Best U.S. Island Destinations: Mackinac Island, Michigan

One of my Gmail folders is titled "Family Travel Options." In that folder is information about St. Thomas, Abaco, Virgin Gorda, the Florida Keys — you get the picture. You know the option we chose this year? Mackinac Island. Yep, the one off the coast of … Michigan. It's an island that will not be confused with any other. Here's why. — Robert Stephens

Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Mainland
Leaving the mainland
We drive 1,500 miles from Florida to a parking lot where two sea-size lakes (Huron and Michigan) meet. We board a ferry for the 30-minute cruise to Mackinac, on the Lake Huron side. Goodbye family van. Goodbye “check engine” light. Goodbye seat belts.Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Horse
Horse-and-buggying
“I smell horses,” one of my daughters says. We have arrived on Mackinac, where 550 horses provide transportation. There are no gas fumes — not the kind that come from cars anyway.Courtesy: Pure Michigan
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Walking
Walking
Motorized vehicles are not allowed on Mackinac. We will walk every evening after dinner at the Grand Hotel. Good for digestion. Good for seeing how nice the 490 year-round residents keep their lawns.Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Great Lakes
Standing over the Great Lakes
At 320 feet above water level, you’d think you’re hovering over an ocean. The water is often compared to the Caribbean (for color, not temperature).Courtesy: Pure Michigan
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Biking
Biking
Bikes are everywhere. But few visitors bother riding outside the downtown area. We go rogue and hit the shaded trails that trace the island’s 8-mile circumference. (Caution: Wear a helmet — do not do as everyone else does.)Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Porch
Sitting on the world's biggest front porch
It takes a team to sweep the porch at the Grand Hotel. It's 660 feet long, and has 100 big rocking chairs. At sunrise, we're the only ones out here.Courtesy: Pure Michigan
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Beer
Sipping hotel-only beer
You know the porch is special when it has a beer named after it.Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Era
Living in another era
Ben Mosley is one of the 490 year-round residents of Mackinac. During the summer he’s a coachman for the Grand Hotel. In the off-season he takes care of the 12 horses that stay through winter. “You know why this is home for me?” he says. “You can’t rush. You can’t stress about little things. How many people really live that way?”Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Woods
Escaping into the woods
“Honestly,” says Ben, “I don’t think most visitors understand the best part of the island. They go downtown, buy fudge, go shopping. That’s all great. But the essence of the island is in the quiet places — they’re all around.”Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Manure
Stopping to smell...
Flowers are all over the island, thanks in part to the horses. Their manure is used as fertilizer. Some of the flowers are believed to have originally sprung up on the strength of the poop. It provides jobs too.Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Swimming
Swimming in the Great Lakes
Lake Huron, where Mackinac Island sits, is the second largest lake by surface area in the U.S. (Lake Superior is No. 1). The water temperature is tolerable for about two weeks in summer, which makes for quiet beaches.Courtesy: Pure Michigan
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Pool
Swimming in the great pool
The best alternative to the cold lake is the Grand Hotel's 220-foot-long snake-shaped pool. It's heated.Courtesy: Pure Michigan
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Fudge
Making the world's best fudge
We can't walk more than 10 steps without drifting toward a fudge shop. (The island is known for fudge, and tourists are called "Fudgies.") Inside Ryba****'****s, purveyor Les Parrish invites us to help with a batch. He'll make 400 pounds of fudge on this day, even with our clumsy attempt holding him up.Robert Stephens
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Rooms
Sleeping in no-two-rooms-alike
Each room at the Grand Hotel has its own décor. Our daughters flopped on a pair of four-poster beds in a room that made it easy to imagine them in the Victorian era. Five former U.S. presidents have stayed here — or somewhere in the hotel.Courtesy; Pure Michigan
Mackinac Island | Great Lakes Michigan | Family Vacations | US Islands | Sunrise
Watching the island wake up
Clip-clop. Clip-clop. It’s the only sound at sunrise.Robert Stephens