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Escape to Beaver Island, Michigan

A ferry ride across Lake Michigan ends at an island as relaxed as any in the Caribbean.

Relaxed and remote

Bob Banville, owner of Shanoule Bed and Breakfast on Michigan's Beaver Island, describes the allure of this island to visitors. Life here is slower, he says, pointing across Lake Michigan and adding, "It's just not as relaxed in the U.S.A."

A slip of the tongue? Maybe. But given the island's past, you have to wonder. Beaver Island (population: 600, mostly of Irish descent) has a history of independence, beginning with self-declared King James Jesse Strang in 1850. His "reign" ended with his assassination in 1856.

Today, a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride from Charlevoix carries visitors northwest across the lake to an island as relaxed as any in the Caribbean. Bicycles and in-line skaters cruise Main Street in St. James, the only town and home to about a dozen shops. The eight hotel owners learn their guests' names and don't fret about a credit card at check-in. "We'll square up in the morning," they offer. "Now, do you want me to drive you around so you know where everything is?"

Click ahead to find out more about Beaver Island, including our top picks for where to eat, what to do, and where to stay.

A world apart

Visitors don't need a car, but bringing wheels makes it easier to visit the one-third of Beaver Island that is state-owned and undeveloped. (If you rent a car, you're likely to find it near the dock, unlocked and with your first name written on a piece of paper stuck on the windshield.) Gravel roads lead through thick sugar maple forests and alongside inland lakes.

Wherever you go, the sights on this 13x6-mile island are beautiful enough to land in nature calendars. You'll see flocks of Sandhill cranes and admire the quiet fishing banks of Fox Lake, where the beavers grow to weigh 60 pounds. Harbor Light (pictured) remains an active -- and picturesque -- beacon.

Whitefish stars on every menu here. It's caught in the morning and fried at the Shamrock or sauteed at the Beaver Island Lodge that night. And if you want to have dinner at a restaurant lying outside of downtown, most hotels happily offer free shuttle service (typically in the manager's car). It's been a long time since the island was a sovereign state. But in many ways, Beaver Island remains a world apart.

Planning your trip

For general information, contact the Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce (231/448-2505; beaverisland.org).

For transportation, contact the Beaver Island Boat Company. Ferries leave Charlevoix for the 2.5-hour ride to Beaver Island. BIBCO offers service from early April through mid-December (twice daily in peak season). $26 each way (888/446-4095; beaverislandboatcompany.com).

What to do

Beaver Island Gift Shop In downtown St. James, this is the place to go for souvenirs and gifts (231/448-2860).

LakeSports On St. James Harbor, LakeSports rents bikes, mopeds, canoes, fishing tackle and other gear (231/448-2166).

Whimsy This cheerful shop sells a variety of gift and home decor items (231/448-3058).

Where to eat

The Restaurant at Beaver Island Lodge The menu at this shoreside fine-dining spot sometimes features whitefish with cherry sauce (pictured at left; 231/448-2396; beaverislandlodge.com).

Daddy Frank's May through September, Daddy Frank's offers better-than-average fast food in a cheery place that feels like a 1950s diner (231/448-2570).

Dalwhinnie Bakery and Deli For breakfast, try the Michigan blueberry pancakes (231/448-2736; mcdonoughsmarket.com/dalwhinnie).

Harbour Market The market serves fresh baked goods (including delicious raspberry scones) and locally famous Moomers Ice Cream (231/448-2950).

Shamrock Bar and Restaurant The signature Shamrock Angus burger comes loaded with cheese, bacon, mushrooms and onions (231/448-2278; shamrockbarrestaurant.com).

Stoney Acre Grill Service can be unbearably slow, but the lightly breaded whitefish is worth the wait (231/448-2560; stoneyacregrill.com).

Where to stay

Shanoule Bed and Breakfast Expect to chitchat with the owners at this secluded three-guest-room B&B (pictured). Bob and Joan Banville pick up and drop off guests at the ferry dock and offer tours of the island. From $150 (231/448-2092; shanoule.com).

Emerald Isle Hotel The Emerald Isle offers comfortable, no-frills rooms near downtown St. James. The staff is friendly but sometimes hard to find. (They might be at home eating or shuttling guests to dinner.) From $149 (231/448-2376; emeraldislehotel.com).

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