10 Ways to Spend a Day on Mackinac Island

With its summer vibes and immense natural beauty, this classic Michigan vacation destination is an ideal choice for a quick getaway.

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mackinac island
Packed with charm, history, and natural beauty, Mackinac Island is a summer vacation destination that does it all. Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Some islands are quintessential summer playgrounds—Mackinac Island is one of them. Home to just 500 year-round residents and open to visitors from May to October, this Northern Michigan vacation spot is known for its stunning natural beauty and uniquely nostalgic ambience: pastel-hued Victorian architecture, a waterfront town (with 13 fudge shops!) and a penchant for 19th century modes of transport (there are no cars, just bicycles or horse-drawn carriages). 

Whether you are visiting by ferry from Mackinaw City or during a port call while cruising the Great Lakes on Viking Expedition’s new 378-guest ship Viking Octantis, this picturesque 3.8 sq. mi. island—the name means “place of the great turtle” in the native Anishinaabek language and is pronounced Mack-in-awe—offers plenty of activities. The island has history (it played a key role in the War of 1812), cinematic fame (the 1980 film Somewhere in Time starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve was filmed here), stunning lilac bushes (at their peak in the first three weeks of June) and a landmark hotel (featuring the longest front porch on the planet). It’s also small enough that you can see most of the island on a day trip. 

But when you only have a day here, you’ll need to spend it wisely. Here are the 10 top activities for making the most of your Mackinac Island getaway.

Sip Michigan craft beer

Mackinac’s first craft brewery and distillery opened in 2020 and features a spacious tasting room and eatery that’s also family friendly (there’s a kid’s menu). Great Turtle Brewery & Distillery produces its beer and distilled spirits in partnership with Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City and Les Cheneaux Distillery on the Eastern Upper Peninsula. 

Customers can taste a wide array of options—including a flight of four 4 oz. samples with names like Mackinac Summer Sour and Peeling Happy Orange Wheat Ale. Spirits-lovers can opt to try vodka, gin, rum or whiskey in an array of cocktails. Food-wise, be sure to order the delicious Smoked Whitefish Hushpuppies.

Bike the perimeter

biking
A bike is often the best mode of transportation for discovering an island’s best spots. Courtesy of Pure Michigan

One of the best ways to enjoy Mackinac’s scenic shoreline is to rent a bicycle and pedal your way around its 8-mile perimeter Lakeshore Road. It’s impossible to get lost, you don’t have to dodge car traffic and the scenery ranges from colorful Victorian houses to serene pebble beaches lapped by vivid lake water. It’s also a great way to see landmark Arch Rock. 

Ryba’s Bicycle Rentals (from $11 per hour for a three-speed bike) has two locations in town on Lakeshore Road, so just head left or right and start pedaling to see the sights.

Embrace old-fashioned horse culture

For anyone who adores horses, Mackinac is a dream destination. Home to about 600 equine residents in summer, the island is known for its guided horse-drawn carriages pulled by magnificent steeds (including Percheron and Belgian draft horses), but visitors can also head out on guided and unguided trail rides with Cindy’s Riding Stable and even drive their own buggy with Jack’s Livery Stable. Carriage museums, stables and a blacksmith shop built in the 1880s offer atmospheric insights into Mackinac’s car-free past and present.

Admire Arch Rock

Arch Rock
Arch Rock is a very popular spot for selfies. Mackinac State Historic Parks

One of the landmarks viewable on a circle-island bike ride, Arch Rock is just a 15-20 minute walk outside of town. It can be admired from the roadside, or you can climb the 207 wooden stairs up the Spring Trail to a viewing platform that gets you up close to this 146-foot-tall and 50-foot-wide natural stone bridge. Another way to visit is to book a carriage ride that takes you to the viewing platform.

Kayak Lake Huron 

To enjoy Mackinac’s Island’s beauty from the water, visitors can book a guided kayak excursion with Great Turtle Kayak Tours, which range from two-hour medium-level paddles to see Arch Rock to four-to-six-hour advanced paddles that circle the entire island. Custom private tours are also available via kayak and stand-up paddle boards can be rented.

Visit the Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel
A hotel this Grand is a must-visit, even if travelers aren’t staying there. Grand Hotel

A National Historic Landmark and a cinematic legend, the Grand Hotel dates to 1887 and features the world’s longest porch (at 660 feet, it features almost 1,400 flowering geraniums) and 388 individually decorated rooms known for their vivid retro-inspired décor. More than 150,000 guests stay here each summer season and enjoy access to the 500,000-gallon Esther Williams swimming pool (named for the star who filmed the 1947 movie This Time for Keeps here). 

But the Grand Hotel’s biggest Hollywood claim to fame is as the film set for 1980’s Somewhere in Time. The romantic time-travel movie, starring Jane Seymour and Christopher Reeve, still has a strong fan following more than four decades later and aficionados meet here each October. (Note: The Somewhere in Time gazebo is no longer on the hotel grounds; it can be visited behind Fort Mackinac.) 

Non-guests can only enter the Grand Hotel and explore the grounds, porch and lobby if they pay a $10 per person fee ($5 for ages 6-9 and free for ages 5 and under). The Main Dining Room, Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor and the hotel’s golf course are open to non-guests. 

Learn the art of skipping stones 

The stone-strewn beach and blue-green waters of Windermere Point are the setting each 4th of July for Mackinac Island’s W.T. Rabe Stone Skipping Competition—which draws “professional” stone skippers from all over the world who can achieve 20-plus skips per throw—but visitors can enjoy this free activity at any time. 

Admittedly, the technique used to skip smooth, flat stones over the water’s surface takes some practice, but kids and adults alike certainly enjoy trying.

Play golf or mini golf

The Jewel golf course
Framed by stunning examples of Michigan’s natural beauty, The Jewel really lives up to its name. Courtesy of Pure Michigan

Mackinac Island is home to two unique golf courses: the Wawashkamo Golf Club, a nine-hole links course designed in 1898 that is the oldest continuously played course in Michigan (it was built on a portion of an 1814 battlefield), and The Jewel at the Grand Hotel, which requires a horse-drawn carriage ride between the front and back nines. 

But there is also family-friendly mini-golf at The Greens of Mackinac at Mission Point Resort. The lakeside resort course features 18 holes—and after dark, there’s even glow golf with glow-in-the-dark balls and poles. 

Indulge in some fudge

Visitors disembarking ferries in town will notice a very distinct aroma in the air (no, not horse manure, although they’ll get whiffs of that at times, too!). It’s the ultra-sweet smell of fudge—because 10,000 pounds are produced every day during the peak tourist season by the island’s dozen or so fudge shops. 

The fudge-making tradition dates back to the 1880s (Murdick’s was the original purveyor) and today there’s a wide array of fudge flavors—from butter pecan to chocolate caramel sea salt—sold by Murdick’s as well as Ryba’s, Joann’s, Kilwins, May’s and Sanders.

Tour Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac
Fort Mackinac has plenty of history for guests of all ages to learn about—while enjoying the views, of course. Mackinac State Historic Parks

History lovers will find plenty to enjoy on this island that so enthusiastically embraces its 19th century past. Fort Mackinac, located on a bluff and founded during the American Revolution, was captured by the British during their first battle on American soil during the War of 1812; a bloody battle to regain control in 1814 failed, but the fort was returned to the U.S. after the war. 

Today, there are 14 original buildings with historic displays as well as live re-enactments, cannon salutes and more.

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