Mackinac Island in Lake Huron

Mackinac Island is one of the most popular travel destinations in the Midwest of the USA. The small island in the Straits of Mackinac offers a wealth of historical, architectural and, for those with a sweet tooth, even culinary attractions in just under 10 square kilometers. A day trip is hardly enough to explore everything properly. A trip to Mackinac Island is like a journey through time, merging the present and the past. This timeride works particularly well in the off-season, because the fewer contemporaries, the more intense the feeling of time travel.

Where Horse is King. Touristen reiten auf Pferden dier Cadotte Avenue entlang. Mackinac Island ist eine autofreie Insel. Im Juli 1898 beschloss der Gemeinderat der Dorfes, dass das Führen von pferdelosen Kutschen in den Grenzen des Dorfes Mackinac verboten ist / © Foto: Georg Berg
Where Horse is King. Tourists ride horses along Cadotte Avenue. Mackinac Island is a car-free island. In July 1898, the village council decided that the driving of horseless carriages was prohibited within the boundaries of the village of Mackinac / © Photo: Georg Berg

Ride into the past

The journey into the past begins with a ride in a speedboat. The Shepler’s Island Ferry whizzes across Lake Huron in just 15 minutes. As soon as you arrive on Mackinac Island, you immediately feel the decelerated atmosphere. The clatter of horses’ hooves sets the pace here. Mackinac Island is a car-free island and has been since the invention of the automobile. On our round trip through Michigan, we first stopped off in the city of Detroit. Henry Ford, the Model T and assembly line production are therefore still very much present. And now we come to a place that has successfully resisted horseless carriages for 125 years. It’s a place you wouldn’t expect to find in the USA. Which is precisely why Mackinac Island should not be missing from any itinerary through Michigan.

Pferdekutsche Mackiac Island Service. Müllentsorgung und Warentransport erfolgt auf der autofreien Insel ausschließlich mit Pferden / © Foto: Georg Berg
Mackinac Island horse-drawn carriage service. Waste disposal and goods transportation on the car-free island are carried out exclusively by horse / © Photo: Georg Berg

On the road with two horsepower

In July 1898, the Mackinac Island Town Council passed a resolution prohibiting the driving of horseless carriages within the boundaries of the village of Mackinac. This automobile ban was enacted in the same year that Henry Ford quit his job with Thomas Alva Edison 500 kilometers away in Detroit and founded the Detroit Automotive Company. A company that had to file for bankruptcy after a short time. It was not until 1913 that the famous Ford Model T rolled off the assembly line. The groundbreaking decision by the islanders was above all lobbying for the carriage companies. A year earlier, in 1887, the noble Grand Hotel had opened on the island. It was built in record time and still impresses today with its white wooden veranda. Back then, it was a matter of course to take a carriage to the hotel. The consistent rejection of automobility proved to be a stroke of luck for the small island. Mackinac Island is still one of the most popular travel destinations in the Midwest of the USA.

Die Gebäude auf der Hauptstraße erinnern an eine Westernstadt. Hier gibt es Restaurants, Cafés, Souvenirläden und Fudge-Shops. Auf der Straße sind Pferdekutschen, Fahrräder und Fußgänger unterwegs / © Foto: Georg Berg
The main street is reminiscent of a western town. There are restaurants, pubs, souvenir stores and fudge stores. Only horse-drawn carriages, bicycles and pedestrians on the street / © Photo: Georg Berg

The Grand Hotel – a touch of Good Old Europe

The Grand Hotel was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. The 200-meter-long veranda made of pine wood is considered the longest veranda in the world. From here, guests have a view of the gardens and Lake Huron. Even the famous Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas, can be seen from here. In its early days, the Grand Hotel delighted wealthy families from Detroit and Chicago. Many US presidents and guests of state have stayed here. The Victorian architectural style, the sensationally long veranda, magnificent function rooms, individually furnished rooms and several restaurants exuded the elegance and cosmopolitanism of European grand hotels.

