Mackinac Island

History, Horses, Hospitality—and Fudge

When I was 8, visiting New York with my parents, I first heard the unmistakable sound of horse’s hooves on a cobbled street. I listened to that “clop” recently on an island in Lake Huron. Michigan’s unique Mackinac Island heightens the senses: Sounds, smells, tastes, and textures remain with you. The land area totals 3.8 square miles.

Since automobiles were banned on Mackinac a century ago, everything—except ambulances and fire engines—travels by horse-drawn vehicle, bicycles, or shank’s mare.

Not as onerous as it sounds. Most restaurants and accommodations are within a mile of the city Visitor’s Center on Main Street, where historic Fort Mackinac looms, just steps above it all. Steep steps to be sure, but island services have made every effort to make the fort—as well as the entire island—accessible. Motorized wheelchairs, along with two-wheeled vehicles, may be rented at Ryba’s Bikes and others establishments.

White Shoal Light; View of Marina from the Pink Pony. Photos by E.B. Boatner

Mackinac is gay-friendly, according to Mary Slevin, Executive Director of the Mackinac Island Tourism Bureau.

As Slevin explains, “Because we are a tourist town, we open our eyes a bit more, and learn from the people who come to visit. We are exposed to people from all walks of life and all over the world, so there is a certain wisdom that comes with the territory. There is a motto here with the year-round folks: If your head and your heart aren’t connected, and you aren’t who you are, then you won’t make it here emotionally. I think it’s a great motto for life.”

Bart Berkshire, a young man assisting Slevin, shares, “This is my first season on the island, and it’s been a great experience. I’m an openly gay man, and I have not had any problems with the tourists or the workers. I made a lot of friends quickly, and I feel very welcome. The island is a very romantic place to come to for gay and straight couples.”

Visitors will find an activity for every energy level: kayaking, fishing, sailing, biking, horseback riding, and golf.

I highly recommend the island carriage tour, which stops along the way at Wings of Mackinac, Butterfly Conservatory, and Arch Rock (falling sheer to white sand and water below). The sound of hooves, the smell of vegetation (and horses), and the up-close views of Lady Slippers and Trillium as you amble by linger long after.

Horse note: A herd of more than 600 is stabled over the summer, with Belgians, Clydesdales, Irish Hackneys, Percherons, and Standard-Breds predominating. Some 20 draft horses winter over, while the others are ferried to the mainland, returning with spring.

Colonial Michilimackinac is a reconstruction of the fur-trading village and military outpost originally built by the French in 1714-15. Each summer saw the convergence of voyageurs, traders, and hundreds of Native Americans. Visitors can watch costumed inhabitants, and enjoy reenactments of daily life.

Mackinac Island’s lively history in great part stemmed from its fur trading activities that continued into the 1830s. It’s proud to encompass Michigan’s only original Revolutionary War fort, whose compound includes 14 buildings. Today, soldiers in 1880s uniforms interact with visitors, demonstrating skills with US Army Springfield 45-70 rifles and cannon salutes over the harbor.

A few steps down the bluff, you can linger over a delightful luncheon on the terrace of Fort Mackinac Tea Room, gazing out over the harbor.

That view is a spur to join Captain Bruce Fink on his 40-foot catamaran, the Mackinaw Breeze. He’ll guide you on a 90-minute voyage, with a glorious view of the shoreline, as well as Round and Bois Blanc Islands.

Another afternoon, sign on for the Lighthouse Cruise, during which you will pass under the five-mile long Mackinac Bridge, and around some of the noted lighthouses that kept the lake sea trade on course.

Having built up an appetite, you’ll find numerous delightful establishments to assuage it. Dinner at Grand Hotel (jackets and ties for gentlemen, dresses for ladies) is a special treat. At Mission Point Resort’s Goodfellows Grill, the braised lamb shank was the most tender and flavorful I ever have eaten.

Fudge is a community staple, with a constellation of candy shops offering varied flavors of that ambrosial treat.

Off-island forays may include the Museum of Ojibwe Culture in St. Ignace, Michigan.

Best of all, Mackinac Island is fun. Even when it rains, you’re snug in a carriage, listening to the clip-clop of hooves and the patter of water on the roof. No stalled traffic, no honking horns—just the patient horses walking their rounds.

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