When I think back on my golden-hued, wonder-filled childhood memories of Mackinac Island, a scene straight out of a storybook comes to mind: horse-and-carriages as the only form of transportation besides bicycles or your own two feet; a charming Main Street lined with fragrant fudge shops; butterflies and late-spring purple lilacs amid a deep-forest-green oasis.
When I returned to Mackinac Island, finally visiting again after too many years away, I arrived to find the exact scene I described above (minus the lilacs, because it’s late August). My eyes drank in a garden of summertime enchantment, a destination that resembled a fairytale so closely it was hard to believe I was stepping foot on solid ground.
There are still no cars or motorized vehicles permitted on the 3.7-square-mile island; the same chocolate-drenched scent woven into my childhood fantasies still wafted down Main Street, as if the island was frozen in time the moment I left and came alive again upon my return (and freeze it does each winter, when only about 500 hardy year-round residents brave the extreme cold—five of my own family members among them).
And while the scenery is unbeatable, a picture-perfect Northern summer illustrated, Mackinac’s allure is epitomized in the Grand Hotel, the hilltop grande dame of the island, which has stood sentry since construction in 1887. Built to attract high-brow leisure travelers looking to summer away from the filth of meat-packing, coal-burning 19th-century cities, the Grand Hotel was nailed together from Michigan white pine in a mere 93 days, a feat but also the reason for the hotel’s charmingly crooked halls and architectural quirks.
It was hewn from the wild, a bastion of luxury in the Great Lakes wilderness where America’s first multimillionaire, John Jacob Astor, got his early-1800s start in the fur trade.
The Grand has indeed drawn affluence since its debut, with generations of statesmen and celebrities on its storied guest list, but today, it’s also accessible to families, couples, and weekend visitors (in old times, the Victorian new-money set would make an annual visit that spanned the full summer season). Its opulent Carleton Varney-designed interiors recall another time and place, and no two of the hotel’s 397 rooms are alike. Atop the white colonnaded mansion sits the Cupola Bar, where a late-night Hummer cocktail is a nightly last-stop ritual.
The fact that the hotel welcomes dozens of fourth-generation guests each season (and even a few fifth-generation ones) speaks volumes about the warm summertime memories that are so easy to make here.
Beyond its 133-year history, the Grand Hotel remains famous for a few things. It’s a staunch yet modernly outfitted rampart of Old World values, where tea is served every afternoon, men must be attired in coats past 6:30 p.m., and the Grand Hotel Orchestra closes out each evening; it’s home to the world’s longest porch (660 feet). And then there are the Pecan Balls. This three-ingredient dessert is simple but famous for its mouthwatering, memorable taste: it’s a baseball-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream rolled in crushed pecans, floating in a pool of Mackinac fudge sauce. Order one and you’ll understand.
You can get a Pecan Ball in the hotel’s main dining room, at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor, or at one of the Grand’s offsite restaurants, such as Jockey Club, Gate House, and Woods—each of which is a must. Dine outside in a more casual setting at Jockey Club or Gate House, both located a short walk from the grandeur of the Grand’s red-carpeted front steps, or take a carriage ride to Woods, where a Bavarian atmosphere awaits with decor that makes it feel like Christmas all year round. At Woods, dig into a cup of Austrian steak soup for the full experience.
It’s easy to plan your trip around mealtimes in a place such as Mackinac Island, but leave time for other activities too: Grand Hotel guests should make sure a lecture or tour with resident historian Bob Tagatz is on their itinerary. The civilized succession from afternoon tea to a formal five-course dinner to demitasse in the parlor to dancing in the Terrace Room will have you feeling like modern-day royalty. It’s a tradition guests should indulge at least once in their stay.
Outside of the Grand, the rest of the island is also worth exploring, evidenced by its million-plus annual visitors, with 10,000 or more arriving at the ferry docks on a typical summer day. The season stretches May through October, so you can count on warm weather during your visit, and since Mackinac Island State Park covers 80 percent of the island, there are lots of outdoor activities to enjoy, from horseback riding to hiking to biking the eight-mile perimeter of the island.
Grab a slice of freshly cooled fudge and book a horse-drawn carriage tour or rent a bicycle and check out historical sites like Arch Rock, Skull Cave, British Landing, and Sugar Loaf; climb the stairs to Fort Holmes or witness a live cannon blast at Fort Mackinac; shop the boutiques of Main Street; kids and adults alike will enjoy wandering through the tropical gardens of Mackinac Island Butterfly House, the third-oldest live butterfly exhibit in the United States, where you’ll find hundreds of butterflies from four continents.
No matter how many times you’ve visited, whether it’s your first or 91st time, there’s always a moment upon disembarking the ferry from Mackinaw City and arriving on Mackinac that you stop and ask yourself if you’re dreaming—it’s part of the island’s appeal. Between the sights (an island in luxuriant bloom; an old-fashioned Main Street with Victorian touches), sounds (bicycles whizzing past; the rhythmic hooves of horses), and smells (candy makers; horses again), it’s a feast for the senses.
But the feeling goes deeper, too: there’s the joy of summertime, sure, but something about the colors—vibrant florals, crisp whites highlighted by the bright red of the Grand’s signature geraniums, the jewel-toned sapphire blues of the Straits of Mackinac surrounding the island—also inspires a fresh patriotic spirit, a renewed sense of American pride, an appreciation for the land we call home.
Mackinac Island is a special place to me—we’ve visited family here since I can remember; it’s home to some of my fondest childhood memories; and some of my father’s ashes are spread here—but its appeal extends beyond any personal connection. It’s a true getaway from the pressure and hurry of modern life, a time capsule, a simpler era preserved. It’s a wonderland of fudge shops and blooms in every color and the clop-clop of horses’ hooves, a place that happily exists both in dreams and in reality.
Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She covers news, transit, and international destinations for a variety of outlets. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @skyesherman