24 Hours at Mackinac Island

by Bridgette Redman  |  Published June 12, 2024

There is something magical about Mackinac Island. Its indigenous history, horse-drawn carriages, and prized Grand Hotel are just a few elements that will transport you back in time.

Horse-drawn carriages pause before Mackinac’s Historic Park. (Photo by Bridgette Redman for TravelMag)

Mackinac Island floats in Lake Huron in the shadow of the Mackinac Bridge, the span connecting Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Once home to a national park, when the army left the island’s fort in 1895 it became a state park instead, a park that covers 80 percent of the island. In 1960, the entire island was designated a National Historic Landmark. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Michigan––Travel + Leisure recently named it the Best Island in the Continental US––this small isle is just over four square miles and is at its busiest from May to November. However, some 500 residents stay year-round, hunkering down when the surrounding waters freeze.

Drawn from the Ojibwe name for big turtle, which is the shape of the island, Mackinac Island was originally a sacred burial ground for the Anishinaabek, including the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi tribes. Father Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit missionary, established missions among the Native American tribes in the area, including on Mackinac Island. Today, you can visit the Missionary Bark Chapel  (7200 Huron St) to commemorate his work.

In 1634, New France governor Samuel de Champlain sent explorers to the island as part of a Great Lakes region expedition. He established friendly relations with the tribes, and the French built Fort Michilimackinac on the Straits of Mackinac in 1715.

The fort passed hands to the British during the French and Indian War, and they moved it to Mackinac Island’s high bluffs. It was the site of a battle during the War of 1812 when the British repelled an American attack on the grounds of what is now Wawashkamo Golf Course (1 British Lansing Rd) the oldest golf course in Michigan. The island would be ceded to the Americans by treaty after the war.

These days, Mackinac Island is a place where rich, aromatic fudge and Victorian charm reign supreme, and the streets are filled with horse-drawn carriages and bicycles built for two. Except for emergency vehicles, motorized transportation is banned from the island; even electric bikes are forbidden in most cases. While it is a place where time stands still, you won’t want to because there is so much to do once you step off the ferry.

Things to Do

(Photo: Mackinac Island Carriage tours / Courtesy of Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag)

With no motor vehicles on the island, the two best ways to get around are by carriage and bike, though the island is walkable. Horse-drawn taxis are available, and several organizations offer carriage tours where a guide will escort you and share history, point out scenic highlights, and chat about the island’s famous residents. Bikes can be rented by the hour or day, and tandem bicycles are fun options populating the streets.

There are plenty of tours to take advantage of, and many will take you deep into the island to observe its natural beauty while highlighting such sites as Skull Cave, Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, Chimney Rock, and Crack in the Island. Others focus on the island’s rich history or the architecturally fascinating mansions.

(Photo: Grand Hotel porch / Courtesy Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag)At 660 feet long, the front porch of the historic Grand Hotel (286 Grand Ave) is the longest in the world. The veranda features large playable chess pieces on fabric boards and white wooden rocking chairs. Guests can overlook the expansive lawn, the Mackinac Bridge, and the Straits of Mackinac from the iconic porch. For those who are not guests at the hotel, there is an admission fee of $10 per adult and $5 for children, which can be applied toward the cost of the Grand Luncheon Buffet.

Another stop is the original Mackinac Island Butterfly House (6750 McGulpin St), Michigan’s first and the third oldest live butterfly exhibit in the US. The attraction has 1,800 square feet of a tropical garden filled with live butterflies from four continents.


(Photo: Turn-of-the-century movie theater / Courtesy Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag)

The one movie theater on the island, Mission Point Theater (6633 Main St), is a turn-of-the-century facility where you can watch the cult classic Somewhere in Time while being in the spot where one of its iconic scenes with Christopher Reeves was filmed. The cinema shows other first-run movies, and the 1947 Esther Williams film, This Time for Keeps, was also shot on the island.

With breezes coming off Lake Huron, one activity at Windermere Point is kite flying in the open green area next to the Iroquois Hotel and across the street from Windermere Hotel. It’s also an ideal spot for lawn games such as croquet or horseshoes.

Where to Stay

(Photo Mission Point Resort / Courtesy Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag)

Mackinac Island caters to all sorts of tourists, with lodging ranging from resorts to bed and breakfasts to historic hotels. 

Mission Point Resort (1 Lakeshore Drive) is a full-service resort on the east end of the island. Ride a horse-drawn carriage up to the 18-acre property and enjoy their beaches, swimming pool, gardens, tennis, children’s activities, and restaurants. The concierge can arrange bike rentals, ferry tickets, horseback riding, kayaking, cruises, and tours (including a guided sunrise hike and history tours). Mission Point Resort’s Lakeside Spa and Salon has something for everyone, ranging from massages, facials, and body treatments to saunas, steam rooms, and a relaxation room. You can even get a hot stone massage with stones directly from the Great Lakes.

