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

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


“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


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

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


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

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

Sipping hotel-only beer

You know the porch is special when it has a beer named after it.Robert Stephens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watching the island wake up

Clip-clop. Clip-clop. It’s the only sound at sunrise.Robert Stephens