Auffahrt zum Grand Hotel. Eine Besichtigung kostet 10 Dollar Eintritt. Das Grand Hotel wurde 1887 erbaut und ist ein National HIstoric Landmark der USA. Die Frontseite besteht aus einer hölzernen Veranda von 200 Meter Länge / © Foto: Georg Berg
Driveway to the Grand Hotel. A tour costs 10 dollars admission / © Photo: Georg Berg

However, the Victorian charm of the hotel has been somewhat exaggerated over time. From the Parlor to the Cupola Bar, the venerable building looks like a lady with a little too much make-up, trying to distract from her age. Afternoon tea or a grand lunch can also be booked by guests who are not staying at the Grand Hotel. From the Cupola Bar on the fifth floor, you have a great view of the Straits of Mackinac. The red elevators take day guests up to the cupola. Admission for a self-guided tour of the hotel costs ten dollars.

Blick aus dem runden Fenster der Cupola Bar im 5. Stock des Grand Hotels, Mackinac Island. In der Meerenge sieht man die Mackinac Brücke, die Lower und Upper Peninsula von Michigan miteinander verbindet / © Foto: Georg Berg
Staircase to the Cupola Bar on the 5th floor of the Grand Hotel with a view of the Mackinac Bridge / © Photo: Georg Berg

Klipp-Klapp: the sound of the island

The oldest and still most popular tourist attraction on Mackinac Island is a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The coachmen are also tour guides and tell entertaining stories about the island. They tell of the Native Americans who used the island as a burial ground, of the French who built a hub for the fur trade here, of the English who drove out the French and built the fort. The ban on cars, working with horses, the quiet winters and current island politics are also discussed during the carriage ride. Always skeptical of new means of transportation, e-bikes were also banned in 2023. The charm of the island with the sound of horses’ hooves should be preserved. On Mackinac Island, everything is transported by horse-drawn carriage, from garbage collection to drinks deliveries. Several providers of horse-drawn carriage rides can be found with their carriages on Market Street. September marks the end of the season on the island and many restaurants and stores close. Most of the horses also leave the island and recover from the summer season in stables on the mainland.

Motorisierte Fahrzeuge wurden 1898 auf Mackinac Island verboten, so dass bis heute Fahrräder und Pferde die Hauptverkehrsmittel sind. Beliebte Touristenattraktion ist eine Tour in der Pferdekutsche. Der Kutscher ist gleichzeitig Reiseführer und informiert über die Geschichte der Insel / © Foto: Georg Berg
Motorized vehicles were banned on Mackinac Island in 1898, so bicycles and horses are still the main means of transportation today. A popular tourist attraction is a tour in a horse-drawn carriage. Carriage drivers are also tour guides and provide information about the history of the island / © Photo: Georg Berg

Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac is another place on the island that offers a wonderful view of Haldimand Bay and Lake Huron. In addition to the view, the history surrounding the fort attracts visitors. The British were also impressed by the high cliffs in 1780 and chose the island as a strategic location for a military base. Command of the fort changed hands several times between the British and the Americans. The fort remained in operation until 1895.

Alte Kanone vor der Veranda am Fort Mackinac. Heute befindet sich im 1780 erbauten ehemaligen Officers’ Stone Quarters ein Cafe und ein Restaurant  / © Foto: Georg Berg
Old cannon in front of the veranda at Fort Mackinac. Today there is a café in the former Officers’ Stone Quarters built in 1780 / © Photo: Georg Berg
Auf einer Geschützstellung mit alter Kanone demonstrieren zwei Darsteller in Uniform das Abfeuern einer Kanonenkugel / © Foto: Georg Berg
On a gun emplacement with an old cannon, two actors in uniform demonstrate the firing of a cannonball / © Photo: Georg Berg

Other island pleasures

The leisure activities on Mackinac Island are varied. It is home to the only car-free highway in the USA, the M185. The 13-kilometer road has hardly any inclines, but many beautiful viewpoints from Voyageur’s Bay to British Landing, from Pontiac’s Lookout to Gitchee Manitou. A loop around the island is a journey through history. Since 2016, there has been a Native American Cultural History Trail along the highway, which provides information about the culture of the indigenous people at six locations. Like any vacation island, Mackinac Island offers water sports activities such as island tours, charter boat rentals, kayak tours, sunset and sunrise boat trips. Of course, you can also play golf and go horseback riding on Mackinac Island.