Built in 93 days in 1887, the Victorian-era Grand Hotel (286 Grand Ave) is a National Historic Landmark. Every room is uniquely decorated in late 19th-century decor, with its trademark geraniums scattered throughout the property. The hotel has hosted presidents and celebrities and has seven suites named for presidential First Ladies, each room curated in her unique style.

For those who want to stay in the heart of downtown near the harbor, Mackinac Island’s newest hotel is the Bicycle Street Inn & Waterfront Collection (7416 Main St). They offer walk-out balconies with views of the lake or their enclosed atrium and provide several themed packages and indoor bike parking.

Eat & Drink

While “fudgies” is a somewhat derogatory term that locals use to describe the 5,000 tourists who flock to the island each day, fudge was intentionally developed to lure more vacationers. During the 1920s, downtown shops innovated the technique of making their candy before large windows so passers-by could watch the demonstrations. They also installed large ceiling fans to waft the sugary scent into the street. You can now get fudge in numerous locations up and down the main strip. The Original Murdick’s Fudge (7363 Main St) has been making fudge with Michigan sugar since 1887 while May’s Candy Shop (7351 Main St) has been family owned for four generations, serving up fudge and homemade taffy.

(Photo Chianti Restaurant at Mission Point Resort / Courtesy Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag.com)

Mission Point Resort offers two not-to-be-missed dining experiences. The first is at Chianti (1 Lakeshore Drive), an upscale restaurant where you can indulge in the finest Michigan cuisine and maybe even get serenaded by one of the waiters. The wine pairing with dinner is especially well-curated. Give yourself at least a few hours to thoroughly enjoy the gourmet offerings. 

(Photo: Indoor picnic / Courtesy Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag)

The second is the hotel’s Boxwood Coffee Shop and Cafe (1 Lakdshore Drive) picnic lunches. Place your order in advance and take the picnic lunch wherever you want, whether sitting along the beach in an Adirondack chair or deep on the island after a long bike ride. If the weather is bad, you can retreat to the Mission Point lobby and picnic before one of their fireplaces.

If you are touring Fort Mackinac, the Fort Mackinac Tea Room (7127 Huron Rd) is a bluff-side bistro featuring a light, simple menu of American cuisine. Select from appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and desserts while enjoying a panoramic view of Mackinac Harbor.

Millie’s on Main (7294 Main St) styles itself as the island’s favorite pub, a claim bolstered by the crowds keeping its booths and tables full. A family-run restaurant, it offers plenty of Northern Michigan favorites, including an iconic Yooper Beef Pastie––a Michigan staple eaten by miners because they could take it into the ground and it provided a hearty meal––served with traditional brown gravy. Other dishes include Millie’s meatball sliders, smoked whitefish dip, and pan-fried Michigan perch.

(Photo Doud’s Market / Courtesy Bridgette M. Redman for TravelMag.com)

If you’re more into do-it-yourself meals, then it is worth stopping by Doud’s Market and Deli, (7200 Main St) the oldest continuously run, family-owned grocery store in the US. Open year-round and visited by locals and tourists alike, the small grocery store overflows with all the necessities for making your own meal or grabbing a sandwich. The shop sells a variety of locally produced food and beverages, such as fresh fruit and Michigan craft beers. 

Getting There

The most common way to get to the island is by ferry. Founded in 1945, Shepler’s Ferry has been a family business for three generations. It offers the fastest ferry service to and from the island, with anywhere from six daily mainland departures during the early season to 32 during the height of the tourism season. Those wanting a longer ride can take the Mighty Mac trip for no extra cost and sail under the Mackinac Bridge while getting live commentary from the captain. 

The Star Line Ferry offers pirate adventures in addition to its regular service. Guests ride a hydro-jet ferry one way to or from the island and then the pirate ship the other way. The Good Fortune sails Tuesday through Saturday five times a day. This wooden pirate ship, complete with working water cannons, sails under a skull-and-crossbones flag. In addition to the trips to and from the island, the company also offers a nighttime family-friendly pirate cruise that coasts under the Mackinac Bridge and a BYOB adults-only cruise providing a sunset view. It also has a winter ferry with a reinforced hull that lets it break the ice and get to the island during the cold months, though this is used mostly for deliveries as the island discourages tourism after December.

Fresh Air Aviation offers charter flights to the island year-round for only slightly higher prices than the ferry tickets. Flights leave from three different airports in Charlevoix, Beaver Island, and St. Ignace. Flying is an option when Lake Huron freezes in winter.