The movie, "Somewhere In Time," appears frequently on "most-romantic"
movie lists -- and for good reason. Part of its charm is its location -- Mackinac Island, Michigan -- unique in North
Revered by the Native inhabitants as a sacred place, "The Big
Turtle" was a burgeoning center of commerce in the early 1600's, a weigh
station for the booming fur trade. The voyageurs traveled in
their 32 to 40 foot long canoes to the vast forested areas of mid-North
America for a winter's worth of fur-trapping, or to gather
prized skins in trade from the Native inhabitants. Blankets, pots
and beads were their currency. John Jacob Astor made several fortunes as
owner of the American Fur Trading Company. You can still visit the
Robert Stuart House, which housed his business. Today, it is a museum of fur-trading times, when the French
(brocade) merchants ran the fur-trapping/trading venture with the help of
the Indians (buckskin), all under the watchful eye of the English
(broadcloth). Such was the society of the island from 1780 through 1834 --
when furs ran out and were replaced by fish. But that's another story.
To embark on a visit "somewhere in time," one must first cross
the blue waters of two of the Great Lakes, Huron and Michigan, whose
waters conjoin under the longest suspension bridge in the world. As one
sets foot on this small, historic island, one is immediately struck by
the absence of motorized vehicles. The
only exceptions are the firetruck, an ambulance, a few power lawn mowers
needed to keep the wide, sweeping lawns under control, and the huge
earth-moving machines at the landfill on the back portion of the island.
Horses, bicycles, or your own feet are the means of
transportation. Bring your own bicycle or rent one at
the hotel or downtown. Horses are also available -- you can rent a
saddle horse and explore the many miles of wooded trails that criss-cross
the island. You may also rent a drive-it-yourself horse and carriage by
the hour, or there are regularly scheduled taxis or charters. One company, Carriage
Tours, specializes in sightseeing, leaving the downtown area every half
hour during the summer. Some 300 horses are kept on the island during
In fact, if you stay overnight, you may come to
think you're hearing the clip-clop of some of those horses in your sleep.
Actually, you will be hearing the real thing, not the ghostly variety.
Most all of the freight -- merchandise, groceries, mail -- that comes or
goes from the island is distributed from or hauled to the docks during
the night. By horse, of course.
However, considering that "across the Turtle's back" is barely
more than 3 miles from British Landing to Marquette Park and the
circumference of Lake Shore Road is 8.1 miles, transportation is rarely a
problem. Lake Shore Road, incidentally, is also M-185 -- the only state
highway in the nation that does not allow automobiles!
Just a few steps to the west of the Stuart House is the Biddle
House -- also open to visitors. This is the oldest building extant on
the island, construction having begun in 1780 by Edward Biddle of the
Philadelphia Biddles. It's typical of the upper-middle class houses of
rural Quebec at that time. Biddle was an independent fur trapper,
surveyor, and eventually first sheriff of the island.
The first military presence was established by the French on the
northernmost tip of the lower peninsula. Fort Michilimackinac was
founded in 1715, and is presently being restored in its original location
under the southern end of the mighty Mackinac Bridge. (The natives won't
like it much if you call their bridge the 'Mighty Mac', either.) After
the massacre led by Pontiac and his band of warriors in 1763, the fort
remained uninhabited until 1777, when the English decided to re-establish
it in order to protect their land-holding as well as
fur-trapping. Those buildings still standing at the fort
on the mainland were carefully dismantled and hauled across the ice, where
they were re-built on the limestone heights. A village was encouraged
to form around the natural crescent-shaped harbor. (The English merely
bastardized the French version of the original Algonquin name
'Michilimackinac'. No matter which way it's spelled, that last syllable
is always pronounced 'aw'.)
The last battle of the War of 1812 was fought on this island --
in 1814. Communications then, obviously, were not what they are now!
(And they still aren't completely caught up.) On the island to this day,
many hotel rooms lack a telephone, television, and/or air conditioning (though most have at least one of these three) regardless of the price
of the room. On the other hand, there actually is an ATM at the local
bank -- which advertises the only horse-drawn drive-up window in North
Depending on the time of year, your welcome may
be a fragrant one. (Remember all those horses?) If you visit in June,
you'll be treated to the heavenly scents of the multi-colored lilacs for
which the island is justly famous. The annual Lilac Festival is always
the third week in June, as spring comes late so far north. Early French
settlers brought their beloved lilas with them. In spite of the
sometimes harsh winters, you will still be able to find some of those
very trees, now nearly 250 years old!
Another sweet fragrance that wafts throughout the village is that
of fudge. Disabuse yourself of any notion of dieting when you visit the
island. There are nearly as many purveyors of the delicious confection
as there are varieties. Choices include: With nuts? Without?
Chocolate? Vanilla? Pistachio? (My favorite is peanut butter, with or
without nuts, thank you.) A slab is roughly half a pound, but it is
nearly impossible to stop there. You can take it home with you; it keeps
for months in a freezer. If you run out before your next trip, just call
and they'll mail a slab of your favorite to you!
In the late 1800s, when Mackinac was the premier tourist
attraction in the Midwest, rivaled only by the more exclusive Newport to
the east, the island was referred to as "so healthy, a man must go
elsewhere to die", by Dr. Sinclair, the island's then-physician.
