There’s something a little magical about vacationing on Mackinac Island. During a recent bike ride around the perimeter of the island with my family, it was clearer than ever why it’s such a special destination for kids and grown-ups alike.
With beauty stretching out in every direction — not to mention the upcoming Mackinac Island Fudge Festival Aug. 27-29, 2021 — a visit to Mackinac Island is hard to beat. We took breaks along the scenic route to skip stones, marvel at the “Mighty Mac” (that’s the Mackinac Bridge) and check out cave-like rock formations. We returned to our hotel and then cooled off with ice cream while the clickety-clack tune of horseshoes played in the distance.
It was my family’s fourth annual visit to the island, and we’ve stayed each year at the Grand Hotel, taking advantage of discounted rates the hotel typically offers on various dates. Between the old-fashioned lawn games, dressing up for dinner, sipping tea on the world’s largest porch and the nightly entertainment that looks straight out of Dirty Dancing, “America’s Summer Place” lives up to its reputation.
A unique place
But it’s the island itself that brings us and so many families back each year. You’ll find a slower pace, endless charming old cottages, rocky beaches and more blue water than you thought possible. Kids will love exploring parks and historic sites, sampling fudge and seeing butterflies galore. And there’s not a single auto in sight.
“This is kind of like Americana back in the ’50s and ’60s,” says Tim Hygh, Executive Director at the Mackinac Island Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Kids get to play and do the kind of things we got to do when we were kids. This is a very comfortable place to go.”
And the activities are endless.
“They can do a water sport, they can ride a bike, ride a horse, they can go to a fort,” Hygh says. “It’s just a natural playground for kids to come and play.”
There’s also education to be had thanks to the island’s rich history, which dates back to the War of 1812.
If you’re considering a visit to Mackinac Island, here’s a guide to everything you’ll need to know.
When to go
Tourism season in Mackinac Island runs May 1-Oct. 31. If your family wants to enjoy swimming or kayaking, the warmest time of the year – late June through September – will be best, but this is also the busiest season. If you’d prefer a quieter visit, consider planning your trip during “shoulder seasons,” which are May through mid-June and after Labor Day.
Fall color season peaks around Oct. 15, Hygh says, and Halloween (celebrated a week early) is another fun weekend to visit.
You can also plan your family’s visit around one of Mackinac Island’s festivals. The Mackinac Island Lilac Festival is typically held in June and includes 10 full days of fun. Independence Day features fireworks, sailboat races and a stone-skipping competition, and the Fudge Festival is held each August.
You’ll need to take a ferry boat to Mackinac Island from either Mackinaw City (about four and a half hours from Detroit, mostly a straight drive north on I-75) or St. Ignace in the Upper Peninsula. Two ferry companies, Shepler’s and Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry and can get you across in a little over 15 minutes.
You can also get to the Island on the Star Line Mackinac Island Hydro-Jet Ferry, Good Fortune, which looks just like a pirate ship. The Good Fortune features water cannons for the kids along with a bar for nightly cruises. Its season runs until Sept. 5, 2021.
To save money, try purchasing tickets online ahead of time.
“The schedules change throughout the year,” Hygh says. “We offer more boats in the peak of the season and the boats don’t travel as frequently in the fall and the spring as they do in the peak of summer.”
Where to stay
You can choose from more than 40 different places to stay on Mackinac Island, including accommodations for all sizes of families and types of interests.
“We really have a wide variety of places for small to large families,” Hygh says.
If your kids love to swim, the Grand Hotel, Mission Point Resort and The Inn at Stonecliffe have outdoor pools. The Lakeview Hotel has an indoor pool, and a few other hotels on Mackinac Island have small spa-type swimming pools.
Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort both offer programs for children.
Things to do
Biking: The 8.2-mile bike trail that goes around the island is mostly flat, making it great for people of all ages. Bring your own bikes across on the ferry for a fee or rent a bike at one of the numerous venues on the island. For little ones, accessories like Weehoo bike trailers are also available to rent. You can even rent bike trailers for your pets. Find self-guided tour maps here.
Tours: Horse-drawn carriage tours are another fun way to explore the island, or take a walking tour. For anyone over 18 in the family, you can also look into nightly ghost tours.
Water activities: Families can stand-up paddleboard, go kayaking, take a kayak tour and try one of the newer sunset cruises. “It’s kind of cool to watch the sun set underneath the bridge,” Hygh says.
Hiking: Mackinac Island has more than 70 miles of trails for people to enjoy, and 82 percent of the island is state park.
Sights to see
Be sure to check out Fort Mackinac, a former military outpost that also served as a home for soldiers and their families. There’s also Fort Holmes, which is a small fort constructed in 1814 on the highest ridge on Mackinac Island.
Where to eat
You’ll find lots of options for family-friendly dining on Mackinac Island. Popular places include Mighty Mac Hamburgers and Chuckwagon diner. Families can also pick up sub sandwiches and other supplies at Doud’s Market and have a picnic.
“There is a little bit of everything,” Hygh says. “You can go from a hamburger stand all the way to very fine dining and so many options in between.”
Hotel deals: Families on a budget should research hotel packages well in advance and be on the lookout for deals offered online.
Some families choose to spend the day on Mackinac Island and then stay overnight in Mackinaw City, but Hygh encourages parents to research their options and keep in mind the value of not being tied to a ferry schedule.
“There’s just a special feeling of relaxation when you’re here on Mackinac Island,” he says. “We’ve got research that shows with people who come and stay on the island, one of the things that they are doing is relaxing and they’re not looking at their watches. That whole tension of being on a schedule goes away if you get to spend the night.”
Free activities: Walking or hiking around the island is completely free, and you’ll probably find that your kids can spend hours skipping stones, making rock stacks and exploring the rocky beaches. There are also several playgrounds on the island with great views.
If you stay on the island, consider a visit to the Manoogian Art Museum – visitors staying in the majority of island hotels can get into the museum for free by showing their hotel key.
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