This Is Your Last Chance for a Perfect Mackinac Island Weekend
Late October means fewer crowds and gorgeous weather. Here's your itinerary.
Surrounded by the clear water of Lake Huron, Mackinac Island is a step back in time. The island is lined with 19th century cottages and storefronts and is free of all cars and motorized vehicles. Locals and tourists alike travel by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriages. Stepping off the ferry puts travelers right in the middle of the historic downtown, bustling with pedestrians and equines, and numerous bicycles parked along the sidewalk.
The native Anishinaabek people have long considered the island a sacred place, and the name Mackinac comes from the Ojibwe word “Mishimikinaak” which means “Big Turtle,” a reference to the shape of the island. By the 1720s, the Straits of Mackinac had become integral in the fur trade; the British-built Fort Mackinac, on top of the bluffs of Mackinac Island, gave the king’s army a superlative vantage of what was happening on the water. The fort was returned to the United States after the War of 1812, and over the next century, Mackinac Island became less and less a military outpost and progressively more of a vacation destination.
Mackinac Island’s tourism season runs through the end of October, and autumn is a great time to visit with cooler weather for outdoor activities and fall colors at their peak. It also hosts the annual Great Turtle Trail Run half-marathon in late October (this year, it’s on October 22), which always goes hand-in-hand with a Halloween weekend extravaganza with trick-or-treating around town, and haunted trails and costume parties that go late into the night.
How to Get to Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island is mainly accessible by ferry, which you can take either from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace. There are two passenger ferry lines to the island: Shepler’s Ferry and Star Line. Shepler’s Ferry offers the fastest service to Mackinac Island and departures every 30 minutes; although for those not in a rush, they also offer a longer, narrated journey that takes passengers under the Mackinac Bridge, the fifth-longest suspension bridge in the world. Both ferry lines offer day or overnight parking. Don’t worry about arriving on a car-less island with luggage: All overnight guests check in with the ferry line with their hotel information, and Mackinac Island dockporters will transport all the luggages to their respective hotels on bicycles or horse-drawn carts.
Where to Stay on Mackinac Island
There are no chain hotels on Mackinac Island — a point of pride for the islanders — but there are a range of lodging options from the luxurious and historic Grand Hotel to cozy bed and breakfasts. Mission Point Resort offers a quieter resort stay just a short walk away from the busy downtown, as it’s on 18 acres of waterfront property. Tucked into the east end of the island, the area is known as Mission Point since it was home to Mission Church in the 1820s, but most of the construction was done during when the Moral Re-Armament group built a conference center here in the 1950s. The property later had a four-year stint as a college and eventually became a resort hotel in 1987.
The most famous feature of Mission Point Resort is the Great Lawn, a vast grass lawn with white Adirondack chairs overlooking the Straits of Mackinac; other amenities at this family-owned resort include heated pools, tennis courts and an antique movie theater.
What to Do on Mackinac Island
Autumn’s cooler weather means it’s more comfortable for longer hikes and bike rides. The best way to see the perimeter of the island is to rent a bicycle from the hotel or a rental spot in town and go for a ride, enjoying the fall colors on one side and Lake Huron’s clear blue waters on the other. Bring a picnic to enjoy on the many pebble beaches along the 8.2-mile road.
The interior of the island takes more commitment to explore by bicycle, and the easiest way is to let the locals navigate and go on a carriage tour instead, which takes guests to some of the historic spots like Fort Mackinac. The majority of the island is in fact preserved as a state park, with over 70 miles of hiking and biking trails. The Tranquil Bluff Trail is a 6.1-mile jaunt that winds through the forest and offers beautiful views of the lake.
An island getaway isn’t complete without getting out on the water. There are two very different ways to do this: Great Turtle Kayak Tours offers kayak or standup paddleboard excursions. Alternatively, sit back and enjoy a ride aboard a 1960s-era ferry boat with Sip n’ Sail, complete with a full bar and live music.
Whether by foot, bicycle or kayak, be sure to see some of the island’s many rock formations, the most famous of which is Arch Rock, a natural limestone arch over 50 feet wide.
Where to Eat and Drink on Mackinac Island
Whitefish is the staple food on the island, and it comes in all forms. Pink Pony is one of the most popular spots, both for outdoor lunch on the harbor-front deck (complete with a 25-person jacuzzi tub) and drinks at night (or day — it is a vacation, after all). They are known for a smoked whitefish dip served with pita, as well as the Rum Runner with an extra floater of rum, served pink and frozen and strong.
Chianti at Mission Point Resort recently brought in a new executive chef, and the seasonal five-course prix fixe menu may now be the best fine-dining experience on the island — it features many local Michigan ingredients for what they dub “farm-to-ferry” cuisine. The prix fixe options also include many vegetarian-friendly options, and the wine pairing is well thought out.
For a different sort of experience, head to the Bavarian-style Woods Restaurant, in a Tudor mansion in the wooded interior of the island. A dining experience here starts with the transportation: a horse-drawn carriage which picks up guests for a short and scenic journey to the restaurant. Find hearty entrees with a Bavarian flair on the menu, from elk chops to dry-aged steak, and of course, whitefish. As a bonus, the restaurant is also home to America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley.
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