Mackinac Island candy-maker (906/847-3499).
Audie's Chippewa Room In Mackinaw City, a family-friendly restaurant specializing in fresh Great Lakes whitefish (231/436-5744).
Fort Mackinac Tea Room Lunch served at umbrella-shaded tables outdoors on a balcony overlooking the straits at historic Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island (906/847-3331).
Hotel Iroquois On Mackinac Island, elegant lake-view dining room with delectable desserts, including Michigan cherry pie, at a grand Victorian hotel of the same name (see Lodgings).
Jesperson's In Petoskey, a casual cafe known for fresh Great Lakes fish and from-scratch pies (231/347-3601).
Yankee Rebel Tavern A laid-back, reasonably priced Mackinac Island favorite serving from-scratch pot pies and other comfort foods, plus pastas, seafood and steaks (906/847-6249).
Many lodgings charge lower off-season rates in May and early June. Even then, staying on Mackinac Island tends to be expensive. You'll find a range of moderately priced chain-style motels in Mackinaw City and St. Ignace. Many of the historic hotels and inns don't have air-conditioning (often not needed, especially in May and early June). If it's important to you, be sure to ask.
Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island. Doubles from $390, including breakfast and dinner (800/334-7263).
Windemere Hotel, Mackinac Island. Doubles from $108 (800/847-3125).
Metivier Inn, Mackinac Island. Doubles from $125 (800/847-6234).
Stafford's Perry Hotel, Petoskey. Doubles from $85 (800/ 737-1899).
Stafford's Bay View Inn, Bay View. Doubles from $135 (800/ 258-1886).
Gingerbread House, Bay View. Doubles from $100 (231/347-3538).
Brigadoon Bed & Breakfast, Mackinaw City. Doubles from $95 (231/436-8882).
Drummond Island Resort, Drummond Island Resort & Conference Center. Doubles from $114 (800/999-6343).
Chippewa Hotel Some of Mackinac Island's most affordable accommodations in a renovated early-1900s landmark overlooking the harbor. Doubles from $165 (800/241-3341).
Grand Mackinaw Beach Resort In Mackinaw City, new and remodeled motel rooms, with a beach, indoor pool and Continental breakfast. Doubles from $55 (800/822-8314).
Hotel Iroquois A grand Queen Anne-style inn on the shore at the edge of Mackinac Island's downtown. Doubles from $150 (906/847-3321).
Terrace Inn In the heart of Bay View, a historic, family-friendly hotel with simple rooms. Doubles from $77 (800/530-9898).
Mackinaw Mill Creek Camping Large, well-kept private campground along the shore just south of Mackinaw City. Free shuttles into town. Sites from $15 (231/436-5584).
Wilderness State Park Sites near a secluded stretch of beach 8 miles west of Mackinaw City (231/436-5381).