Boasting it had neither hay-fever nor mosquitoes, the island quickly became
the summer home for wealthy Detroit and Chicago merchants. Many of their
"cottages" -- a mere 20 or so rooms each -- still exist as private
residences on the East and West Bluffs.
It is little changed today from that earlier, slower, time before
automobiles and computers began to drive our lives. Must-sees on the
island begin with The Grand Hotel, which has the longest porch in the
world -- 660 feet. The Grand and the Fort are the first sights you'll see
as your ferry wends its way from Mackinaw City. Perched high on the west
and east bluffs, respectively, the dazzling white structures nestled in
the green trees are highly visible for miles. If you come from St.
Ignace to the north, you'll see the somewhat nondescript back of the
island until that final swing around, when the village in all its glory
is made visible. By air, you'll notice these same two entities flanking
the large meadow, which is really the Grand Hotel's golf course. Another
course, Wawashkomo, is further north on British Landing Road -- both are
nine-hole courses. The Grand also sports tennis courts and a wonderful
lawn for croquet matches.
The Grand is now 111 years old; it is also the most expensive
place to stay on the island. However, sumptuous morning and evening
meals are included, and the evening meals are truly special. Dinner
guests are subject to a 'dress code' befitting the grandeur. Ladies are
asked to wear 'tea' or evening clothes, while gentlemen should wear a
dark business suit or, preferably, a tuxedo.
As a tourist attraction, the tremendous porch generates so much
traffic that it became necessary to impose a small fee for sight-seers.
If you time your visit properly, however, the $5. is credited toward
their imposing 'lunch buffet.' This all-you-can-eat, not-to-be-missed,
event is $25 a person. The dining room is about 300 feet long -- nearly
half the length of the hotel -- and the buffet tables take up over half
of this length. Have you ever seen 150 feet of food stretched out in
front of you? The walk back down to the village will be a welcome
High atop the hotel is a cocktail lounge, from which you can see
for miles in three directions. Walking down the stairs from this lounge,
you will come face-to-face with a door bearing a brass plaque.
Upon closer inspection, you are advised that this is "The Suite of the
President of the United States." Unfortunately, he wasn't there any of
the times I was. Toward the back of the hotel on the ground level is a
wonderful carriage museum. Admission is free to anyone; you don't need
to be a guest of the hotel to visit and enjoy.
The oldest hotel on the island is the Island House, at the
eastern edge of the village, under the bluff where the fort resides in
all its pristine whiteness. The Island House -- a large U-shaped
structure -- is also white, and parts of it date to 1848, preceding by
several years the tourism boom that followed the Civil War. Slightly
farther to the east, past the former location of the school for children
of the voyageurs, British soldiers, or native inhabitants is
Mission Point Resort. This is a relatively recent conversion of the
former Mackinac College into a modern, fully-equipped resort, including
health club, swimming pool, volleyball courts and a charming gazebo
suitable for weddings -- of which there were 70 scheduled for the summer of
At nearly the highest part of the island is its raison
d'etre -- Fort Mackinac. Even though hostilities ceased at the end
of the War between the States, the fort continued to be staffed until the
1880s, when it was decommissioned and actually became the second U. S.
National Park (after Yellowstone). In 1895, however, it
was given back to the state of Michigan when it became -- and still is --
Mackinac Island State Park. A hold-over from the military days is the
cannon boom at sunrise and sunset, as well as the sound of taps played by
a lone bugler each evening.
Although the season is primarily from Memorial Day to Labor Day,
some attractions on the island are available during the entire year. The
larger hotels close, but there are several bed-and-breakfast
establishments willing to cater to
Nearly every month has a special festival or two to entice the
visitor. From the largest of them all -- 1997 was the International
Lilac Society Conference coinciding with the island's own Lilac Festival
in June -- to the Winter Festival in February, there is something for
everyone. Art, music and voyageurs have their own celebrations.
And if you like sailing, you won't want to miss the first two weeks of
July. The first weekend hosts the ending of the Chicago to Mackinac
Yacht race; the following week finds the somewhat shorter, but frequently
gustier, Port Huron to Mackinac race.
If you are a history buff,
it is well worth the time to allow at least one extra day for related
visits to several close-by locations. Just three miles southeast of the
partially restored Fort Michilimackinac is Mill Creek, a water-powered
saw mill erected in the 1780's. It has been reconstructed during the last few years, and
costumed interpreters and artisans inform and educate, as they do at both
Some 75 miles south of Mackinaw City is Hartwick Pines State
Park, the last remaining stand of virgin white pine in Michigan. After
the great fire in Chicago, wood from this area rebuilt that city, as well
as contributing to the construction of much of the immigrant-settled
midwest. A restored lumber camp of the late 1800s provides a glimpse of
that life, as well as the equipment used to get the long, straight logs
out of the forest and to the rivers by which they traveled to their many
Whatever your main interest, this northern part of Michigan is
one destination you won't regret adding to your list of places to visit
-- and revisit -- many times over.
(Originally published in Romance Forever, Summer, 1996)
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