Mackinac Island, situated on Lake Huron and sandwiched between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, is a special place renowned for its natural beauty, storied history, and relaxed pace. This idyllic spot is a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle we’ve all unfortunately become accustomed to: Most of the island is a state park, and no cars are allowed -- you must either ferry or fly in. Mackinac is truly perfect for a peaceful and restorative weekend visit.
Here are some of the very best things to see and experience when you’re “on island,” as the locals say.
Explore Forts Mackinac And Holmes
To get a better feel for Mackinac’s military past, head to either or both of the island’s forts. Fort Holmes, first built on the highest point of the island in 1814 by the British, provided a lookout from which to spot approaching United States soldiers during the War of 1812. American forces claimed the wooden fort after the war, but it eventually fell into disrepair. It was renovated during the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and is scheduled to be renovated again soon.
Fort Mackinac, also built by the British, is the older of the two military installations. It dates to the Revolutionary War, when the island was still a key part of the fur trade. Ownership of the fort flip-flopped between the Brits and Americans until after the War of 1812; it remained an active American military site until 1895. Today, you can stroll along the original stone ramparts. Interpreters in period attire are on hand to explain the significance of the site.
Both forts are within walking distance of many island accommodations.
Explore The Downtown Area
There’s something for everyone in the island’s charming downtown quarter, from sweet shops and boutiques (more on those in a bit!) to casual dining and bars. You’ll want to take at least a few hours to explore all the downtown district has to offer. There are also quite a few historic places of interest tucked into this area, including the Biddle House, a historic home-turned-museum that showcases what life was like on the island 200 years ago. It’s well worth a stop.
While you explore, you’ll notice a wide range of architectural styles. The island’s tourism bureau has put together a terrific free architectural guide for visitors to further enhance their walking tour.
Stop To Smell The Lilacs
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting Mackinac in June, you won’t miss the lilacs. Their sweet perfume fills the air across the island, and they are a symbol of this special place. They’re not native to the island but were brought here by some of the island’s first settlers, who planted them for good luck. These lovely residents -- with their large, showy blossom clusters -- are so beloved that they’re celebrated with a 10-day bash: the island’s Lilac Festival, which features family activities and, of course, guided walks through some of the most prolific lilac stands on Mackinac.
Take A Carriage Tour
To get a feel for the island in its entirety, consider a narrated carriage ride. There are several liveries downtown that can get you scheduled for an unforgettable tour of Mackinac’s southern half. A carriage tour is a great way to see the island’s historic highlights, and prices start at about $30 per person for an experience that lasts 1 hour and 45 minutes. Private tours may also be arranged; they start at $140 per hour for up to four people. This is a terrific option if you want to explore even more of Mackinac.
Many carriage companies also offer 24-hour horse-drawn taxi service during the busy summer season, since no motor vehicles are allowed on the island. Think of them as old-fashioned Ubers and Lyfts! There’s no hailing, so you’ll need to call in your request.
Admire The Natural Beauty By Bike Or Hike
If you’d rather see the island by bike, no worries! There are plenty of bike rental shops on the island that will be happy to accommodate you. And since the island is just 8 miles around, you can easily bike it in a single loop, stopping along the way to picnic and delight in some of its most beautiful spots. It’s the perfect active island outing.
Arch Rock, one of the most photographed places on Mackinac, is a limestone arch dramatically perched near the lakeshore not too far off the recreation trail. Sugar Loaf, another geological marvel, rises some seven stories from the ground. Legend has it that this is where the Great Spirit’s messenger lived; he became so angry when a young Native American had the gall to ask him for eternal life that he turned him into the stone now known as Sugar Loaf.
Also consider making time for Skull Cave. This small recess was thought to have served as a hiding spot for an English fur trader in the 1760s, but he discovered it was filled to the brim with bones. Today, it makes a terrific -- if a bit creepy -- selfie spot.
All of these spots can be reached easily by biking or hiking. The main lakeshore road is mostly flat and not too challenging. The best part? You’ll have the road to yourself. The island’s shoreline path is the only state highway in Michigan that’s 100 percent auto-free!
Discover The Set Of Somewhere In Time
The romantic movie Somewhere in Time was filmed on Mackinac and subsequently became a fan favorite. Although it was released 40 years ago, the cult classic, which starred Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as star-crossed lovers, continues to be celebrated on the island. Many of its scenes were shot at the famed Grand Hotel, on the hotel’s grounds, and on its gorgeous front porch. Every year, the hotel hosts the movie’s fan club during its special Somewhere in Time Weekend, where guests dress in period costumes and can mingle with people who starred in the movie.
The Somewhere in Time Gazebo, also used during filming, overlooks downtown. The structure was built specifically for a particularly romantic and poignant scene in the movie. Head here for a terrific photo op.
Visit The Butterfly Conservatory
Mackinac Island is home to one of the country’s oldest butterfly houses. Established in 1991 by an island resident who added butterflies to his greenhouse, the Butterfly House has grown leaps and bounds since then. Today, visitors can see dozens of species -- from the ever-popular monarch to its tropical cousins, blue clippers and morphos -- in the 1,800-square-foot garden. Adult admission costs $12 and grants you unlimited access.
Eating On Mackinac Island
There’s no shortage of great places to eat on the island. Local favorite dishes include Yankee pot roast and whitefish (fresh, smoked, or in dip). You’ll find both at the Yankee Rebel Tavern downtown. Woods Restaurant is a bit farther afield, near the airport, and can be reached by horse-drawn carriage. Housed in a historic Tudor-style mansion, the restaurant offers entrees with a Bavarian flair. The Chuckwagon serves up hearty burgers and other diner fare, making it the perfect stop to fuel up either before or after your biking or hiking adventures.
No matter where you dine, save room for dessert. As you’ll see, the island’s favorite dessert is decadent, old-fashioned fudge, which is sold at a number of stores in the downtown district.
Shopping On Mackinac Island
There are many small, charming shops in Mackinac’s downtown area. The Artistic Mackinac Gallery & Studio features locally crafted creations that depict the natural beauty of the island in a whole host of media. Little Luxuries of Mackinac offers made-in-Michigan creations including candles, fragrances, and other gorgeous whimsies. Make sure you buy some of the island’s iconic fudge, and keep an eye out for lilac-scented perfumes and soaps -- a terrific reminder of your time spent here.
Where To Stay On Mackinac Island
The historic Grand Hotel is the island’s best-known resort, and for good reason. Since 1887, it has welcomed vacationers from all over the upper Midwest looking to escape the summer’s heat. With its many activities, dining options, and stunning lake views, it’s a great fit for a family vacation, a romantic escape, or a girlfriends’ getaway.
The Inn at Stonecliffe offers luxe rooms in its original mansion house as well as the Summer House Suites, which boast beautiful views.
Additionally, there are a whole host of bed and breakfasts on the island, plus cottages and whole-home rentals available on homesharing sites.
When you’re on Mackinac Island, make the effort to unplug and unwind. This is a place made magical by its lack of cars and bustle. Try to make space for some of that magic in your vacation.
Also keep in mind that winters on Lake Huron can be particularly harsh, and for that reason, most attractions are only open from May through October.