Tom Lounsbury: An Autumn Stay on Mackinac Island

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As you step off a ferry onto a dock on Mackinac Island, you are literally stepping back in time. The overall atmosphere has a distinct 19th century accent as the island relies on real horsepower to function.

Except for emergency and commercial vehicles, motorized vehicles are not allowed (due to a far-reaching ordinance of 1898) and the only means of transport are on horseback, bicycle or on foot. Needless to say, this provides a really relaxed environment that a lot of people appreciate. On July 15, 2009, Mackinac Island celebrated its 20 millionth visitor.


Eighty percent of the island is a state park, which covers over 1,800 acres and includes 70.5 miles of roads and trails, most of which are carved through an ancient and picturesque forest.

In 1875, Mackinac Island actually became the second national park in the United States, ahead of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 (both parks were chosen for their amazing natural wonders). In the early days, prior to the National Park Service, national parks were overseen by the U.S. Army and this was the case for Mackinac Island for 20 years until it was determined that it no longer required a military post and the park was added to the state in 1895 to hand over.

This in some ways means that Mackinac Island is Michigan’s oldest state park, but the island’s transition from state to state control preceded the establishment of the Michigan State Park system by 25 years. Michigan’s first official state park was Interlochen State Park near Traverse City in 1920 (the Michigan State Park System celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020). Despite these technical details, Mackinac Island gets my vote as the oldest state park in Michigan.

Due to certain regulations relating to the island’s once being a national park, its administration falls under the Mackinac State Park Commission, which is a separate entity from the Michigan State Park Commission.

One of my favorite times to visit Mackinac Island is in early October when the fall colors create an amazing backdrop and there are fewer visitors, creating a less crowded area (and shops that are still open often offer great discounts).

On our last visit to the island, my wife Ginny and I went with our good friends Jim and Judy Brown from Cass City. We made reservations at the historic Windermere Hotel, a short walk from the dock, after disembarking from a Shepler’s Ferry that had just taken us on a tour under the Mackinac Bridge.

The Windermere Hotel was built in 1887 and still retains a very quaint and elegant 19th century atmosphere, and its spacious veranda offers breathtaking views of the Strait of Mackinac. Also up front is Windermere Point and Park (owned by the hotel) which is why the front porch has such a fantastic view.

I can safely say that watching a night freighter go by with all of its twinkling and glowing lights can be a fascinating moment. I have to admit folks, I am very skilled at the art of doing serious “porch times”. It requires a certain relaxed attitude, for which I have a natural hand! will definitely contribute to this unique ambience.

The island also includes the town of Mackinac Island, whose mayor is Margaret Doud, who is also the owner of the Windermere Hotel and its properties. Doud has been a loyal mayor for over 30 years.

In addition to horses that provide real horsepower, Mackinac Island is also known for its local craft industry that includes specialized fudge-making. The fudge is made from scratch with cold marble slabs for the finishing touches that can easily be viewed by visitors (and it’s certainly a great way to sell fudge to drooling onlookers).

A regular scent in the air while downtown is the smell of fresh fudge, which is safely drained from the various fudge shops, providing an extra beacon to attract potential customers. Yes folks, it looks like great sign making to me, or should I say it smells like it!

The fudge is so popular that islanders refer to tourists as “fudges” (you need a license, but the ferry label on the handlebars serves as a temporary license).

For whatever reason, a lot of bikes today are made without fenders, and I think that’s because of a “trendier” look. However, locals are aware of the need to have bike fenders on Mackinac Island because of the heavy horse traffic and if you have a lot of horses on the roads there will be a lot of “horse rubble”.

Although the streets are regularly cleaned by dedicated plumbing workers (who are unsung heroes in my opinion), a certain amount of debris (a mixture of manure and urine) is embedded in the sidewalk and is easily pulled out when it rains. The real culprit is when a bike lacks a rear fender, which allows the rear tire to toss a straight line of dirt into the center of the rider’s back, from the tailbone to the top of the head. The locals refer to this as the “fudgey stripe”.

I really love renting a drive-it-yourself horse and carriage from Jack’s Livery Stable, but this limits where you can go mainly due to the fact that the rental cars don’t have brakes, which on certain hills does Can be a basic requirement. To have a thorough tour of the island, we hired a carriage and driver from Jack’s Livery Stable, the four of us picked us up at the Windermere Hotel one morning and later dropped us off at a location of our choice.

Our driver was Blake Ruddle, who was born and raised on Mackinac Island and knows every nook and cranny (he even got a ticket once at the age of 13 to ride his bike down a long outside flight of stairs from Fort Holmes). Ruddle gave us a fantastic tour even to some remote locations that most visitors never see. One of my favorite places is Fort Holmes, the highest point on the island. However, a lot of fog restricted our view from there, but it was still nice with an autumn accent.

There are many good restaurants on the island. For our last night we chose the Woods Restaurant, which usually requires a horse taxi. It belongs to the Grand Hotel, resembles a German hunting lodge in the Black Forest, and offers a fireplace and a gourmet menu by candlelight.

Our autumn stay on Mackinac Island came to an end far too quickly. We all sent our bags to Shepler’s Ferry early to do some shopping before we left. That’s when Ginny noticed that our return tickets for the ferry were stowed in our luggage. However, Shepler’s ticket agent was very helpful, used the last four digits of our credit card, found our purchase information and printed out new tickets. I was impressed with the patience and efficiency of the lady and very grateful that we didn’t have to buy more tickets!

Seeing Mackinac Island receding in the tow of the ferry always puts me in a quirky mood, and I look forward to returning at the first opportunity.

Email Tom Lounsbury at [email protected]


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