Blick von Fort Mackinac auf Mackinac Island State Harbor in der Haldimand Bay und auf Sainte Anne’s Catholic Church / © Foto: Georg Berg
View from Fort Mackinac of Mackinac Island State Harbor in Haldimand Bay and Sainte Anne’s Catholic Church / © Photo: Georg Berg

Murdick’s Fudge and the Fudgies

Long before pop star Taylor Swift’s fans were nicknamed Swifties, Mackinac Island called the people lining up outside the fudge stores in summer the Fudgies. Mackinac Island Fudge lays claim to being Michigan’s most famous food. During the season, over 4,000 kilograms of fudge are handmade every day by seven fudge producers. According to legend, the recipe for the soft caramel made from sugar, butter and milk was invented in Baltimore. However, Sara Murdick brought the recipe with her to the island when she arrived in 1887. Her son Rome Murdick turned fudge production into a show by making fudge on marble slabs. The art of fudge making soon became a competition, with customers watching as Rome and his competitors balanced and skillfully shaped the cooling fudge on the marble slabs.

Murdick’s Fudge Store Mackinac Island seit 1887. Die  Murdicks brachten Fudge auf die Insel und sie waren die ersten, die Fudge auf Marmorplatten herstellten. Auch als unterhaltsame Show für die Kunden. Heute gibt es sieben Fudgehersteller auf der kleinen Insel / © Foto: Georg Berg
Murdick’s Fudge Store Mackinac Island since 1887. The Murdicks brought fudge to the island and were the first to make fudge on marble slabs / © Photo: Georg Berg

Doud’s Market since 1884

No one can avoid the island’s fudge stores. There are seven manufacturers and even more outlets on the island. Doud ‘s Market deserves a special mention. The store on the corner of Fort Street and Main is considered America’s oldest grocery store. Since 1884, the store has been supplying islanders and tourists year-round with everyday necessities, from fresh sandwiches to fishing hooks. The store looks charmingly out of time, with wooden shelves and handwritten signs. Amish people also shop here. Many families from this religious minority visit or work as craftsmen on Mackinac Island. After all, hardly anyone else can still repair horse-drawn carriages. There is no better proof that time travel is possible on Mackinac Island.

Amish People beim Einkauf im Doud’s Market, Amerikas ältestem Lebensmittelladen. Das Geschäft eröffnete 1884 auf Mackinac Island. Amish People fühlen sich wohl auf der autofreien Insel, die ebenso aus der Zeit gefallen wirkt, wie das Lebenskonzept der Amischen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Amish people shopping at Doud’s Market, America’s oldest grocery store. The store opened on Mackinac Island in 1884. Amish people feel at home on the car-free island, which seems just as out of time as the Amish way of life / © Photo: Georg Berg
Island Habour Marina, Mackinac Island mit Watercolor Cafe am Yoder Dock / © Foto: Georg Berg
There are also cafés and bars in the marina on Mackinac Island. Here the Watercolor Cafe at Yoder Dock / © Photo: Georg Berg

Arriving by ferry

Traveling by Shepler’s Ferry is quick and convenient. Overnight guests drop off their luggage at the ferry terminal before they even park their car. The suitcases are given a luggage tag with the name of the hotel on it. The car can then be parked in the long-term parking lot. A speedboat takes just 15 minutes to reach the island. The service staff bring the luggage to the hotel. This means you can start exploring the island as soon as you arrive. A nice hotel on the main road is the Lake View Hotel. Millie’s on Main serves local beers, white fish from the Great Lakes and tasty burgers.

Shepler’s Ferry Dock. Ankunft einer Fähre im Hafen von Mackinac Island. Die Autos bleiben auf dem Festland. Das Gepäck wird direkt in die Unterkünfte der Gäste gebracht / © Foto: Georg Berg
Shepler’s Ferry Dock. Arrive at Mackinac Island harbor. The cars remain on the mainland. The luggage is taken directly to the accommodation / © Photo: Georg Berg

Our journey through Michigan starts in the capital Detroit with classics and new attractions of a city in transition. The huge Michigan Central station, once a ruined line, celebrated its comeback as a research location for mobility in 2023. However, the options for getting around Detroit have long been extremely diverse, as mobility in Motown works pretty well even without a car. The journey continues to Traverse City on Lake Michigan with the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. Mission Point Lighthouse is one of these lighthouses with a history. Why the lighthouse in Grand Traverse County is particularly popular with women is explained in the story about Sarah Lane and the keeper program. We continue on to Charlevoix. The town has a maritime flair and lots of stones. There are Petoskey stones on the beach and Earl Young’s famous stone houses in the town. USA without cars? A fact on Mackinac Island. The success story of Michigan’s heavy industry began with a defeat.

The research was supported by Mackinac Island Tourism and Pure Michigan

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